The China Watch

New Masters, New Servants: Migration, Development, and Women Workers in China
By Yan Hairong
Duke University Press, 2008

Reviewed by Katie Quan

Yan Hairong’s New Masters, New Servants is an important contribution to academic literature on labor in China. As its provocative title suggests, the book describes a new kind of labor relations— between domestic workers and their household employers—in contemporary China. Though domestic work was practically eliminated after the 1949 revolution as a bitter symbol of feudal exploitation, it re-emerged after 1978 as the country turned toward a market economy, primarily as a support for professional women who work outside the home. Professor Yan brings together history, politics, economics, gender, and China studies—as well as cultural/anthropology studies—into a fascinating book, using domestic workers as a “trope” for critiquing “postsocialist” labor policies in today’s China.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is its rich collection of first-hand interviews with several dozen domestic workers, primarily women in northern China who migrated from rural areas to urban areas in order to find work. From these conversations with individual women, we get a picture of their long hours of cleaning, cooking, and caregiving, and feel the cruel indignity they face when employers treat them with the unmitigated arrogance of a master-servant relationship. These stories are placed in a context of the boredom these women felt in their rural villages (“If I had to live the life that my mother has lived, I would choose suicide,” p. 25), their hopes and expectations for life in the city, and the conflict between embrace and rejection that they feel toward their native villages once they have left: “After you return home, you find there is no change, no way out, and life is boring… Actually in bustling Beijing you only have this little room and you don’t know people. But only here do you feel settled” (p. 222). The stories are supplemented with letters and poems provided to the author by her interviewees, as well as published materials from a migrant workers center in Beijing. Altogether they give us unique insight into the thoughts and emotions of China’s domestic workers.

In describing the situation of domestic workers, the author takes on several theoretical challenges to China’s current economic policies. One example is her discussion of suzhi, a term that literally means “quality” in Chinese, but is commonly used to describe the educational and cultural attainment of workers. Rural people who might be amazed at hearing a train whistle for the first time have low suzhi, whereas those who have been in the city for a while—and have developed high suzhi—would be adept at operating household appliances, have high standards of cleanliness, be proactive at all times, and even adopt an urban dialect. Yan interprets the social demand for suzhi as putting a cultural value on neoliberal capitalist development, one that can subliminally draw workers in and manipulate them to embrace other values and goals of neoliberalism. This kind of cultural value, Yan argues, should be duly recognized as a tool of neoliberal government policies.

In a similarly critical vein, the author examines the negative impact of material consumption on migrant workers in China’s current market economy, referring to social standards that aim for high suzhi, value stylish dressing, promote wearing makeup, and make desirable urban pastimes such as shopping and watching movies. On the one hand, workers are drawn to the city because of this exciting new lifestyle, and they display their bright make-up and high heels proudly, especially when they return to their villages for visits. On the other hand, their actual poverty and desperately harsh labor conditions belie the powerlessness of their condition and mock their dreams of material consumption.

Yan’s characterizations of the entrapment that suzhi and consumption have on the psyche of Chinese workers lead her to a critique of existing economic and political literature on neoliberalism, in which she argues that the role of cultural identity and values is not adequately addressed. Referring to the work of Michel Foucault, she proposes that—in addition to critiquing the state, ideology, and power—critics of neoliberalism should consider “how the power of discourse works its way through subjectivity and agency, so that we can better grasp the implications of individual actions and possibilities for social change” (p. 213). Yan believes that this kind of social change is founded upon individual transformation, and ends her book by hoping for the “possibility for critique and self-critique, and for the imagining of a new collective identity in the open-ended process of struggle” (p. 249).

From the perspective of labor organizers, New Masters, New Servants is a rigorous academic work that refreshingly focuses on workers and features the voices of workers themselves. Though written in an academic style that most labor organizers would find difficult to follow, the author’s field research among workers and her arguments regarding the role of cultural values discourse in political economy deserve our attention. However, her singular focus on discursive solutions somewhat limits her field of vision. Had Yan gone one step further in researching domestic workers who have engaged in collective action and formed unions in China and internationally, she would have found that domestic workers who unionized in Xi’an have raised their standards considerably, migrant domestic workers associations in Hong Kong are very politically influential, and American homecare workers—who have formalized labor relations through collective bargaining—have become powerful in many states. This additional research would have yielded an alternative perspective on the relationship between subjectivity and agency, where it would have been evident that the precise resolution that Yan was searching for—the “imagining of a new collective identity in the open-ended process of struggle”—actually takes place through the process of labor organizing.

New Labor Forum 19(3): 49-50, Fall 2010
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/10 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.193.0000008

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