Factory Girls (2008)
In Factory Girls, former Wall Street Journal reporter Leslie Chang documents the stories of young women who have left rural hometowns to work in China’s factories in the southern industrial conurbation of Dongguan.
The girls sleep 12 to a room, have gruelling work schedules seven days a week, and get little in the way of salary. But the opportunity to leave behind their often stifling rural village lives offers these girls a liberating, independent future and an opportunity to change their fate. Chang follows the stories of two young women in particular, documenting their lives with both compassion and humour, using their journeys to explore the societal changes brought about by China’s economic revolution.
First published in 2008, this groundbreaking book challenged conceptions of China’s factory workers in the West, and still offers a rare insight into the lives of millions of young female migrants.
The Good Women of China (2002)
At the start of this collection of true-life stories, Xinran is working as a female radio presenter in Nanjing in the late 1980s when she receives a letter from a young boy. The boy pleads for her help – an old man in his village, he says, has kidnapped a young girl, and is keeping her tied up with an iron chain. Xinran contacts the reluctant police, who eventually track down the girl, aged only 12. For saving this girl, Xinran receives only grumbles from the authorities for ‘stirring up the people’. She asks herself in shock – what is a woman’s life worth in China?
This narrative is Xinran’s mission to discover the answer to that question. First, she opens up her radio show to calls, allowing listeners to anonymously leave their stories. Inundated, she then heads off to travel around the country to speak with women about their experiences.
Xinran pulls no punches and includes stories that didn’t make it past the government radio censors (the book was published in Britain), with accounts of rape, forced marriage and abuse at the hands of husbands and official figures. The strength of Xinran’s work is in her compassion for the characters in her stories, the personal, unpolished text, relating intimate and often shocking details of unbelievably difficult and painful lives.
Leftover Women (2014)
Leta Hong Fincher
Despite claims regularly made in state media, 21st-century women in China are seeing a subtle but relentless rollback of many hard-won rights, argues Leta Hong Fincher in Leftover Women. The pressure to marry, put property deeds into the husband’s name, a lack of female political representation and an absence of many legal protections taken for granted in the West mean that women’s rights are being steadily eroded.
This book considers the plight of many women in China, especially educated, urban women, who are often left in a worse position after marrying, both financially and professionally. With tales of hasty marriages, domestic violence and financial discrimination, Hong Fincher’s book is both convincing and overwhelming, complete with first-hand accounts, careful analysis, and an underlying anger about the abuses faced.
Life and Death in Shanghai (1987)
The stunning true story of one woman whose life was torn apart by China’s political headwinds. In 1966, Nien Cheng is working as an assistant at British company Shell, one of the few international companies that maintained an office in China after the Communist revolution. A London-educated academic, Cheng and her daughter enjoy a lifestyle that few could boast in China in the 1960s, and is in the extreme minority of women holding an important corporate position. But as the Cultural Revolution dawns, Cheng is taken from her home and accused of being an ‘enemy of the state’. She is beaten and placed under house arrest before spending the next six years in solitary confinement.
When she is released in 1973, Cheng discovers an unrecognisable Shanghai, where her worst nightmares have come true. She later emigrated to Canada, and then, Washington DC, where she wrote this autobiography. Cheng’s riveting story remains quietly dignified throughout her ordeal, pressing ahead with the sheer determination to survive.
Northern Girls (2012)
Although Northern Girls is a novel, it offers plenty of parallels with Sheng’s own life. The author grew up in a Hunanese village before moving to Shenzhen to work as a migrant labourer, a journey also undertaken by her heroine in Northern Girls.
Protagonist Qian Xiaohong navigates a relentless succession of dead-end jobs, ruthless bosses and corrupt policemen, while taking comfort in the companionship of the city’s other ‘northern girls’, all seeking to make a new life for themselves. Despite their hardships, these girls are adventurers not victims, freewheeling through a raunchy and provocative new lifestyle, reflected by Sheng’s fascinating use of language, which often focuses on the female form. The book, first published a decade ago, has reportedly been subject to pressure to ‘edit’ certain sections, despite Sheng warning that the realities of migrant workers are ‘actually more shocking than anything I’ve recorded.’ Find an early edition if you can.
Wild Swans (1991)
Harrowing, shocking and heartwarming in equal turns, Wild Swans is truly a modern classic. Following three generations of Chang’s family, the book documents the dramatic changes in Chinese society as witnessed by a trio of women.
Chang’s grandmother, who has bound feet, is given as concubine to the chief of police in the warlord government in Peking. When he lies dying , she flees with her infant daughter. Chang’s mother later joins the Communist’s People Liberation Army and marries the Communist official Wang Yu, who has been on the Long March. Chang herself becomes a Red Guard at the age of 14, but her family life is shattered when her parents are arrested by the party during the Cultural Revolution. Since published in 37 languages, Chang’s extraordinary, intimate work is fully deserving of its international renown.
Zhang Lijia is a woman with a thousand stories. As well as writing about some of the most hidden areas in Chinese society, her own life is fascinating. The writer began her working life in a state missile factory, living in a heavily guarded political compound in Nanjing, an experience she says made her 'tough'. Teaching herself English against the scorn of fellow workers, she travelled to the UK in 1990 with her boyfriend, waiting tables in a Chinese restaurant and attending Oxford Union debates, sparking dreams of pursuing journalism.
The revelation that her grandmother had been sold to a brothel in the 1930s sparked her fascination with China’s sex trade, subject matter she explores in her first novel, Lotus. The eponymous character is a migrant worker in Shenzhen who was originally a factory worker, then a prostitute, easily out-earning all her relatives in the village and saving to support her brother’s university education.
Lotus might be a novel, but most of the characters’ experiences and details are true, based on a vast well of research. It is humorous, perceptive and sobering, following women caught in the conflict of China’s traditions and modern demands. This is a darker version of Leslie Chang’s Factory Girls, the bitter side of life for those migrant workers who fall out of the factory and into brothels.
One Child (2016)
The publication of One Child came around the same time that the Chinese government officially ended its decades-long One Child Policy. However as Fong makes clear in her book, the consequences of that period will outlast the legal framework, as families still prefer to have one child, and often wish for that child to be a boy.
The UN gave its first ever population award to China in 1983, Fong notes, while examining the particular ruthlessness of the Chinese policy. Local officials driven by population targets resorted to often brutal measures to control childbirths, including forced abortions and sterilisations. Fong argues that that policy was not just violent, but that it was unnecessary as families tend to have less children anyway as countries develop. With China now facing the perhaps foreseeable problem of an ageing population and a surplus of young men, Fong's book is a necessary exploration of what policies mean for people.