Blurring boundaries : life and work of young middle-class women in post-2000s urban China

  • Lili LIN

Student thesis: PhD Thesis (Lingnan)


The research concerns young middle-class women’s labor practices and experience in cultural and creative industries (CCI) and the formation of labouring subjectivity in the post-2000s urban China, based on text analysis and eight months of ethnographic fieldwork in Shanghai. Tracing women’s work histories throughout the twentieth century in urban China, it is apparent that women’s work has historically been prominently shaped by reproduction. Women have been positioned as flexible labour and are embodied in the contradiction between production and reproduction. Since the 2000s, a new round of reform has begun calling for ‘upgrading and transforming’ production that is ‘made in China’ to ‘created in China’. The Chinese government promulgates the discourse of creativity, inciting the young, educated middle class to embrace ‘mass entrepreneurship and innovation’. Such socioeconomic conjuncture reconfigures women’s position in society. Young middleclass women, who are historically positioned in the field of flexible work, are now represented as the paradigmatic workers in current modes of production. Through a policy review and an examination of the key features of work in CCI, this research argues that the discourse of creativity underlined by the spirit of entrepreneurship legitimates and normalises a labour regime that directs young middle class, particularly young middle-class women, to adopt a flexible and precarious pattern of working life with limited social welfare protection. Young women’s work practices in CCI are characterised by precariousness, flexibility, and entrepreneurship. They are required to build their social relations and lived experience into work, which blurs boundaries between production and reproduction.

The ethnographic fieldwork shows that young, urban middle-class women are both the subject of and subjected to the demands of life focused on work. On the one hand, they conform to the subject-position, produced in the hegemonic representation, which prioritizes their role as workers over their maternal roles. Young women consider work crucial to obtaining independence and self-actualization, and constantly manage their human capital and fashion themselves in order to increase employability. On the other hand, the expansion of productive logic intensifies the contradiction women embodied and causes unspeakable pains such as anxiety and depression, which are invisible in the representation but prominent in lived experience. Young educated women are not entirely subsumed to the discourse of ‘putting life to work’, but try to negotiate and resist an excessive attachment to work through various means, including recourse to the market and family. Yet, their means of negotiation and resistance tend to be highly individualised and de-politicised.

Date of Award10 Jul 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Lingnan University
SupervisorChing Kiu Stephen CHAN (Supervisor) & Yuk Ming Lisa LEUNG (Supervisor)

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