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  • On the Move: Women and Rural-to-Urban Migration in Contemporary China
  • Satyananda J. Gabriel (bio)
Arianne M. Gaetano and Tamara Jacka, editors. On the Move: Women and Rural-to-Urban Migration in Contemporary China. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. 368 pp. Hardcover $69.50, ISBN 0-231-12706-5. Paperback $29.50, ISBN 0-231-12707-3.

In discussions of rural to urban migration, there is a tendency to treat the experiences of migrants as homogeneous, to speak in broad generalities, ignoring differences in choice sets and potential outcomes of choices generated by geographical, gender, and other differences. This has also been the case in most studies of internal migration in China. Arianne M. Gaetano and Tamara Jacka's edited volume, On the Move: Women in Rural-to-Urban Migration in Contemporary China, is therefore a welcome addition to the burgeoning literature on internal migration in China, as well as to the broader fields of cultural anthropology and subaltern studies. The essays in the text analyze the experiences of women in rural to urban migration in the overdetermined context of existing discourses and social settings, mostly through fieldwork, and sometimes reaching contradictory conclusions. In the closing section of the text, a direct voice is given to migrant women in the form of translated narratives. The text will undoubtedly serve as an important resource for those interested in the broad social impact of economic reforms in China, expanding the field of understanding the interaction of reforms, migration, and gender with the identity and life choices of both men and women, rural and urban dwellers, in contemporary China.

Gaetano begins the body of the text with an essay titled "Filial Daughters, Modern Women," which examines the complex and changing identities of young rural women who migrate to the cities and enter into domestic labor relationships. These relationships are conditioned by the subaltern status of rural women in the villages and their multiple desires for and expectations of income, liberation, improvement, et cetera. Nevertheless, Gaetano shows how the urban experience frustrates some of the expectations of these women, even as they may achieve some of their desires: the urban environment presenting a new form of subalterity simultaneously with the attainment of an urban identity associated with modernity (which has a positive connotation in both popular and academic culture in China).

Tiantian Zheng continues this exploration of reform-era identity transformation in migrant women through the experiences of bar hostesses. Zheng's chapter is based on fieldwork in the bars of the port city of Dalian. For many, the sexualized/objectivized nature of the work performed by these women represents the "darker side" of the rural-to-urban migration experience. Zheng argues that the marginalization of these migrant women is not only the outcome of concrete [End Page 84] policies and institutionalized relationships but also of the officially (state) promoted discourse of "modernity" and "civilization" that marks rural women as subaltern. She argues that the discourse of modernity is an instrument in reproducing "the state's hegemony," where "the body is a politically and culturally inscribed site shaped by specific historical junctures and regimes of control, exploitation, and power," although it is unclear why the state requires this particular intervention into the identity formation of rural women. Why is it not sufficient to understand the ways in which male and urban hegemony are satisfied by the continual reproduction of the subalterity of women on the one hand and rural inhabitants on the other? Zheng's portrayal makes it quite clear that it is not only rural women who are "stigmatized" by this discourse of modernity, but rural inhabitants in general, who are marked with all the characteristics of a racial "other." In order to blame this racialization of rural inhabitants on the state Zheng needs to make clear why it serves state objectives.

The confused and oft-times contradictory role of the state in reproducing the subaltern status of migrant women is magnified in Wanning Sun's essay, "Indoctrination, Fetishization, and Compassion: Media Constructions of the Migrant Woman." Sun demonstrates that state organs attempt to shape behavior through representations of idealized women serving in roles compatible with state objectives and...


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