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

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)