Inside Story

Stolen moments

Caught between their home villages and the city, a generation of Chinese migrant workers struggles for intimacy

Linda Jaivin Books 21 November 2023 1809 words

Love on the assembly line: rural migrant workers outside a factory in Dongguan City, Guangdong Province, from the photo-essay “Rural Migrants’ Love in Dongguan” (2013). Courtesy of photographer Zhan Youbing (published under the pseudonym Jia Zheng).

Love, China’s New Weekly has observed, is everywhere. It “suffuses our internet, dominates television dramas, and is dished up everywhere as chicken soup for the soul.” At the same time, it lamented, “this linguistic excessiveness only highlights the fact that real love has vanished.” To which one might respond: hardly.

But it is complicated by social and economic inequalities, as Wanning Sun explains in her new book, Love Troubles: Inequality in China and Its Intimate Consequences. And in the case of China’s migrant workers, it can’t be considered apart from broader issues of history, politics and economics. Reading this important, pathbreaking study of the personal lives of the new Chinese proletariat, we might well conclude that if love really is chicken soup for the soul, those at the bottom of China’s social and economic heap struggle for a sip.

For most of Chinese history, parents arranged their children’s marriages, a deal typically cemented by either a dowry or bride price, depending on local custom. Men of means were free to seek romance outside the home with professional courtesans or bring choice into the home through concubinage. Women enjoyed no such second shots at happiness.

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, progressive and revolutionary thinkers advocated for an end to arranged marriages. The end of dynastic rule and the birth of a modern republic in 1911 created the opportunity for change, with rising educational rates for girls, industrialisation, the entry of more women into the work force, and exposure to Western ideas and culture all playing a role. The wild popularity of a sentimental literary genre known as “Butterfly and Mandarin Duck” fiction over much of the first half of the twentieth century reflected widespread yearning for relationships based on romantic love.

When it came into being in 1949, the People’s Republic of China abolished arranged marriages and other “feudal” customs such as bride prices. Yet its new, purposeful culture subordinated romantic love to revolution and comradeship. By 1966, when Mao launched the decade-long, ultra-left Cultural Revolution, the only sanctioned passion was for revolution itself. With the arrival of the Reform Era in 1978, love quickly divorced revolution to flirt with freedom and eventually marry the market.

Fast-forward to the 2010s, the decade when China’s economy roared past Japan’s to become the world’s second largest. Sun, who provides a brief overview of the history, picks up the story here. If revolutionary China had never been quite as egalitarian as it claimed to be, by the mid 2010s, she notes, it was “one of the most unequal countries in the world.” The new urban middle classes — including, with some caveats, those in the LGBTQI community — enjoyed relative freedom in their romantic and sex lives. Those with more precarious social status and economic stability, such as the migrant workers who are the focus of Sun’s study, faced a very different situation.

The legacy of the decades-long one-child policy, particularly in rural areas has been an outsized gender imbalance. Which is why so many of China’s internal migrants who travel from the countryside to the cities to seek work — its “migrant workers” — are male.

Unlike in nations where people are free to settle where they find work, the People’s Republic has a strictly managed system of urban residence permits called hukou. These permits define who may reside legally and permanently in a city and enjoy its hospitals, schools and other social services. The hardworking villagers who build China’s fast trains and gleaming office blocks, keep its assembly lines humming, deliver its meals and packages, and cook, clean and otherwise serve the middle classes and their businesses don’t for the most part have the right to settle in the city or send their children to schools near where they work.

They’re not an insignificant portion of the population. Before pandemic lockdowns returned most of them to their hometowns for a spell, they numbered 286 million. That’s about a fifth of China’s population. This makes Sun’s close look at how social and economic inequality affects their lives — and at the interdependent structures of capitalism, patriarchy and state socialism that reinforce these inequalities — essential reading for anyone interested in a deeper understanding of China today.

By the mid 2010s, when Sun began her field research, many of the migrants she met belonged to a second generation, born in the 1990s. The first, born in the eighties or earlier, typically retained stronger ties to their home villages, to which they planned to retire. Many were already married when they set out for the cities. The second generation, which includes children of the first, enjoy a less certain identity, caught between home villages to which they lack strong emotional connection and the cities whose urban and consumerist dreams they have absorbed while lacking the means to realise them.

They are thus more or less permanently migratory, mobile mainly in a lateral, geographic sense. With hard work — and most of their work is punishingly hard — they can improve their situation. Buying a flat in a township close to their village, where they can live with their children (typically farmed out to grandparents in the meantime) is a common aspiration. But the difficulty of obtaining an urban hukou means they have only limited hopes of joining the urban middle classes.

