New Masters, New Servants

Migration, Development, and Women Workers in China

New Masters, New Servants

Book Pages: 328 Illustrations: 2 photographs Published: December 2008

Author: Hairong Yan

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Asian Studies > East Asia, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies

On March 9, 1996, tens of thousands of readers of a daily newspaper in China’s Anhui province saw a photograph of two young women at a local long-distance bus station. Dressed in fashionable new winter coats and carrying luggage printed with Latin letters, the women were returning home from their jobs in one of China’s large cities. As the photo caption indicated, the image represented the “transformation of migrant women”; the women’s “transformation” was signaled by their status as consumers. New Masters, New Servants is an ethnography of class dynamics and the subject formation of migrant domestic workers. Based on her interviews with young women who migrated from China’s Anhui province to the city of Beijing to engage in domestic service for middle-class families, as well as interviews with employers, job placement agencies, and government officials, Yan Hairong explores what these migrant workers mean to the families that hire them, to urban economies, to rural provinces such as Anhui, and to the Chinese state. Above all, Yan focuses on the domestic workers’ self-conceptions, desires, and struggles.

Yan analyzes how the migrant women workers are subjected to, make sense of, and reflect on a range of state and neoliberal discourses about development, modernity, consumption, self-worth, quality, and individual and collective longing and struggle. She offers keen insight into the workers’ desire and efforts to achieve suzhi (quality) through self-improvement, the way workers are treated by their employers, and representations of migrant domestic workers on television and the Internet and in newspapers and magazines. In so doing, Yan demonstrates that contestations over the meanings of migrant workers raise broad questions about the nature of wage labor, market economy, sociality, and postsocialism in contemporary China.


New Masters, New Servants is a thought-provoking read, best suited for graduate-level courses, but possibly also advanced undergraduates in anthropology, cultural studies, geography and China studies. The breadth of its analytical approach and topics covered means that this book will be of interest to a range of researchers with interests in labour migration, development studies, urbanisation, inequality in contemporary China and gender studies.” — Jenny Chio, Social Anthropology

“[Yan Hairong] offers keen insight into the workers' desire and efforts to achieve suzhi (quality) through self-improvement, the way the workers are treated by their employers, and representations of migrant domestic workers on television and the Internet and in newspapers and magazines. In so doing, Yan demonstrates that contestations over the meanings of domestic service workers raise broad questions about the nature of wage labour, market economy, sociality, and post-socialism in contemporary China” — Frauensolidarität

“[Yan’s] accomplished and insightful book is particularly valuable to scholars of China, gender, and development studies as it draws together ethnographic accounts with relevant political and economic trends and discourses of the post-Mao era to theoretically untangle how and why migrant women have ended up as servants to the new China.” — Mei-Ling Ellerman, China Perspectives

“Informed by a range of theoretical perspectives and methodologies, especially Marxism, postcolonial studies, feminism, and deconstruction, Yan’s excellent cultural critique of contemporary China raises important questions about and beyond contemporary China.” — Hai Ren, American Ethnologist

“Unlike many other studies on migrant labor that focus on the experiences of work, Yan offers a cultural analysis of the contestations over the meanings of migrant labor. With its focus on the relations of postsocialist state discourses to development and modernization, Yan’s study shows the ways in which such discourses shaped migrant workers’ subject formation.” — Jieyu Liu, Journal of Asian Studies

“Yan Hairong’s New Masters, New Servants is an important contribution to academic literature on labor in China. . . . One of the book’s greatest strengths is its rich collection of first-hand interviews with several dozen domestic workers, primarily women in northern China who migrated from rural areas to urban areas in order to find work.” — Katie Quan, New Labor Forum

“Yan has written a rich and interesting book on women domestic workers in post-socialist China. It combines personal insights, literary skill, ethnographic material and theoretical arguments to guide the readers into the discursive worlds of neo-liberal subject formation around the tropes of development, modernity, quality and consumption. . . . [T]his is an impressive application to female domestic workers and their presence in everyday life.” — Ngai-Ling Su, International Feminist Journal of Politics

