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  • Markets and Bodies: Women, Service Work, and the Making of Inequality in China by Eileen M. Otis
  • Xiaodan Zhang (bio)
Eileen M. Otis. Markets and Bodies: Women, Service Work, and the Making of Inequality in China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011. 232 pp. Paperback $24.95, isbn 978-0-8047-7649-3.

Sophisticated in research design, rich in ethnographic accounts, and insightful in theoretical dialogues, this book is an excellent addition to the sociological understanding of the service industry as well as to the recently flourishing scholarship on Chinese female workers since the economic reforms of the 1980s. The book positions itself as a niche between two important areas of literature: the Chinese labor studies that mostly focus on the industrial shop floor and the sociology of [End Page 67] the service industry that uses empirical cases, mainly in the United States. Indeed, the book again proves how an empirical case with different institutional and cultural histories can test and enrich theories built on Western experiences.

Otis claims her research is about the first generation of modern women service workers. Since service work is not a new profession for Chinese women, I understand the word “first” in her claim here refers to the newly formed and immediately thriving service economy, which provides millions of jobs on an unprecedented scale in today’s China, especially for women workers. Through well-designed and organized research, Otis introduces her readers to three groups of women workers with three different behavior patterns, respectively termed “virtual personalism,” “virtuous professionalism,” and “aspirational urbanism.” These phrases are not self-explanatory at first glance; rather, these women workers’ stories gradually unfold within Otis’s detailed narrative. “Virtual personalism” refers to the labor practice of female service workers in a luxurious hotel in Beijing, where they were taught to use their femininity to nurture their customers and take care of their personal needs. No sexual service was involved, but they were required to attend to their customers’ every little request while at the same time distancing themselves from those customers. “Virtuous professionalism” captures female service workers’ responses to predatory managers and customers in another luxurious hotel in Kunming, where sexual service was expected by customers and tacitly agreed to by managers. In order to distinguish themselves from the prostitutes touring the hotel floors, regular female service workers wielded professionalism (through clothing and demeanor) as a badge of virtue to protect themselves. “Aspirational urbanism” describes the desires and efforts of migrant women workers who work in the informal service sector in both Beijing and Kunming. When these women felt severely debased by urban customers, they tried hard to shed their rural stigma by changing their appearance and adopting a demeanor based on perceived urban standards. The comparison of these three groups prompts this question: what caused all of these variations?

Beijing and Kunming have clear differences in terms of economic development, political significance, and cultural ethos, correlating to their geographic positions in China. Otis’s comparative studies of two hotels in these cities allow her to identify two different managerial styles and two distinct clusters of clientele within the above-mentioned differences. Her analysis of the interactions between workers, managers, and customers unravels the impacts of institutional arrangements, socialist legacies, and local cultural norms. For example, at the Beijing Transluxury, a joint venture, Otis found that while a military-style managerial control certainly disciplined the labor force that served mostly non-Chinese upper-class males, managers, especially at the mid level, forged a relatively more personal bond with their workers on the service floor. The brand name of the hotel and provision of fringe benefits were often used as a means to solicit workers’ loyalty to the workplace and to managers themselves. To cultivate a paternalistic [End Page 68] relationship, managers were also willing to bend the company rules to solve personal problems. However, at the Kunming Transluxury, owned by a provincial-level state agency, Otis found a remarkably different kind of managerial control of labor that mainly served domestic businessmen. There was no generous welfare benefit under the name of cost control and a vast wage differential between managers and workers, and managers often used codified...


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