(Re)Producing Gender: The Lavender Menace

Apparently, lesbians in China are less threatening. But less threatening than what? Lalas, the Chinese equivalent of lesbian, are less threatening to conceptions of gender and sexuality than gay men.

Lalas are apparently less threatening because the government has approved a reproduction of a 19th century play featuring two women who fall in love with each. Such approval does not confer acceptance. Just ask the organizers of a recent gay pageant. They had permission, but the police shut it down. Ask the organizers of the Beijing Queer film festival. For years, they would get the necessary permits only to have them eventually revoked.

According to Eli Zaretsky, a psychoanalytic historian of Capitalism, contemporary sexual identities are rooted in corporate Capitalism and the corresponding rise of “personal life,” that is, sections of life that are not connected to the production of value. As far as those interests are concerned, what you might do in your free time does not matter as long as you continue to produce value – which can be generated either through labor or consumption. This represents a rupture from earlier methodologies, which sought to control every aspect of the worker’s life in order to achieve maximum productivity.

Deregulated identities are not unregulated identities. It is simply cheaper for people to internalize  regulations and enforce the ethic themselves. The contradiction between prevailing cultural norms and the interests of Capitalism forms the boundary that separates personal life from production. An identity too far from what is deemed acceptable cannot produce and thus cannot consume. An example of this can be found in a recent survey conducted in the US, in which 6,450 transgender identified individuals found “near universal harassment on the job.” This assumes, of course, that they could even find a job.

While certain identities may have been able to distance themselves from the requirements of productivity, there has been nowhere near the same success in the realm of reproduction. Indeed many of the Chinese queer economies of desire seem to be defined almost exclusively through heteronormative means.

Lala couples are expected to be comprised of a “T” and a “P.” “T” stands for the adopted English term  ‘tomboy’ while “P” is a derivation of laopo, or wife. T is supposed to be more masculine in presentation and thus to take a more active sexual role. P is expected to exist through her femininity and passivity. In this particular economy of desire, a feminine identity is the most sought after.

While there may be a hierarchy of desire amongst lalas, their spaces are not subject to extreme regulations of desire and presentation that seems to be present within the gay male, also known as tongzhi, communities. There, men who display any form of femininity are immediately ostracized as being “not right”. Most will reply that this is because they want to be with men who act like “real” men. Of course, if they really wanted to act like “proper” men they would sleep with women. While the prevalent position on “feminine” men is mired in misogyny, it is also a reaction against a larger cultural misogyny that would feminize and ostracize them simply because to be attracted to a man is to be automatically feminized.

This same ideology carries through what in the U.S. would be called transgender identities. (I refer here only to trans-women as I have no experience with Chinese trans-men.) Their extreme marginalization makes these liminal identities even more resistant to reductive and categorical definition. The difficulty of definition is compounded by the fact that there does not seem to be any sense of cohesive community. Some might secure employment in a legitimate hair salon. Others find work as drag queens. Or they might be self employed, going to popular clubs looking for `foreign investment’. In the case of the last two, any revenue depends on their status as male-bodied women.

One such woman told me that if she were to really be a woman she would have to kill herself, because, otherwise, she would be excommunicated from the collective tongzhi, who already mistrusted her. On the other side, she could never tell her future husband of her past for fear that he would leave her. Not all feel exactly this way, but all distinctly feel the contradiction between their desires and their realities. And so they do what they can, (re)claiming spaces of resistance wherever they are able.

None of this is to say that their desires or their genders do not reflect authentic positions, only that they also reflect social expectations. To this end each identity is defined by the politics of “passing,” being perceived as belonging to the dominant (i.e. heterosexual) group. Gender presentation or identity aside, they are all able to achieve this social ideal through reproduction. Most talk of marriage as a shield from stigma. The difference is that this shield comes in the form of a performance of heterosexuality through the production of a child – a commodity all the more imperative to produce since the advent of the one child policy.

While Capitalist ideology may have opened the space needed to express these identities, it brought with it the imperialism of queer identities native to an English-speaking world. Often, these identities impose categories on the way that these other identities are supposed to behave and how they are supposed to work within the global framework of reclaiming gender diversity from colonialism.

