Abstract: In recent years, over 35 million female migrant workers have left their families behind in the countryside to enter the urban middleclass home as domestic helpers thanks to China’s latest boom of urban development and care economy. They are expected to make intensive emotional investment in their daily toils to create an enriching environment for the best material and affective benefits of their employers’ families. Meanwhile, domestic workers’ everyday struggles, concerns, and emotional needs are often brushed under the rug as trivial matters, while mainstream media tend to represent them as insignificant and untrustworthy laborers who are belittled and devalued for their age, gender, class, and lack of symbolic and cultural capital. This essay examines the ways women worker writers bring back these “small matters” to public discourse and articulate their deep concerns for gender equity and social justice. Through their persistent intellectual and organizational labor, the meaning of care is transformed from a naturalized gendered ritual in traditional patriarchal system and commodified labor in the profit-driven care economy into a networking strategy deployed ingeniously by women workers in their active efforts to build up a literary collective that pushes for accumulative micro-changes characterized by cultural creativity, gendered resistance, and grassroots solidarity.
“Everybody deserves to have their story fully told.”— Dominique Morisseau,
“The dispossessed are mostly represented by others. Why can’t they speak for themselves?”— Chen Diqiao 陈迪桥,
a migrant worker and writer from Hubei Province
Nongmin gong 农民工, or mingong 民工 in its shortened form, literally means peasant workers. A seemingly oxymoronic term coined in 1984 after China’s economic reform launched in 1978, it refers to “nearly three hundred million migrant workers” who have left their hometowns in rural China to flood into the city for better job opportunities. The figures of these busy workers can be found in every corner of China’s bustling urban scene; their labor sustaining the fast pace and smooth running of urban dwellers’ everyday lives and social activities. As Huang Chuanhui 黄传会, the author of China’s New-Generation Rural Migrant Workers has put it, “every city in China has entered the age when we cannot live even one day without migrant workers.” According to a 2012 survey of rural migrant workers, “66.4 percent are men, meaning that women now account for a third of all rural migrant workers.” In contrast to male workers who tend to work dangerous low-paying jobs in construction, transport, storage, and delivery, women migrant workers take more posts in manufacturing, domestic, and other services, jobs believed to be more fitting for their “feminine” qualities such as docility, subservience, and deftness.
Despite the vast number of this social constituent that has been the backbone of China’s labor force creating enormous value for the nation’s spearheaded economy in the past few decades, migrant workers have remained politically voiceless, socially disadvantaged, and culturally invisible. Therefore, they are often associated with the term diceng (底层, lower class, subaltern) that has been a buzz word in left-leaning intellectual debates and public discourses in the wake of China’s increasing wealth gap and social stratification since 1990s. Cai Xiang 蔡翔 is often recognized as the first Chinese scholar who has used diceng to refer to the lower strata of the urban society. Survey of Contemporary Chinese Social Strata, a sociological work, put industrial and agricultural workers, employees in service industry, and unemployed and underemployed groups in the category of diceng based on their minimal access to economic, cultural and organizational resources. Studying migrant workers’ culture, Wanning Sun proposes a cultural turn in inequality studies of diceng in post-Reform China. In addition to scrutinizing the expanding political-economic disparities, more critical attention should also be paid to different social classes’ “unequal access to an array of symbolic resources—the right to self-presentation, to have a political voice, to have one’s stories and interpretation of social life heard and recognized as legitimate, as well as to the capacity to embody socially and politically appropriate sentiments and desires.”
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1 Jessica Gelt, “First ‘Detroit ’67,’ then ‘Shameless,’ now a Temptations musical: Dominique Morisseau’s star rises,” Los Angeles Times, August 23, 2018, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-ca-cm-dominique-morisseau-20180823-story.html.
2 Picun Writers Group and Jeremy Tiang, “The Picun Writer’s Group: Part Two,” Los Angeles Review of Books, July 12, 2019, https://chinachannel.org/author/picun-writers-group/.
3 Ping Zhu, “Why Does Workers’ Literature Matter?” World Literature Today (Spring 2021): 29.
4 Huang Chuanhui 黄传会, China’s New-Generation Rural Migrant Workers (Zhongguo xianshengdai nongmingong 中国新生代农民工) (Beijing: Renmin wenxue chubanshe), 1.
5 Wanning Sun, Subaltern China: Rural Migrants, Media, and Cultural Practices (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), 15.
6 Cai Xiang 蔡翔, “Lower Class” (“Diceng” 底层), Zhongshan (1996: 5): 188–93.
7 Lu Xueyi 陆学艺, ed., Survey of Contemporary Chinese Social Strata (Dangdai Zhongguo shehui jieceng diaocha baogao 当代中国社会阶层调查报告) (Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe, 2002), 48.
8 Wanning Sun, “Inequality and Culture: A New Pathway to Understanding Social Inequality,” in Unequal China: The Political Economy and Cultural Politics of Inequality, eds. Wanning Sun and Yingjie Guo (London and New York: Routledge, 2013), 27.