Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China

by Leslie T. Chang

Hardcover, 2008

Call number

915 C



Spiegel & Grau (2008), Edition: First Edition, 432 pages


China has 130 million migrant workers-the largest migration in human history. In Factory Girls, Leslie T. Chang, a former correspondent for the Wall Street Journal in Beijing, tells the story of these workers primarily through the lives of two young women, whom she follows over the course of three years as they attempt to rise from the assembly lines of Dongguan, an industrial city in China's Pearl River Delta.As she tracks their lives, Chang paints a never-before-seen picture of migrant life-a world where nearly everyone is under thirty; where you can lose your boyfriend and your friends with the loss of a mobile phone; and where a few computer or English lessons can catapult you into a completely different social class. Chang takes us inside a sneaker factory so large that it has its own hospital, movie theater, and fire department; to posh karaoke bars that are fronts for prostitution; to makeshift English classes where students shave their heads in monklike devotion and sit day after day in front of machines watching English words flash by; and back to a farming village for the Chinese New Year, revealing the poverty and idleness of rural life that drive young girls to leave home in the first place. Throughout this riveting portrait, Chang also interweaves the story of her own family's migrations, within China and to the West, providing historical and personal frames of reference for her investigation.A book of global significance that provides new insight into China, Factory Girls demonstrates how the mass movement from rural villages to cities is remaking individual lives and transforming Chinese society, much as immigration to America's shores remade our own country a century ago.… (more)

Media reviews

A fascinating ethnography of the young women who labor in the factories of Guangdong, China's richest province, a land of boomtowns where wealth and scams and exploitation and warmth and courage all abound.

User reviews

LibraryThing member TomWaitsTables
This is a book worth your time.

Leslie Chang’s book is a collection of stories: the stories of the rural women who left their homes for the city, the unfolding of China, and Chang’s own family history.

Chang makes the journeys of the millions of rural women migrant human by following the lives two women, Min and Wu Chunming, as they went out into the city, seeking jobs and a better life than their parents’. She really engages the in the course of their lives as they first arrive in the wilderness of the city, following in the footsteps of someone’s “gone out” before, either a family member or someone they know from their village. Although there are risks---for example, Chunming was almost sold into prostitution---there’s no real alternative. But it’s not all about economics. Like most Westerners, I automatically assume the reason behind the migration is economics, so I was surprised to learn that another major driving force was boredom: "There was nothing to do at home, so I went out." Another misconception I had was, I’d thought that the migrants would go off to the city and work in the factories for a while, and then head back home to retire on their parents’ farm. But I was wrong (and again, it was a woman who corrected me :J); they’re making a life in the city. For example, when Min does go back home for the Chinese New Year, within a day (or so), she’s itching to head back to the city, even though she’d complained about how much work there is. Nor is it only Min and her older sister, Guimin, the ones who went to the city. Her younger siblings who are still home don’t know much about the workings of the farm, either (there is a funny moment when Min’s younger sister, Sar, goes out to feed the chickens that’s lifted right out of "City Slickers"). It’s as if the two generations have been severed from one another. That’s another surprise: the fact that Min has four siblings. Once they’re home, the boredom comes into play: there simply isn’t anything to do back home (aside from the TV), and she’s changed, home may be the same, but she isn’t. And her parents, who did migrate to the city for jobs and came back home to the farm, there’s a pervading feeling of . . . being stuck on the farm, and there’s a wall between them (Min’s parents wants her to come back to their village, get married, and start her life there, while Min wants something else entirely). There are other changes. With her new economic muscle, the balance has shifted at home, and the traditional Confucian hierarchy has almost upended. Another surprise was the sheer chaos and ad hoc-ness of the migration; it was like the pioneers going West; they just went and winged it. And their daring, how they hopped from one job to another without refrain, was amazing. There are Chunming’s diary entries, her efforts to improve herself, so that she might become someone else and thus be happy. Chang---the author---really delves into the migrants’ lives, and takes the reader along in a way that although is intimate, does not seem intrusive. She’s a good storyteller.

