By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Susan Ericksen
Leslie Chang is perfectly suited for this journey into the heart of China’s economic transformation. Ms. Chang works for the “Wall Street Journal”. She has family experience of imperial and communist China from the 1920s to the present; she speaks Mandarin Chinese, and grew up in the United States. Chang brings intimate perspective to the dynamics of economic and social change in 21st century China.
“Factory Girls” offers a glimpse of the tremendous cultural change occurring in today’s China. Sixteen year old girls are leaving rural China to seek their future in the City. With little formal education, they fuel the engines of China’s rapid industrial growth. Chang follows several of these amazing young women back and forth from their rural beginnings to their immersion in the difficult life of factory work.
Anomie, tremendous ambition, boredom, and opportunity lure these young women into an unknown world of commerce. There is little Chinese law to protect children from the abuses of industrialization. China’s cultural history emphasizes male value and female inferiority to stoke the ambition of young women anxious to prove themselves. At home on one acre farms there is nothing for young women to do but eat, sleep, and be treated as a burden and betrothal obligation. The city beckons because it offers more than the limited opportunity of baring male children.
The drive for money, power, and prestige are as clearly evident in women as in men. Those drives have been unleashed by China’s industrial transformation. The consequence to “Factory Girls” is good and bad like the consequence of living any life.
China is not America. Chang’s book is frightening to a parent in an American culture that practices and endorses extended childhood. Imagine an American sixteen year old daughter taking a train to a city where she knows no one, has no financial support, and is expected to make her own living. Imagine an American daughter that has no opportunity except as a barer of male children. What is a Chinese female to do if her life options are so limited? What is any human to do if their options are unfairly limited?
“Factory Girls” is an impressive report of the massive cultural change occurring in China. It is an astounding affirmation of the “will to power” outlined by Friedrich Nietzsche. One cannot help but admire the factory girls of China as ugly as the reality of their lives seem to “too comfortable” Americans.