Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 4, September 2000

'My Life as a Migrant Worker':
Women in Rural-Urban Migration in Contemporary China

Tamara Jacka

  1. In the last two decades in China, market-oriented reforms have radically changed the social landscape. One of the most significant developments has been the unprecedented growth in transient rural to urban migration, and the corresponding emergence of rural migrants as a new social group and as an object for analysis and discussion. Such migrants are known variously as the 'floating population' [liudong renkou], the 'tide of rural workers' [mingong chao], 'blind drifters' [mangliu], 'outsider workers' [wailai gong] and 'outsider sisters' [wailai mei], 'working sons' [dagong zai] and 'working sisters' [dagong mei].
  2. Estimates of the number of people whose permanent residence is in the countryside but who are currently working in towns and cities across China range from 70 to 100 million. Most of these migrants are in their teens and twenties. They generally work away from home periodically, or for a single period of between a few months and a few years. In recent years, however, the number of rural migrants who have sought to stay in the city more permanently has been increasing, and regionally oriented migrant communities can now be found on the outskirts of most large cities.
  3. The most important economic factors driving migration are the economic disparities between rural and urban areas, the shortage of agricultural land and the lack of local opportunities for off-farm employment in poor rural areas, and, in towns and cities, the demand for unskilled, cheap labour in manufacturing and service industries. On an individual level, however, other factors, ranging from a desire to 'see the world' to attempts to escape domestic violence, can be equally important motivations for migration.
  4. Nationally, some one-third of all rural migrants are women, but in some places, especially in the export-oriented Special Economic Zones of Southern China, they comprise more than 70 per cent of the migrant workforce. Male migrants from the countryside now dominate the construction industry across China, whilst rural migrant women are the backbone of the workforce in the textile industry and in the manufacturing industries of the Special Economic Zones, and also dominate domestic service, waitressing and prostitution.[1]
  5. For this issue of Intersections, Dr. Song Xianlin and I have translated seven stories written by rural migrant women about their experiences of migration and work in the city. These were contributed to a story writing competition with the theme 'My Life as a Migrant Worker' [Wo de Dagong Shengya], organised by the journal Nongjianü Baishitong [Rural Women Knowing All].

    Figure 1. 'My life as a migrant worker.'

  6. Later in this paper, I will briefly discuss the stories and will provide some background information about the competition 'My Life as a Migrant Worker' and the journal Nongjianü Baishitong. First though, I will outline the recent history of rural to urban migration in China, and will briefly discuss the ways in which rural migrants are perceived and represented by urbanites and by the mainstream written media.
  7. Before the 1980s, rural to urban migration was kept in check in China through the combination of central planning and the household registration policy. Under this policy, first introduced in the 1950s, all citizens were registered as either agricultural or non-agricultural residents. Household registration was inherited from the mother and it was extremely difficult to transfer one's registration from agricultural to non-agricultural. The Chinese Communist Party under Mao Zedong often spoke of the need to overcome inequalities between the cities and the countryside, and countered the orthodox Marxist view of peasants as 'rural idiots' incapable of political participation, with the claim that the poor peasantry were, in fact, the most revolutionary class of all. In practice, however, the household registration policy, combined with an obviously urban and industry-biased distribution of resources, so harshly and so effectively cemented rural residents into a position of backwardness, relative to urbanites, that, as one scholar has put it 'Communist Party rhetoric about the rural roots of the revolution must have sounded like so much hot air to the peasants, who experienced a very real deterioration in their living standards.'[2]
  8. In a centrally planned economy, the household registration system acted as a very effective brake on rural-urban migration, for in the city it was usually not possible to buy grain or to find housing, without a local, non-agricultural household registration card. In a market economy, however, the state has no longer been able to control the allocation of goods in this way, and has therefore found it much harder to control rural-urban migration. Moreover, the growth of the market economy has both greatly stimulated and indeed depended on, an increased mobility of labour, including the flow of labour out of agriculture and into industry and services.[3]
  9. Despite this, rural migrants today continue to be faced with severe restrictions in attempting to live and work away from home. The household registration system continues to operate, and is used by local governments, employers and others as a basis for discrimination against outsiders, especially rural people. Thus, on the one hand, some employers who require a skilled and stable workforce cite local registration as a necessary condition for employment. Others, on the other hand, hire rural migrants to work in worse conditions and for less pay than urbanites will usually tolerate. Housing is also usually either unavailable or more expensive for those without local registration, and kindergartens and schools either do not admit the children of migrants, or charge much higher fees.