Chang manages to weave in her insights of China into the migrants' threads without faltering. The story flows pretty evenly, although . . . Her own family's history, though, wobbles here and there. Um, that's a bit vague. What I mean to say is, there are instances when Chang is right in the middle of telling Min or Chunming's story when she interrupts it to veer into her own family's history in China. I'm not suggesting that it doesn't add depth to the overall story, just . . . maybe she could've used some more segues in that transition. But those instances are more often than not the exceptions. She's very discerning. One of her most intriguing insights she had was, as the migrants began gathering economic muscle the hierarchy shifted from a top-down order to a more horizontal order. They become less constrained by tradition and orders from back home (for example, how Min dealt with her parents when she's job-hopping or boyfriend-seeking), especially as they spend more time in the city and the ties with their old lives are loosened. As they gain economic stability, they're pursuing their own "American Dream." Their ambition grows, and they're exerting themselves, and that's how China's going to be changed. It' won't be changed from the top-down or by the intellectuals, but by bottom-up and through the migrants. That's something I've read in other places, but Chang really puts a human face on it. I know, that's such a cliche, but she's not seeing it through Disneyesque lens. She approaches it as it is, as if, as if, I don't know, as if she's saying, "For the next 400 or so pages, I'm going to be your eyes and ears into the lives of these migrant women, and along the way I'm going to tell you a little bit about myself, and maybe we'll learn a little something about China."

It's a good read. I recommend it, even if you're not interested in learning about China. Thanks for tuning in, and I hope you remembered to blink.
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LibraryThing member Opinionated
Most books written about modern day China are patronising rubbish. its all so terrible, its all going to fall apart, it can't last. etc etc This is exceptional in its honest, sympathetic and human treatment of real people and real lives, and is shows how - just as is in the west - the industrial revolution is giving women the power to change and control their own lives, and to find their own paths. Yes factory conditions are bad, and the ability to "eat bitterness" is a pre requisite just as it was in America in the 19th century and Britain in the 18th century. But millions jump at the chance, not just for small wages but for the chance to be part of the modern world and for individual freedom. And this new found economic independence and personal liberty is changing family relations and the fabric of society very quickly.

The book focuses on two young women, Min and Chungmin, and their struggles to advance up the economic ladder, with little education and no support but their own wits and intelligence. Are they representative? Probably not - they were open minded enough to make the friendship of a foreign, albeit Chinese speaking, journalist. Are their stories typical? Very much so and as Chang herself points out the story of Napoleon's lowest foot soldier is more important that the story of Napoleon.

I couldn't agree more. A tremendous book
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LibraryThing member Megabaker
This was a great book to learn more about conditions in China's urban factories for the young migrant workers. That said, it has a very narrow perspective, focusing on just a couple of workers who may or may not be representative of the whole. I wished for more numbers to go along with the anecdotes, and for the author to draw more conclusions regarding the factories and workers. The author maintains journalistic neutrality almost too well. At times, I also found myself wondering how honest the workers were with the author, particularly since Chang freely admits that dishonesty is a part of the factory culture.… (more)
LibraryThing member almigwin
This is a magnifying glass for the women (girls) who make the things we wear and use from China. The factories mentioned in this book are mostly in one place - Guangdong province. Yue Yuen in Dongguan is the biggest factory that makes running shoes. It employs 70,000 (seventy thousand) people. It takes 200 pairs of hands to make a running shoe. One third of the world's shoes are made in that province..

Most of the workers are young girls from farming villages, who have left school and their families to live in factory dormitories. At Yue Yuen the average salary for an assembly line job is 72 dollars a month. The work day is 11 hours, with 60 hours a week and Sunday off. In other less generous factories, working through the night is not unheard of.

The world of work, family, love and play of some of these girls comprise the stories in this wonderful book. The author was born in China, but raised in the United States. She was a writer for the Wall Street Journal, but had the ability and the moxie to live among the factory girls, make friends with them, visit their living spaces and their families in villages. She said that the move from farm to city by the youth of the country was the largest migration in history.

