1. University of Virginia
  2. Arts & Sciences

Xinyan Peng

BA, University of Virginia, December 2013

PO BOX 400120

Xinyan Peng is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at University of Virginia. Her dissertation and book project is entitled We’ve Always Worked”: Professionalizing Life among White-Collar Women in Contemporary Urban China.
Based on 12 months of ethnographic research in Shanghai,We’ve Always Worked” focuses on the culture of work in today’s urban China, and how it has exerted impact beyond the workplace to shape bodily training, kinship practice, and social relationships among young white-collar women in their twenties and thirties. It integrates studies of work, body, gender, and kinship, investigating how ideas and practices of work reconstitute women’s subjectivities, families, and social lives. In post-socialist China, the state has downplayed traditional forms of governance and social welfare, and has instead stressed neoliberal modes of governmentality: making individuals and families solely responsible for their own successes. We’ve Always Worked” analyzes how women respond to and put into practice neoliberal values highlighting self-enterprising, self-disciplining, and self-regulating individuals in their everyday work and family lives.

 We’ve Always Worked” takes its readers on a journey through three domains of urban Chinese white-collar women’s lives as observed by the ethnographer in Shanghai, without presupposing dichotomies such as the public/private and production/reproduction that the book’s Introduction critically interrogates. In addition to Preface, Introduction, and Epilogue, the main body of We’ve Always Worked” is composed of three parts and four core chapters. Part One—Chapter Two and Three—focuses on the domain of work by exploring the establishment of a white-collar work culture that legitimates over-time work as hard-work in the post-socialist, reform era. After connecting the rise of the white-collar work culture in Shanghai to China’s four decades of economic reforms, I analyze how a discourse of individuated and self-responsible hard-work—justified, perpetuated, and naturalized in the workplace—produces a self-examining, self-regulating, and self-governing neoliberal subjectivity. Part Two—Chapter Three—interrogates white-collar women’s bodily training and moves the larger narrative of the book from the women’s productive to their reproductive lives. I show that when facing challenges brought by reproductive labor to their career and bodies, some women made extra efforts to keep their right to work and body in shape, while others rebelled against such discourse that in their eyes only used unrealistic standards to impose unbearable burdens on the bodies of working women. Part Three—Chapter Five—explores women’s domestic labor and family life, which had been professionalized by the practical and conceptual apparatus of efficiency and rationality that women transplanted from the workplace. I argue that as women were facing setbacks in the workplace, i.e., in the domain of production, part of their response to it was to transform the domain of reproduction.

We’ve Always Worked” contributes to understanding contemporary China, East Asia, and post-socialist societies in other parts of the world, in an era of declining population growth, stagnant economic growth, and changing configurations of work and family. Building on relevant existing social-scientific literature on East Asia, East Central Europe, Russia, North America, and beyond, this book that explores how women adapt to changing urban political economy will be of interest to a broad range of scholars studying capitalist, post-socialist, and neoliberal societies. A key aim and contribution of We’ve Always Worked” is integrating studies of labor with those of gender and family, to explore how work permeates and shapes other aspects of life. The book not only draws from materials gathered during my year-long ethnographic fieldwork, but also engages historically grounded studies of body, gender, work, and kinship to compare the past and present. The Chinese state has been reforming its way of regulating family life, and as a result urban white-collar women have experienced aggravated gender-based discrimination, as companies become more reluctant to hire women in the era of the two-child-per-family policy. As the state and society exert new pressures on young women’s decisions about child-rearing, We’ve Always Worked” examines how white-collar women seek to protect their right to work by working hard in almost all domains of their lives. An important argument of the book runs that a culture of persistent, legitimated, and naturalized overtime hard-work gets enacted on bodies—for instance, in the culture of physical training among white-collar women—and extends into domestic spaces to instill notions of efficiency and rationality in women’s reproductive life. We’ve Always Worked” contributes to understanding how the embodiment and extension of a hard-work ethic perpetuates the hegemony of the work culture, and has profound impacts on women’s bodies and families.

I focus theoretically on (1) the dichotomy between production and reproduction and (2) the transition from socialism to post-socialism. With regard to the first theoretical issue, the ethnographically-driven dissertation seems to take its readers from the domain of production to that of reproduction, with an interim chapter where I explore women’s struggles between their productive and reproductive roles. Nevertheless, the book attempts to challenge the dichotomy between production and reproduction by taking the perspective of work to look at other aspects of women’s lives. Given the socialist legacy of women’s high rate of participation in the labor force, it is important for scholars of contemporary China to take seriously the study of labor in understanding women’s lives. Regarding the second theoretical issue, a standard narrative in Western literature on Chinese society depicts its transition from socialism to post-socialism and neoliberalism in the past several decades. When comparing my ethnographic observations in the field to historically grounded studies of gender, labor, body, and kinship, I have seen both continuity and change, or sometimes more continuity than change, with respect to women’s lives. In the book, I will work out a larger argument about the perceived transition (or the lack thereof) from socialism to post-socialism in China in the last several decades.