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Love Troubles by Prof. Wanning Sun
Inequality in China and its Intimate Consequences - book excerpt with exclusive 35% promo code!
Wanning Sun is a Professor of Media and Communication Studies at the University of Technology Sydney. A fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities since 2016, she is currently a member of the ARC College of Experts (2020-2023). She is also Deputy Director of the Australian-China Relations Institute(ACRI) at UTS.
She has produced a significant body of research on the cultural politics of inequality in China. This work can be found in Maid in China: Media, Morality and the Cultural Politics of Boundaries (2009), Subaltern China: Rural Migrants, Media and Cultural Practices (2014), and her edited volume Love Stories in China: The Politics of Intimacy in the Twenty-First Century (2020, with Ling Yang).
Her latest book on this topic is Love Troubles: Inequality in China and Its Intimate Consequences (2023, Bloomsbury), from which Pekingnology is happy to share an excerpt.
Buy the book with the exclusive Pekingnology discount code L0V3TRU8S -35% off! (Valid until 1-1-2024.)
In a stuffy room fitted with an air-conditioner that was struggling as if it was going to die any time soon, I found myself sitting in a circle with more than twenty young Foxconn workers. It was a typical sultry summer morning in Shenzhen, and the workers, now out of their factory uniforms and wearing T-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops, looked relaxed and curious. They had signed up for a regular Sunday
English-study class, and on that day, I was to be their “guest teacher.” The labor non-government organization (NGO) that had helped me gain access to these workers had asked me to speak on any topic that might interest the group, while also teaching them a few useful English words. Only a few of the participants in the room were already married, and there were more men than women. Most of them did not know each other well, if at all.
I introduced myself as a researcher from overseas who was now undertaking a project in Shenzhen, and that I was hoping to conduct research on love and romance among young rural migrant workers like them. To break the ice, I asked if they wanted to tell me their favorite love stories. One male worker responded by saying that he seldom watched or read love stories, and preferred fantasy, science fiction, and action movies. Another male work chimed in that “only girls like love stories,” and a third man added, “I think there’s little love in real life, so I feel it’s all fake.”
When he was jokingly asked by someone in the group whether he had been hurt by love, he said, “Yes.” A fourth man said, “All the love stories I’ve heard turned out badly; the girls are no good.” At this point, a young man, who had been quiet until then, stood up and announced that Titanic was the most powerful love story he had ever seen. “DW,” as I later referred to him, then proceeded to give an extremely detailed account of the film. It was obvious from fellow workers’ responses that most workers had seen the film, and resonated with what he said:
You all remember the scene where Jack saves Rose by stopping her from jumping into the sea? And Rose’s fiancé then invites Jack to dinner to thank him? A rich lady helps him get a nice dinner suit. At the dinner, Rose’s fiancé wants to humiliate Jack, so he asks Jack where he lives, and Jack replies, “Just the other night I was sleeping under a bridge and now here I am on the grandest ship in the world.”
After DW had finished his retelling and sat down, a female worker made a comment about Rose’s fiancé—the son of an iron and steel tycoon—referring to him as a fuerdai (child of the nouveau rich). She said:
He planted the diamond to incriminate Jack … and when the ship was sinking, all he thought about was how to save himself. He was young and strong, so he wasn’t qualified to go on a lifeboat, but he snatched someone’s child, and pretended to be the father.
Then another young woman joined in:
Rose was saved by Jack and went on to have a good life, having several children. Normally, we’d say that if the person I loved died to save me, I should decide never to marry, to honor his memory. But she didn’t. She went on to live a good life, as Jack wished.
Then a young man offered his opinion about why the story was so popular: “People now really want to see [representations of] real love because in reality, real love is impossible to find.” Another male worker agreed:
Because it doesn’t exist in real life, people aspire to it even more. In reality, it’s all about meng dang hu dui [matching doors and windows—i.e., social status]. A diaosi [loser] marrying a baifumei [rich, fair-skinned, and beautiful woman] just doesn’t happen. Which is why people still want to see it in stories.
This discussion about Titanic took place in a local community center in Shenzhen in August 2015, where I started a longitudinal study of the impact of social inequality on people’s intimate lives. It was my hope that getting people to tell their favorite love stories would shift the focus away from them and onto an often fictional (and hence de-personalized) set of moral circumstances and dilemmas, as a result of which I hoped they would feel freer to talk without thinking that they were directly disclosing very private details about their own lives. Having expected to hear a plethora of different love stories from workers, I found myself continually going back to that discussion, trying to make sense of how this engaged and animated session unfolded: why had a Hollywood blockbuster, set in an entirely different world, resonated so strongly with these young workers? My reflections on what took place that morning turned out to be instrumental in shaping the direction and design of my subsequent ethnographic work.