Nevertheless, these are identities struggling to create authentic spaces of existence. That the lalas are somehow less threatening is ridiculous. Even though their identities may fit within the heteronormative paradigm, the space is still subverted through the reclamation of gender diversity. The master’s tool may not be able to completely dismantle the structures of oppression, but his sledgehammer might still be useful to knock down a few of the walls.


(Re)Producing Gender: The New Water Cycle

In honor of World Water Day my colleague at Women In and Beyond the Global, Lisa Seyfried, began writing on the intimate connections between gender and water – particularly that water is provided as a part of the domestic labors of women.

At the same time, a cry for help rang out across the provinces of southern China. They are experiencing what could be the worst drought in a century. Reservoirs and rivers desperately needed to sustain life are drying up. It is getting to the point where even the ground is beginning to crack of thirst. It is impossible to know for certain how many people have been affected. In just one province, according to government officials, there are 19 million people with a severe shortage of drinking water. For some comparison, according to the most recent government estimate, that is about two million people more than the total number of residents in Beijing. And that is just one province. Another three provinces are said to be in similar straits.

With no water immediately available, many villagers are forced to wander for miles in order to bring back as much water as they can carry. Many of these are women or girls.

The problem goes beyond not having enough water to drink. There is also not enough water to sustain either the livestock or the crops. Under the hukuo system (the system of house-hold registration that determines access to social services), it is expected that many rural villagers will engage in subsistence farming rather than employment. Much of the families’ yearly income comes from selling their excess produce at a price that is fixed below market value by the government.

Who then, decides the allocation of the water that is made available? Not the women in charge of retrieving it. Further, as water becomes increasingly privatized, the men in the villages do not get much say either.

These regions most affected by drought are also expected to provide many of the flowers for the country as well as other nations. In fact, this same region is the single largest wholesale center for flowers in all of China. It is this same market for gendered tokens  which decides that available water will go to producing saleable commodities rather than to sustaining human populations.

Many of the rural villagers are being forced to migrate toward more industrial centers as the land becomes increasingly untenable for subsistence. There is a limited supply of gendered destinations. The men are left to go to the urban centers, where they will erect   the glass and steel facades of Chinese modernity. Or they can enter the mines – which continue to pollute more sources of water through environmentally destructive practices such as strip mining or mountaintop removal.

The women, however, bear the increased burdens of this migration. Since they are most often left behind in the village, the duty of care labor falls upon them, without any support that their partner may have otherwise provided or received. Depending on age and familial position, they may be expected to migrate in order support themselves as well as their families.

If a woman has a younger brother (the one child policy has a stipulation that a second child may be afforded if the first born is female), the cultural conditions dictate that she may have to work extra to support his educational endeavors.

If she is young enough and/or attractive enough (by the standards of the employer of course), she may be expected to go to work in the industrial centers either in retail or in the factories. Or she may find herself in the more informal economies if she proves to be unsuitable for the other types of labor. As she works to (re)produce herself as well as her family, she will be simultaneously responsible for facilitating the standard of living that many in the US have become accustomed to having.  She serves two household masters, and both are distant and intimately felt.

Beyond that, her labors will further contribute to the ecological damage that leads to the drought. Two of China’s largest exports, clothing and electronics, require some of the most intensive investments of water – water which is then so polluted by production that it cannot be safely used for human consumption. In this way, the migrant woman worker becomes a part of the force that created the impetus for her migration in the first place.

This is the new water cycle, spiraling out from the original state of the waters’ potential. A new industry moves into the region. Women are predominantly employed since their labor is more cost effective. The industry purchases rights over the usage of the water. Water becomes scarce. More women move to the factory for much needed work, potentially working for less than the previous cohort as they are more desperate for money. If the industry is to survive, it must draw from a wider pool of resources, bringing more devalued labor with it. Finally the industry moves elsewhere to a fresher supply of resources, leaving in their wake the hollowed out shell of how the people used to survive.

