An earlier version of this article was presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Las Vegas, Nevada, March 2009. Milena would like to thank Yingqun Cao for help with the collection of survey data, Alana Boland for a valuable comment on gendered consequences of China’s population policies, and Ruiliang Pu for help with inquiries pertaining to China. In addition, we would like to thank Prof. Yves Boquet for his constant support throughout the writing process and the two anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments and criticisms.
1China has experienced an unprecedented surge in rural to urban migration since the end of a strictly communist economic model in the 1970s and the subsequent setting up of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in coastal areas [Wu, 2008 ; Fan, 2005 ; Cannon and Jenkins, 1990]. A number of studies have focused on the gendered aspects of such migration [He and Gober, 2003 ; Fan, 2003], and revealed that while men’s migrations are usually in response to economic factors (e.g. job transfer), women are more likely to become migrants due to social reasons (e.g. marriage). However, given the value of women workers in industries geared towards mass production for the global economy, it seems certain that the attribution of economic roles to men and social roles to women is no longer tenable. There is thus a need to highlight women’s work-related migrations in order to provide further insights into gendered processes of migration in China.
2This article focuses on rural women currently working in factories in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province of Central China. Its objective is to understand the interrelated economic and social meanings of waged work for women through examining how they distribute their income between personal uses, natal homes, and marital homes. Further, this article distinguishes between single and married women in order to clarify the role of marital status in women’s income distribution practices. The overall aim is to contribute to gendered understandings of economic migration by revealing the value of women’s income for themselves and their families, and through this provide a basis for speculating on possible changes in traditional gender relations in rural China due to increased economic opportunities for women. In the process, this article seeks to avoid representing Chinese migrant women only as victims of the market economy, a non-democratic government, and social traditions, and instead focuses on their independent agency and capacity to change their own lives and that of their families [Jacka, 2004 ; Lee, 1998, Mohanty, 1994]. This research thus challenges the idea that Chinese women are economically irrelevant to their parents, and instead shows that both single and married women are highly likely to contribute a proportion of their incomes to their natal families.
3The next section of the article introduces the city of Wuhan in Central China which is the case study for this article and provides a background on development and migration in this region. After that, the methods utilized in this research are introduced and the survey questionnaire is described. The next two sections provide details about the findings of this research focusing on single and married women’s distributions of income. The implications of these findings for transformations in gender relations in China are then addressed. By including both natal and marital homes, this article not only provides insights into the continuing value of women’s incomes, but also enables an appreciation of the role played by such incomes in strengthening the economic base of rural households.
4The contemporary increase in China’s internal migration needs to be situated within wider geographies of development in China. Officially, China is divided into Western, Central, and Coastal (Eastern) regions (Figure 1) and this division reflects both desires to take advantage of the industrial growth possibilities of the Coastal region and security challenges posed by the Western region of China. Such regional policies have ensured that the Coastal region has become the site of rapid growth in industrial and tourism-related development as well as a popular target for foreign direct investment. The establishment of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in coastal areas has led to as well as increased the rate of such foreign investments. Alongside, the Central region has been entrusted with the task of providing energy resources, supplying agricultural goods, and providing associated technical know-how, and the Western region is responsible for supplying natural resources, developing transportation infrastructure, and investing in education [Cannon and Jenkins, 1990, pp. 28, 46-47 ; Jingzhi, 1988, pp. 41-42]. This association of broad regions with specific development responsibilities, however, is not strict. Thus, foreign-investment led industrialization is also occurring in Central China and the city of Wuhan in Hubei province is a good example of this. Alternatively, it could also be argued that Wuhan’s location along the Yangtze River enables continuity with the coastal region of development.
