Solinger's review of WORKING IN CHINA

From "Yan Hairong" <>
Date Tue, 5 Dec 2006 19:16:11 +0800
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Ching Kwan Lee, ed., WORKING IN CHINA:  Ethnographies of labor and workplace transformation (London and New York:  Routledge, 2007).  ISBN 9789415770002. 251 pp. Index. [I DON'T HAVE THE PRICE.]

This marvelous volume's title suggests a materialist angle on the new China:  what happens when the reform-period's replacement for the Maoist proletariat sets out to earn its keep.  Instead of the practice of labor, however, work itself is often less the focus than is the switch in mental world that these new-style toilers willy-nilly take on to earn their wages.  Intendedly or not, Ching Kwan Lee has edited a set of tales of value shift, stories in which even the novice employees (to say nothing of their older colleagues), now more than two decades beyond the market turn, still experience a decisive psychological jolt as they receive and adapt to their marching orders, so jarringly different is the working world of today from the one their forebears knew.  Status, mobility, face and esteem--goods not much in evidence in the years between 1949 and 1980--have become the stuff of the workplace.  Cheris Chan's description of the indoctrination to which insurance sales agents must submit--whereby they must learn that a life is worth a sum of cash and that the agent must milk his or her guanxi  for money--is only the most blatant example of the new mindset.

In the majority of cases the jobs themselves are novel for contemporary China;  in a few, the work itself--as in domestic service or at a department store counter--existed under the socialist system, but the style of engaging in the work has been completely reconstituted in recent years.  Throughout every piece one sees how the incessant pull of profit-seeking;  the imitation of Western behavior patterns;  and the allure of the global and the modern have recast the notion of how it is proper to run an enterprise today.  Ethan Michelson's unraveling of the link between injustice and lawyering--according to which firms press their employees to net large earnings and not to represent the needy--is a prime illustration.  All of the essays involve close observation;  a number are the product of participant observation, sometimes startlingly so.  The rich diversity among the places of business under inspection here offers the reader a veritable kaleidoscope of the meanings of shangban  in the metropolis of the modern PRC.  Experiencing every chapter in this hugely engrossing collection was, for me, nothing short of pure pleasure.

This book developed from a workshop of the same title held in June 2004, so its vignettes are vital and up-to-date.  Lee has assembled a gathering of twelve mostly brand-(or nearly-) new scholars, all of them, it seems, fresh from the field, to compose a three-part review of forms and venues of employment in late 1990s and early 2000's urban China.  The first part, "Remaking class and community," features studies by Lee herself on angry workers (but mostly ex-workers, the laid-off) in the northeast;  on a city neighborhood after the end of the danwei, by Sian Victoria Liu;  one on home renovation workers by Lei Guang;   and on sales floors, by Amy Hanser.  Part II is called "Gendering service work," containing accounts as worksites of a luxury hotel by Eileen M. Otis;  karaoke sex bars, by Tiantian Zheng;  and households, by Yan Hairong.  And in the third part, "New professions and knowledge workers," Ethan Michelson writes on lawyers;  Andrew Ross, on outsourcing;  Dimitri Kessler on the information industry;  and Cheris Shun-ching Chan on insurance selling.  Lee and her authors did a superb job of stating an argument at the start of their stories and then fleshing it out with quotations from the workers, thick description of the arena in question, and sharply analytical, admirably empathetic, perceptive insights.

Throughout each story, one senses at the very least a vague--sometimes an intense--tone of unease about the predicament under investigation, either on the part of the presenter or that of the protagonists in the plot (and in a few cases, of all of them).  Tiantian Zheng's rehearsal of the plight of bar hostesses in Dalian--one packed with violence, terror, and forced prostitution, is clearly the most searing of the stories, but other entries are shocking in their own way.  Eileen Otis's hotel staff, for one example, are drilled to personalize future service to clients by keeping track of every detail of their guests' habits and preferences (including the names of family members who are not even present), to be stored in a computer for future reference, These workers' deportment is manipulated such that each gesture, posture, _expression_ and utterance is standardized and customized to fit an ideal of femininity, class, and high etiquette.  Training includes the absorption of 19 different regulations about the young women's hair, the learning of a modulated, yet nearly ever-present smile, and the ability to perceive their clients' moods.  Yan Hairong and Amy Hanser both skillfully pit pre-reform-era styles of performing domestic service and department store selling, respectively, against the present-day versions of these practices.  It is difficult not to conclude that household maids and retail workers in the old days labored in far more emotionally satisfying circumstances than do their successors today.

This contrast between the old and the new does raise a question, one of the very few I had as I meticulously perused these sketches:  In reporting on the views of their subjects, the slant is often one in favor of the mores, ethics and ideals of the Mao years (in the care and benefits once experienced but whose loss is now mourned over by Lee's laid-off workers;  in the commaraderie still existing among Hanser's state-owned store's employees but gone among those in its privately owned and operated counterpart;  in the familiarity, trust and independence accorded housekeepers in Yan's memories of her own youth but altogether absent now;  and in the rumors of suicides by those whose danwei has abandoned them in Liu's neighborhoods).  And yet. in places (as in Lee's chapter and in Hansen's), the past regime is portrayed as "despotic."  Is there then no possibility of job satisfaction in either the old or the current urban workplace in the view of these authors (or in that of their subjects)?  My other quibble is with occasional repetition within some of the chapters, and, more annoying, what appears to have been a less than rigorous proof-reading (missing periods here and there at the end of sentences, sometimes extra words that ought to have been eliminated).

Still, this is a powerful, authoritative, wonderfully detailed, tightly argued, and, for the most part, superbly written digest of ethnographies.  Its interdisciplinary cast will make it valuable for a wide range of readers, whether scholars, graduate students setting out on their own research in the field, or undergraduates in a large variety of courses.  It serves as a milestone in the field of contemporary China studies and will surely be a model for any future work of its kind.

Dorothy J. Solinger
Political Science, University of California, Irvine