A system built on unlimited growth through the exploitation of limited resources cannot be sustained indefinitely. An obvious point yet one that has yet to be fully accepted as truth. While we demand that our standard of living be subsidized through the exploitation of cheap labor and even cheaper labor standards, the economic machines march on towards our collective destruction. This destruction cannot be averted through a green-washing of the problem. We need to fundamentally alter our relationship to water and by extension, the ways that we relate to feminized labor.


(Re)Producing Gender: The Ant Tribe Part II – The Sexless Class

Why are women from rural China, generally, more open about sex? Rather, why are they more inclined to publicly expose their bodies or to trade their sexuality for money or other opportunities? This question that prompted someone to write an op-ed piece based on her experiences growing up in the rural countryside. To this end, she identifies three reasons of various significance: that it is difficult for them to “form positive mentalities,” that life marked by a presence in the lower classes is defined by competition and these women will do what ever it takes to ensure that they have access to the necessary resources, and finally that there is a distinct lack of mechanisms which afford social mobility leaving the body as the only concrete resource that can be traded.

In itself, all of these points offer an ideological platform for some interesting discussions. But the issue is not that these women are or are not geographically inclined toward this type of sexual expression but rather that such actions are occurring outside culturally sanctioned conditions. Particularly, that of marriage.

Such is the threat presented by the women of the Ant Tribe – that since they are already from the country that they just might regress back into their immoral ways. Or, for those who have been successfully refined, that they might never find an appropriate outlet.

According to certain representations in the media, living in an Ant Colony will dramatically reduce any potential for achieving the pinnacle of heterosexual discourse – marriage. And frankly, it probably will.

Internally, the Colonies lack private, personal space in which to perform acts of intimacy appropriately unseen by the community at large – though such expectations of privacy are themselves a relatively new phenomenon brought in the wake of an influx of globalized cultural mores. Such an influx of puritanical sexual values did not take root in a vacuum of expression. Rather they served to reinforce existing and resurgent (yet still somewhat reticent) Confucian values of morality: subservience, modestly, and filial piety.

Issues of being seen or not-seen aside, the current employment climate also creates another condition antagonistic to the social contract of reproduction. Without a valuable and valued job, the male Ants are unable to consume the material trappings needed to secure a spouse. What else could he possibly offer her in this age of commodified desires?

Much of the available work is not the foundation they expect to build their eventual careers upon. It is instead based on an industrial model of care work, i.e. the service industry that has become the true marker of national and economic development. Of course, there are segments of the service industry that prefer masculine employment, but much of the available work is feminized, either through its association with care work or the need for sexualized bodies to serve as a form of advertisement of the commodities being sold.

According to Lian Si, the author of much of the research on the Ants, the primary Ant Colony on the outskirts of Beijing contain many shops, clinics, internet cafes, and hair salons. These are all consistent labor venues to be expected in a community of about 3,000 villagers that has been inundated with over 50,000 migratory Ants seeking work. At the same time, this list of venues has a veiled subtext: in urban areas of China, hair salons are often fronts for brothels.

Just to be clear, I am not saying that all of the women who belong to the Ant Tribe are sex workers. Nor am I saying that some male bodied individuals would not find themselves in similar situations, likely selling to other men.

However, if we take the account of the woman who wrote of her own experiences and accept them as valid, it is reasonable to accept that Ant Tribe women might seek overtly sexual labor as a form of securing income. But where is the line between sexual labor and sexualized labor? Though more subtle, many of the avenues of potential employment for the women of the Ant Tribe require an appearance of a certain level of sexuality to lure customers. This appearance must be of the right variety, for to stray too far from the norm is to become like those bad rural migrants who might seek actual wages from their sexuality rather than wages contingent upon the illusion of it, in one way or another.

The sexuality that is attributed to a rural upbringing, which is actually far more representative of social conditions than geography, threatens established orders of sexual morality. The threat is that these inherently promiscuous women will seduce and somehow taint young men who are in similar conditions. Because clearly it must always be the woman’s fault. In either case, once tainted they may no longer be able to find ‘appropriate’ mates for their future security.