Figure1. Wuhan, Hubei Province, China
5This article focuses on women factory workers in the town of Wuhan in Hubei province, thus adding a case study in Central China to existing studies of women, work, and migration which have often focused primarily on coastal provinces [Chow, 2007]. Hubei province is largely rural, with approximately 60 percent of its population residing in rural areas [China Data Center, 2009], and this article portrays the outcomes of rural-to-urban migration streams in Hubei. Wuhan is one of the most prominent industrial cities in China in terms of both heavy and light industries. Its location along the Yangtze River, connectivity through rail lines, and access to an airport ensures that the city has a comparative advantage in terms of transportation, and this was reflected in its initial industrial development [Jingzhi, 1988]. However, after the economic reforms of 1978, Wuhan's industrial prominence declined, due to greater amounts of foreign investment available for coastal SEZs [Solinger, 2003]. To stem the closures of its factories, Wuhan has moved towards making itself attractive to foreign investors with some success. For instance, French multinationals have become one of the biggest investors in Wuhan. Moreover, the city has also attracted domestic investment, with Hong Kong being one of the biggest investors in this category. Such investments have occurred despite the fact that Wuhan has not been officially designated as an SEZ and does not have economic subsides and exemptions to offer to foreign investors equal to those in Shanghai or other SEZs [Jingzhi, 1998]. It should also be noted that while transportation costs could deter location of factories geared towards production for foreign markets, Wuhan's central location makes it an especially useful production site for domestic markets.
6Within Wuhan, three economic zones have been designated for fiber optics production, car assembly industry, and food manufactures. Nevertheless, industrial enterprises, like textile industries, also exist outside these zones. Even as Wuhan lost many of its textile factories at the beginning of economic reforms, it still remains an important center of textile production [Solinger, 2003]. The economic growth of the city is visible in the construction projects being undertaken in the city which also serve to attract migrants to it. From my interviews with urban planners, it seems that the U.S. model of urban development is being followed, as planners are seeking to distinguish Wuhan into city centers and suburban areas. More specifically, the city is sought to be divided into three parts – Hankou will be further developed to accommodate the service industry and financial industries, and as a main shopping and tourist area located along the bank of the Yangtze River amidst old colonial buildings ; Wuchang will be developed through higher education institutions along with high-tech companies to employ graduates (this area also contains a major tourist attraction, the Huáng Hè Lóu complex) ; Hanyang is already a site for heavy and light industries and will continue as such. Planning for the future development of Wuhan is thus a key objective of official agencies in the city.
7Increases in internal migration at the national level respond to the uneven development of industrialization in China. Alongside, agricultural decollectivization and the introduction of the household responsibility system have led to greater numbers of farming households sending their members to urban areas [Wong et al., 2007]. Thus, restructured production and development goals for rural areas together with industrial reorganization and better economic prospects in coastal cities have functioned as drivers of rural to urban migration in China [Wong et al., 2007]. In the case of Wuhan, the surplus work force created by the decline of economic opportunities in rural areas in Hubei province, especially in terms of farming jobs, ensures that the town continues to remain attractive for rural migrants.
8Migration opportunities, however, are restrained by the government through the household registration system – hukou – whereby people have to register as either rural or urban residents. Urban residency is highly desirable because of better availability of work, education, and health-care in cities. Under hukou, migrants have to obtain a permit in order to move from one area to another, and registered migrants are divided into either permanent or temporary, which denotes their legal status rather than their actual length of stay in the city. To apply for either permanent or temporary status, migrants have to fulfill province-level requirements for eligibility, such as paying permit-related fees and/or having desirable occupational skills, with such requirements usually varying from province to province [Sicular et al., 2007 ; Fan, 2005 ; He and Gober, 2003 ; Zhao, 1999].
9Women often do not meet skill-based requirements for urban hukou, since they largely work as domestic help or in other service jobs that do not require higher levels of education or the technical skills valued by governments [Goldstein et al., 2000]. However, the increasing availability of factory work for women has meant that work-related rural to urban migration is now not as restricted by gender as before, providing some opportunities for rural women to participate in the process of gaining more desirable urban residency. Nevertheless, despite women having urban jobs, they are less likely to be officially counted as part of the urban economy when compared to men [Goldstein et al., 2000]. The value of studying women migrants in urban contexts is highlighted by such gaps in official figures, further justifying the aims of this article. The next section outlines the methods used to gather data about women migrants in Wuhan.
