Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Masculinity at Its Margins: Migrant Construction Work in China

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Masculinity at Its Margins: Migrant Construction Work in China

Article excerpt

The global circulation of factory-made commodities brings issues of Chinese production into the consciousness of people around the world. Indeed, in everywhere but China itself, the ubiquity of items "made in China" is the most proximate link between consumers and the conditions of China's rural migrant labor force. When factories first opened in Shenzhen, Chinese labor was literally on display, as the city did double duty as both China's "window to the world" and the "factory of the world" (Bach 2010). In the intervening decades, the material presence of Chinese production has been felt increasingly around the world through a stream of cheap exported goods. The power of this object-mediated contact is evident from high profile antisweatshop campaigns, where activists succeeded in tying foreign brands to the conditions of Chinese workers.

Domestically, within China, it was not primarily factory production but building construction that came to symbolize migrant labor. The di- vergence of foreign and domestic concerns reflects relative social proximity to migrant workers. The massive scale of ongoing development projects provides urban China its own direct window on migrant labor. Unlike manufacturing, where work has been moved out of sight to city peripheries and factory conditions concealed behind company walls, conditions of construction work make building labor public. Migrant construction workers are conspicuously rural, working-class subjects interposed into central spaces of urban consumption.

In the ethnographic literature, studies of Chinese migrant labor have generally focused on factory workers (Lee 1998; Yan 2008). The first wave of migrant workers in late 1970s and early 1980s came from the countryside to work in foreign-owned factories of the Pearl River Delta with the limited reopening to foreign investment in China's Special Economic Zones (Ong 2006; Bach 2011). A central theme that emerged from these studies of factories and sweatshops was the highly feminized nature of production, as male bosses perceive women to be more docile and suited to factory work, leading to a workforce that is 60 to 70 percent female (Pun 1999; Rofel 1999). This focus on gender in manufacturing has been productive, revealing both gendered forms of labor exploitation and more positive revelations on the role that urban jobs play by expanding the migrant women's options and self-conceptions.

Meanwhile, in construction, there is an even more pronounced gender imbalance in the workforce composition, which is estimated 90 percent male. While construction has received considerably less ethnographic attention than manufacturing, there are several recent ethnographic explorations into the experience of construction workers (Pun, Lu, and Zhang 2013; Swider 2015). While these works acknowledge the evident gendered make-up of the migrant workforce in construction, they leave questions of masculinity and gender conspicuously unexplored. The lack of sustained analysis reflects a more general tendency in scholarship where gender remains optional in framing accounts of male experience (Connell 2005). Indeed, heterosexual male subjectivity may be said to be characterized precisely by the unmarked operation of gender, which likewise goes unremarked in analysis (Shapiro 1981). But to disregard the operation of gender yields an incomplete picture of how urban jobs in construction impact the lives of rural men. How is gender experienced across rural and urban space? How does the specific nature of the gendered workplace and industry affect lives of workers in construction?

This paper examines gender in terms of how expectations and ideologies of masculinity structure the decisions and work experiences for young, unmarried migrant men from marginal rural villages. In marginal conditions, ideologies of hegemonic masculinity entail propositions about gendered relations, but lack the conditions to realize traditional patriarchal positions of male domination. …

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