Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China

Chang, a former Beijing correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, explores the urban realities and rural roots of a community, until now, as unacknowledged as it is massive-China’s 130 million workers whose exodus from villages to factory and city life is the largest migration in history. Chang spent three years following the successes, hardships and heartbreaks of two teenage girls, Min and Chunming, migrants working the assembly lines in Dongguan, one of the new factory cities that have sprung up all over China. The author’s incorporation of their diaries, e-mails and text messages into the narrative allows the girls-with their incredible ambition and youth-to emerge powerfully upon the page. Dongguan city is itself a character, with talent markets where migrants talk their way into their next big break, a lively if not always romantic online dating community and a computerized English language school where students shave their heads like monks to show commitment to their studies. A first generation Chinese-American, Chang uses details of her own family’s immigration to provide a vivid personal framework for her contemporary observations. A gifted storyteller, Chang plumbs these private narratives to craft a work of universal relevance.
Year of Publication
Number of Pages
Spiegel and Grau
New York
ISSN Number
Average: 4 (5 votes)


Please login to review this resource

Factory Girls and the societal change in China

Field of Interest/Specialty: Spanish
Posted On: 01/02/2015

Review by Bryan Hanrahan, Spanish teacher, Pittsburgh Central Catholic High School
Leslie Chang’s Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China provides the reader with first-hand experiences of the industrial, economical, and cultural changes that China currently faces from the viewpoint of young adult Chinese women. Chang is an American journalist interviewing and visiting the women that have decided to leave their poor, unchanging rural lifestyles to try their hand at working in factories in the big cities. The women work long hours for little pay and are provided with cramped dorm rooms for living conditions.
The book is set up almost as a documentary, where each chapter focuses on a specific aspect of these young women’s lives including: living conditions, learning English, dating, returning home to celebrate holidays, and the author’s own personal and familial history. Understanding the format of the book is important to avoid confusion that the story is not in a typical chronological narrative. If used in the classroom, I would advise selecting chapters that fit into the current curriculum instead of focusing on the book in its entirety. Despite its confusing format, the writing is easily understood and not difficult for students to read.
One of the most intriguing themes of the book is the Chinese societal change. Chinese culture has historically been considered to shape people with group mentality; that is people act in a way to better the society instead of their person. However, Factory Girls demonstrates the girls’ struggles in their decisions to better themselves and act on their wants or to act in a way to help their family, bosses, or friends. This is shown when the girls are saving the little money they earn from each salary and how they eventually use it. Some of the girls choose to send money home to better their family, while others improve their social lives by going out often. Some look for comfort by saving to rent an apartment. Others try to continue their education by taking clerical and/or English classes in hopes of changing jobs for better conditions and money. On the contrary, some avoid taking risks in getting ahead to either avoid confrontations with their boss or leave the friends with whom they cohabitate. Despite all of the reasons to spend money, many of the girls realize the importance of survival in modern society and usually purchase a cell phone as soon as possible for either social use, dating, improving their jobs, and/or maintain contact with home. Unfortunately due to the lack of finances and time, the girls cannot focus on all areas at once working many hours and receiving little pay.
Overall the story paints a holistic picture of the changing times by focusing on this new and popular trend of the young female factory worker. By reading the first-hand experiences, the reader can really empathize with the difficulties this new generation faces. With the women’s struggles, the reader also gets a glimpse into the transitional Chinese society. Despite the unpredictable and somewhat confusing format, the book ultimately results into a wonderful resource to understand the contemporary Chinese society.