    Figures 2 and 3. Dormitory for migrant women employees of a professional cleaning company, Beijing, June 2000. Photo: Courtesy Arianne Gaetano.

    In addition, the household registration system has been 'supplemented' by a proliferation of other forms of policing and regulation. This includes the requirement that migrants have an identity card [shenfen zheng], a temporary residence permit [zanzhu zheng], a medical certificate, a 'registration card for the temporary employment of emigrants' [waichu renyuan liudong jiuye dengji ka] signed and issued by a labour administration department in the county of the migrant's household registration, and, for women of child-bearing age, a 'marriage and childbearing permit' [hunyu zheng] approved and issued by a body responsible for family planning in the place of temporary residence.[4] Further, migrants are generally charged a range of fees and taxes, by various administrative and other bodies, some of them legal and some not. Finally, all large cities place restrictions on the trades and occupations that may be undertaken by migrants, and periodic campaigns are run by the police to limit the number of migrants coming into cities, or to round up migrants, especially those without employment, and send them back to the countryside.
  10. Prejudice against the floating population is strong amongst urbanites in China today. As I have noted in a previous issue of Intersections and elsewhere, there is a tendency for migrants to be characterised by urban citizens as a vast and unkempt horde of ignorant outsiders who pour 'blindly' into the cities, bringing dirt, disorder and crime.[5] In a study undertaken in the mid-1990s in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai, respondents claimed that poor social order had become the 'number one public enemy' and the floating population was held to be the 'root cause' of their feeling of insecurity.[6] Likewise, in a survey of about five hundred households in a district of Shanghai, 97.2 per cent of respondents felt that the floating population had a negative influence on employment, environment, security of property, and/or traffic and transport, and nearly thirty per cent perceived negative influences on all of these aspects of community life.[7]
  11. In the media, the floating population is a hot topic. Most articles focus on the negative impact of the phenomenon on urban society, infrastructure and environment, and on how this 'tide of migrant workers' [mingong chao] can be managed more effectively. Articles discussing the destabilizing effects of the floating population, and in particular, the high rates of crime supposedly committed by its members, are especially common. One article published in 1995 claimed, for example, that in Shanghai, ninety per cent of transient migrants were residing in the city illegally and were without proper employment, that crime amongst migrants had reached crisis proportions and that new levels of chaos had been reached as a result of the pressures that migrants were putting on urban employment, transport, housing and public hygiene.[8]
  12. Zhao Shukai, a senior researcher at the Development Research Centre of the State Council, claims that the frequent reports of this nature in the Chinese media are blatantly biased. He argues that there is a need to reorient public attitudes and government structures and policies and move from 'regulating the temporary population' to creating 'new urban citizens'.[9]
  13. The supposed criminal tendencies of rural migrants were also emphasised in the book A Third Eye on China, published in 1994. According to the author, Wang Shan,

      As a result of the freedom given to peasants to buy goods and materials, and market-based reforms that produced commodity pricing, there has been a significant lessening in government influence in rural areas. By far the greatest danger facing China in this respect is that the peasants will use this new found freedom, and simply decide to leave the land, leave the place where they are registered and head blindly into the cities. Once there, they will find social relations operate differently to the countryside because everything is based on personal responsibility and freedom. For the peasants of China, there is still no established social welfare system. Hence, leaving the place of household registration means leaving their welfare base. The dangers for peasants in doing this, quite apart form the possibility of being chased or apprehended by criminals, is that they lose all connection with their government-based support system and governmental agencies. This, then, is one of the causes of peasants and their businesses slipping into crime and, in times of turbulence, becoming latent factors leading to large-scale turbulence. In the move to the city, the peasants not only lose their social connections, but also lose any restraints upon their actions. In this process, they also have little else to lose and are therefore without fear.[10]