The girls change jobs rapidlly, often lying about their qualifications or experience. They take classes in behavior or Englsh, and some even use internet dating services. They acquire lovers or boy friends from villages or cities far from their own. The parents of these girls push them to contribute money to the family but by doing so the girls gain independence and ascendance over their peasant parents.

The author visited her family village in Manchuria where the temple and home were torn down. Her uncle who was murdered during the Cultural Revolution was rehabilitated. The mine where he was murdered is now named after him.
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LibraryThing member nakedsushi
Factory Girls is a non-fiction book written by an Chinese-American journalist. It focuses on the stories of girls who immigrate from rural Chinese villages to factories in more urban areas of China. The girls work in shoe factories, purse factories, factories that make one specific plastic piece for a larger item, and a lot of other factories, but their stories are all the same — they left the village for better opportunities.

I’m glad that someone finally wrote a book like this. People in America like to focus on poor working conditions of factories in China, but what they don’t realize is that a lot of the people working in those factories would rather work 14 hour days sitting in an assembly line and earning 10x the amount they make doing back-breaking work on a farm. The author does a great job showing the lives of these girls who leave their village without imparting any judgement on them or their bosses.

I enjoyed reading the stories of the handful of girls who worked at one factory, jumped to the next, jumped to another job, and so on, but I thought the author’s own story of her family felt a bit tacked on. It made the book feel like it was trying to be two separate books. The author’s story could have gone in a separate book about families affected by the Communist Revolution.

The book is easy to read. Even though the factory girls’ stories started sounding similar toward the middle of the book (that was the point), it never felt like a chore to read. I’d recommend the book to anyone interested in the side of the story that doesn’t usually get covered in western newspapers.
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LibraryThing member Citizenjoyce
Factory Girls is set mostly in the Guangdong province of China where, among other things, 1/3 of the world's shoes and are made. The girls who go out from their rural farms to try to earn money and find an exciting life working in factories are the epitome of Norman Rockwell American cliched individualism. In fact cliche seem to be the basis for much of their planning. They are taken advantage of at every turn, cheated, mistreated, overlooked and overused and keep on striving for a better life. The book is fascinating on both a political and personal level. These young girls, and 80% of the workers in the factories are young women, come from farms where they have little power, where the living is communal, where the eldest male is the person to make decisions about everyone's life. They go to factories where they are all on their own, and they emphasize the fact that there is no one to help them, their decisions are their own. The bunk in factory rooms with 4 to 11 other women, they work 8 (at the least) to a mandated 12 or more hours a day with Sundays and maybe half day Saturdays (when business is slow) off. They scheme to find a way to earn a few hundred more yuan a month. They jump factory to factory, they turn to their families for advice but frequently don't heed it, they send money home to the farm but begin spending for themselves. They buy shoes and clothes, makeup, vitamin supplements and above all cell phones - their life lines. They meet men, they have affairs, they may not marry, they fall for pyramid schemes and they start their own businesses. They chase the American dream of personal and financial independence. I think most American women would never want their lives, but it appears more and more rural Chinese are going out to the factories and never going home to family control again. China is changing. These women don't care about politics, but the release from the power of family authority must effect the politics of the country, I would think.… (more)
