Book review of Xinyan Peng's Corporate Women in Contemporary China: 'We've Always Worked' (2022)
Corporate Women in Contemporary China: “We’ve Always Worked,” by Xinyan Peng (2022). Abingdon, UK: Routledge.
Memories of my limited working experience were conjured up when I saw the title of Xinyan Peng’s new book: Corporate Women in Contemporary China: “We’ve Always Worked.” On the day when the third-child policy was launched in 2021, my office – where many young well-educated women work – was bursting with grumbles: “our work is exhausting; our life is tough. I don’t even want one child, let alone three!” As a male, I recognized that I can never be fully empathetic with my female colleagues, but I was nonetheless surprised at the continued hostility toward women – such as when my company did not mention the paid half day-off guaranteed by the State Council on International Women’s Day, or when a male manager loudly asked a female interviewee about her willingness to have children in the next five years.
Mundane details of women’s working life – overworking, meeting deadlines, ordering low-calorie meals, keeping fit, doing domestic work, caring for children and parents, and more – are vividly retold in Peng’s new ethnography. As such, the book is a timely intervention at a moment in which a number of Chinese office workers have been overworked to death, and even more workers are complaining about burnout and disillusionment triggered by exploitation, workplace controls, and the personal duties necessitated by the privatization of public services and state welfare.
The book is historically and theoretically informed, showing Peng’s broad understanding of the scholarly literature. Under the expansion of “flexible working” and the production of “autonomous workers” across the business sectors, Chinese corporate women are believed to be more capable of achieving “female success through work” even as the standards of this success are “socially sanctioned and embodied” (p. 116). They are socially sanctioned because neoliberal rhetoric – the “self-as-an-enterprise,” those who can “have-it-all,” and the ability to maintain a “happy work-family balance” – often becomes the very obstacle to these women’s self-actualization (Berlant, 2011). The legacy of transition from socialist to reformed China also has rendered women, as “second-rate producers” (p. 10), able to enter as well as be forced from the productive domain. Additionally, the standards of female success are embodied: “the culture of work in today’s urban China [...] has permeated beyond the workplace to shape bodily training, family life, and kinship and social relationships” (p. 2). Indeed, the embodied experience of these corporate women navigating productive and reproductive domains has been reshaped by myriad tensions between neoliberal rhetoric and post-socialist reality, which leads to a form of gender inequality concretized by their “hardworking, sleep-deprived, exhausting lives” (p. 4).
Corporate Women in Contemporary China is divided into three parts – the first of which explores how managerial and social controls legitimate and sustain a culture of overwork in companies (Chapter 2), how the culture of overwork is accommodated by ethical or pragmatic concerns and practices (Chapter 3), and how workers’ sense of stability is attained by occupational choices, job changes, and self-development (Chapter 4). The second part of the book examines Pilates studios and delineates the salience of a “productive body” that connects bodily fitness with work professionalism (Chapter 5). The third part extends these dynamics to family lives. Chapter 6 unfolds the historical reconfiguration of domestic/public distinctions from late imperial to reformed China that does not substantially extricate women from domestic, reproductive, and emotional labor. The final two chapters demonstrate how professional women straddle work and family by transplanting the dispositions they have cultivated in their workplaces (Chapter 7) and participate in the multi-generational care of children alongside grandparents who “[are] often asked for help and yet [are] often blamed for being unhelpful” (p. 181; see Chapter 8). The permeation of working culture into family lives is manifested by their professional, sometimes managerial, ways of distributing domestic labor, quests for scientific childcare knowledge, and tensions with their parents regarding “proper” parenting styles for the next generation.