  14. Accounts such as these, express a nostalgia for a pre-market reform system in which everyone was fixed in place. And, by giving the impression of constantly impending social turmoil, these accounts help to generate a desire for strong central control, thus legitimating the role of the state. In addition, they construct an image of a dangerously anti-social rural 'other' against which contrasting notions of urban civilisation and order can be built and maintained.
  15. Apart from its negativity, what is striking about most writing on the floating population, especially that found in scholarly and official journals, is that it very rarely examines, in any depth, the lives of transient migrants, or what they have to say about their experiences. However, in the popular press, in addition to the reports on the impact of the floating population on urban society, there are a small and growing number of accounts about the lives and experiences of migrants themselves. These stories provide descriptions of how 'the other half' live which are aimed at eliciting emotional responses ranging from sympathy to titillation.
  16. Occasionally, migrants are portrayed as heroic figures, who, as a result of an enterprising spirit, persistence and years of self-sacrifice and struggle, have become successful business people. One could almost suggest that in these accounts, migrants are held as role models, and in the process, urban contempt for those from the countryside is submerged by a discourse which serves the growth of capitalism by promoting individualism and entrepreneurship. In fact, however, the framing of these accounts is generally such that, whilst urban readers may look upon them with sympathy and even admiration, the distance between 'us', the urban readers, and 'them', the rural migrants is preserved. To give one example, in an issue of Zhongguo Qingnian [Chinese Youth], a collection of articles entitled 'The life of a migrant worker is also glorious', begins with an editorial which notes that the reading audience might include not just young urbanites, but also rural migrants. However, in the main part of the text, stories relating the individual experiences of successful rural migrants are juxtaposed with survey data on such topics as 'Why Chinese peasants leave the land to become migrant workers', and 'Young migrant workers' plans for the future' (i.e. whether or not they plan to stay long-term in the city). These clearly mark migrant workers as objects of analysis, rather than as role models, and most obviously reflect urban concerns about migrants, rather than migrants' own concerns.[11]
  17. More frequent than migrant success stories are those that portray migrants as unfortunate victims. Portrayals of female migrant victims are particularly common. They include accounts of women who have been abused, beaten and sexually harassed by their male employers,[12] and others of migrant women factory workers who have been so overworked that they have collapsed into machinery and lost arms and legs. [13] Another common genre of journalism depicts young rural women who have left home in search of work, but who, when they arrive at the railway station of a faraway town or city, are deceived by 'human peddlars' [ren fanzi] and sold, either into prostitution or into marriage in another far off province. In one story, recounted by a rural girl herself, the friend of the girl's mother told her that a nephew worked in the Ministry of Trade in Beijing and could help her get a factory job in the city. Once she had arrived in Beijing, however, she was told that she had to travel to Baoding to meet the boss of the factory she was to work in. On the train, she was raped by a man working in collusion with the nephew, who then sent her back to Beijing. She was then picked up by a second man, to whom, it emerged, she had been sold for 800 yuan. She was kept as a prisoner, and repeatedly beaten and raped by different men. Finally, she was discovered by the police and returned to her home village.[14]
  18. In these various stories relating the victimisation of rural migrant women, we see, once more, the overlap between discourses on migrants and those on markets. Here, however, the migrant woman functions not so much as a stand in for the market, as in articles decrying the criminality of the floating population, but as a metaphor for its disturbing consequences. The market itself is represented either by a private employer or a joint venture enterprise, or in the figure of the human peddlar who takes commodification to an extreme. That female (and male) migrants are also victims of abusive and exploitative behaviour on the part of government officials, the managers of state-run enterprises, co-workers and others, is almost never addressed in the mainstream press.
  19. Stories about the traffic in women serve other discursive functions too. First of all, they reinforce a view of the countryside as barbaric (because the trafficking of women is seen as a rural phenomenon, even if the actual kidnapping occurs quite often in urban areas). And the fact that the victim is almost always portrayed as naïve and ignorant, further reinforces an urban/rural divide. The implicit message is that whilst the kidnapping and sale of women is linked with market forces, it only happens to ignorant rural women - more sophisticated urban women would not let themselves fall into this kind of trap.[15]
  20. Finally, like the articles on the criminality of the floating population, these stories serve to underwrite the importance and legitimacy of the state's control over society. This they do, both by documenting the alarming scale on which kidnapping and sale occurs, thereby invoking concerns about social stability and demonstrating the need for strong state intervention, and by citing impressive statistics relating to the number of kidnappers arrested, thereby indicating that the state is dealing with the problem. As Ann Anagnost argues,

      this flagrant display of the forces of social disorder in the semiofficial press not only titillates; it has a much more serious role in constructing hegemony for the party. In making disorder so shockingly visible, these stories reinforce fears of the return of 'chaos' and enflame the public concern for social control.[16]

