Podcast • November 2, 2011

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 ...

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.