Given the inferior socioeconomic status of rural migrant workers in contemporary Chinese society, it should not be surprising that what resonated most with these workers was the unequal social status of the lovers. Also, the story underlines the moral (and romantic) superiority of the poor man over the rich one, and this may also account for their identification with Jack. Nor should it be surprising that their moral identification was also gender-specific. To the female Chinese worker quoted above, Rose’s decision to marry and live a happy life, despite the fact that Jack had died to save her life, allowed her to question the merit of the traditional Chinese value placed on female chastity and fidelity.
Yet it is worth noting that Titanic does not have a happy ending. The love between Jack and Rose is immortalized by Jack’s death, thereby also sidestepping the messy business of how their cross-class love might have played out in real life. These workers did not necessarily see this story as proof that true love can triumph over class; nor did they see this way of preserving cross-class love through death as inevitable. Instead, the story afforded them a catalyst to comment on the absence of cross-class love in real life. It is clear that their interpretations of Titanic were shaped by their own experience of living in the margins, and in turn they also made sense of their marginalized experience through their comments on these cultural texts.
Workers did not use theoretically informed language such as class or status; nor did they engage with intellectual concepts such as Bourdieu’s (1984) habitus or social capital. Instead, they resorted to colloquial terms—fuerdai, diaosi, baifumei— made popular by the wide use of the Chinese internet. The effortlessness with which workers adopted contemporary Chinese internet idioms to narrate a Hollywood romance alerts me to the fact that ethnographers need to be attuned to the class based colloquialisms and culture-specific language with which audiences interpret such texts. They also have to be sensitive to the equivalences and connections—as well as the possible slippages—between the theoretical language of class analysis and socially and historically specific popular idioms. Like all of us, workers to some extent live out their love, intimacy, romance, and feelings through prisms constructed by the media and a variety of other narratives, public discourses, and policy statements. In view of this, it is only logical that my investigation of individuals’ emotional practices and choices takes into account how the dominant cultural categories of emotion shape these practices and choices. Cultural texts, ranging from transnational products such as Titanic to top-down state television programs beaming out from Beijing, can serve as useful prompts for interviews and focus group discussions.
Lovers in Dongguan
While rural migrant workers in my study freely commented on popular visual media texts, they also found themselves the object of media and public commentary. From time to time, while doing fieldwork in Foxconn’s industrial precinct in Shenzhen in the period from 2015 to 2017, I would notice young rural migrant lovebirds enjoying a moment of intimacy in a public place—in a quiet corner of the street, on a park bench, or over a bowl of noodles in a cheap café. So, when I came across a group of images in a photo-essay published online in 2013 with the collective title “Rural Migrants’ Love in Dongguan,” my reaction was, “This is all too familiar.”
[Buy the book with the exclusive Pekingnology discount code L0V3TRU8S -35% off! Valid until 1-1-2024.]
Figure 1 Rural migrant workers wearing factory uniforms stealing an intimate moment outside a factory in Dongguan City, Guangdong Province. From photo-essay “Rural Migrants’ Love in Dongguan,” 2013. Used with permission of the photographer, Zhan Youbing (published under the pseudonym Jia Zheng).
Many of these thirty images show young rural migrant workers in intimate though not overtly sexual situations: talking quietly, holding hands, kissing, embracing, or simply sitting close to each other with their limbs intertwined. Other photos show couples going about their everyday lives, sharing a moment together while looking at their phones, riding bikes, shopping, or washing clothes. These shared intimate moments all take place in public spaces in the industrial areas of Dongguan, Guangdong Province, where these workers live and work—on the lawn of a park, on a bench by the roadside, at a table outside a snack bar, in a community library, in a public phone booth, on a city street. While some women in the photos wear casual or even sexy clothes, others wear factory uniforms. I liked the realism of these images, but I was somewhat taken aback by the phenomenal publicity they received. The photo-essay appeared on ifeng.com, an online platform for the popular cable channel Phoenix TV, and one of China’s best-known internet portals. The photos quickly went viral, appearing on many websites in China and beyond. In an attempt to gauge interest in them two months after they had appeared, I conducted a Google search using the title of the photo essay as the search term, and this yielded around 220,000 hits. By February 2015, that number had nearly doubled, reaching 437,000.