Factory Girls Review

Field of Interest/Specialty: History
Posted On: 11/29/2014

Larissa Sturm
Norwin High School, Cultures of the World, Tenth Grade
Factory Girls: from Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie T. Chang is a very detailed book that opens up the eyes of those not living in China’s booming factory cities. The author gives a lot of detail regarding the lives of several young girls living and working in factories in large cities. Young women in the book leave home at a very young age to work in the factories. Many of them leave with very little and have to start a new life in a strange place in order to help their families back home in their village. The book goes into detail about how lonely the girl’s lives are. They work extremely long hours and get very little time off. The time they do get off is usually spent with the few friends that they do have. Conditions in most factories are not great and the girls live in cramped dorm rooms with people they do not know. Factories would also routinely change the girl’s dorm room assignments frequently so many of them did not have time to connect with others and have true relationships. Many girls would use false identifications in order to obtain a better job and literally become a different person. Also, many fell into one of the many pyramid schemes that would pop up and lose everything that they had worked so hard for. It seemed so easy for girls to lie about experience that they had in order to move up the ladder. Some factories discussed in the book were so vast that they had their own hospital on the grounds as well as shops and restaurants. If you worked there you literally did not need to leave in order to get any kind of necessities that you needed. This particular factory was where popular shoes that are bought throughout the world are made. There was also many detailed regarding the horrors of public transportation and how you could lose money to a crooked bus driver or left in the middle of nowhere if you were not willing to pay more money than originally told.
The book also gives some details regarding life at home in the village and how it is a life of poverty. This is the main reason the girls go out to work. They want a better life for themselves and they also send money home for their family. Another major difference in the book that is showcased is how life in the country is nowhere near as lonely as life in the city. You have friends and family around you all the time that you can talk to and trust.
Another aspect of the book is the author describing her own family in China and how they had once been a well-respected, noble family prior to the major changes that occurred after the Communist regime and Cultural Revolution.
Overall, I found this book to be quite difficult to read. The author goes back and forth quite a bit and I found the book difficult to read. I found myself re-reading parts of the book because I was confused about whom the author was talking about or just trying to keep up with what was being written. Because of this, I would not recommend that high school students read this entire book. I would however, have the students read parts of the book especially those that showcase factory life and the harsh conditions that go with it. I think that using this book along with a documentary like 10,000 Shovels would help the student understand the mass migration that is going on in China and why so many people choose to leave home to work in factories. I would also want them to try to compare what they read to their own lives.
• Would you be willing to leave home now (age 15-16) to work long hours in a factory, support yourself and send money home for your family to help better their lives?
• Would you be comfortable moving to a large city where you knew nobody to start a new life by yourself?
• Can you compare/contrast working conditions in China to those here in the United States? – I would probably have to provide the students with charts that showed them normal working hours.
• Would you be willing to work 14 hour days and only get two days off a month?
• For the female students- would you be comfortable marrying a man and moving back to his village which could be thousands of miles from your old home and family? I would explain to the students that this was normal for women living in China.
I would recommend this book to other educators so they could get a better understanding of life in the factories and then share that information with their students. I do plan on using this book in one way or another this year in class and will be purchasing my own copy so I will have it on hand. I gave this book four stars because it was very insightful and provided a lot of detail but couldn’t give it five due to the confusion when bouncing back and forth.


Field of Interest/Specialty: History
Posted On: 02/18/2013

What are willing to do to "get ahead"; survive, provide for your family, to improve your lot in life? These are the types of questions that I have often asked my students as we study history. I ask these questions because most of them have not had to struggle in their lives. Their main responsibility in life is to attend school. For most of my students, they do not have to contribute financially to their family. This is because my students are growing up in "Post Industrial Revolution" America. They are benefiting from the labor and ingenuity of previous generations. Leslie T. Chang's book does a wonderful job of showing how China's young people today are going through what America's young people went through late 19th century. Chang's book would be a wonderful addition to the classroom learning experience. She not only tells the story of a country's young people as they work to survive, get ahead, and provide for their family; she tells her family's story. A story that is not unlike the story of millions of European immigrants coming to America.