LibraryThing member debnance
Chang spends three years in China, following the lives of several young women who have moved from rural China to find jobs and money and success and love in urban China. This is not the story I’d been expecting; city life turns out to be a big plus for most of the women in this book. Those for whom city life is not so well suited quickly return home, usually to try again on another day. For the most part, the women have a place to stay and are earning money. There are sad stories, too; companies close down and fail to pay their workers and women find they are working incredibly long hours for minimal pay. But the women generally begin to adjust to the six day work week and the long hours per day. Soon the women want to find ways to improve themselves and move up in the company hierarchy. This, too, is possible in the big city. The only jarring note for me was Chang’s side story about her own family; why was this included in this book? No one in Chang’s family was a factory girl. Had I been Chang’s editor I’d have saved this story for another book.… (more)
LibraryThing member PLloggerC
I just began this book, but I am hooked already. Chang is bringing us into the life of these young girls in China who are forced, or enticed, to leave their villages in search of jobs and fortune, however modest.
LibraryThing member jeanie1
Great Book. Suprised at some of the editing mistakes. Wish there were pictures
LibraryThing member cestovatela
While many books about China explore the ravages of the Cultural Revolution or the terrible working conditions inside its modern-day sweatshops, Factory Girls explores contemporary China through the perspective of its own citizens. The book focuses on the life of two young women who left their village for a big-city factory and began the slow climb up the ladder of economic success. What many Westerners would see as unbearable working conditions represent freedom and opportunity for these young women, who might not relish life on the assembly line but enjoy the chance to escape from traditional gender roles, earn money, and seek their own path in life. I was struck by how much their stories resembled the stories I have read about young women who flocked to Chicago in the early twentieth century, and even the shifting web of dishonest corporations and transitory friends I experienced while teaching English in Japan. I gave the book three and half stars instead of four for lack of organization and a few boring chapters about the author's own family history. Even so, this book is a fascinating snapshot of a country in development, and better yet, how that development is reshaping the lives of its people.… (more)
LibraryThing member jcbrunner
"Factory girls" is a good read that doesn't truly fulfill its titular aspirations. The real factory girls are teenage migrant girls from the most underdeveloped regions of China who lack both the inclination and self-awareness to discuss their economic and life situation with an outside reporter. These are green kids who discover the world, growing up fast in an ever changing world. Compared to their parents, they grow up in a much more prosperous (consumer) environment. Compared to Western standards, their world is more like a mixture of the American Wild West and Manchester capitalism. The girls, however, are not powerless and often vote with their feet, changing employers at an alarming frequency. A constant re-invention of self (including abandoning friends and acquaintances) is the theme of their life. This re-invention is also changing the classic gender patterns. Given the increasing economic resources and the overabundance of men, these girls can choose whom to marry and where to work and live. A limited taste of freedom.