  21. What none of these accounts of rural women migrants' victimisation does, is criticise or expose the patriarchal structures and discourses in which such terrible violations of women's basic human rights are grounded. Instead, it is precisely these discourses that make rural women, rather than men, such appealing objects of consumption for an urban media audience. As Rey Chow has argued,

      the representation of subalterns shares a major characteristic with pornographic writing in the sense that it depends on a certain objectification and specularization of the 'other'.... If the excitement of pornography can be described as something like 'the dirtier, the better', then the excitement of subaltern representation may be described as something like 'the more socially deprived, the better'. Both types of excitement depend on the object's lack - that is, her great wantingness (or shall we say wantonness) and thus her invitation to the reader to actively fill that lack.[17]

    Thus, the gender oppression of rural women migrants, when added to the oppression that results from the rural/urban divide, serves to increase the distance between them and the urban audience, and this both heightens urbanites' sense of superiority and adds to the appeal of migrant women as objects of sympathy and titillation.[18]
  22. So far, in my discussion of the representation of rural migrants in the media, I have referred to articles contained in a range of both academic journals and more popular publications. The one characteristic shared by all the periodicals discussed, as indeed by almost all the media in China, is an overwhelmingly urban perspective, and an assumption that the main readership is the educated, urban population.
  23. The journal Nongjianü Baishitong [Rural Women Knowing All], in which the seven stories on 'My Life as a Migrant Worker' were published is unusual in that it is directed at rural women. It is published monthly under the auspices of Zhonguo Funü Bao [Chinese Women's News] and the All China Women's Federation. The journal's editorial office also organises a range of projects aimed at assisting rural women, for which it receives financial help from other organisations in China and overseas, including the Ford Foundation, The Global Fund for Women and Oxfam. The journal's chief editor, Xie Lihua, is well known amongst social activists both within and outside China and has received national and international awards for her work with rural women.

    Figure 4. Nongjianü Baishitong
    [Rural Women Knowing All].
    Since its inception in 1993, Nongjianü Baishitong has shown great concern for the situation of rural women working in urban areas, with nearly every issue of the journal running letters and articles devoted to this topic. In addition, in April 1996 the journal's editorial office founded what they claim is China's first club for rural migrant women, called the 'Working sisters' club' [Dagongmei zhi jia]. The club now has more than three hundred members amongst the migrant women workers of Beijing. They meet regularly, sometimes for social occasions and sometimes for classes, for example in basic literacy, English language and computing. In 1999, the journal's editorial office also organised China's first national forum on the rights of migrant women workers, held in Beijing, with funding from Oxfam, Hong Kong.[19]

    Figure 5. Chief editor of Nongjianü Baishitong, Xie Lihua, with members of the 'Working sisters' club'. Photo: Courtesy Li Tao.

    Figure 6. Participants in a class organised by the 'Working sisters' club,' Beijing, 1996. Photo: courtesy Li Tao.

    Figure 7. Karaoke in the 'Working sisters' club' office, June 2000. Photo: courtesy Arianne Gaetano.

  24. In 1998, as part of ongoing collaborative research, I suggested to Xie Lihua that the journal run a story writing competition for rural migrant women. I would provide funding for the competition and for prizes, and they would organise the competition, judge the winning entries and publish them in their journal. Xie Lihua and her associates agreed to the plan and the competition was launched in November, 1998 and ran until the end of October, 1999. Participants in the competition were asked to write approximately 1500 words, giving a truthful account of their experiences as a migrant worker. Altogether, more than three hundred manuscripts were received. Of these, twenty stories and one poem received prizes and were published in Nongjianü Baishitong in 1999.