Thus the real worry surrounding the Ant Tribe is not that they might find themselves members of a class without sex but rather a class that is unable to procure sexual property. The worry is that the collective sexuality of the Ants will be like their lives – cheap, anonymous, communal, and temporary.


(Photo Credit: China Hush)

(Re)Producing Gender: The Ant Tribe

Her mother had worked in a factory. When the factory relocated, her home had gone with it. With nowhere else to turn, the mother moved into her daughter’s college dorm room. Through delayed payments and loans, the daughter was able to finish her education. She was able to get a couple of jobs, here and there, all temporary. She decided to go back to school, partially with the hopes that again her mother would be able to share the room as her health was deteriorating. The school refused. In December, the young graduate student killed herself.

But that is only part of the story. She is a member of the Ant Tribe.

This new tribe has been “discovered” in China, living in the capital city of Beijing. They are not marked by Orientalist caricatures like the other Nationalities (a euphemism for various ethnicities living in China). Indeed they are seemingly invisible. They are the Ant Tribe – a new term coined by Lian Si, a post-doctoral fellow at Beijing University, to describe an educated generation of anonymous workers in their 20’s, living and working in incredibly small and cramped quarters, also know as “colonies.” The Ants represent the latest generation of college-educated adults, and, like their US generational counterparts, they are largely unemployed.

Moreover, they are migrants. Nearly all of the members of the Ant Tribe have left their homes in the rural reaches of the nation in search of an education. Like their little sisters, they flow from potential job to potential job in search of the job that was said to await them. These jobs promised to withdraw all of the knowledge that had been deposited over the years of education. Maybe it would even pay interest. And like their sisters, they inserted themselves into a mechanized factory of production where they might become the citizens of consumption demanded by the market, the type of citizens that might become members of the emergent middle classes. Such citizenship would mean never having to return to the backwards ways of the village. They could become modern.

There is, however, a key difference between the dagongmei and the Ant Tribe. Though they are both described as flows, the former are imagined to be a class of undesirable migrants, a plague that descends upon an industrial center that threatens to contaminate the area with their unrefined presence. Conversely the Ants are trying to do something that will ‘actually’ benefit society.

In all this, Lian Si seems to neglect gender. Like actual ants, in his mind there is little to tell them apart from one another.

The reach of the impact that the Ant Tribe will have on the social and political landscape is not limited to their recent emergence. They are also some of the first children born under the One-Child Policy. As such,  they have a perspective that is completely different from that of their elders, and they are faced with a different set of responsibilities – particularly the most important responsibility of elder care.

In the past, Confucian tradition dictated that sons ensure that the needs of their parents were met, since daughters would join her husband’s family and shoulder the primary burden of caring for his parents. With the advent of the One-Child Policy, the government began an aggressive campaign to foster the belief that daughters were just as valuable as sons, that they could still be able to care for their own parents after they got married. And the daughters believed it. They were encouraged to pursue realms previously inaccessible, such as education and careers, rather than be brought up on the premise that their primary social function was that of reproduction. While there are those in the US and elsewhere in the Global North who would demonize the policy for its strict controls over bodily autonomy (and often failing to turn that same gaze upon their own social systems), many woman who now comprise the Ant Tribe view the policy as integral to their own personal achievements. Where their mothers were told that they were responsible for holding up half the sky, the daughters thought that they actually could.

Despite all this, these women are still held within a rigid construct of feminine performance and presence. Part of this is domestic labor. Many of their parents had already sacrificed their savings so that their child could get the chance at social mobility, either through factories or universities. The daughters felt that they needed to be able to care for their parents, since they were getting older. And then there weren’t any jobs to be had.

Some did what they could, like the young graduate student. Sometimes it just isn’t enough. While members of the Ant Tribe struggle to provide support themselves, their roommates, and their families, Chinese bloggers fear that these young individuals will not be able to find someone to marry, since marriage is conditional on having privacy between partners and on the idea that the husband will be able to support his wife. Without marriage there can be no reproduction and without reproduction there will be no one to care for them as they age. In a move common to US beliefs about poverty, a hostess of a day-time talk show asked several female Ants if they had considered marriage as a pathway out of their condition. It is perhaps telling that none of the women thought that was a possibility.

