Young Women’s Migration in Modern China

A Chinese worker putting together the lens assembly for our TEK4 digital camera in Ningbo, China.

A review of Young Women’s Migration in Modern China: From Rural Villages to Factories in Urban Cities, by Juan Zhong.

The present dissertation by Juan Zhong, Young Women’s Migration in Modern China: From Rural Villages to Factories in Urban Cities, offers an important contribution while investigating an understudied population in the field of developmental psychology, the non-college and non-urban population of Chinese women workers who migrate from rural areas to work in the city. The theoretical framework used was the emerging adulthood theory, from a cultural perspective, which recognizes the influence of the context on the manifestation of emerging adulthood. The dissertation contributes to the work of researchers investigating emerging adulthood and related topics (e.g., identity formation, and culture) such as Larry Nelson and Seth Schwartz. From the beginning of the research, we see that participants’ background leads them to live a transition to adulthood strongly based on values of Confucianism (such as filial piety), meaning that they follow a traditional and hierarchical structure while making choices. Helping their parents financially is a foremost value for them, considering their differential mode of association.

In the introduction, we have an overview of the current Chinese context and a brief explanation of the study’s methodological approach. In Chapter 1, there is an interesting mixed methods study of the most important criteria to reach adulthood for participants. The author reinforces that there are different transitions to adulthood within the same country, and no doubt, that emerging adulthood is a cultural rather than a universal concept. In this study, Confucianism influences participants’ worldviews such that they are strongly oriented towards family compliance and filial piety. It is not by chance that they place high importance, for instance, on taking care of their families and having consideration for others. The particularities of this influence leads to the manifestation of participants’ wonder of financial independence and autonomy provided by a work activity, not in a sense of being distant from their parents, but for supporting them financially, and to avoid  becoming a source of worry for them. They placed emphasis on their professional career, even more than college students after graduation (Nelson et al., 2004). Despite that, participants demonstrated to valuation of more traditional gender roles for men (e.g., protecting the family) and women (e.g., taking care of children). In addition, unlike emerging adults in Westerns and urban contexts, participants valued maturity and emotional control as an important marker of adulthood.

In Chapter 2, there is an understanding of family strategy as an influence on participants’ decision-making to migrate to the city. Thus, this study aimed to investigate the motivations of participants and their families behind their migration to work in the cities. Decades ago, this decision was restricted to the family’s subsistence needs, and women would obey the family’s decision. In recent years, there is a mixed motivation, in a sense that girls are motivated not only by a desire to help with family income, but also for autonomy and career development. The main result is that women migrant workers act based on the family strategy, but different from the previous mode of migration, they have the opportunity to choose to migrate on their own. Before, they obeyed their parent’s decision, but currently it occurs following more of a dialogue between them and their parents. Frequently, parents do not want them to migrate because they would like them to study and are worried about their safety. What we see is that, although survival and poverty remain the main reasons for migration, there are others intervening factors, such as low grades at school and a lack of motivation for studying, which provide the possibility for siblings to go to school, autonomy/independence, and a desire to explore the world. There is also kinship as social capital, since most of them migrate with the support of relatives or fellow villagers.

In Chapter 3, the goal was to investigate the process of identity exploration of participants considering their prospects regarding work, love relationships, and worldviews. The author used the Inventory of the Dimensions of Emerging Adulthood (IDEA) and saw that those who perceive themselves as adults are more self-focused, but towards an other-focused goal due to the influence of their collectivist culture. It means that, for instance, their emphasis on career development (self-focus) is actually influenced by their personal value and aim of caring for their families (other-focus). This chapter also brought a mismatch between their expectation towards work and their lives in the city. The city remains a distant place for them, because they interact with people from their network (family or work fellows), generally people in the same situation and with the same goals. Moreover, most of them are not satisfied with their work and face difficulties finding better job opportunities because of their limited education. Working in factories, participants’ main goal was to save money and send it to their families (particularly parents) and not to have an identity based job that fit with their personal values. In addition, even when they expressed the desire for a new job calmer than the ones they had in the city (commonly in small businesses), it did not mean choosing something meaningful and satisfactory. They brought a motivation more associated with having a calmer life. Surprisingly, there was a group of participants who were willing to date someone they met in the city, generally villagers. The problem was that they would then probably live far from their parents, which would please neither these subjects nor their parents.

Overall, Juan Zhong’s dissertation is an excellent contribution to the field of Developmental Psychology and Cultural Psychology.

Luciana Dutra-Thomé
Postdoctoral Research Associate
Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul/Brazil

Primary Sources
National Bureau of Statistics of China. (2011). Xin sheng dai nong min gong de shu liang, jie gou he te dian [The characteristics of new generation migrant workers in China]. (

National Population and Family Planning Commission of China. (2009). Ti qian fan xiang liu dong ren kou diau cha bao gao [A Survey report on the earlier return migrants]. Ren kou yan jiu [Population studies] 33.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. (2013). Statistical abstract of the United States. Washington, DC.

Dissertation Information
Clark University. 2014. 187 pp. Primary Advisor: Jeffrey Arnett.

Image: A Chinese worker putting together the lens assembly for my TEK4 digital camera in Ningbo, China. Wikimedia Commons.

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