The Industrial Revolution of Today: A Review of FACTORY GIRLS by Leslie T. Chang

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When we take about the impact of the Industrial Revolution, we speak of it in terms as if there had been only One Industrial Revolution, and that had taken place throughout the Western world during the nineteenth century. As I had written about before, the Industrial Revolution didn’t just happen then, and in fact, the current industrial revolution is happening throughout the non-Western world just as the West begins to grow nostalgic about it.

In talking about alternative histories, and how the non-West would develop, it’s interesting to dream up scenes of Imperial splendor (like James Ng does). It is equally valid, however, to note that you don’t have to look toward the Qing dynasty to see a Chinese industrial revolution, for, as James himself has noted, China is changing into a fully developed industrial nation as we speak.

With that in mind, I picked up Leslie T. Chang’s book about her observations about today’s current revolution, specifically of those factory girls in China that the West likes to paint as faceless factory drones (occasionally laced by the feeling of guilt toward those “poor sweatshop workers.”) Chang, however, breaks down that stereotype (though sweatshops are very much alive and well in China) and presents a look into the lives of today’s migrant factory workers.

Compulsively readable and engaging throughout, FACTORY GIRLS: From Village to City in a Changing China highlights the stories of the young people (particularly women), who are changing the face of the global economy today. Instead of the masses teeming in nameless sweatshops that the West envisions, these lives are individually dynamic and driven, full of same sorts of fear and wonderment that the young mill girls in the West may have also felt a hundred and fifty years ago, as they sought to make new lives for themselves.

Thousands of young teenage girls – some as young as fourteen – leave home from the village to find work in the mega-industrial cities located along the Chinese coast; Chang writes that 70 percent of the workforce in the factory city of Dougguan are women. These teens seek the same sort of independence that other teenagers in the Western world want, except at a much greater risk. They travel with friends or alone hundreds of miles to places like Dougguan in search of a factory job. Special IDs are required to work, and often, girls would find lost IDs or create fake ones in order to work at a factory. Lucky breaks happen, but often, young people lie about their qualifications just to get their foot in the door. Once at the factory, though, life doesn’t get any easier. Hours are long—Chang notes that most girls work up to thirteen hours at day, six days a week. The work is dull, tedious, and stressful as bosses pressure workers to fulfill orders at a backbreaking pace for their American, Taiwanese, Japanese, and European customers. Each worker is paid a pittance for their efforts by US standards — $150 a month is the average wage.

Chang notes that the sexism in Chinese society actually allows village women more freedom to earn an independent living. Sons of villagers are expected to stay closer to home to support the family, while daughters, being “less treasured, less coddled,” Chang noted, were allowed to leave home to make their own plans. They called it chuqu, “to go out”: an ambition to leave the boredom of rural  life and stay independent by working on their own. Returning was not an option for them—not because of family shame, but because of personal pride. Like any willful teenager, these young women consider going home equivalent to “admitting defeat.” They are driven with a fierce yearning for something greater than what life had given them, many of them expressing the same desire to keep moving forward as best as they can while they are still young.

Several young women’s stories weave through this volume, but Chang focuses particularly on two. The ambitious but impulsive Wu Chunming rises from the factory floor to become a wealthy entrepreneur and then loses it all again, all before turning 27. Lu “Min” Qingmin is sixteen when she left home to follow her sister to Dougguan, and Chang records her growing pains as a teenager as she juggles family expectations, complicated relationships between a city boy and her village ex-boyfriend, and her dreams of wealth. There are stories about lost loves and lost cell phones (a lifeline for the migrant worker), failed start-ups and overnight millionaires, “assembly line” methods to learning English and corporate pyramid schemes.

A lot of Western assumptions about working-class women in Chinese society are overturned. Not only does the presence of young female workers become normalized in industrial cities, it becomes a youth culture in its own right. No opium dens or shady brothels threaten unwary young workers (though Chang does dip into the world of sex workers in one of the episodes of the book). Daughters, as wage earners for the family, gain a bigger say in their household, but at the same time, many are choosing to work for their own benefit, and not for the family’s. Instead of being passive in meeting men, women go speed-dating together and surf the Internet for hook-ups, while also avoiding familial pressure to settle down. At the same time, however, factory life can be incredibly lonely, as friends can vanish in a city of millions, coming and going from the assembly floor as they seek out better-paid work.

Mixed in with the hectic lives of a nation’s industrial development and these individual stories is the history of Chang’s family. Industrialization comes at a greater cost, and for China, it is tied in with their history of defeating foreign imperialistic powers that had controlled it throughout the nineteenth century, struggling through decades of civil war, and the rise of the Communist government. In a touching interlude that doesn’t read as sentimental, Chang writes about her own grandfather journey as a migrant: he left to study abroad filled with patriotic dreams and returned to oversee China’s mines, only to be assassinated by unknown insurgents during the brewing civil war between the nationalists and the Communists. Alongside the story of these migrant girls, Chang tracks her own family’s emigration, then immigration. She writes about her grandfather’s abandoned tomb and her chain-smoking grandmother’s strength, of the alienated uncle obsessed with seeking justice for his disgraced father, and a decades-old love between a great-aunt who fled the country and her first sweetheart who stayed behind and never forgot her. Somehow, these little stories all become connected into the greater history of China like gears turning together in a larger machine.

Near the end of the book, Chang observes:

The journey my grandfather attempted was one that millions of young people make every day—they left home; they entered an unfamiliar land; they worked hard. But nowadays their purpose was not to change China’s fate. They were concerned with their own destinies, and they made their own decisions. If it is an ugly world, at least it is their own….

For a long time I thought Dougguan as a city with no past, but now I realize it isn’t so. The past has been there all along, reminding us: This time—maybe, hopefully, against all odds—we will get it right.

Looking back at history, but moving forward, hoping that the progress of technology will get things right—isn’t that what many find appealing about steampunk today? Looks like the same opinion voiced by steampunk makers and tinkerers, artists and dreamers, isn’t so far off from the attitude of those in the midst of their own industrial revolution.

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