During my time spent doing fieldwork with rural migrant workers in 2015, my primary purpose was not to glean their stance on gender issues. But as an educated and single woman, gender discussions immediately became salient in our interactions. One question I received time and time again was why I was still single at 26.
It was mostly the male migrant workers who kept reminding me that I was already a “leftover woman,” while the female workers were more sympathetic. Jiang, a 25-year-old woman, told me: “It is normal for you educated girls not to be married even in your late 20s. After graduation, you still need to establish your career before thinking about marriage.”
But her empathy was inlaid with a realistic consideration of her own situation. Jiang was already a mother of two children, and she told me: “You delay marriage because you go to school. We don’t go to school; what else would we do if not get married and have kids?”
Another woman who worked in a garment factory, Cheng, often cautioned me against working too hard, suggesting that I instead find a nice rich man to marry. I resented her at first for this obvious affront to my feministic ideals, but I came to realize that her comments also revealed a lot about the life of the female migrant worker.
Almost all of the women workers I encountered in the garment factory spoke of how they wished they had college degrees so that they could be white-collar, spending their weekdays in air-conditioned offices. Garment factory workers toiled away 13 hours a day, six or seven days a week. To them, nothing was more desirable than staying home and doing nothing.
The situation was reminiscent of American feminist movements. The demands from white middle-class women to be allowed to work never made much sense to the black working-class women who were used to working hard, and for whom being a housewife was an unaffordable privilege.
Conceptions of “work” are fluid — they change across social classes and education levels. Many female migrant workers have no experience of being intellectually and economically satisfied. They can only conceive of two poles: exhausting, monotonic labor or doing nothing at all.
Consequently, the first thing I learned about the gender attitudes of the rural migrant worker is that they are firmly grounded in personal experience and observation. They do not blindly follow traditional gender norms, but analyze their situations realistically and pursue the best path possible to a happy life.
In another episode, I overheard a male worker, Gao, chatting with a cleaning lady. They were both in their 40s and both had multiple children, male and female. The woman was nodding her head in agreement to what Gao was saying: “Nowadays daughters are much better than sons. Daughters take care of their parents.”
Another male worker I met, Qian, also spoke of his gender preferences for children: “I already have a daughter, so I’d prefer a son this time. I don’t prefer boys over girls; I just think it’s better to have a mix. Two sons would mean a lot of financial burden when providing dowries for marriage. Two daughters would mean we’d be left alone once they both marry out and move away with their husbands.”
I continued to hear similar comments from other workers, and I realized this change in child gender preference was indicative of larger social changes contemporary China was undergoing, which were directly affecting the migrant workers’ lives.
As an increasing number of rural residents migrate to towns and cities, it is gradually becoming the new norm for women to demand an urban apartment from their pursuers, which is traditionally paid for in China by the husband’s parents. Furthermore, many parents are left alone in their hometowns — they can no longer expect their children to marry within the village and settle down nearby.
Therefore, the second lesson I learned from my fieldwork is that rural migrant worker ideas about gender norms aren’t static, and we have to move past outdated stereotypes. The migrants evolve with society and real-life situations — they don’t simply follow traditions, but adjust their opinions based on new social realities.
The final attitude that caught me off guard was the dating preferences I encountered. A 22-year-old boy I met, Guo, stood out among all the workers I met for his exceptional ambition and astuteness. He has his career meticulously planned out, aims to achieve a lot in life, and looks down on other young men who are content with an easy life. And interestingly, these attitudes extend to what he looks for in a girlfriend.
Guo expressed his contempt for the typical girl from his home city: “They don’t work hard. They just want an easy office job that pays the bills, and want to get married early so they can stay home and play mahjong.” He instead admires competent, ambitious women — something most people probably don’t expect to hear from a young migrant worker.
Gender issues have become a hot topic in the Chinese media. A quick scanning of the news returns numerous stories about leftover women or working moms, but noticeably absent are gender topics involving social groups with humble backgrounds. Although migrant workers account for more than 200 million of China’s population, we rarely discuss the gender issues surrounding them in public media.
Do they still prefer sons to daughters? Do the men look for submissive wives? Do the women aim to get married and have kids early?
My fieldwork opened up a complicated and nuanced world to me. The rural migrant workers I met had sophisticated views on gender issues. Their ideas were dynamic, complex, rooted in personal experience, and showed a great variance from individual to individual.
If someone had asked me to describe the gender attitudes of the worker before my fieldwork, I would have probably conjured up “backward” or “patriarchal.” This is certainly not the case, although I suspect that these are the kind of images the general public still attaches to them.
(Header image: A woman holds her baby in a crowd at Nanjing Railway Station, Nanjing, Jiangsu province, Jan. 3, 2013. Liu Yifan/VCG)