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Bookmarks Issue: 
38-Jan-Feb-2009
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A-Factory GirlsA former China correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Leslie T. Chang draws on extensive research, dozens of worker profiles, and her own family history in Factory Girls.

The Topic: With the help of a young, hungry workforce made up primarily of women, China is growing at an unprecedented rate, building infrastructure and manufacturing in order to maintain its astounding double-digit growth. Those workers are called "Factory Girls," 130 million strong and on the move from China’s villages to its rapidly growing cities—and part of what Chang describes as the "largest migration in human history." Despite giving the West a glimpse of itself in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China divulged few of its secrets. Primarily through the story of two young female assembly-line workers, Chang explores the country’s transformation from Mao’s fanaticism to a kind of inevitable capitalism where "everything is in the process of becoming something else."
Spiegel & Grau. 420 pages. $26. ISBN: 0385520174

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"Factory Girls is highly readable and even amusing in many places, despite the seriousness of the subject. In the pages of this book, these factory girls come to life. … Chang also weaves in her own family history, which dramatizes the contrast between Chinese caught in the past and those who, like the factory girls, forget the past and create new lives." Dan Southerland

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"In the course of her narrative, [the author] builds a quiet but powerful case that through their tireless work and self-sacrifice, these women, invisible to the outside world and to most Chinese, are this era’s true heroes. … Ms. Chang’s rich narrative takes us deep inside a country that is changing too fast for any reckoning about the outcome or even direction, and she is wise in avoiding easy conclusions or even approval." Howard W. French

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Chang deftly weaves her own family’s story of migrations within China, and finally to the West, into her fascinating portrait of Min and Chunming. … Factory Girls is a keen-eyed look at contemporary Chinese life composed of equal parts of new global realities, timeless stories of human striving and intelligent storytelling at its best." Julie Foster

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"In Factory Girls, Leslie T. Chang delves deeply into the world of migrant workers to find out who these people are and what their collective dislocation means for China. Chang skillfully sketches migrants as individuals with their own small victories and bitter tragedies, and she captures the surprising dynamics of this enormous but ill-understood subculture." Seth Faison

Critical Summary

When it comes to global economics, Leslie T. Chang knows both sides of the equation well—that is, from the vastly different perspectives of East and West. Her readable, compelling account of human migration in Factory Girls will open many eyes, particularly in her in-depth profiles of young women who face nearly intolerable working conditions and ruthless competition ("People who are too honest in this society will lose out," the instructor of a turnkey school told Chang) as they struggle to make their way. Chang’s own ancestors are on the periphery, and the author ably recounts her family’s varied, tragic past in the context of a story whose ripples will surely have global repercussions in the coming years. The only complaint? Chang’s own family story is worthy of its own book.

Supplemental Reading

Out of Mao’s Shadow The Struggle for the Soul of a New China | Philip P. Pan: 4 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2008. Pan, the Washington Post’s bureau chief in Beijing between 2001 and 2007, offers an eye-opening look at the battle for China’s soul—and the everyday people trying to wrest control of its future and secure true freedom.