Instead of the factory girls, the author follows the lives of a few white collar women. Like in the Wild West, success seems to go to the cheaters and snake-oil sellers. It is not by hard work but by accepting bribes and kickbacks that one acquires a fortune. The right connections and the suitably forged documents are the ticket to wealth. Her description of manufacturing and business processes makes one wonder how the Chinese products hold together at all and manage to pass some quality controls. While the Japanese seem to strive for technical perfection, the Chinese aim to cut corners.

Hurt, they often are in this abrasive process. Despite their economic gains, Chang's account does not present happy people but drained women in a rat race who cannot enjoy what they have as long as an acquaintance has more. If hell is other people, China is not lacking in company. A Chinese train trip during the New Year season must indeed be painful.

A bit redundant among the tales of new China, Chang includes, over multiple chapters, the story of her rediscovering her own Chinese roots (at the other end of China). This highlights the book's big weakness: Her need to distinguish her Western, American, Taiwanese, educated, rich family/person from the poor, ignorant, Cantonese/provincial Chinese. Her husband, Peter Hessler, whose book Country Driving covers some of the same topics in its middle part, possesses the self assurance to be willing to look strange and foolish among the natives. Her Chinese roots (and thus the possibility of being actually considered Chinese) makes her struggle to maintain her superiority and distance, a fact her interlocutors notice too. Recommended.
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LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
Impressive look at the unseen workers of Chinese manufacturing. Very revealing.
LibraryThing member skent
Leslie Chang, a Wall Street Journal correspondant, lived in China for a year, during which time she researched this book. Her primary objective was to gain an understanding of the lives of the girls and young women who leave their families in the countryside to go to work in the factories in Dongguan, and here she gives a fascinating account of modern Chinese life. Several chapters are also devoted to researching her own family's past.. If you liked Jan Wong's Beijing Confidential you'll enjoy Factory Girls.… (more)
LibraryThing member booksofcolor
I am currently reading Factory Girls by Leslie T. Chang, about the young women who work in China's manufacturing industry. The author, an American of Chinese heritage, also explores her own family's history as she documents the girls' lives.
LibraryThing member xiaomarlo
Very interesting! I learned a lot. Inevitably I find myself comparing her work to Peter Hessler's. Hers isn't as masterful, but then, he is kind of in a class of his own. This is definitely worth reading, particularly if you are wanting to learn about women's experience of factory towns in the 2000's in China. It appears that Chang also really did her research and tried really hard to be as honest as she could. In the wake of the recent Mike Daisey debacle (he performs monologues on stage about having met factory workers at the Apple Factory in China, and it recently came out that he made up a bunch of his experiences out of thin air and also stole and/or exaggerated stories from other reporters), I really appreciate all the diligence and all the research she did.… (more)
LibraryThing member 2wonderY
Chang is a newspaper journalist, and her limitations are apparent here. The book lacks an overarching direction. She drops story threads without warning and begins others without adequate resolution and transition. I gave up in the middle of the book when she began exploring her own family's migratory history rather than the stated subject. There is some value here, but it's not exceptional.… (more)
LibraryThing member edwinbcn
Factory girls. Voices from the heart of modern China is a sociological study into the lives of young female migrant workers in China. The book is interesting because so few books are written about the topic. However, the author is no sociologist and the scope of the book seems limited.

The author follows three young women during three years. There are no explanations as to how she decided on these three women, or whether other women were interviewed during the same period. The interviews themselves are not included. Still, a fairly comprehensive picture emerges.

The style of the book is that of journalism (the author is a journalist), so very readable with little attention to methodological encumbrance. A more serious problem with the book is that the author is selective in the information she presents to the effect of misleading. Regarding the salaries of the migrant workers she pipes the common Western view that the salaries are extremely low, and the workers are exploited. The author insufficiently makes clear what the meaning of poverty is, and that many Chinese people will take any opportunity to get away from the countryside to work in the city. The problem with a word such as "poverty" is that everyone thinks they know what it means while most Western people haven't seen any real poverty in their entire life.

Another flaw in the book is that the wages of the migrant workers are systematically incorrectly presented, and that deductions for food and accommodation are presented in a negative light. The reality in China is that China has a very high percentage of house ownership, and rental accommodation is very, very expensive. It is not unusual that migrant workers pay 130 US dollars for a bed per month: all the room they get for that is less than two square meters, and to prevent theft of their property, their part of the bunk bed is turned into a cage, which they can lock while they go out. Although communal kitchens in private home compounds were abolished decades ago, Chinese people are used to eating in canteens, where food is spooned out to them. These arrangements, while leaving little freedom, individuality or privacy are very common to China, where these terms have but a shade of the meaning they have in a country such as the United States.

A peculiar feature of the book is that more than 25% of it is devoted to telling the author's life story. There is absolutely no excuse for that other than amateurism and vanity.
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LibraryThing member BookConcierge
Audio book read by Susan Ericksen

Chang, a Chinese-American former correspondent for the Wall Street Journal in Beijing, spent several years researching this report of modern-day China, and the young women migrant workers who leave their small rural villages to go to work in the big-city factories. She focuses her story on two women in particular – Min and Chunming – expounding on the events in their lives to illustrate the plight of the hordes of workers just like them.

Personalizing the story in this way made it highly readable and interesting. As a reader, I was invested in their stories and wanted to know how things would turn out for them. I recognized their immaturity and winced at some of their rationalizations (remembering my own youthful mistakes), but also applauded their tenacity and determination.

However, Chang also uses the book to explore the history of modern-day China by giving us a history of her family. These sections, while illuminating (especially for the reader who is unfamiliar with the country’s political history), drew attention away from the central focus of the book and made me lose interest. I persevered in hopes Chang would get back to Min and Chunming, and fortunately she did.