Review of Factory Girls

Field of Interest/Specialty: Chinese History
Posted On: 07/26/2012

Review by Dr. David Kenley
Since the reforms of the late 1970s, China has witnessed remarkable economic growth. The SEZs, or Special Economic Zones, have been the engines behind this change. These SEZs have become magnets for rural migrants seeking economic opportunity in export-based manufacturing factories. The majority of these migrants have been young, single women. In Factory Girls, Leslie Chang follows a handful of these women in the southeast city of Dongguan, seeking to understand their lives, including their myriad successes and trials.
Many advocates of “fair wage” production claim that China is a land of exploitation and abuse. Indeed, the factories Chang portrays in this text are monotonous, stifling, and at times dangerous. The women work very long hours for small wages, while the supervisors control their living conditions, their diets, and even their love lives. In this regard, the women appear to be victims similar to other powerless individuals in developing countries.
Upon closer inspection, however, you find that these women are not passive victims, but active participants seeking to guide their own destinies. While they work in less-than-desirable conditions, they are constantly looking for new opportunities. They have no loyalty to their current employers, and instead put their own self-interests first. Each is seeking to maximize her own opportunities by studying English, learning new skills, and exaggerating her own credentials. In this regard, China appears less like an abusive, tightly controlled society and more like the “wild, wild, west,” where each man (or woman) succeeds or fails according to their own hustle, drive, and entrepreneurship. Along the way, they enjoy the relative anonymity and freedom of the city as they quickly adopt the trappings (clothes, makeup, cell phones, etc.) of modern urban life.
Educators can use individual chapters or the entire text according to classroom conditions (the book is just over 400 pages). The writing is easy to follow and there is little need to provide historical context. For this reason, high school or middle school teachers could utilize Factory Girls in the classroom (though there are sections where the women describe their romantic encounters and attitudes toward pre-marital sex—but without any detail or gratuity). Indeed, the women subjects are approximately the same age as high school students, and therefore American teenagers should easily relate to their feelings of optimism and hopefulness.
Leslie Chang, a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal, has spent many years in China and is familiar with its language and culture. As the American granddaughter of Chinese immigrants, she uses the text to reflect on her own feelings toward migration and displacement. Chang and her story could be helpful in promoting discussions of migration, identity, and assimilation. Just as importantly, Factory Girls complicates the common narrative of globalization and economic victimization.
Some questions I recommend using to start a classroom discussion include:
What most surprised you about this book?
Are these girls victims? If so, who are the perpetrators (parents, global capitalism, bosses, boyfriends, cheats and thieves, pimps, etc.)?
Is this a gendered view of migration? How so?
How do these women improve their lives?
Leslie Chang suggests that migration and factory work has empowered these women. Do you agree? Why or why not?
How do social/economic/political structures affect these women? How do these women (and these structures) compare with other texts you have read?
New York Times named Leslie Chang’s Factory Girls a Notable Book. It was selected as one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Seattle Times, Time, and BusinessWeek. It received the PEN USA Literary Award for Research Nonfiction and the Asian American Literary Award For Nonfiction. Since it was first published in English, it has been translated into 10 other languages. In short, Factory Girls is a very influential book that sheds important light on the process of globalization and migration.

Cultural Awareness of a Vastly Different Society

Field of Interest/Specialty: World History 9th grade / Contemporary Affairs 11/12
Posted On: 06/30/2012

Factory Girls: from Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie T. Chang is an insightful non-fiction perspective of the cultural differences that exist within China for women as they move from rural to urban society seeking a better life. Some “go out” never to return to the farm, while others escape for a short time but return to their traditional roots. This book will elicit a reaction from anyone who reads it as the cultural expectations and demands are so vastly different from western culture.
This book is also a story of the author’s exploration of her own personal heritage and encounters she has while reconnecting to her ancestry.
As a whole, the book is a must read for any teacher. It offers such insight to the Chinese culture and gender issues that when completed, one continues to think about the stories and impact that the culture has on the people and the world. However, I do not recommend that this text be used in its entirety in a classroom setting. First, it is a slow read. The storyline is initially choppy and redundant at times causing this reader to need to put it down several times before completing the 400+ pages. Also, as the author relays her experiences, adult language is used as the situation dictated. Although infrequently used, the language is not conducive to a middle school or high school setting. How I would recommend this book be used is for a teacher to lift sections of chapters that would pertain to course material. The book is formatted into 2 parts: The City, The Village. Each of these parts is divided into chapters and each chapter has divisions within to separate time or topic. The redundancy that exists is an asset in this situation as it will give necessary background information for the reader to understand the lifted passage. In doing so, the teacher can avoid inappropriate content yet still offer his/her students insight into the growing female factory culture.
Overall, I enjoyed the book and have recommended it to family and friends. It definitely makes one compare US and Chinese working culture and the family. I struggled with how many stars to give this book. Initially I was only going to give it a 3 due to how tough it was for me to read. However, once I realized how much I still think about the content, I realized it is definitely a story that needs to be heard, giving it a 4 star rating. I do caution against giving it to students, but there is valuable information within that could be modified for use in a classroom.