10This study is based on data collected between May to August 2008 through primary surveys with migrant women factory workers, and this process was supported by a local research assistant who helped in designing the survey, facilitating the administration of the survey to chosen research subjects, and verifying the translation of survey results from Chinese to English. Three textile factories in Wuhan were chosen, in consultation with the research assistant, and surveys were distributed in worker dormitories associated with these factories. Together these three factories employed over 300 women workers and the focus on textile factories was driven by this preponderance of women workers. Blue Jay Factory (pseudonym) employed approximately 200 workers, Abiu Factory (pseudonym) approximately 80 workers, and Chrysanthemum Factory (pseudonym) around 65 workers.
11The research began with the distribution of a pilot survey to 10 factory workers. Based on these initial responses and further discussions with women workers, survey questions were modified to make them more suited to the understanding of local respondents and the needs of the research. Fifty surveys were provided to each factory dormitory, and 46 were returned from Blue Jay Factory, 49 from Abiu Factory, and 33 from Chrysanthemum Factory. Surveys were self-filled by workers in order to ensure anonymity, and also because questions related to migration were viewed as sensitive issues to bring up in the context of China. Surveys thus did not include any information that could potentially identify or potentially incriminate workers, and did not ask about their names, addresses, or length of their stay and legal status in Wuhan.
12Of the returned surveys, all (128) were utilized for this study ; out of which 86 surveys were filled by single women and 42 by married women. As Table 1 documents, most single women were less than 20 years old – 55 out of 86 (about 64 per cent) – and the remaining were between the ages of 21 and 30 and one was over 40 years old. Half of the married participants were between the ages of 21 to 30, and half more than 30 years old, including 4 women in the age group of 40 to 51. Majority of married women, 38 out of 42, had children. Of the women surveyed, most earned between ¥1000 and ¥ 2100. In terms of income, the amount of each paycheck was not fixed, and depended on the number of specific items made. Workers were usually provided tokens for items completed and for overtime. Thus, many workers tried to put in long hours of work, including overtime, to receive many tokens and increase their paycheck.
13The survey questionnaire categories were partially chosen based on similar studies concerning migrant women [Chow, 2007 ; Fan, 2004]. The survey was divided into three sections. The first part of the survey gathered demographic information about workers, such as their age and marital status. The second included questions regarding their migration and employment in Wuhan. The third set of questions related to the allocation of their income. This part of the survey was divided into three themes. The first asked about remittances that women allocated to their homes. A distinction was made between natal families, in-laws, and their own families (spouse and children). The second part dealt with how the families in turn distributed the income they received from migrant workers. Here workers could pick family member's education, family member's professional development, investing in a family enterprise, supplying funds needed for construction or repair of the house, as well as repaying a loan. The third section looked into how women spent money towards their own personal needs. Here women could select daily expenses (e.g. groceries, clothing, rent), lifestyle expenses (e.g. books, cell phones, restaurants, cosmetics, movie tickets), and investment in their own education or professional development. Women provided approximate evaluations of the allocation of their income. Thus, participants marked what portion of their income (about a half, a third, a quarter, just a little bit, or nothing) goes towards a particular category of expenses. The survey thus did not ask for actual expenditure figures. It was understood that since a majority of the women had junior high school education (Table 1), they could distinguish between the various categories and establish what they perceived as priorities in their income distribution.
Table 1 : Characteristics of survey participants
14As the surveyed workers were not chosen through any systematic sampling methods, this article provides a descriptive evaluation of the results and does not include any formal statistical analysis or widely generalizable results. As mentioned earlier, questions of migration and income cannot be easily broached in a context where the migration status of women is likely to be uncertain and factory employees are suspicious of attempts to gather data on conditions of factory work. No deliberate targeting of women therefore was sought to be undertaken. Given that single and married women are likely to have different responsibilities in terms of family members, and that on the whole married women were older than single women, survey results have been differentiated across the two groups. The remainder of this article details findings from survey data for single and married women.
