Carrying Out Modernity: Migration, Work, and Masculinity in China

Xia Zhang

PhD Thesis 2011

This dissertation is a historically and politically grounded ethnography of bangbang, an estimated 200,000 to 1,000,000-strong crew of male porters, who serve the transportation sector of Chongqing in southwest China. Bangbang are mostly Chinese rural migrant men who work as informal day laborers. Based on fifteen months of ethnographic field research conducted in Chongqing in 2004 and 2006-2007, my research examines the labor and gender inequalities that bangbang experience within the context of post-reform China's economic development and modernization. My dissertation examines the cultural logics, social and cultural forces, and the discursive conditions and contradictions embedded in bangbang's decisions to migrate, their occupational choices, their imagining of modernity and success, as well as their understanding of masculinity. It also documents the strategies bangbang adopt to defend their dignity and the changes that bangbang's migration brings to their social relations. I argue that in Chongqing, rural men's migrations are not just an important attempt to pursue economic advancement, but also part of their quest for decency and masculine pride. Out-migration constitutes a valuable approach for these men to elevate their reputation as responsible and capable men. However, the majority of poor rural men experience systematic and gendered violence during migration which forces them to remain exploited and socially marginalized in the urban region. I also argue that the informality of bangbang's employment is the result of China's labor market deregulation and economic restructuring. The rhetoric of "freedom" which is made popular among bangbang by the Party-state, functions as a pro-growth strategy that reorganizes the flow of knowledge, capital, labor, social relations, and the formation of worker subjectivities. Lastly, this research has found that the fragmentation of employment contributes to the lack of large-scale, public, collective protests among bangbang against the government. Overall, this dissertation contributes to anthropological studies of development, labor, migration, and post-socialism. Furthermore, it contributes to gender studies in general and to masculinity studies in particular by contributing to an understanding of Chinese working-class masculinity. This research also provides insights into gender and class conditions in post-reform China.