"The history of a family begins," writes Leslie Chang, "when a person leaves home."
As an American, Leslie Chang might be referring to the immigrant ancestor every American has in his or her past. All Americans, like Chang, had a forerunner who chose to or was forced to leave home to come to the States, the person from whom our current identity stems. And indeed, her personal and family history is not absent in this narrative.
But immigration is only one kind of migration, and at the heart of Chang's Factory Girls is one of the largest-scale migrations in human history: the exodus of young women (and men) from ancestral rural plots to jam-packed industrial cities. No oceans or national boundaries are crossed; but they leave, looking for opportunities, and are immersed in a culture of strangers, where the rules you grew up with are inverted and there is no one to count on but yourself.
Chang, who worked for ten years as a Wall Street Journal correspondent in China, offers the lives of "factory girls"--specifically, two young women, Min and Chunming--as a lens for viewing modern China. Cities are buzzing pods of human-pack industry, shoe, phone, and purse factories open around the clock, thousands of workers dorming within them like miniature cities on their own. People live army barrack-style and work without regulation, falsifying ID cards if they are underage, forced into illegal overtime, losing two months' wages if they need to quit.
It is a post-Cultural Revolution and strictly capitalistic era; Mao may be a cult figure printed on T-shirts, but the dogmatic fervor of the mid-20th century is gone. Self-educating and self-advancement are both highly entrepreneurial activities; in China, the "Self-Help" section of the bookstore is called "Success Studies." You can get ahead, but there are no rules to follow except to count on no one but yourself (a theme that repeats at least as often in the book as it does in this review).
The millions of young women taking part in China's migrant diaspora are certainly rewriting history. Leaving villages and plots their families have farmed for hundreds or even thousands of years, these young women--usually in their teens or early twenties--are making their way on a wing and a prayer. The cities they flee to are hours, even days from their families by train, often in parts of China where the native dialect is a new language they have to learn. They go out for good, filial, Confucian reasons--to support their aging or struggling parents, to help put their younger siblings through school so they might have high school diplomas, to pay for the house their parents traditionally would buy for their brother when he gets married. But after the liberation of the city, Confucianism is turned on its ear--if you are the sole source of your parents' income, why should they be able to dictate, for example, who you marry? And so the factory diaspora has changed even the deepest ingrained aspects of rural culture.
Factory Girls follows Min, a factory girl who works her way up gradually to clerk, and Chunming, an ambitious opportunity-grasper who jumps from industry to industry in a highly dramatic roller coaster of fortunes, as they navigate the traps and treats of Dongguan, an industrial city of perhaps 10 million people in Guangdong, Southern China. Along the way, Chang touches upon such interesting topics as speed-dating for busy city workers, personal advancement schemes like learning English by assembly line, and returning to the countryside for rural New Year and wedding celebrations. It is a multifaceted portrayal, and one that is respectful on a personal level. It is clear Chang feels great sympathy for the women she follows, if not, perhaps, for the institutions in which they struggle for breakthrough.
The book is highly readable, despite the fact that Chang gracefully breaks many rules of nonfiction book composition. She has unapologetically pastes her own family's story alongside those of Chunming and Min, allowing the Zhang family story to stand in for the first half of China's 20th-century. The Zhang family narrative may be self-indulgent and off the path of the eponymous factory girls meant to be the heart of this book, but Chang's own story is interesting to read, and so she's quickly forgiven. She succeeds in drawing a parallel (albeit a tenuous one) between the migrants in modern Southern China and their migrant and immigrant predecessors. More importantly, she uses the life stories of her great-grandfather and grandfather as a crash-course in Chinese history and politics, from national diaspora through Qing dynasty China through Mao's revolution and international diaspora to flee Communism.
The portrait of China painted in Factory Girls is a vivid one, if not always (or, perhaps, ever) an enticing one. Readers looking for a sympathetic treatment of Communism or the Revolution will not find one here (perhaps unsurprising, given the circumstances that forced Chang's predecessors out of China). Chang's ambivalence toward the land of her grandparents comes through. Her writing covers ten years of her life, so one imagines she must have chosen to stay out of love, but there is sorrow and bitterness running shallowly beneath her account. But the closeness of the narrative, the clarity, thoughtfulness, and sympathy, are riveting. It is difficult to put the book down once it is begun.