Theoretically, the book demonstrates that China’s neoliberalization works in tandem with the country’s socialist legacy and traditional values about work and gender – as is manifested by women’s career choices between state-owned and private companies, their obligation to shoulder more domestic duties, and the care they provide to aging parents. Meanwhile, diverging from Western perceptions of China’s culture of overwork, Peng also shows that overwork is de facto co-constituted by management, presenteeism, self-aspiration, and even a personal desire to avoid grueling domestic tasks. The workplace in urban China is therefore a site where, in the words of Byung-Chul Han, “freedom and compulsion coincide” (2020, p. 49). Interestingly, corporate women are also expected to juxtapose femininity and masculinity premised on gendered assumptions about productivity, endurance, and resilience in workplaces. In brief, Corporate Women in Contemporary China challenges any deterministic and dichotomous thinking about labor, gender, subjectivity, and kinship in today’s urban China.
The intricacy of corporate women’s working lives could perhaps only be captured by a reflexive approach to the anthropology of work. In this regard, Peng’s methodological merits first lie in her attention to the built environments of cubicles, offices, and skyscrapers that link their spatial configuration with governmental and managerial power. Second, Peng’s multi-sited ethnography spanning workplaces, gyms, and homes makes it possible to identify the connections and contradictions between world-making, self-making, and home-making. Lastly, Peng does not explain but nonetheless explores the notion of doing ethnography together with her interlocutors. Not only is the metaphor of the characters in “a novel” (pp. 20-21) offered by participants insightful to understanding Peng’s ethnography, but these details can also lead one to imagine a new way of data interpretation other than one strictly gatekept by individual scholars.
Time, or more accurately temporality, is also an implicit theme of the book. Bearing a “have-it-all” ethos, corporate women are exhausted by their arduous negotiations with time. Concurrently, the standardization, differentiation, and synchronization of time also enable more relevant anthropological enquiries to take place; for instance, due to the preference among employers for the young, single, and energetic (the “35-threshold” has been widely discussed on the internet), how do corporate women cope with aging? In this regard, readers might expect some empirical details about unmarried women, whose career paths and social relationships are often more uncertain. In addition to the mutual support among corporate women expressed in bodily training and childcare, the co-temporal experience of working together may also provide implications for relationships and dispositions constituted by work.
Temporality is also classed under the grand narrative of progress, as Sarah Sharma writes: “the sharing of space does not guarantee the sharing of time” (2014, p. 22). Peng’s book has depicted grandparents who migrate to Shanghai to take care of grandchildren, sometimes together with babysitters. With this as a starting point, it might be inspiring if Peng’s discussion were extended to the working-class women who interact with corporate women on a daily basis – babysitters, housekeepers, food delivery people, taxi drivers, and office cleaners – in order to contextualize the social positioning of corporate women and elucidate the social dynamics of gender, class, and work.
Readers may also be cognizant of the fact that, in general, discriminatory and even misogynist acts are still common in Chinese workplaces, particularly those that are dominated by males and patriarchal norms. My former workplace described above is a good example of this unfortunate-yet-common reality. However, patriarchy and toxic masculinity might not be as widespread in Peng’s field sites: a fashion company and a company marketing cosmetics. In this light, it would be helpful if the book could reflect on the extent to which the author’s extant fields facilitate or limit its analysis.
Overall, Corporate Women in Contemporary China brings to light the complex experiences of professional women working and living in Shanghai. In particular, the interpenetration of “work” and “life” and a situated conceptualization of these women’s lived experience and subjectivity are significant contributions to studies of labor and gender in contemporary urban China. An account of intersubjectivity and a discussion of industrial or organizational contexts might make Peng more confident in applying her “lived experience” approach to other socio-political contexts, thereby extending the critical potential of the text. Yet, at present moment, book-length ethnographies examining Chinese corporations from the inside are very few. Peng’s monograph, thus, not only provides rich empirical material about corporate women in Shanghai, but also has the potential to inspire other scholars due to its novel approach and innovative methods.
Berlant, L. G. (2011). Cruel Optimism. Duke University Press.
Han, B. C. (2020). The Burnout Society. Stanford University Press.
Sharma, S. (2014). In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics. Duke University Press.
Hao Wang is a second-year PhD candidate in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His research project examines the politics of speed in urban China and the embodied experience of high-speed temporality among Chinese technology workers.