Book Review: Women Migrants in Southern China and Taiwan
Book review of Beatrice Zani's Women Migrants in Southern China and Taiwan: Mobilities, Digital Economies and Emotions (2021)
by Etienne Bourel
Published onMar 05, 2023
Book Review: Women Migrants in Southern China and Taiwan
Women Migrants in Southern China and Taiwan: Mobilities, Digital Economies and Emotions, by Beatrice Zani (2022). Oxford and New York: Routledge.
Based on a doctoral thesis defended in 2019, Beatrice Zani’s new book Women Migrants in Southern China and Taiwanoffers a rich itinerant ethnography as well as a solid analysis of the lives of Chinese women migrating from rural areas (around the city of Chongqing, for example) to the industrial coast (Guangdong province) and then to Taiwan, before returning to China. The fieldwork was conducted between 2015 and early 2019, and the author has already published several articles that provide insight into her multiple lines of analysis (see, for example, Zani 2022).
Zani’s investigation aims to understand the daily lives, networks, emotions, and entrepreneurial practices of the women she came to know. She thus seeks to show the “ever-changing reconstruction of a plurality of social, economic, affective, and relational practices, all of which are all at once entangled in the global worldˮ (p. 2). Practicing a globalized and multi-sited ethnography, thus building on George Marcus’s framework (1995), Zani follows people, objects, and their biographies through the varied spaces and locations in which they circulate. Navigating between rural worlds and the industrial coast, as well as across the Sino-Taiwanese border (migrating to Taiwan and then re-migrating back to China), the author examines the micro-social dimensions of migratory experiences in order to understand the different sites, directions, and scales of mobility that affect migrants’ lives. This allows her to highlight the aspirations that carry these women throughout their migratory journeys (p. 7).
Zani does also not neglect those moments of immobility or blockage in the women’s paths – and, in doing so, she merges mobility and immobility into a dialectic. The author, therefore, documents the forms of contestation and transgression developed by these subaltern working women (p. 9), in which imagination plays a crucial role. Her reflection emphasizes the place and role of emotions in the social situations described, as well as the ways in which emotions participate in subsequent action, including within the economic field. One of the strong points of this book is how it shows that, as regards administrative and (geo)political considerations, migratory regimes from rural to urban or between China and Taiwan are not so different. Another important aspect is how Zani takes into account digital social networks such as the immensely popular WeChat app, thus showing that this technology is a fully participating actor within the milieus under analysis.
The first section of the book, “On the Move,” focuses on rural-urban migrations. The first chapter describes the social bases of migration projects among rural girls, in contexts where the Chinese state promotes mass migration in order to exploit these areas’ work forces. The following chapter details the subjectivity of these migrants, starting from the contradiction that, in order to become “independent and modern” (that is, the urban world imaginary as seen from the countryside), they must first become proletarians. The third chapter goes on to develop the idea that these women’s urban workplaces are double-edged spaces: simultaneously being locales of exploitative labor regimes, but also providing additional possibilities such as marriage or further immigration to Taiwan.
The second part of the book, “Connectedness,” analyzes this migratory situation – that is, the way in which these women take their place in it, and how digital worlds turn out to be means of escaping the oppression that they undergo. The fourth chapter highlights the conditions of subjugation that migrant women face once they arrive in Taiwan – whether it is due to the migration policies that they must follow, the domestic work that they undertake, or the marginalization that they face in the overall labor market. The fifth chapter describes the socialities and solidarities that Chinese women deploy, which constitute an “emotional community” based on their place of origin, migration path, and marital experiences. The sixth chapter deals with the relationship between emotions and entrepreneurship in the age of digital communication. Based on Zani’s access to WeChat groups and various digital exchanges, this chapter shows how social networks strengthen socialities and emotional ties but also allow economic exchanges and the development of small-scale entrepreneurial activities.
The third and final section of the book, “In-Betweenness,” addresses these women’s re-migration to China and, more broadly, the translocal spaces that they come to inhabit. The seventh chapter follows the women at the time of their divorces to Taiwanese men and the subsequent migratory restrictions that they experience, which lead them back to China. The eighth chapter spells out the challenges that these women face once back home, including their efforts to mend frayed social ties. This leads to the last chapter which shows that, thanks to the experience and knowledge that the women have acquired, they are able to engage in new activities and mobilities. Finally, among the elements presented in the conclusion, emphasis is placed on one of the key contributions of this book, namely that globalization is not limited to geopolitical considerations, capitalism, and transnational markets, but that it also takes place through the small-scale emotional, commercial, economic, and social practices of migrants.
In sum, Beatrice Zani’s research constitutes an impressive reflection on the many forms of globalization, the complexities of contemporary migration patterns, and the current conjunctures facing China and Taiwan. The book is an accessible read, and the numerous interview excerpts, as well as the ethnographic vignettes, will capture the attention of readers. Nonetheless, this relatability is perhaps also one of the limitations of the book: the abundance of dimensions under analysis gives the text an accumulative character, which at times leads one to wish for a more sober line of argument and balance between heuristics and rhetoric. However, these are undoubtedly the reflections of a writing exercise that was first and foremost a scholarly endeavor. Let us bet that Zani’s future works will be even better than this first attempt, which will be an impressive achievement in itself.
Marcus, George E. 1995. “Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography.” Annual Review of Anthropology 24: 95–113.
Etienne Bourel completed his Ph.D. in anthropology at the University Lumière-Lyon 2 (France) with a dissertation about how people work and live in a Gabonese logging camp, as well as how forestry in Central Africa takes sustainable development into account. His research spans the fields of political anthropology, the anthropology of work, and environmental anthropology.
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