(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)