Susan Ericksen did a fine job of the audio performance. Her pacing was good, and I believe her pronunciation was accurate (but since I don’t speak Chinese, I cannot really tell). However, readers completely unfamiliar with Chinese names may find it easier to read the text version to avoid confusion.

I read this book for my F2F book club and we had a very interesting and spirited discussion about modern-day China. However, this particular book group is made up of women business executives and 12 of the 14 of us had been to China. The usual book discussions on pacing, plot, character development, themes, etc don’t apply to a work of nonfiction such as this, so it may not be suitable for all book groups.
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LibraryThing member kaitanya64
Chang's research with young women in factories in 2003-2005 shows that the function of factory work and the situation of rural workers in urban factories has changed significantly from the early studies of the 90s. The "girls" today are developing independence from their rural families. Many are using their earnings to affect family decisions, sometimes over-ruling their parents. At the same time, their traditional cultural beliefs are becoming irrelevant to their current lives, and many struggle to develop a comfortable social life in the new economy. Chang's narrative style is engaging. However, although I understand why she is interested in discussing her family history, the parts about her family were almost maudlin at times. She is a reporter and her discussion of the workers lives is fast paced and unsentimental. The parts about her family history meandered of into philosophical musings that were not either original or particularly interesting.… (more)
LibraryThing member mom2acat
This book tells the story of the everyday lives of the workers in China's factories, the majority of whom are young women 18-25, who have left their rural villages in hope of a better life. The author also follows the lives of two of these young women over the course of three years of their lives.

Getting into a factory is easy, what is harder is getting out. Employers often withhold up to 2 months of pay, and if an employee wants to quit, they face losing that pay if the employer does not want to let them go. Most workers live in dormitory type rooms at the factories; one factory, which employs over 70,000 people, even has its own hospital.

But still, most of the young workers, in spite of the low pay and long hours, see work on the assembly line as way to a better life; it's still more money than they would have been able to earn staying in their villages. A lot of the young women are able to work their way to office jobs within the factories. Even after long 12 hour shifts, many will take classes after work ends for the day, including learning English, to enable them to have a better future.

The author also weaves the story of her own family history throughout the story, which provides a contrast between the values and attitudes of more traditional times, to modern times.

This was a very interesting read,and it certainly made me think more about the people who make so many of the products that are used here in the U.S. and around the world.
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LibraryThing member astrologerjenny
I learned a lot from this book, and found it an interesting read. It’s an account of a particular segment of Chinese culture, seen through the eyes of an American. And it’s true that only a foreigner can see a country clearly, and also true that foreigners always bring their own beliefs and prejudices to the country they’re describing.

However, given that, this book gave me a real sense of what it’s like for young women in China today. Chang does a clear, thorough job of detailing the lives of women in transition, moving from the village to urban life. The women in this book are not stuck in their factories; they have a clear sense of their own destiny. She describes their friendships, their relationships to their families, their romantic struggles, their ways of living, their mobility, their dependence on cell phones, their ambitions, and their ethical beliefs.

Throughout most of the book, Chang maintains an observer stance, although she never entirely leaves herself out of the story. People’s reactions to her are revealing, too. But she also diverges from her main theme to tell the story of her own family history in China. She went back to visit her ancestral village, and to see hitherto unknown family members. I often wished this could have been a book of its own, since it didn’t always mesh with the rest of the book - although it does echo, on a larger scale, the patterns of the migrant workers who “go out” and then come home.

One thing that’s clear is that Chang’s attitude towards China changed in the writing of this book. She discovered things she didn’t expect - about herself and her own history, and about the factory girls she was studying. And I was surprised by the things she discovered as well.

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LibraryThing member KarenSkullerud
This is a must read for anyone who uses anything "made in China"! Well written by an American-Chinese journalist who not only tells the story of the Chinese working girls in South China, but also learns about her own roots in China along the way. Reads like a novel.




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