15Majority of single women have given some economical support to their parents. In addition, 5 single mothers spent a portion of their income towards their children. Figure 2 shows that most single women, 67 out of 86 (about 78 per cent), sent part of their income home to their natal families. Only 5 women decidedly answered that they do not give any money to their parents. Among the women who contributed to their parents’ households, 36 (42 per cent) declared that they give about a half of their income to their parents, 11 women marked about a third of their income, and 7 said that they give about a quarter. Some women, 13 (15 per cent), said that they give ‘just a little bit’ of money to their parents. It is clear from this that most single women sent part of their paycheck to their parents.
Figure 2. Contributions by single women towards their parent's household or/and towards their child
16Family business was the most important purpose towards which single women's incomes were utilized by their families. Figure 3 documents allocation of income within parents’ households and 34 women (approximately 40 per cent) marked that their money goes towards the family enterprise. Of these 34, 16 women marked that their parents spent ‘just a little bit’ of money on it. In contrast, 10 said that approximately half of their income goes towards the family enterprise. Furthermore, 28 women (33 per cent) marked the income as being spent towards family member's education or professional development expenses. Of these 28 women, a slight majority (15) said that their parents spent only a small amount of money on such expenses. In addition, many women (28) marked house construction or house repair, with 10 (about 12 per cent) marking that their parents spent ‘just a little’ bit and an equal number of women marking that their parents spent about half of their income on house construction activities. Only 12 women among the 86 respondents marked that some of their income is allotted towards repaying of loans. This could be because most household purchases are preferably made through the use of savings, rather than on the basis of borrowed money.
Figure 3. Utilization of single women's incomes by their parents' households
17Most single women spent their income towards daily expenses, and very little towards lifestyle expenses. Some single women spent their money towards building their professional skills. When it comes to personal spending habits (Figure 4), most women (78 out of 86, about 91 per cent) utilized their income to pay for daily expenses. Among these 78 women, 29 spent approximately a third of their income, and 22 spent about half of their income on daily expenses. Only 3 women marked that they do not use their income for daily expenses. In terms of lifestyle purchases, 69 women (about 80 percent) devoted their income towards this overhead. Among these 69 women, a large number (28) marked that they spent ‘just a little bit’ of their income on it, while only 14 women marked that lifestyle expenses consume about half of their income. Of single women, 30 (approximately 35 per cent) allotted a portion of their income towards their own education, or professional development. Most of these women (19, about 22 percent), however, spent ‘just a little bit’ of their income on it.
Figure 4. Utilization of single women's income for their personal use
18It seems clear from this that a large proportion of single women send their wages back to their family, underlining the potential importance of migrant women’s remittances to the rural economy. Moreover, to the extent that a large number of women do not spend their income on urban lifestyle-related expenses, it becomes clear that rural migrant women are not being largely transformed into consumers despite their independent access to wages.
19It is expected that married women’s primary responsibility is towards their own family (spouse/child) and then towards their in-laws. Yet, survey findings show that 26 out of 42 married women that were part of this survey (approximately 62 per cent) also contribute a part of their income to their natal family (Figure 5). However, it should also be noted that 17 of these 26 women marked that they contribute ‘just a little bit’ of their income. Only 7 women marked that they do not give any money to their parents. Zhang (2009) has shown that married women are becoming more important to their parents in economic terms, and the findings of the research presented in this article correspond with Zhang’s findings.
20Majority of women who were married with children designated portions of their income towards their children and/or spouse. Figure 5 shows that 33 out of 42 women (approximately 79 per cent) devoted a part of their income to their spouse and/or child. Of these women, a majority (19) declared that they spent about half of their income towards their own family, and 10 women marked that they spent almost a third of their income on their family. The remaining 4 women contributed less than a third. Only 2 women declared that they do not spend any money towards their spouse or child.
