Yan Hairong. New Masters, New Servants.
Migration, Development and Women Workers in
With her new
book: “New Masters, New Servants. Migration, Development and
Women Workers in
The author opens her book by looking at how ‘the rural’ is constructed in the words of her own informants, as well as in public discourse. She poignantly argues that according to current mainstream representations, the Chinese countryside is a place of non-development that is hopelessly anchored to the failure of Maoism and of pre-Reform utopias of rural-based development.
In her second chapter, Yan Hairong analyses the complex relationships between the representations of domestic and intellectual work, and their interplay with wider discourses on Maoist and Reform womanhood and family. Further on, the author focuses on the figure of the ‘domestic worker’ (baomu), setting the social and historical background for the emergence of a high demand for domestic and childcare services in the city. Besides collecting ethnographic material from a large number of domestic workers at different stages of their lives, Yan Hairong questions employers, officials and entrepreneurs about their views and experiences of domestic work and workers.
introducing the image of the employer as a civilising
agent, the author goes on to discuss the concept of ‘human
quality’ (suzhi) in her
third chapter. Despite its
vagueness, the idea of suzhi
as a hegemonic value of post-Mao urban society and as a powerful tool
celebration of Reform China. This quasi-eugenic discourse
praises those sectors of society that have been thriving since the
hence produces Maoism as a historical fiasco. After condemning
In her fourth chapter, Yan Hairong follows the predicament of her informants in the ‘urban’ by looking at their own ambitions in terms of acquiring a higher suzhi and becoming modern subjects. Domestic workers often change their consumption practices in an effort to become more ‘consumable’ on the labour market. In the fifth chapter, the author looks at young migrant women’s desire for self-development as a way to ‘accumulate suzhi’ and turn into modern, urban subjects. These expectations can hardly be fulfilled, since dominant neoliberal policies and narratives define them as the opposite of the ideal consumer: the cheapest of the Chinese labour force whose exploitation is the bedrock of the mirage of conspicuous consumption.
Yan Hairong concludes by re-appropriating Turner’s theory of the rite of passage; she defines rural to urban migrants employed as domestic workers as ‘liminal subjects’ who belong neither to the rural nor to the urban. Domestic workers are suspended between a mirage of success and the harsh reality of exploitation, depleted by a life of hardships and excluded by the market for their failure to embody the ideal consumer.
Hairong’s argument is clearly formulated and consistently
throughout the book by a rich collage of qualitative research data
among a wide range of informants in
book represents an admirable attempt to unveil the large-scale
exploitation masked behind the façade of conspicuous
consumption in late
capitalism. Those who share Yan Hairong’s political
commitment as well as her
interest in Marxist and post-structuralist social analysis will
in her work a source of inspiration. For those interested in urban
zeal the author puts into
building and supporting her forceful argument against neoliberalism may
as her work’s main strength as well as its limitation, since
her own narrative
sometimes seems to be co-opted by discourses of modernity that are by
unrelated to neoliberal capitalism. The author’s framing of
ethnographic material and analysis in terms of success against failure
sometimes prevents her from giving a nuanced picture of the lives of
is writing about. While Yan Hairong brilliantly conveys the power of
discourse, at times she does not pay equal attention to heterodox
of conceptual categories, such as rural and urban, migrant and settled
central and peripheral. This should not diminish the value of this
powerful work that remains, in my view, recommended reading for
students of post-Maoist
Ann Anagnost. National Past Times.
Narrative, Representation and Power
Victor Turner. The