“Yan’s work is rich in ethnographic description, lucid discussions of theoretical concepts, and detailed analyses of a range of texts, and her portrayal of the hardship and heartbreak that migrant women experience is compassionate and moving.” — Cara Wallis, International Journal of Communication

“Yao Hairong’s book might inspire other cultures where development discourses strive to make humans better neo-liberal subjects than actually give them better life options.” — Frances Mae Carolina Ramos, Journal of Contemporary Asia

New Masters, New Servants is a sharp and brilliant book on many conceptual and methodological fronts. . . . For anyone who is interested in discovering the strange contours and texture of neoliberalism with Chinese characteristics, and its impact on individuals from one of the most marginalized social groups, this book is a must-read. For students and researchers in the fields of gender, consumption studies, critical development studies, migration, labor and, above all, subaltern subjectivity, this book is also a source of inspiration and intellectual satisfaction.” — Wanning Sun, The China Journal

New Masters, New Servants offers a sweeping critique of China’s reforms. It is politically and ideologically engaged, packed with insightful and brilliant discussions of relations between ‘state and market, countryside and city, mental and manual work, and gender and domesticity’. . . . [Yan’s book is] a good read for those eager to understand developments in China over the last two decades.” — Shiling McQuaide, Labour/Le Travail

“It is this ethnographic work that makes the book an invaluable addition to the study of gender, labour, class, rural/urban relations and ‘development’ in China. It allows Yan to present a nuanced and insightful discussion of these subjects and to offer a compelling critique of the teleology of ‘development’ usually given uncritical primacy in contemporary Chinese discourse.” — Jason Young, New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies

“This provocative and challenging book will be a must-read for advanced undergraduates and postgraduates in anthropology, Asian Studies, cultural studies and critical theory, as well as for scholars seeking a though-provoking account of the metamorphosis of labour, class and subjectivity concomitant with postsocialism in China.” — Arianne Gaetano, Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology

“Yan’s new volume is both thought-provoking and entertaining. Clearly, the face of a globalizing China cannot be understood without a focus on the plight of migrant workers. This book is a timely contribution that provides that lens.” — Ingrid Neilson, Pacific Affairs

New Masters, New Servants is the best book to date on migrant labor, gendered domestic labor, and capitalist transformation in China. It is politically and theoretically engaged, full of brilliant insights into the new logics of capitalism and neoliberalism in China, and packed with wonderfully told ethnographic stories, anecdotes, and vignettes. A must read.” — Ralph A. Litzinger, author of Other Chinas: The Yao and the Politics of National Belonging

New Masters, New Servants is unique in its scope and ambition. One has the sense that Yan Hairong has really penetrated through several layers of mystification to see the inner workings of Chinese postsocialism and of neoliberalism at large. And through her sensitive and impassioned ethnographic engagement, she has animated the issues with lovingly rendered treatments of the circumstances and subject formation of domestic workers.” — Louisa Schein, author of Minority Rules: The Miao and the Feminine in China’s Cultural Politics


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Yan Hairong, an anthropologist, is Assistant Professor in the Department of Applied Social Sciences at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface vii

Introduction 1

1. The Emaciation of the Rural: "No Way Out" 25

2. Mind and Body, Gender and Class 53

Part I. "Intellectuals' Burdens" and Domestic Labor 57

Part II. Searching for the Proper Baomu 80

Intermezzo 1. A Survey of Employers 109

3. Suzhi as a New Human Value: Neoliberal Governance of Labor Migration 111

Intermezzo 2. Urban Folklore on Neoliberalism 139

4. A Mirage of Modernity: Pas de Deux of Consumption and Production 145

5. Self-Development and the Specter of Class 187

Intermezzo 3. Diary and Song 217

6. The Economic Law and Liminal Subjects 221

Notes 251

References 287

Index 307
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4304-2 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4287-8
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