Even as China's economic reforms caused the traditional Mao suit to give way to Armani, most of the world still views the nation in collective terms. Its Communist identity, its sheer mass and its long history of isolation have conspired to make its 1.3 billion people seem like a faceless sea of humanity to Westerners who consume its goods.
But those groaning shelves at Wal-Mart are packed through the labor of individual hands. "Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China" tells the stories of ambition, hope and yearning behind the trendy handbags and cheap DVD players that flood American ports. With compassion and without judgment, author Leslie T. Chang reveals how China's 130 million migrant workers -- many of them rural young women -- toil within this massive system to seek their own personal measure of success.
Chang, a former China correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, puts a much-needed individual spin on the largest migration in history. China's churning export economy means that chuqu, or "going out" -- the common term for leaving one's rural village to find work in a city -- has created huge "floating populations" that outnumber the actual residents in many factory towns.
A lack of opportunities at home, and the universal desire to better one's life, have led millions of women in their teens and 20s to join the tide. In Dongguan, the Pearl River Delta factory town that is the focus of much of Chang's book, they prowl the talent markets for jobs and sleep eight to a room in factory dormitories. The Yue Yuen athletic shoe factory is like a city unto itself, with its own movie theater, hospital and fire department.
Chang eavesdrops on the young women's dating rituals, their diaries, the fluid friendships that appear and disappear as they move from factory to factory looking for better work.
Wu Chunming personifies the pull of two worlds: the dutiful daughter who knits her mother a sweater, and the ambitious young Chinese who writes motivational slogans in her diary. Min learns to navigate office politics to move up the ladder -- to a job where workers slept four to a room and got one day off each week -- but loses touch with everyone she knows when her cell phone is stolen.
These young women show remarkable resilience in the face of harassing bosses, business scams, exploitation and profound loneliness. Chang clearly understands them; she finds parallels in the story of her own family, which migrated within China and eventually to the United States during another time of upheaval. Her poignant look at the "Factory Girls" shows how this generation's efforts to reinvent themselves are helping to shape a new China -- and by shining a light on their individual faces, she helps us see the people behind the economic giant.
Rachel Blount is a sportswriter for the Star Tribune. She covered the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.