In the next article, The Sexless Class, I will explore the shift from revolutionary comrades to gendered partners and how this relates to the anxiety over the sexual capacities of the Ant Tribe. Until then, I welcome any insight, thoughts, or questions on the topic.


(Photo Credit: ChinaHush)

(Re)Producing Gender: Being-Temporary

In June of 2009, a young woman was out celebrating her college acceptance with two police officers she apparently knew. They proceeded to get her drunk, take her to a hotel, and then they took turns raping her. On October 27, they were sentenced. It is at this point that the series of events takes an interesting turn – the judge decided to sentence them each to only three years as he viewed their crime as “temporary” – there was no evidence of premeditation and all parties involved were ‘appropriately’ apologetic.  A lawyer from Zhejiang Hai Hao Law Firm  explained that under normal circumstances, when two or more people rape another, it is generally referred to as gang rape, and that under existing law “they should have been sentenced to more than a decade in prison, life imprisonment or death, which has a significant difference from their three-year term.”

Understandably, this grotesque judgment has unleashed a fury of criticisms. The outcry has been so loud that even the paragon of global feminism and progressive politics, the Wall Street Journal, took notice.

It would be accurate to situate this whole series of events within the rot of corruption that plagues nearly every system where the law and the enforcement of that law are part of the same apparatus. It would be equally accurate to attribute this to misogyny, another case where the woman was “asking for it” and thus convinced the helpless men to commit a crime. But what if there is more to the story? As pointed out by Marta Cooper at Global Voices Online, it is about society.

As one commenter has added to the discourse, “We will soon be living in a temporary time.” Presumably, this means a time where all crimes that lack premeditated malice are temporary. What if it is actually this woman, and others, who are judged to be “temporary” and not the crime itself?

If this is the case, the era of temporality is no so much looming over us but rather we are already there. This woman was not yet a productive member of society. She had yet to find herself in full-time employment, that climax of meaning and value ascribed by capitalist logic. Even worse, she was not yet a part of the reproductive labor force. There is an assumption that she is only at the beginning of her own long march toward modernity.

It is in this context of value, that the Wall Street Journal’s attention comes back into focus. Why would the bourgeoisie who leaf through its pages care about rape, let alone the rape of an anonymous woman in China? The story is more than just a retelling of a method of masculine disciplining of the woman at the heart of this story. At the periphery are the dagongmei.

The same logic which constructs temporary rape is similar to the processing of dagongmei bodies where they migrate to the factories so that they might migrate into a more culturally desired representation of their femininity. For all the ways that gender is used as a tool of discipline for these woman (and the woman) the masculinized domination receives a far lesser sentence, which is useful knowledge when much of the economy has been made in China.

Labor, of either the physical or intellectual variety, has been constructed as temporary so as to deskill and devalue the efforts. Being-temporary means being-replaceable. On this scale, there is a necessary regulation of identities to ensure enough of a cold conformity that there is little difference between the models. To vary from this regulation is to be unproductive. And unproductivity is the greatest sin under this contemporary logic of capitalism.

As far as this particular brand of logic is concerned, these little sisters have no real identity of their own prior to being inserted into the factory process where they (re)make themselves into something that has concrete use value in place of what was before only the potential for it. This something is the simulacrum of femininity that Kristeva articulates in her observations on female sexuality. The value of a woman’s body is her potential to (re)produce the commodities of desire.

As far as this logic of capitalism is concerned, what is the value of a woman’s body to the system? In “The Arcane of Reproduction” Leopoldina Fortunati identifies that there are really only to possibilities which have been made ‘natural,’ and hence invisible, by this system which has largely reduced human interactions into questions of exchange and value – housework and prostitution. This creates two worlds of gender, one where there is a partner who sells their labor to capital while the other partner sells their labor to the reproduction of social norms adhered to by the State (and the reproduction of the State itself) is one the causes of the compulsory heterosexuality within the structures of the nuclear family (pg 24).

