Made in China

Women Factory Workers in a Global Workplace

Made in China

Book Pages: 240 Illustrations: 6 photos, 5 tables, 2 figures Published: April 2005

Author: Pun Ngai

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Asian Studies > East Asia, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies

As China has evolved into an industrial powerhouse over the past two decades, a new class of workers has developed: the dagongmei, or working girls. The dagongmei are women in their late teens and early twenties who move from rural areas to urban centers to work in factories. Because of state laws dictating that those born in the countryside cannot permanently leave their villages, and familial pressure for young women to marry by their late twenties, the dagongmei are transient labor. They undertake physically exhausting work in urban factories for an average of four or five years before returning home. The young women are not coerced to work in the factories; they know about the twelve-hour shifts and the hardships of industrial labor. Yet they are still eager to leave home. Made in China is a compelling look at the lives of these women, workers caught between the competing demands of global capitalism, the socialist state, and the patriarchal family.

Pun Ngai conducted ethnographic work at an electronics factory in southern China’s Guangdong province, in the Shenzhen special economic zone where foreign-owned factories are proliferating. For eight months she slept in the employee dormitories and worked on the shop floor alongside the women whose lives she chronicles. Pun illuminates the workers’ perspectives and experiences, describing the lure of consumer desire and especially the minutiae of factory life. She looks at acts of resistance and transgression in the workplace, positing that the chronic pains—such as backaches and headaches—that many of the women experience are as indicative of resistance to oppressive working conditions as they are of defeat. Pun suggests that a silent social revolution is underway in China and that these young migrant workers are its agents.


Made in China provides a nuanced and vivid portrait of day-to-day existence under the low wages, long hours, and toxic environment that are a product of the Chinese alliance between local government and global capital.” — Eileen Boris, New Labor Forum

Made in China is an important inter-disciplinary contribution to the body of literature on women workers. Development practitioners will find the rich empirical data, which corroborate some field reports, useful to shape policy. The book raises serious issues about the development path that China has embarked upon, and although Pun Ngai frequently emphasises geographic specificity, it will resonate with development studies scholars focusing on other regions of the world.” — Anibel Ferus-Comelo, Gender and Development

“A much welcomed addition to the minor genre of studies on discipline, struggle and resistance, in that it returns agency to the worker by highlighting historical contingency, returning subject status to the post-Maoist Chinese female worker.” — Vera Leigh Fennell, Pacific Affairs

“A must-read for anyone interested in global labour trends and gender dynamics. . . . Brimming with captivating details from her field experience, Pun Ngai’s work offers a powerful and innovative critique of gender-blind Marxist and Foucauldian theories. . . . Made in China is a captivating example of committed, reflexive ethnographic research. Pun Ngai’s sharp insights are an essential contribution for whoever researches eastern societies and particularly China. . . . Thrilling yet moving, Pun Ngai’s highly accessible work cannot but convey feelings of anger and compassion toward the fate of the dagongmei.” — Marjolaine Roger, Work, Employment and Society

“[A] passionate indictment of the social violence wrought by global capitalism, and, at the same time, a sophisticated analysis of the formation of identities of migrant worker women, and of the various forms of agency that they exercise in negotiation with, and sometimes in resistance to, capitalism, the Chinese socialist state and the patriarchal family. . . . [An] informative book that will be of great interest to scholars and upper-level tertiary students in contemporary Chinese studies, labour studies, gender studies and anthropology.” — Tamara Jacka, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research

“[A]dmirably provocative and pointedly critical of the conditions that yielded [Pun’s] arguments. . . . This book contributes to the study of modern industrial labour, but more importantly, it sheds light on the desires and motivations of a particular class of contemporary women in China. . . . Pun’s commitment to the lives and social world of the women factory workers demonstrates how an ethnographic sensitivity can translate into activist sensibilities.” — Jenny Chio, Social Anthropology

“Anyone concerned with the contemporary world economy, not just those with a specific interest in China, should find this book of interest. . . . [T]he book is written in a compelling manner with evident sympathy for the workers, which should make it more approachable to students.” — Alan Smart, American Ethnologist

“Pun is at her best when delving beyond the surface to recount working women’s attempts to impose meaning on a depreciated existence. . . . Poignant and enlightening is the author’s effort to understand how women contest the brutal impositions of paid labor.” — Patricia Fernández-Kelly, Signs

“Pun juxtaposes excruciatingly revealing stories of individual dagongmei with dense explanatory analysis. This formula succeeds in explicating an individualized, complex, contradictory, and fluid worker-subject as she existed in the mid-1990s, as well as in illuminating the web of power relations that govern the dagongmei’s existence in contemporary urban industrial China.” — Karen Garner, China Review International

“Pun Ngai’s Made in China is a passionate and sensitive exploration of China’s current industrialization drive. The book is a sober reminder that the attainment of material prosperity does not necessarily translate into individual or collective well-being.” — Calvin Chen, Journal of East Asian Studies

