Q&A With Writer Ding Yan on China’s ‘Factory Boys’
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2016-06-21 10:34:44

Three years after the publication of her much-lauded Chinese language ethnography “Factory Girls,” author Ding Yan is releasing its companion, “Factory Boys.” In “Factory Girls” — not to be confused with the work in English with the same name by Leslie T. Chang — Ding detailed her 200 days spent working alongside the female laborers of an electronics factory in southern China.

When regional rivalries don’t have them trading blows and jostling over power, factory boys, packed tight into dormitories, are huddled over their phones, tapping away at mobile games, blowing clouds of cigarette smoke, pushing the drudgery of their daily work into the backs of their minds.

For about two years Ding shadowed a group of 20-something male migrants from their rural villages to Zhangmutou, a factory town in Dongguan, China’s southern manufacturing hub along the Pearl River Delta. In a style part literary and part journalistic, “Factory Boys” recounts some of the stories of China’s 250 million migrant workers.

The cover of ‘Factory Boys,’ Shanghai, June 21, 2016. Zhou Yinan/Sixth Tone

The cover of ‘Factory Boys,’ Shanghai, June 21, 2016. Zhou Yinan/Sixth Tone

Ding spoke to Sixth Tone about winning the trust of her subjects, the young men’s identities being torn between factory and village, and an increasingly “androgynous” style among male workers. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Sixth Tone: Can you describe for us the process of putting “Factory Boys” together? How long did it take you?

Ding Yan: I conducted fieldwork from the beginning of 2014 through the end of 2015. I spent that time interviewing subjects, taking notes, and writing. The finished product went to the press in the first half of 2016, so from start to finish I spent about two years on this project.

Sixth Tone: What were the biggest roadblocks and challenges you faced conducting your investigations and interviews?

Ding Yan: The biggest obstacle was integrating myself into the lives of male factory workers. At first I just wandered up and down within the factory areas, and while I was able to conduct a few interviews here and there, I felt like they were too shallow.

Eventually I moved into the female dormitory, and every night at 9:30 p.m. I would make my way over to the male dormitory for interviews. Over time I was able to build friendships with the workers, and break the deadlock. Integrating yourself into life in the factories is like rain boring through concrete — it takes patience.

Between my subjects and me there was not only an aesthetic gap, but also language and psychological gaps. The interview process was akin to entering another country: It took time to familiarize myself with their slang, to explore their emotions, and to understand their actions.

Once you’re accepted, though, everything is suddenly open to you. Other problems arose because of my gender and age, but all stereotypes, no matter how ingrained, can be overcome with time.

Problems arose because of my gender and age, but all stereotypes, no matter how ingrained, can be overcome with time.

Sixth Tone: What did writing “Factory Boys” teach you?

Ding Yan: The main thing I took away from my work on this book was a deeper understanding of the ways in which society must quickly adjust if we want to initiate a virtuous cycle, both on an individual and collective level. We’ve reached a moment where we must recognize and find a place for a new generation of industrial workers.

A hundred million strong, they compose a principal part of society and will play a crucial role in China’s future development. They also have an intense desire for freedom — both the freedom to move where they will and the freedom to plan their own lives.

Sixth Tone: Based on your observations, how would you characterize the psychological well-being of Dongguan’s workers?

Ding Yan: There are people there who are depressed, but I would say they are in the minority. The majority of young male factory workers I encountered were relatively healthy and optimistic.

They are under much less pressure than their parents’ generation, which was the first to enter the factories. There is less of a need for them to send money back to their families, and sometimes they’ll even receive a bit of financial help from their parents.

However, while the economic pressures have receded, the psychological challenges they face are even greater. They want to get hired by one of the larger factories, where they can find a girlfriend, get paid on time, and ideally attend lots of factory-sponsored activities.

A couple enjoys free time after work at an industrial park in Dongguan, Guangdong province, June 11, 2012. Zhan Youbing/VCG

A couple enjoys free time after work at an industrial park in Dongguan, Guangdong province, June 11, 2012. Zhan Youbing/VCG

Sixth Tone: You describe how the men live half in the city and half in their villages; they are physically in the city, yet they remain a part of their home village’s social fabric. Why is this?

