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