“Pun Ngai’s book, Made in China, is a compelling account of the work and the lives of the women on the assembly lines in China’s global factories. . . . The book should be on the reading list of anyone interested in what is going on in postsocialist China, especially the life and work of women workers and rural migrants.” — Wanning Sun, Environment and Planning D

“Pun Ngai’s ethnography illuminates what is happening in China today. True to anthropology’s tradition, it manages to give both a general and intimate perspective on work in the factories of China, shifting effortlessly between issues of global capitalism or class consciousness and the individual hopes and dreams of the young in dagongmei. In that sense, I would very much recommend Made in China to anyone concerned about the social effects of globalization, as well as those trying to unravel the enigma of the economic and social transformations of present-day China.” — Geofrey Gowlland, Cambridge Anthropology

“Pun repeatedly shows that what might on the surface seem ordinary and unremarkable—young women migrating to work in factories producing goods for the rest of the world’s consumption—is instead a moment of significant dramatic tension in these women’s lives.”
— Hillary Crane, Anthropological Quarterly

“Pun’s argument is presented through a carefully synthesized lens of Marxian class analysis and Foucault’s post-structuralism, providing a concrete vision of the metamorphosis that is affecting markets and citizens worldwide.” — Connie L. Lobur, International Feminist Journal of Politics

“Pun’s insight into social cost in terms of the long term pain and sufferings endured by the dagongmei because of the high stress working conditions should not be underestimated or neglected. Even though Pun’s fieldwork was carried out almost ten years ago, this volume still proves timely and highly relevant to the studies of globalization in relation to gender and labor issues in China.” — Alan L. Chan, Labor Studies Journal

“Through a theoretically informed ethnography . . . Pun Ngai significantly contributes to scholarship that debates the uncertain direction of China’s postsocialist transition.” — Lisa Fischer, China Information

"A remarkable book. . . . A vivid and persuasive first-hand account of life in China's factories in the late 20th century. . . . Anyone who cares about East Asia today, and tomorrow, should read [this book]." — Bradley Winterton, Taipei Times

"A timely study. . . . Pun Ngai's contribution provides us with a thoughtful and empathetic analysis setting a new standard for both the value of ethnographic fieldwork in China as well as proposing new approaches to the study of social class." — Mette Thunø, The China Quarterly

"Superb. . . . [Pun Ngai's] book exemplifies the strength, flexibility, and also limitations of neo-Marsixt sociology. — Robert Skidelsky, New York Review of Books

"Pun Ngai artfully weaves personal and ethnographic experience with diverse conceptual schemes to describe and analyze the lives of the dagonmei, factory girls, who make navigational systems for German cars. . . . It is good to see anthropology and anthropologists being useful." — E. Paul Durrenberger, Journal of Anthropological Research

"Pun Ngai has produced a very compelling and sophisticated account of the conditions of women workers in post-socialist China. The book demonstrates . . . the merits of workplace ethnography in bringing out the richness of the story being told. . . . [A] great book that . . . tells a powerful story." — Sakhela Buhlungu, Mobilization

Made in China is a passionate, engaged ethnography. Pun Ngai provides us with a searing critique of how global capital, with the collusion of the Chinese state, is turning China into the sweatshop of the world. Her ethnography is a moving and angry description of the lives of young migrant women, who are the guts of this process. Through Pun’s ethnographic eye, these women come alive as active subjects who confront the pain and trauma of the social violence inflicted on them in a complex poetics of transgression.” — Lisa Rofel, author of Other Modernities: Gendered Yearnings in China after Socialism

“Right now, anything that happens in China’s economy affects all of us. Pun Ngai’s book should be required reading. It is jam-packed with richly drawn and provocative insights mined from her fieldwork as a ‘factory girl’ in the midst of South China’s migrant workers.” — Andrew Ross, author of Low Pay, High Profile: The Global Push for Fair Labor


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Pun Ngai is Assistant Professor in the Division of Social Science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. She is coeditor of Remaking Citizenship in Hong Kong: Community, Nation, and the Global City and the founder and chair of the Chinese Working Women Network, a grassroots organization of migrant women factory workers in China.

For more information regarding the Chinese Working Women Network, please click here.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1. State Meets Capital: The Making and Unmaking of a New Chinese Working Class 23

2. Marching from the Village: Women's Struggles between Work and Family 49

3. The Social Body, the Art of Discipline and Resistance 77

4. Becoming Dagongmei: Politics of Identities and Differences 109

5. Imagining Sex and Gender in the Workplace 133

6. Scream, Dream, and Transgression in the Workplace 165

7. Approaching a Minor Genre of Resistance 189

Notes 197

References 205

Index 219
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Winner, 2005 C. Wright Mills Award, Society for the Study of Social Problems

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-1-932643-00-8 / Cloth ISBN: 978-1-932643-18-3
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