    Figure 8. 'My life as a migrant worker'

    Figure 9. Initial Competition Announcement.
    See Appendix A
    Figure 10. Announcement of Competition Winners.
    See Appendix B

  25. All of the stories in this issue of Intersections were originally published in Chinese in Nongjianü Baishitong. Zhou Rencong won first prize (500 yuan) for her story 'Leaving Huaihua Valley', Mian Xiaohong ('Burdened Youth') was one of three people who won second prize (300 yuan), and Huang Zhihua ('The Law is By My Side') was one of five people who won third prize (200 yuan). Li Jianying ('Working for Myself'), Cui Jingyu ('Let Bygones be Bygones'), Pang Hui ('I am a Cloud') and Wang Xiangfen ('Looking Back I am Proud') won prizes of commendation (100 yuan). The selection of these particular stories for republication was based on my own personal judgement of merit and interest, combined with an attempt to include stories reflecting a range of different situations and experiences.
  26. The publication of these stories is, in itself, politically important, as is Nongjianü Baishitong's publication of other letters and stories written by rural women and rural migrants, and indeed the existence of the journal itself. By providing a forum for rural women to speak for themselves, they provide a valuable counterbalance and potential challenge to a national, an indeed international, discursive order in which subaltern voices are routinely suppressed, marginalised, silenced or ignored.
  27. This is not to say, however, that through these stories we can hear the 'authentic' voices of the 'subaltern' in China, unmediated or untainted by dominant discourses. Nor should these stories be viewed as necessarily closer to 'the truth' about migrants and migration than articles in the mainstream Chinese media. The stories provide valuable information about individual migrant women's personal experiences - information that is rarely found in the mainstream media. In itself, this helps to counteract the urban elite disdain for rural migrants as faceless hordes, and to encourage an empathy for rural women as individual human beings with difficulties, desires and aspirations much like 'ours'. At the same time, however, migrant women's representation of their own experiences and desires, and the messages that they incorporate in their stories, are far from being unaffected by dominant discourses. Rather, as I will try to sketch out in the remainder of this paper, they challenge some aspects of dominant discourses and reproduce others.
  28. All the stories translated here, as indeed most of those sent in for the competition, recount or at the least allude to, lives of hardship and struggle, both in the women's native villages and in the cities where they migrate to work. Li Jianying, for example, writes of her family's poverty, and of how, as teenagers, she and her sister went out to work in the rice paddies each spring, labouring long hours bent double, their feet cramping in the icy cold water of the paddies. Zhou Rencong writes of the pressures on young rural women to marry and alludes to the tragedies, including the suicide of women, that result from arranged marriages and the continuing expectation amongst villagers that once married, a woman must devote the rest of her life to serving her husband and in-laws. Pang Hui, also, writes of how her husband, a gambler and a drunkard, beat her and her children, driving her to leave her home and her children to start a new life as a migrant worker.
  29. Mian Xiaohong and Zhou Rencong both write of the bewilderment they felt on first arriving in a large city and indicate how important initial help from a relative, fellow villager or other contact in the city can be. Zhou Rencong gives a particularly vivid account of the initial sense of alienation in the city, the difficulty of finding work, and the struggle to survive in a strange place on meagre savings.
  30. With the exception of Wang Xiangfen, all the writers describe the jobs they found in the city as harsh, exploitative and tiring, with very long hours of work. Huang Zhihua recounts how, in the summer she started work in a joint venture manufacturing factory in Shenzhen, she and her fellow workers worked overtime everyday, in hot, crowded workshops, and were poorly paid and given inadequate meals. Mian Xiaohong, in her job as a housemaid also worked long, tiring hours, constantly anxious about performing her tasks properly. Cui Jingyu and Li Jianying, who worked as waitresses, both write that they worked continuously each day from before dawn until late at night. And Zhou Rencong writes of having to rush around all day in her job as a sales person for a healthcare product company, and of the terrible hunger she suffered in the first month, before she received her wages.
  31. In addition, these women write of a range of different forms of abuse, contempt, humiliation and threats meted out to them by employers, coworkers and others. Li Jianying, for example, writes that she and the other migrant women in the restaurant where she worked, were abused by the boss, and when they tried to leave, he threatened to keep their belongings and withold their wages. Similarly, Huang Zhihua's coworkers were afraid to complain about their working conditions for fear that they would be sacked, and Cui Jingyu was sacked from her job, with half a month's pay deducted for no reason. Mian Xiaohong had her first job as a housemaid terminated without notice, and her belongings sent to the police station, when she spent one night out at a friend's house. Later, she was again sacked without notice, and when she left, the woman of the house insisted on checking her luggage to make sure that she had not stolen anything.
  32. Sexual harassment, abuse and exploitation figure in four out of seven of the stories. Pang Hui writes of sexual harassment from her male co workers on the construction site as being the hardest aspect of the job.[20] And Cui Jingyu's job in the restaurant became unbearable when the boss put pressure on her and the other waitresses to offer sexual services as a way of attracting customers. Zhou Rencong similarly mentions that one company advertising for office workers sought to employ women who would offer sexual services to pull in customers, and she also writes of her friend turning to prostitution when her cosmetics shop went bankrupt. Huang Zhihua writes of how she was nearly persuaded to become involved in a scheme to kidnap and sell women from her home province.
  33. Wang Xiangfen's story is unusual amongst those published in the competition in that she makes no explicit mention of difficulties encountered in her life as a migrant worker. However, even she alludes to the fact that many migrant women have conflicts with their employers, that the title of 'outstanding housemaid' that she was awarded did not come easily, and that the life of a migrant worker was full of challenges.
