China's Migrants Reflect a New Individualism

China's rural-to-urban mi gration is the largest in human history, involving some 130 mil lion workers—three times the number of people who immi grated to America from Europe while the United States industrialized. In her im pressive new book, "Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China" (421pages. Spiegel and Grau), former Wall Street Journal reporter Leslie T. Chang ex plores this boom that's simultaneously emptying China's villages of young people and fueling its economic growth. With Maoist-era residency rules long gone, ur ban factories, restaurants, construction sites and brothels have become locales where "almost every worker is a rural mi grant," she writes.

To be sure, this mass migration is a big and well-told story. But Chang brings to it a personal touch: her own forebears were migrants, and she skillfully weaves through the narrative tales of their border crossings—a subject that began to fasci nate the American-born and –raised au thor after she arrived in China as a re porter. She also succeeds in grounding the trend in wider social context, suggesting that the aspirations of these factory girls signal a growing individualism in China's socialist culture. Their experiences differ markedly from the stereotypes expounded on as recently as the Beijing Olympics last month, when, for instance, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote that the Chinese continue to be influenced by a "collectivistic" mentality dramatically un like America's "individualistic" one.

The migrant workers whom Chang be friended would take issue with that char acterization. They are nothing if not indi vidualistic, having severed ties with the collective units that defined the lives of their mothers. Some even adopted com pletely new names, epitomizing the capac ity for self-determination and reinvention that is often described as quintessentially American. Many migrants speak mutually unintelligible dialects, and the larger factories create separate cafeterias to cater to the radi cally different culinary customs of workers from disparate provinces.

The factory girls in Chang's account share certain traits: each moved from a village where she knew everyone to Dongguan, a city not far from Guangzhou and Hong Kong, where she knew no one; each began her time there working a grueling low-wage job and sharing a cramped dorm room with other young women, and none planned to re turn permanently to the village of her birth. But that's where their similarities end. Some women—such as the ambitious Wu Chunming—break out of the factory- work-and-dorm-life cycle, moving up to management, out to an apartment and even starting her own construction- supplies company with a boyfriend; oth ers, like the less assertive Min, make only a small step up the economic ladder. We meet women who never visit their birth villages and date only city boys, and oth ers who ponder someday marrying a childhood sweetheart.

One particularly memorable chapter finds Chang tagging along with Min on a visit to her home village in Hubei province, hundreds of kilometers north west of Dongguan. There Min struggles to bridge the chasm that separates her from family members who have stayed put, a di vide that affects everything from notions of privacy to whether a camera is seen as an ordinary or exotic object. This chapter, like all others, benefits from Chang's keen eye and graceful writing. But it also under scores how much the book gains from the fact that Chang is both a woman and of Chinese ancestry. She clearly faced fewer obstacles than a reporter of another gen der or ethnicity would have in trying to blend into the local scene; she was even of fered a place to sleep in Min's childhood home—in a bed shared by several female family members.

There's much to like about "Factory Girls," a work whose author I have never met but who is, I should note—like me—a contributor to the group blog The China Beat. But I have one major complaint: it didn't come out soon enough. In light of Beijing's mixed performance as Olympics host, "Factory Girls" reminds us a bit be latedly that China is now a country where new varieties of capitalism can be as op pressive as lingering features of Maoism. And it's not just dissidents and experimental artists moving to a beat that is very much their own. Sometimes it's a determined young migrant working the as sembly line.

Wasserstrom is a professor ofhistory at UC Irvine and the author ofthe forthcoming"Global Shanghai,18502010: A History in Fragments."