Leslie Chang’s “Factory Girls”

Leslie Chang brings a cautionary anti-romanticism and a fine reporter’s eye to the start of Brown’s Year of China. Her story is China turning itself inside out over the last 30 years — about the very hard slog of it.

The numbers have no precedent: 150-million village Chinese are migrants now in the mushrooming factory cities that make vast portions of the world’s stuff. The new city of Dongguan, which seemed to Leslie Chang “a perverse expression of China at its most extreme,” makes 40 percent of the magnetic heads in personal computers world-wide, and 30 percent of the disk-drives. One third of the world’s shoes are made in Guandong Province…

Leslie Chang is breaking through polite veils of silence — first in China, and abroad, too — to reveal the human price of the transformation. The intellectual and expressive classes of Beijing and Shanghai tend to look down on the migrants, then away, Leslie Chang observes. So the epic underway is not much written or read. The freedom and opportunity that brilliant young Chinese are finding these days are not in literature and the arts, anyway, but in business. “The Charles Dickens of China today,” Leslie Chang quips, “is doing real estate.”

Leslie Chang’s celebrated, best-selling Factory Girls (2008) is a classic that reminds me of two others, for their differences. First, Dickens’ American Notes (1842) on the “Lowell Girls” that left the farms of New England for the first textile mills in America; we remember the mill workers for the essays and poems of their “Lowell Offering” and for the first glimmer of organizing labor. The second parallel/contrast is Isabel Wilkerson’s account, The Warmth of Other Suns, of the black migrations in America from the Jim Crow South: a mere 10-million people who, over 50 years, recreated the sound and style, the whole story of our country. We don’t begin to see those follow-on effects of what China is going through, and maybe it’s premature to ask: “Don’t discount the fact,” Leslie Chang is saying, “that hundreds of millions of people are able for the first time to leave their villages of poverty and idleness — especially young women who had no opportunity before and can suddenly choose how to live their lives. Isn’t that enough?”

But she also expands fascinatingly on a striking reticence in Chinese society — in her Chinese family, as well. “The Chinese today have a troubled relationship with their past,” she wrote in Factory Girls. “Why did a great civilization collapse so rapidly when confronted by the West? What made people turn so readily on each other — in workplaces, in villages, in families — during the political movements of the 1950s and 1960s? And how could they pick up their lives afterward as if nothing had happened?”

She is speaking here of a broad informal ban on introspection in China — a main legacy of the Cultural Revoluton, and one of the memorable and sobering insights in Leslie Chang’s conversation:

When we ask why Chinese are not more introspective about the past, the reason is that there are so many traumatic, painful things that happened. And it was not all things that were imposed from above. Many of the things were things that people did to each other. The Cultural Revolution did not happen in a Beijing political office. The Cultural Revolution happened in every classroom, on every university campus, and in many villages, and many households.

What happened in 1980 was: there was a sudden, 180-degree about-face: everything that was bad before is good now. All those things you got attacked for during the Cultural Revolution, like learning and scholarship and business and making money and having some nice furniture — all those things are good now; you go do them. What is the psychological cost of suddenly making that kind of a drastic shift for a whole country? The cost is: okay, we’ll do it, we like this new life, but let’s not think about what we did yesterday, because it’s really painful and it will bring up all these questions about why did we do this. Is there something about Chinese culture, or family culture, or village culture that made us suddenly turn on the people we lived with all our lives? I think this lack of introspection runs very deep and it’s tied to these very painful things that happened.

Leslie Chang with Chris Lydon at Brown University, Fall 2011.

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  • Matthew

    DIckens absolutely would not be in real estate.

    As an asian-american, I often see this paradigm that allows one to use their family stories and ethnicity to portray themselves as objective experts rather than highly biased partisans of a particular truths reflecting their cultural rather than ethnic upbringing. White folks seem unable to see past this ‘ethnic fog’ to confront this partisanship.

    Here we have the fairly progressive Christopher Lydon heeling over to an obviously misinformed person; for what other reason could he allow this?

    The author shows her cards fairly clearly when she expresses her amazement that there are Chinese dropouts – she asks in amazement, who ever heard of a Chinese dropout? Well certainly no one raised with the model-minority stereotype in America would assume that, but China has a long and rich history of ‘dropout culture’, whether it be hermits, travelers, poets, anarchists, opiate-addicts, or drunks.

    Her lack of knowledge about a particular facet of a society which she is explaining can be forgiven, of course, but it only points to blind spots of ideology that don’t allow much insight into the society at all.

    Her friends, of course, are disgusted by those who chose to spend their lives doing nothing – as if the stock traders and real estate brokers are shining beacons of human accomplishment. But her friends, of course, like her, equate doing something to participating in capitalism. And in this way, she leaves out large facets of the society.

    Two historical references further this conclusion. She mentions that Mao just wanted to do everything the opposite of the west – a hilarious conclusion for an ideologue of a dogma based around western thought, strikingly erroneous in that Mao, as Stalin, emphasized above all else, production and development – highly indicative of western modernity.

    So of course is Mao ‘just wanted to do everything the opposite of the west’, even if he was playing by western rules, then that means of course the whole era from colonialism to capitalism is an embarrassment for her! The anarchists, the massive movement in political life, the anti-colonial rebellions, the messianic movements – all of these facets of Chinese life in this era are embarrassments to her, not to Chinese society, even if they are to her friends in the real estate business. They are embarrassments precisely because they do not conform to western standards of ‘lost’ and ‘productive’, rather, as they do, than speak to a universal human yearning for freedom.

    So of course, for this author, anything not appealing to the ‘correct’ westernization of Chinese society is an embarrassment, or worse, invisible. In this way she is able to plead that please, factory workers are not just oppressed, they are also like Americans! This might be true enough, but what about, not just the privileged dropouts, but the religious and taoist revivals, the Chinese New Left opposed to the income inequality, the massive labor protests, the rising middle-class environmental movement, the human rights movements, the internet justice gangs, the drug culture – to this author, these facets of Chinese society simply do not exist. In this point, the author ultimately succeeds in her goal to standardize Chinese society according to a western rubric – we in the west also do a fairly good job of marginalizing the voices and stories of those who do not fall under the appropriate paradigm of ‘progress, development, modernity’ – in other words, capital.

    DIckens absolutely would not be in real estate. Chang and Lydon have successfully put another foot down stamping out our finding out about any real heirs to Dickens as well.

  • Potter

    Hey- this sounded familiar– back in ’06 I mentioned that I happened to read this article in the WSJ and was impressed by it:

    In one story well told there are multitudes of stories and you can understand so much.

    My grandparents were part of the migration from Eastern Europe around the turn of the previous century. But then again this country was built on migrations, including our own internal migration westward. The Irish, the Italians here on the east coast coming through Ellis Island, trying to get away from poverty at home.

    Please may I finish Pakistan in time for China! This sounds exciting and so interesting -the first of a series?

    Thank you again.

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