  34. For all the hardships described, these stories are unlike many articles in the mainstream press, in that they do not give the impression that rural women are passive, helpless victims - far from it. These women have actively resisted exploitation and abuse, defended their personal integrity and fought for, and won, respect from others. Huang Zhihua, for example, confronted her boss about the intolerable working conditions suffered by migrant workers in the factory, and won, not just an improvement in those conditions, but a promotion for herself. Li Jianying changed jobs several times rather than put up with insults from employers, then went to a hairdressing school and finally set up her own hairdressing salon. Wang Xiangfen was awarded the title of 'outstanding housemaid', and Zhou Rencong ultimately found a job as the editor of a newsletter of a well known company, and has gained national recognition as a short story writer.
  35. Similar to the mainstream press, however, none of the stories provide any real critique of the discourses and structures that undergird migrant women's exploitation. Instead, with the exception of 'I am a Cloud', in all the stories translated here, rural women's experiences of migration are depicted as a difficult journey or 'rite of passage', with the individual undergoing a series of struggles, from which she nevertheless emerges, wiser for the experience, having achieved a measure of success and personal pride or, at the least, stability. In 'Burdened Youth', for example, Mian Xiaohong describes herself and the other girls setting out for Beijing as being naïve, like 'new born calves', and writes of her work as a housemaid in an urban household as a painful process of awakening. Wang Xiangfen concludes her story with the lines: 'I'm thankful for my life as a migrant worker. It has given me the opportunity to make myself strong, and it has taught me how to get on with others, and that if you try you can do anything. The long journey of the migrant worker presents even more opportunities than it does challenges.'
  36. By suggesting that it is their move to the city that makes young rural women mature, these narratives echo common urban views of rural women as being naïve and simple, in comparison to their more sophisticated urban sisters. In addition, as in the collection of articles in Zhongguo Qingnian, how successfully they make the transition from the countryside to the city, is related above all, to their own persistence, hard work and their ability to stand up for themselves. In the case of Huang Zhihua, success is further linked to her ability to use the law to defend her interests. In her story, 'The Law is by My Side,' Huang Zhihua describes the way in which she confronted her boss one day, showing him a copy of the Labour Law to demonstrate that his treatment of the women workers was illegal. The boss reacted angrily at first, but when she threatened him, he softened his stance, took her advice about improving the workers conditions, and promoted her to the position of assistant to the deputy manager. Her story provides what is potentially an indictment of capitalist labour relations, but that indictment is weakened by the message that comes through, that if you are able to work the system, you can be successful.
  37. Much of the language in the upbeat endings of these stories is formulaic and unconvincing, and unlike the ways in which migrant women speak of their experiences in conversation. As I have discussed elsewhere, in interviews I conducted in Hangzhou in 1995, migrant women also often spoke of migration as a kind of rite of passage, but very few talked with positivity or optimism about their present and future. Rather, almost all of them voiced a high degree of uncertainty. As one woman put it, 'People in Hangzhou can further themselves and think of the future - they have a good job and they go to work every day and there are lots of possibilities. But for us migrant workers it really is a matter of living from one day to the next. You can't have any aims, or think of the future.'[21]
  38. Having scanned through several of the original manuscripts received, I have no evidence that the editorial office of Nongjianü Baishitong deliberately selected the more 'positive' stories. If anything, their selection includes proportionally fewer rosy 'success' stories like Wang Xiangfen's than were included amongst the total sent in for the competition, probably because most of those stories were not very interesting, and too obviously stilted to be considered good quality writing. Nevertheless, it does seem probable that many of the participants in the competition themselves tried to make their stories more politically acceptable by tempering their accounts of difficult experiences of life as a migrant worker in the past, with a positive message about the present and future. This narrative structure, in which the past is criticised but the present and future is depicted with optimism, dominates post-1949 political discourse, literature and film. And it is generally the refusal of such a narrative structure, rather than negativity per se, that is read as politically unacceptable. Perhaps it is for this reason, that the story by Pang Hui - the only one that does not provide the reader with a way to see out of, or beyond, the tragedies and uncertainties of the author's life, received only a commendation, rather than first, second or third prize.
  39. Aside from the prevalence of the happy ending, the dominance in these stories of the 'rite of passage' narrative structure may have something to do with the nature of the story competition. In hindsight, the theme of the competition, 'My life as a migrant worker' combined with some basic understandings and expectations of short story narratives, probably invites reflection on the experience of being a migrant worker as a process of change and personal development, and may appear to ask for some final, balanced judgement on the experience.
  40. Beyond this, however, rural-urban migration is very often, in fact, a literal 'rite of passage'. As I have indicated, most migrant women are in their teens or twenties when they first leave home, and for many, this is their first experience of a world beyond the village, and it is a first step, often very consciously taken, toward adulthood. These women's difficult experiences as migrants coincide with, and indeed are very much a part of, their personal struggle for respect and identity as independent individuals.


