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Reviewed by:
  • New Masters, New Servants: Migration, Development, and Women Workers in China
  • Robert J. Shepherd
Hairong Yan , New Masters, New Servants: Migration, Development, and Women Workers in China. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008. 328 pp.

The subject of this book is part of the large-scale movement of tens of millions of Chinese men and women from rural areas to urban cities, where they engage in the marginal manual labor city residents increasingly reject, from construction work and factory labor to various forms of service work. Hairong Yan focuses on the experiences of domestic workers (baomu) in Beijing, an under-researched topic. Shifting between Beijing and Anhui province, she describes the role rural women play in the unfolding consumer economy of upper and middle-class Beijing. Highlighting the class realities of the post-Mao transformation of Chinese society, she unpacks the neoliberal basis of these changes. Yet, in places, this theoretical critique, supported by a range of textual sources, drowns out the actual voices of domestic laborers.

This is unfortunate, because the book shows such initial promise. Yan succinctly sketches out the contradictions in the post-Maoist emphasis on utilizing labor from marginal areas in the countryside as the primary labor source [End Page 947] of China's economic development (12). Chapter 1 provides an historical context to the recent emergence of a mobile labor class among Chinese peasants, noting its links with both the redistribution of land (28) and the social erasure of a meaningful identity for rural youth at home (51). While "modernity" has become the foundation of Party ideology, this always occurs elsewhere other than the countryside. Chapter 2 describes the links between the development of a domestic labor economy in major cities with the post-1979 enhanced status of intellectuals and private business owners. Chapter 3 is a discussion of the key concept of suzhi, ("quality"), an ambiguous term that implies civility, self-discipline, proper moral behavior, and a general sense of modern consciousness. For both state leaders and intellectuals, a lack of peasant "quality" is now seen as the key roadblock to further national development (113). Chapter 4 describes the recruiting process of domestic workers, while Chapter 5 analyzes the self development discourse (ziwo fazhan) promoted as the means to raising peasant "quality" (187), a discourse that Yan argues erases any discussion of economic class realities (190). In the final chapter, Yan describes the ambiguous place of migrant workers in Chinese society; for many, they cannot ever truly return "back home," yet are never accepted as "at home" in the cities where they spend their working lives.

As Yan's analysis unfolds, it remains rather thin on ethnographic depth, relying instead on newspaper accounts, contemporary fiction, and the arguments of other researchers. For example, when she turns to the gritty reality of labor recruitment and placement, Yan relies on what apparently was a one-time visit to a recruiter in Anhui, which is followed by a description of one training session for domestic workers in Beijing (148-165). This highlights the potential pitfalls of a multi-sited study that also seeks to move beyond thick ethnographic description: the "there" of the story and more importantly the women of this story become secondary to a theoretically rigorous, yet obtuse analysis that at times threatens to drown out lived experience.

While adding to the on-going analysis of both a state and broader society focus on suzhi, Yan argues that this represents a new form of discourse, one which aims to transform the process of development into a policy focused on re-molding citizen-subjects into proper modern subjects. Yet, while she shows how this new state and Party emphasis on personal, individual development as the pathway to modernity is a rejection of the Maoist emphasis on the radical transformation of the collective nation, she does not note how this policy is a continuation of a broader [End Page 948] modernist discourse that harkens back to the 1911 Revolution. The current emphasis on improving the "quality" of citizens is not so much a rupture with the Maoist-socialist past as it is a continuation by different means of the Maoist utopian aim to create modern subjects...


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pp. 947-950
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