Those middle classes, in turn, regard them with a mix of conditional appreciation, distaste and fear. Sun notes that the Communist Party itself, for all its trumpeted and historical proletarian affinities, shares the middle-class unease at the “perceived threat” this majority-male cohort poses “to public health, moral order and social stability.” A key source of anxiety centres on the sexual desires of a floating single-male population, and the ancillary underground prostitution industry, involving migrant women, that has sprung up to service them. Many of the migrant workers (including sex workers) with whom Sun has spoken appear to have internalised this shame, knowing that they may be (however unfairly) perceived as living on the moral as well as economic margins.

I recall when migrant workers first began appearing in the cities in significant numbers in the 1990s. Friends in Beijing and Shanghai expressed what seemed to be outsized fears of these mostly male workers, whom they believed capable of the most heinous crimes. It was reminiscent of the eighteenth-century “soulstealers” panic, when mass hysteria grew around the idea that sorcerers disguised as itinerants were clipping the ends of men’s queues for dark rites that allowed them to steal the men’s souls. As Philip A. Kuhn wrote in Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768, such apprehensions reveal much about a society’s structure and internal tensions.

Researching Love Troubles, Sun cultivated relationships with workers at the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen, speaking to them at length and over the years to be able to present nuanced portraits of their lives. There’s PC, for example, witty, vivacious and talkative, whose two children live with different sets of grandparents back home. She is constantly arguing with her husband about his gambling habit — not an uncommon vice among migrant workers. He infuriated her by secretly giving away half a year’s wages to his nephew, another gambler, while she was slaving on the assembly line to buy a three-bedroom apartment in a township near their hometown. She became a campaigner against domestic violence and a labour activist with links to a local NGO involved in workers’ rights. As her NGO-backed struggles with Foxconn’s management accelerated, her husband’s support for her activism helped them reconcile.

PC’s story is just one of many personal accounts threaded through this book, deftly contextualised and considered through the lens of ethnographic and other theories. The examples illuminate not just the variety of migrant experience but also issues including “male grievance” among the involuntarily single (and often celibate) members of the migrant labour force; the cohort’s higher-than-normal divorce rates; the “dark intimacy” of prostitution, exploitation and abuse; and how women especially typically face “compromises” rather than “choices” in their intimate lives.

Among the many intriguing subjects tackled in Love Troubles is the politics of romantic imagery. Sun begins the book with a description of her first meeting with some of the workers who would become her long-term informants. She thought to break the ice by asking about their favourite love stories. Some of the men openly scoffed at the idea, saying there was no such thing as true love. Then one of them began talking about the film Titanic. This drew the group into passionate discussion.

What most resonated with them was the fantasy of a poor working-class boy being loved by a rich girl — and how it was doomed to a tragic end, as they felt it certainly would be in China. One young woman, meanwhile, was most struck by the fact that following the death of her true love the heroine was nonetheless free to find happiness with another man, whereas traditional Chinese mores would have condemned her for not remaining chaste and “virtuously” true to his memory.

Other types of romantic imagery discussed by Sun include migrant workers’ self-portraiture in photography and literature, the culture of wedding photography (including a controversial artistic intervention in which an urban photographer posed migrant couples dressed in wedding clothes inside the factories where they worked), and documentaries produced by state media that portray workers’ relationships as unfolding within a broader China Dream narrative of hard work towards a brighter future.

The workers’ responses to such imagery often contrast with the reactions of the wider community. For example, a migrant worker published a suite of photographs of his peers titled “Rural Migrants’ Love in Dongguan.” It included candid shots of lovers, sometimes still in their factory clothes, snatching a cuddle on a park bench or sharing other intimate moments. (Two of these photos appear in the book; one wishes for more.) Widely viewed online, the series incited a range of comments from the patronising and sentimental (“how sweet”) to the moralising and condemnatory (“they’re not interested in learning, they have no souls”).

As Sun writes, the migrant workers’ “right to intimacy” is inescapably “contingent, conditional and vulnerable to violation and exploitation.” In their search for happiness in their personal lives they must balance their employers’ demands on their energy and time, frequently measured in twelve-hour shifts, with family pressures (including around the resurgent custom of bride prices) and their own desires for, and definitions of happiness. As Sun amply demonstrates, neither the men nor the women of this precariat are free from the “triple oppression” of “global capitalism, state socialism, and familial patriarchy.” Love can try bloody hard, and it does, but it can’t always conquer all. •

Love Troubles: Inequality in China and Its Intimate Consequences
By Wanning Sun | Bloomsbury Academic | $153 | 216 pages