    Acknowledgements. I am grateful to Dr. Song Xianlin for working with me on the translation of migrant women's stories and to Eleanor Jacka, Louise Edwards amd Isabel Tasker for editorial advice. Thanks also to Li Tao and Arianne Gaetano for contributing photographs. Funding for the translation of the stories was provided by a Murdoch University Special Research Grant.

    [1] Further discussion of the size and composition of the floating population, the origins, destinations and motivations of rural outmigration, and the occupations of migrants, is to be found in Li Mengbai and Hu Xin, eds., Liudong Renkou dui da chengshi fazhan de yingxiang ji duice [The Influence of the Floating Population on the Development of Big Cities and Countermeasures], Beijing: Jingji Ribao Chubanshe, 1991; and Thomas Scharping, ed., Floating Population and Migration in China: The Impact of Economic Reforms, Hamburg: Institut für Asienkunde, 1997.

    [2] Christopher Smith, 'Migration as an agent of social change in contemporary China', in Chinese Environment and Development, 7, 1/2, (1996): 23.

    [3] For a discussion of the origins and the social consequences of the household registration system, see Cheng Tiejun and Mark Selden, 'The origins and social consequences of China's hukou system', China Quarterly, 139, (1994): 644-68.

    [4] Li Jianyong and Li Tao, Chengshi Li Ni You Duo Yuan - Jincheng Dagong Baishitong [How Remote is the City - A Guide for Migrant Workers Entering the City], Shanghai: Shanghai Kexue Puji Chubanshe, 1999, pp. 23-25.

    [5] Tamara Jacka, 'Working sisters answer back: the representation and self-representation of women in China's floating population', China Information, xiii, 1, (1998): 44-45.

    [6] Dorothy Solinger, Contesting Citizenship in Urban China. Peasant Migrants, the State, and the Logic of the Market, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1999, p. 131.

    [7] Jinhong Ding and Norman Stockman, 'The floating population and the integration of the city community: A survey on the attitudes of Shanghai residents to recent migrants', in Frank Pieke and Hein Mallee, eds., Internal and International Migration. Chinese Perspectives, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1999, p. 124.

