Published: Book Review

My review of Out to Work: Migration, Gender and the Changing Lives of Rural Women in Contemporary China by Arianne M Gaetano for Asian Review of Books

China’s rural migrant labor (農民工, nongminggong) has increased from 20-30 million during the mid-1980s to over 160 million in 2012. About a third to half of these rural-urban migrants are women who are collectively known as “working sisters” or dagongmei (打工妹).

In Out to Work: Migration, Gender, and the Changing Lives of Rural Women in Contemporary China, Arianne Gaetano follows the rural-urban migration experiences of a few dagongmei who first migrated from their villages in central and western provinces to Beijing between 1993 and 2000. While the issue of rural-urban migration in China has been well covered in the news and media, this book offers a detailed and intimate look into the lives of these women from their mid-to-late teens when they migrated as single girls to Beijing to work as domestic workers and hotel housekeepers, to their mid-to-late thirties as they became seasoned dagongmei, working wives and mothers.

The stories documented in this book are illuminating not just because they offer glimpses into the varied and individualized experiences of these women. More important, these stories tell a broader narrative about sociocultural transformations in a rapidly changing China: gender and class inequality; the changing norms and stereotypes of gender, sexuality, marriage, and family; the tensions between tradition and modernity; as well as new forms of social distinction that are intertwined with a growing consumer culture.

Gaetano’s book makes no apology in taking a feminist perspective, i.e. focusing on women rather than men. In addition to serving as “an important corrective” to migration studies that had “long overlooked women”, Gaetano is also interested in understanding “how migration impacts rural Chinese women’s identity and their agency or capacity for self-determination”.

The book is organized according to the women’s journey of becoming working women and mothers: subsequent chapters focus on how the women were caught between their desires for migration and their obligations to their families as dutiful daughters; how these women’s migration pathways pan out in relation to gendered social networks that they rely upon to find employment and for support; the paradoxes of these women who conduct menial labor and how they are encouraged to desire to be, and to become, model workers; on their transition from country bumpkin girls to sophisticated “urban” women through the adoption of consumer culture; and on their negotiations of marriage and married life as they become wives, daughter-in-laws, and mothers. These vignettes provide a fuller understanding of what life is like for these Chinese rural women as they transition from young girls to adult women while being dagongmei on the move.

If migration is embarked upon as a means to greater autonomy and freedom to pursue individual ambitions, the experiences of the women in Gaetano’s book show in detail that this rosy and idealized dream may not be entirely true. The deeply entrenched patrilineal-patrilocal marriage and family system—especially in the villages—continue to circumscribe and delimit the women’s autonomy and freedom. Typically, a young rural migrant-to-be would be entrusted in the care of an older and more established migrant through family and social networks (guanxi). The experienced migrant woman take on the role of a guardian by default: she facilitates the younger woman’s access to gender-specific jobs in the cities, and polices the younger woman’s reputation as the filial, yet-to-be-married daughter on behalf of her parents back in the village. This creates a paradoxical situation: on the one hand, gender-specific social networks facilitate rural women’s migrations and job opportunities in the cities; on the other hand, these networks in turn constrain the women’s freedom and autonomy by reinforcing existing social and gender norms.

However, this does not mean that there is no hope for any significant changes to the lives of the individual women in Gaetano’s book. By moving to the city, Yarui was able to marry and settle down in Beijing instead of returning to her village or marrying through traditional match-making. As a result of their rural-urban migration, these dagongmei acquire knowledge and experiences which transform them from “country bumpkins” to “urban sophisticates”. Some went on to acquire college degrees and skills which help improve their living standards to a certain extent. In contrast to the expected image of the ideal worker who is docile and compliant, some migrant women respond to employers’ unfair treatment by protesting, confronting their employers on the matter, or quitting as a form of resistance. Even if these actions did not change the broader social structures, they are expressions of resistance and demonstrate the migrant women’s sense of justice for themselves and their lives.

Overall, Out to Work offers a rich and nuanced account of the changing lives of rural-urban female migrants in China at the turn of the twenty-first century. The book shows that migrating to the city for work advances the dagongmei’s social mobility and relative gender positions to a certain extent. However, the book also shows that each individual triumph is as yet not strong enough to completely challenge the deeply entrenched gender and rural-urban inequalities in a rapidly changing China. As China charges full steam ahead, attention also needs to be given to the unforeseen human and social consequences of economic development.


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