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Dagongmei, Working Sisters

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Recently, I stumbled over an interesting book: “Dagongmei” (by Pun Ngai and Li Wanwei), translating approximately into “Working Sisters”. This term is used for young women from the countryside who are migrating to Mega-cities such as Shenzhen or Dongguan to work there in factories producing for the global market.

Voices of the voiceless. Testimonies of Chinese dagongmei …
… is the original title of the book in Chinese. It is based upon interviews with young Chinese working women – a collection of 12 personal accounts where these women are talking about their family histories, their reasons for leaving home, the experiences they have made in a range of different jobs, the mostly exhaustive, boring or harmful working conditions and their little free space and time.

Dreams, Hopes & Visions
These women all grew up in the countryside, most of them left home very early, sometimes at the age of 15 or 16, traveling alone to a remote big city. They were looking for work, often without having finished school or without a specific education – and their reasons were manifold: to escape traditional family structures and hierarchies mostly discriminating for girls, to avoid arranged marriages, to earn their own money, to gain some independency and freedom, to experience urban lifestyle. So they are driven by the urge to escape from something while at the same time being attracted by the possibilities of a more modern lifestyle.

…and Reality
Eventually, many of these women find themselves trapped between social traditions, demands concerning their family duties as women, and the desire for a more autonomous life in the city. It´s an emotional oscillation between feeling homesick and a sort of wanderlust. They are looking for a new role for themselves within the changing Chinese society – and this sometimes leads to a feeling of isolation, of some kind of restlessness. They want to make their own money, and very often have to accept poor living conditions while at the same time gaining self-confidence.

Making contemporary history tangible
The most important point of this book is that by these personal stories a lot of recent problems in fast changing China become tangible: e.g. traditional social structures alongside a growing urban middle class, the issue of migrant workers, questions of occupational safety and health, restrictions of the hukou system in times of an increasing urbanisation.

What I personally find a bit annoying is the somewhat “leftish” language of the authoresses, implying a still on-going class struggle, and sounding sometimes as if the social structures and circumstances during the Mao era, the times of the “iron rice bowl” would still be worthwhile to follow.

But, as already described, the essential achievement of this publication lies in the fact that these narrations illustrate on an individual level the simultaneity of contradictory and often conflicting living conditions. Recent developments in China as well as potential resulting consequences thus obtain a concrete shape.

Further bits:
Interestingly, this book has been translated only into German so far. But for what reasons the preface to the German edition is written anonymously – we don´t know.
Also by Pun Ngai, on the same topic: Made in China.
Chinese Working Women Network.

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