    [8] Wang Sigang 1995, 'Shanghai mangliu chuxian "san duo"' ['"Three manys" emerge amongst Shanghai's blind drifters'], Shehui [Society], 7, (1995): 44-45. Zhao Shukai, a senior researcher at the Development Research Centre of the State Council, claims that reports such as these are blatantly biased. He argues that there is a need to reorient public attitudes and government structures and policies and move from 'regulating the temporary population' to creating 'new urban citizens.' See Zhao Shukai, 'Criminality and the policing of migrant workers', translated by Andrew Kipnis, The China Journal, 43, (2000): 101-110.

    [9] Zhao Shukai, 'Criminality and the policing of migrant workers', translated by Andrew Kipnis, The China Journal, 43, (2000): 101-110.

    [10] Translated in Michael Dutton, Streetlife China, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp.88-89. Zhao Shukai, a senior researcher at the Development Research Centre of the State Council, claims that reports such as these are blatantly biased. He argues that there is a need to reorient public attitudes and government structures and policies and move from 'regulating the temporary population' to creating 'new urban citizens.' See Zhao Shukai, 'Criminality and the policing of migrant workers', translated by Andrew Kipnis, The China Journal, 43, 2000: 101-110.

    [11] 'Dagong de rensheng ye zhuangli' ['The life of a migrant worker is also glorious'], Zhongguo Qingnian [Chinese Youth], 2, (1997): 12-20.

    [12] See, for example, Kuang Chanfu and Li Jiulin, eds., Nüren de Ku [The Bitterness of Being a Woman], Beijing: Zhongyang Minzu Xueyuan Chubanshe, 1993, pp. 267-71.

    [13] See, for example, Li Guiru, 'Meili shuang bi, tongduan dagonglu' ['A beautiful pair of arms painfully cut off in the course of work'], Zhongguo Qingnian Bao [Chinese Youth News], 27 May 1999; and Lin Senquan and Zhang Qinglin, 'Si gen shouzhi huanlai bai zhi yi zhang' [Four fingers in exchange for one piece of paper'], Zhongguo Funü Bao [Chinese Women's News], 8 June 1999.

    [14] Cited in Harriet Evans, Women and Sexuality in China. Dominant Discourses of Female Sexuality and Gender Since 1949, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997, pp. 171-72. For further examples, see '1800 ming funü zai chongwenmen "laowu shichang" bei guaimai' ['1800 women were kidnapped and sold at a "labour market" in Chongwenmen'], Baokan Wenzhai [News Digest], 745, (23 August 1993); and Liu Fengmei, 'Heise bei'ai - yi ge nü kanshou de shouji' ['Black sorrow - a handwritten account from a female prison guard'], Zhongguo Funü [Chinese Women], 7, (1995): 50-52.

    [15] Evans, 1997, p. 172. This explains the heightened shock delivered by one article which reported an instance of kidnapping, not of a rural girl, but of a Shanghai graduate student on her way to Beijing to do research (Ann Anagnost, National Past-Times. Narrative, Representation, and Power in Modern China, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1997, p. 134).

    [16] Anagnost, National Past-Times, p. 135.

    [17] Rey Chow, '"Love me, master, love me son": A cultural other pornographically constructed in time', in John Hay, ed., Boundaries in China, London: Reaktion Books, 1994, p. 243.

    [18] Trafficking in women in rural China is also a favourite topic for western journalists writing about Chinese society, and for similar reasons. See, for example, 'People peddlars', Far Eastern Economic Review, (23 February 1989); 'Return of a medieval evil', Time, (November 11, 1991); and 'Demand for wives fuels trade in teenage girls', The Weekend Australian, (Nov.13-14, 1999).

    [19] For a review of the forum, see Tamara Jacka, 'Other Chinas' China's Others: A Report on the First National Forum on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Women Workers, June 16-18, 1999, Beijing', new formations, 40 (Spring 2000): 128-37.

    [20] For a discussion of the sexual harassment of rural migrant women, see Tang Can, 'Sexual harassment: the dual status of discrimination against female migrant workers in urban areas', Social Sciences in China, xix, 3, (Autumn 1998). Tang argues that migrant women are more often subjected to sexual harassment than urban women because of the contempt that urbanites hold toward rural migrants, and because migrant women's insecure housing and lack of support from their employers make them more vulnerable to harassment and attack.

    [21] Zhou Hongxia, quoted in Jacka, 1998, p.69.


    Appendix A Initial Competition Announcement

    Appendix B Announcement of Competition Winners


    This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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