When a young man goes to the city to find work, he relies on relatives from his hometown to provide introductions. After he is hired, he will seek out co-workers from his own village to help relieve the monotony of daily life in the factory. Almost every factory will have networks of guanxi — a sort of currency in close relationships — within separate groups of people from different regions or provinces.

These relationship networks will quickly develop their own influence, so in some factories you’ll see rules such as “No applicants from Guizhou accepted,” because they’re worried about gang fights between factions. So existence within the factories is a complex and muddled mixture of urban and rural life. Workers don’t lead a traditional village life, but they’re also not completely urbanized.

Sixth Tone: Despite the intercultural clashes and fights, you also talk about an emerging type of male worker who is more “refined” than earlier generations. How would you describe notions of masculinity within the factory world?

Ding Yan: No matter their temperament, all young men have positive characteristics, and of course there are all kinds of temperaments. However, I personally am more interested in those who love Korean fashion and pop culture, the ones who dress and look a bit more androgynous.

This might be because when I was young, people who dressed this way were objects of mockery. To today’s youth, however, blonde hair, pale skin, and earrings are totally normal.

Workers on an assembly line at an electronics factory in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, Dec. 25, 2016. Zhang Zhou/VCG

Workers on an assembly line at an electronics factory in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, Dec. 25, 2016. Zhang Zhou/VCG

Sixth Tone: You talk extensively about how in today’s society girls are actually more appreciated than boys, whether in the cities where they work or in the villages where they start families. How significant do you see this growing appreciation to be, in a society that is still so patriarchal?

Ding Yan: Once you reach the Factory Kingdom, all of the accumulated knowledge and traditions of rural society are completely overthrown. In the days when farmers were dominant, and farm work lasted from dawn until dusk, males were prized for their greater strength. In factories, on the other hand, the patience and diligence of female workers has made them more desirable than men.

The female body also seems better adapted to life inside the workshop. So I think the increased standing of women is more than just a passing phenomenon, and is perhaps even indicative of a new paradigm, one also reflected in the success of white-collar women in big cities.

This shift is another sign of the way Chinese society has become a melting pot of pre-modern, modern, and postmodern life. In this new environment, traditional experiences must be completely re-evaluated if they are to have any relevance.

In the creative process, subjectivity supersedes objectivity; it should never follow. Nonfiction authors are not cameras, simply taking panoramas of a given scene.

Sixth Tone: How did you go about trying to pull together so many individual stories into one narrative?

Ding Yan: Each book is its own universe, with its own sense of rhythm and aesthetics, and each chapter should be like the muscles in a dancer’s leg, working together to strengthen the whole. “Factory Boys” was not about spotlighting any one individual’s tale; rather, I developed it as if it were a collage of different stories. I wanted it to feel like a group portrait.

In the creative process, subjectivity supersedes objectivity; it should never follow. Nonfiction authors are not cameras, simply taking panoramas of a given scene. They should be painters, using their individual perspectives to create a model of reality.

Sixth Tone: So you don’t think, as some do, that writing imbued with individuality is at odds with the purpose of documentary writing?

Ding Yan: My hope is that the language I use is able to clearly convey the places and people I see. At the same time, it is a product of my passion. In an era of global capitalism, if a writer wants to convey their perspective on the important issues of the day, they must to learn to be self-aware.

I think the primary difference between nonfiction and news is that nonfiction places greater emphasis on “literary quality,” on the individual’s inner life, on their feelings of destiny.

Nonfiction writers seek to paint a picture, one capable of portraying a given character’s fate. That is to say, they seek to express a more complex and diverse kind of reality, one filled with broader and more ambiguous emotions, all with the goal of helping the reader to understand life in a new way. Of course, even the best nonfiction cannot fully render reality; it can only constantly seek to approach it.

(Header image: A young worker on an automatic production line in a textile factory in Dongguan, Guangdong province, March 8, 2016. Xu Haifeng/Sixth Tone)