While many re-postings of the images have generated new responses from viewers, I notice that it is the photographer’s own commentary accompanying the original posting on ifeng.com that has generated the most sustained and spirited reaction:
If China is the world’s factory, Dongguan in south China is one of the main shop floors. This city has witnessed countless youthful lives thrive and then decline, countless dreams born and then shattered. The love of countless dagong [worker] individuals is ordinary yet precious. (Jia Zheng 2013)
Figure 2 Rural migrant workers enjoying some downtime in a park in Dongguan City, Guangdong Province. From photo-essay “Rural Migrants’ Love in Dongguan,” 2013. Used with permission of the photographer, Zhan Youbing (published under the pseudonym Jia Zheng).
To this photographer, love is incontrovertibly present in these images. But online opinions diverged widely about whether rural migrants have the capacity for genuine love and romance. It seems that what constitutes an appropriate way of conducting intimacy on the part of these young rural migrants has become a matter of heated public debate. Some comments posted by registered ifeng.com users are one-liners such as “So sweet”; “How romantic”; “They are so pure and innocent”; “Love doesn’t discriminate against the poor”; “Life is beautiful because love exists.” Some endorsement and sympathy clearly came from outside the migrant worker community: “They are so simple, so ordinary, and asking the world for so little in return; bless them”; “My heart goes out to you, my compatriots—you are the admirable workers of China!”; “They are the mainstay of the urban economy; may the flower of their love bear sweet fruit!”
However, clearly not everyone agrees. Instead of seeing romance in these images, some see pure lust. One commenter says that Shenzhen and Dongguan are full of “illicit love birds.” Criticism of such intimate acts is also implied in another post, which says that “most of these couples are just after sex; love doesn’t really come into it.” Besides questioning the capacity of younger workers for true love, some more trenchant criticisms are voiced in terms of moral judgment, as evidenced in this comment:
They’re not interested in learning, they have no souls, they give free rein to their bodily urges. They feel no responsibility for themselves, their family, and society. They’re after cheap sexual pleasure. What do they know about love? Morality and responsibility are strange concepts to them. Their existence threatens social harmony, and they’re a disgrace to their parents, family, and society.
The photographer who produced the images of Dongguan lovers had clearly hoped to capture moments of loving tenderness, but it is clear that some viewers instead saw them as evidence of moral transgression. One person posted this comment:
I’m at a loss as to what to say about these images. Putting aside whether they are good or bad, I think women should pay some attention to their display of suzhi [personal quality]. You don’t have to wear designer brands, but it doesn’t look good to reveal too much of your body.
This criticism of “immodest” women is reinforced by another post, which says: “Love is sweet indeed, but if you want romance, you should go home and do it behind closed doors. One needs to behave in a civilized way in public, especially women.”
The strong and polarized reactions to these images made me wonder what rural migrant workers themselves would make of them. When I invited a number of my fieldwork participants to comment on them, their responses were mostly along the line of “So what?” To them, what was represented here was simply their own everyday lives: “These are very familiar to me; I see people like this everywhere, all the time.” A few women workers told me that they personally would not behave in too immodest a way, such as kissing or being amorous in public, but that “people must understand that these acts are not obscene; they’re perfectly normal.”
Some even told me that they had “been there and done that,” and that “it’s nothing to make a fuss about.” It is clear that workers neither wanted to romanticize the love lives of the individuals in the photos, nor were they scandalized by them. Their comments stand in sharp contrast to the intense and polarized responses from online viewers of the photos—whether sympathetic or hostile.
The images in the “Rural Migrants’ Love in Dongguan” series, together with the photographer’s statements and public responses to the images, raise questions that are central to this book: What are the intimate consequences of China’s socioeconomic inequality? Can members of marginalized social groups embody legitimate desire and be trusted to engage in “appropriate” intimacy? If they have few material resources to pursue romance, love, and intimacy, what are the thoughts about what needs to be done about their love troubles on the part of everyone outside this cohort—the state, policy makers, journalists, socioeconomic elites, and middle-class consumers?
[Buy the book with the exclusive Pekingnology discount code L0V3TRU8S -35% off! Valid until 1-1-2024.]
Another recent book excerpt on the inequality in China as a result of personal income tax policymaking from Prof. Wei CUI of the University of British Columbia. (with promo code!)