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positions: east asia cultures critique 8.2 (2000) 531-555

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Opening a Minor Genre of Resistance in Reform China:
Scream, Dream, and Transgression in a Workplace

Pun Ngai

A scream pitched itself through the darkness of the night. It came, as usual, in the last hours of night, at about four. Yan had had that same nightmare, and she again fell to shrieking. I was awakened by the ghostlike voice, to find it passing away, and the deep silence of the night reigned once again.

Yan was a dagongmei (working daughter) who worked in an electronics company owned by Hong Kong capitalists in the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen, China, where I also stayed as an assembly line worker from November 1995 to April 1996. The firm we worked for was Meteor Electronic Company Ltd., also known as “the Meteor”; its workforce ranged from 500 to 550 during my stay. Initially there to study the transformation of the working lives and identities of Chinese women in light of China's attempt to incorporate its socialist system into the global economy in the Reform Era, I was brought to the genre of bodily politics and transgression when, at the final stage of my fieldwork, I unexpectedly encountered the [End Page 531] scream and dream in the workplace. I had moved to Yan's room because there had been complaints of her scream late every night in the dormitory. Eight people crowded into one small room, less than one hundred square feet, sharing four double-decked iron beds. This was, in short, a normal dormitory setting in the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone in China.

Relations among the girls and women in this room were tense, not only from the lack of space and privacy, but also because of Yan's screams, which frightened her roommates and disturbed their sleep. I suffered too, not so much from having my sleep disturbed, but from my difficulty in grasping, understanding, and then speaking for the scream. Yan herself seemed to suffer the least; she woke up to consciousness at a particular moment amid her screams and then fell asleep again immediately. That shrieking voice was followed by a dreadful silence; after a week in the room, I was perplexed by and anxious to understand the scream.

The silence did not bring me to a standstill; rather, it opened up the possibilities of new experiences of human suffering and transgression at that very moment. I was thus provoked to conceive a genre of resistance, unconsciously at first, but increasingly driven by a desire to produce a new genre of writing and plug myself into the current of resistance politics. I was fascinated by the thought of the birth of a minor literary genre, one capable of articulating a personal itinerary into a historical narrative and analysis. While some of the events I observed are incommunicable, and while some are universal human experiences, the incidents I witnessed in this Chinese workplace nonetheless remain rooted in a local place, shaped by a specific historical epoch and its sociocultural transformation, and at the same time linked to the global forces. The questions I would like to pose for such a new genre include:

1. Can there be an anthropology of the scream? For the scream itself that said nothing, that emptied its fullness with a high-pitched sound and with its overwhelming power to destroy language, I continue to be at a loss. How can I record the scream, understand the voice, bring it into the symbolic world, pinning it down with signifying chains? Where is the limit, the possibility of speaking for this (im)possibility? Would it mean killing that screaming desire in order to labor into being a new creation? [End Page 532]

2. Can there be a cultural study of human pain? Toward the end of my ethnographic study, I was pushing myself to the limit of experiencing bodily pain, which as a universal human experience again defies cultural categories and specific, linguistic symbolization. Can the practice...


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