Figure 5. Contributions by married women towards their own, their parents, and their in-laws households
21Married women’s contributions decreased a little when it came to their in-laws. Although 17 women (approximately 40 per cent) marked that they spent some money towards their in-laws, only 2 women said that they contribute about a third of their income to their husband's parents (Figure 5). None of the women contributed close to a half of their income. Instead, most respondents (11) said that they contribute ‘just a little bit’ to their in–laws budget. Moreover, 10 women marked that they did not contribute any money towards their in-laws. As confirmed by some of my interview data, this lower involvement in contributions to in-laws’ budgets could be potentially a result of migrant households (husband and wife) living in the city for most of the year, and just visiting in-laws during major holidays once or twice a year. Thus, given that women did not actually live in their spouse’s household, the need to share income could potentially become less urgent.
Figure 6. Utilization of married women's incomes by their own and extended families
23Majority of married women utilized a large portion of their incomes towards daily expenses, but only a little towards lifestyle related expenses. In terms of married women’s use of their income for their own personal needs, 37 out of 42 (approximately 88 per cent) said that they spent some money on their daily expenses, and of these 37 women, 13 said that they spent about a half of their income and 18 that they spent about a third of their income (Figure 7). Only 2 women marked that they did not spend any money from their income on their daily expenses. The next popular category was the use of their income for lifestyle-related expenses and 35 women (about 83 per cent) said that they spent some of their money on this. While most women (15 out of 35) said that they spent ‘just a little bit’ on this category of expenses, 9 women marked that they spent a third of their income on lifestyle-related products and 4 said that they spent about a half of their income on it. In addition, 10 women (approximately 24 per cent) said that they spent some money towards their education / professional development.
Figure 7. Utilization of married women's income for their personal use
24The key finding here is that married women in this survey remain contributors to their natal households and do not contribute to the same extent to their in-laws’ homes. This fits in with the idea that migration loosens traditional social bonds and enables women to decide how to distribute their income instead of being bound by the rules of their husband’s home.
25Overall, a majority of single and married women chose to contribute towards their parents, even as single women devoted a larger portion of their income towards their parents when compared to married women. In the case of both single and married women, the main contribution is towards the family enterprise. In terms of personal expenses, while many women indicated that they spent a portion of their income towards maintaining their lifestyle, a majority of women in both groups indicated that they spent ‘just a little bit’ on it. This research thus shows that no automatic linkages can be assumed between access to waged income and increased consumerist behavior, since some rural migrant women, especially single women, that were part of this study seem more willing to devote their money to their own education and professional development. Similar to Sun (2008), this suggests that aspects of city life other than consumption are worth bringing into discussions on gendered migrant identities.
26Expanded opportunities for women raise questions about how migration-related opportunities could potentially transform traditional gender divisions in Chinese society. Previous research has shown the importance of family in the understanding of women's income distribution [Chow, 2007 ; Fan, 2004]. Scholars of traditional gender relations in China however have focused on how a marked preference for sons structures access to education and hence to job opportunities [e.g. Li, 2004 ; Wolf, 1985]. In the traditional view, sons are expected to take care of old parents and hence viewed as a form of social security and long-term economic asset, while daughters are expected to live with and work for their in-laws. Chinese families therefore are viewed as more likely to invest in the education of their sons and discriminate against daughters [Li, 2004 ; Song, 1999 ; Wolf, 1985]. Female economic migration throws such understandings into doubt, not only because access to wages assures women greater independence from traditional social moorings, but also because the economic value attached to daughters can now no longer be assumed as negligible.
27It is also important to consider the implications of China’s population policy for traditional gender roles. It can be argued that a turn towards utilization of daughters’ incomes is partly structured by the one-child policy, which ensures that certain families do not have sons to depend on. Yet, the one-child policy has not been uniformly implemented across China, and rural couples are often allowed to have two children. It has also been found that a majority of rural couples decide to have more children than permitted, as has been shown for instance in the case of rural Hubei province [Cheng, 1984]. Further, some births are not reported to government officials lowering official access to accurate information on number of children [Zhang, 2009 ; Merli and Raftery, 2000]. My conversations with rural women migrants reflect this notion of more than one child per couple in the countryside, since most migrant workers revealed that they have many siblings, including brothers and sisters.
