Rural Women in Urban China: Gender, Migration, and Social Change
Huang, Xin, Journal of East Asian Studies
Rural Women in Urban China: Gender, Migration, and Social Change. By Tamara Jacka. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2006. 329 pp. $29.95 (paper).
Tamara Jacka's book makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of rural women's migration experience in China. It attends to the voice of migrant women and brings "the margins to the centre" by offeting rich documentation of women's accounts of their experiences (p. 16). By comparing and analyzing the discursive construction of migrant experiences and subjects in dominant discourses of state officials and urban elites, as well as migrant women's narratives, this book illuminates the dynamic interaction between social discourses and personal identities and provides insight into migrant women's struggles over narratives and meaning-making through their negotiation with the dominant discourses.
This book is based primarily on the author's field research in 1999-2002 in China and includes interviews and informal conversations, participant observations, and focus groups, as well as questionnaire surveys with migrant women in Beijing. The ethnographic research is supplemented by text analysis of articles written by scholars and journalists about rural migrant women and by stories written by migrant women themselves.
Jacka traces the genealogy of the discourses of rural/urban difference and outsider/local status and gender and argues that the "denial of coevalness" between city and country in Chinese intellectual discourses casts the rural as "traditional" and "backward" and the urban as both the site and the engine of the nation's modern future. These discourses facilitated the processes of differentiation and constricting inequalities and justified the subordination of rural migrants in contemporary China. Jacka investigates the regulatory regime, including the household registration system and accompanying discriminatory restrictions that control migrants' movement, employment, fertility, education, and housing, as well as the discrimination, exploitation, and marginalization migrant women experience. Jacka finds that migrant women's narratives about places often reflect and reinforce dominant discourses. The countryside is represented as the place that belongs to the past, of stasis and confinement, associated with childhood, old age, and retreat. The city, on the other hand, is represented as the place of the future and modernity, of youth and desire, and of development.
Jacka gives a balanced account of the construction of a vulnerable young dagongmei (working sister) subject position by the Rural Women and Working Sister journals and through the activities of the Migrant Women's Club in Beijing. While recognizing their contributions in furthering the interests of rural migrant women, Jacka also points out that such construction reproduced dominant discourses and did not challenge the fundamental underpinnings of gender and rural/urban hierarchies and inequalities.
Some of Jacka's important findings are in contrast to much existing literature on labor migration in Asia. For instance, contrary to the household strategy and filial daughter models, many young unmarried women seem to fit the rebellious daughter model at first glance. Their migration is driven by a desire for education and a wish to avoid or postpone marriage and the traditional role of "virtuous wife and good mother." However, meeting filial obligations continues to be important for them. By preserving good relations with their rural families, they cultivate an identity that is both independent and modern, and moral and caring. Another example is that married women migrants are not merely passive dependents, as the associational model suggests. …