Is this the source of the self-fulfilling prophecy that is being-temporary? Have our collective bodies and identities become so regulated, commodified, and instrumentalized that there is no alternative to other that to be temporary until the time that we become domestic?

Then again, it really could just be corruption and misogyny.

I don’t know but I must admit that the outcry gives me hope. Even if it is only temporary.

(Image Credit: China Digital Space)

(Re)Producing Gender: Commodities of Desire

The identity of dagongmei, or little sisters, is faced with a number of ideological expectations of femininity fueled by desires of production and reproduction. However, it would be a mistake to assume that the desires are not always the women’s own yearning.  That migrating to the sweat shops of the export processing zones will require the exploitation of their bodies and their labor is public and popular knowledge. The dagongmei know what they are getting into when they begin their journey toward the modernity that has been denied to their village.

What, exactly, is this vague modernity that is so valuable? That’s hard to answer definitively, but whatever it is, it is the total opposite of what it means to be rural – the negative social reflection of what it is not. “The capitalist machine represents rural people as incomplete, as lacking, and they begin to see themselves as such.” They cannot separate this lack from their social presentation and their social location.

Ironically, there is (or, at least recently, was) an entire industry of cultural tourism where the more affluent members of society would vacation in quaint rural villages to remind themselves of the simplicity of country life as compared to the trials of modern life. Of course the sights they desired to see had nothing to do with reality. There is no social value in actually existing within those conditions, only in being able to consume the commodified simulacrum. As Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari point out in Anti-Oedipus, “Capitalism institutes or restores all sorts of residual and artificial, imaginary, or symbolic territorialities, thereby attempting, as best it can, to recode, to rechannel persons who have been defined in terms of abstract quantities . . . The real is not impossible; it is simply more and more artificial.”

Dagongmei are always faced with the realities that they must work against the conceptions of their gender and their village. These realities serve as a point of discipline. Work just a little harder for a while, and this latest fashion will provide modernity. Be more feminine, and maybe the male supervisors will offer a job off the production line which pays more and hence hold greater possibilities for the modernity that is lacked. But, these “opportunities” are threatened by any perceived resurgence of ruralness, foreignness to the ways of modernity.

This ideology is prevalent in capitalist mythology. The Other from a place that is not modern, can achieve membership to the collective sense of Self if they work hard enough. But the thing is, they never can. No amount of nail polish or fashion can allow them to escape the stigma of their rough hands and rough feet. By the standards of those who already exist within the center, there will always be something that identifies them as not belonging to their social order. To be a subject, in capitalist mythology, is to be a consumer.

Migration into dagongmei might allow the women to consume certain commodities that they would have otherwise not have had access to, but it is nearly impossible for them to achieve the level of consumption needed to grant them full citizenship.

Beyond the personal consumption of a transformation into a more feminine consumer subject, they often also seek to augment their potential within the domestic sphere – some of the most frequently desired commodities are washing machines and rice cookers. These same commodities of desire are potentially produced by other dagongmei in different factories, each pursuing her own path toward modernity through the appropriation of seemingly feudal ideas of what it means to be “good” woman.

In this way, the reality is that gong ren, the ostensibly genderless working people, was always an illusion. Though their paid labor was not gendered, like most women, their labor within the home most certainly was. They know all to well what is expected of their gender back home, and they know what these same commodities of desire will mean to that reality. There are substantial cultural inertias which variously define what it means to be a “good” woman. Modernity, as it exists now, is a trade between choices of domesticity.

Either way, their labor (re)produces and consumes a commodified femininity that can then be consumed by others who hold even more capitalist subjectivity and citizenship.

This is another of the episodic and contradictory contradictions within capitalist logic. On the one hand, the women seek to liberate themselves from their lives of subsistence farming by inserting their bodies into the factory process. The memory of what awaits them, if they fail on their road to modernity, ensures that they will submit to the conditions of their labor. On the other hand, this submission requires an acceptance of conditions, ideologies, and regimens that they would not have been subjected to otherwise. They liberate themselves through a different oppression and they oppress themselves in the quest for liberation.  Moreover, they actively choose this path.