28Existing theoretical and empirical analyses report divergent perspectives on the consequences of women’s economic migration for traditional gender relations. Thus, some scholars argue that women’s increased wage earning potential does not radically transform their societal roles since women’s income continues to be controlled by their parents or in-laws, and does not lead to increased economic or social independence for women [Wolf, 1985]. Moreover, traditional inequality in access to education, although somewhat reduced since the 1990s, also seems to persist (Li 2004). An opposing viewpoint argues that migrants do experience beneficial social opportunities from migration – including access to marriage partners, increased personal freedom, and broader social networks [Gaetano, 2008 ; Goldstein et al., 2000 ; Lee, 1998].
29This article has shown that both single and married women’s incomes are directed towards their natal family and at this point the consequences of this for women’s status can only be speculated upon. Thus, given that rural women migrants are in fact contributing to their parents’ household, their importance to their parents could potentially increase resulting in improved attentiveness towards the development of girls, especially through enabling access to education. However, it could also have an adverse effect : if the economic potential of young women is recognized but only in terms of low paying jobs that do not require education, women could be sent out to work at a relatively young age and not encouraged to pursue higher education. Moreover, it could also mean that, after marriage, women would be responsible not just for their husband’s family but also have to continue being responsible for their own parents. The findings in this article can also be utilized to argue that there is a need to move beyond ties between women and their natal and marital homes. The mark of real freedom instead may be in terms of the money that women spend on themselves, especially if they save towards their future needs thus assuring themselves of financial independence and economic security.
30In future work, the links between gender and migration will be further explicated through analysis of in-depth interviews which were conducted with women factory workers in Wuhan at the same time of the surveys. At this point, only a glimpse can be provided into interview findings, and it should also be noted that the interviews are separate from the surveys and direct linkages cannot be drawn between survey and interview respondents. One theme that is appearing in many interviews is related to improvements in women’s status within families as a consequence of urban employment. For instance, Yanzi (pseudonym), a 19 year old single women with middle school education, has this to say about the consequences of her migration : “When I was younger, my parents used to like my younger sister more and now that I started making money, and contribute to the family income, they treat me much better, even better than my younger sister.” Interviews also bring out the economic value of women’s migration, and many interviewed women talked about monetary problems facing their families. For instance, Song (pseudonym), a 32 year old married woman with partial middle school education, remarked that, “I needed money. I would like to send my son to a better school in the future, so I decided to come to Wuhan.” But there is also a sense in which the economic and social values of migration are interconnected as women seek income for financial independence as well as seek to contribute to their family. For instance, Wen (pseudonym), a 22 year old, single woman with middle school education had this to say : “Why I wanted to work outside of my village is that I wanted to earn my own money, so I could open a family business.” These statements shed light on the desires that drive rural women migrants to pursue jobs in the city, and further analysis of women’s words can provide greater insights into the complexity of such desires and their consequences for women’s economic and social status.
31This article aimed at understanding the extent to which migrant women’s income was devoted towards improving the condition of their families. Its main finding was that both single and married women continue to contribute to their natal families – single women contributing a greater portion than married women, and married women contributing more to their natal homes than their in-laws’ homes. This finding is contrary to the traditionally upheld view that women become irrelevant to their parents after marriage. More broadly, this study suggests that the social outcomes of rural women’s migrations are likely to be complex, and that changed gender roles as a consequence of women’s participation in economic migration need to be studied in more detail, especially from the perspective of possible long-term effects. This study also shows that the migration of women in search of economic opportunities should be an important aspect of understanding patterns of internal migration in China.
32Future studies need to situate such understandings of women’s income distributions within both the broader social context of men’s spending and saving habits as well as the broader structural context of the production of urban-rural differences in China. Given that migration of rural women workers is an important aspect of continuing economic development in China, studies also need to focus on regulations which enable the further utilization of women’s labor and the extent to which rural-to-urban migration streams are constructed through such regulations. Women’s self-declared choice to migrate thus has to be placed within the broader political economy of development in China. As this study has shown, rural women are connected to a variety of households through their migration to urban areas and their work in factories. Women’s own perspectives on the uses of their income thus become an important component of understanding how broader changes are arising within Chinese economy and society through new employment opportunities.