(Image Credit: China Hush)

(Re)Producing Gender: The paradox of China’s feminine labor

Dagongmei in south China

Last week, The People’s Republic of China celebrated the 60th anniversary of its successful revolution. To commemorate the occasion, the Empire State building was aglow with the red and yellow of markings of the Communist Party. This, in itself, is not overly spectacular, since the lights regularly highlight days of importance for other nations. What is more interesting, are the implicit subtleties.

It is no secret that the endeavors of the Empire have been made possible in whole by the efforts of the Chinese Communist Party, to the extent that they have paid heavily into the US Treasury in the wake of the “crisis” of globalized capitalism. It should equally be no secret that our era of insatiable consumerism has been built upon the low-cost Chinese labor force. And cheap labor is almost always gendered in the feminine.

Before the era of “reform,” there is no way that this could have been possible as there was no such thing as gendered labor. All workers were regarded as the genderless gongren, working people. Official rhetoric told women that they could hold up half the sky, and they were expected to do just that (often with disastrous results). But then, things began to change. The role of women (d)evolved from unspecified comrades to subordinates. They became dagongmei, little sisters who sell their labor. The new identity is not only gendered, but it also designates status, since a little sister is explicitly single and younger. Their employment is regarded as temporary, with the tacit understanding that the job is only designed to last until they found a husband. Like their labor, their lives are transient – most of the dagongmei are migrants from the rural reaches of China.

The individual reasons for migration are as diverse as the cultural bodies coming into the export processing zones, their migration patterns forming their own transnational communities within a singular border. Some are environmental refugees, others are looking for an escape from village life. Some are fleeing forced marriages. Others go to the factories to send back remittances so that their siblings can get an education that has potentially been denied to them, or to fund their own educations. Ultimately, the goal is the same. To produce. The result is also ultimately the same – the social and ideological conditions which led to their migration are reproduced by their labor for continuing generations.

While the factories are producing the various commodities, they are also (re)producing an equally commodified hyper-sexualized femininity. This commodified identity that seems to go hand in hand with the schizophrenic logic of capitalism, the logic of an episodic and contradictory existence that is required to be a good cog in the great social machine. This logic is particularly interesting, and contradictory, in China since the nation is still to some extent guided by Marxist principles.

In exchange for their time, migrant women receive discipline in submission and training in urban modernity so that they may change their social registration ironically, through marriage. Only this time the marriage is to a modern urbanite, rather than a village boy. This matters because social services and potential jobs derive from the locale in which an individual’s home is registered.

Dagongmei are encouraged by both their peers and aspirations to spend their salaries on make-up, clothes, and public socializing. The ideological subtext is that sexualization and modernization will allow them to escape the stigma of backwardness attached to a rural upbringing, cushou cujiao, (rough hands, rough feet), which is a decidedly unfeminine trait. Or so the ideologies say. To be free meant to become more feminine. “Gender became a means of discipline and self-discipline, invoked so that they (dagongmei) would learn to police themselves. The feminine was not only imagined and inscribed but also self-desired. Objectifying and self-subjectivizing became the same process.” These contradictions inherent to the identities of the dagongmei, are at the center of the dialectical nature of Chinese women’s labor under the schizophrenic logic of capitalism. Whereas social conditions encourage labor outside of the home, the only labor available is that which will ultimately result in a return to the “acceptable,” domesticized, labor of the home. The result is that the dagongmei become acculturated to the ideological demands of capitalism, that women’s labor be understood as temporary and of a lower standard.

The benefit of such contradictions are that they present the opportunities to organically develop a more liberated consciousness that cannot be enforced by the top-down methodology used by the Party in its past social experiments in revolutionary society. Is the Party creating the paradoxes so that the people will resist and resolve themselves in such a way as to be in line with the ultimate goals of their society? Maybe, but at what cost? Where will the long march of ideology from gongren down to dagongmei lead? Will they bring their rough hands and feet with them?


(Photo Credit: Libcom.org)