Made in China Series: Factory Girls

Starting in 2010, Aowen Jin worked undercover and spent two years living among factory girls in China. Aowen interviewed more than 800 of these 16-30 year olds to discover the faces of these remarkable women, who made the Chinese economic miracle possible.

Every year Aowen will invite 10-20 factory girls to collaborate on performance artworks until 2020, using body language as art to express the their personality, ambitions, dreams and concerns. All performances are captured on each girl's mobile phone.


Exhibition 2014

Brixton East Gallery, London, April 2014

The Factory Girls 2014

The inspirational girls who performed for the 2014 Factory Girls project.

Exhibition 2013

Brick Lane Gallery, London, September 2013

"The mobile phone is the only way factory girls can stay connect to the world outside factory walls. It is so crucially important that they see their mobile phones as an extension of themselves, a part of their identity."

"After sharing two years of my life with these factory girls, I feel a strong responsibility to tell the untold story of these incredibly strong and resilient girls who have made the Chinese economic boom possible."

"Through art, I attempt to offer Chinese factory girls the opportunity to showcase their individuality and creativity, and via an open minded audience raise their profile to improve their social equality."

"By using their mobile phones as a part of the artworks, I hope to create a strong presence of these factory girls within the gallery."

The Factory Girls 2013

The inspirational girls who performed for this project. Click on a girl to see her story.

"Despite its growing legitimacy, Performance art remains one of the most challenging forms of artistic expression in China today."

"By using performance art, I position factory girls at the forefront of the artistic debates: Art is not just for privileged Chinese, but It can also be a powerful tool for factory girls to engage others and challenge their social status in the cities."


Making Of

Academic Contributors

Xinran - Journalist, Broadcaster & Writer

XinranChina's Economic Reform has triggered the biggest rural worker migration in world history. These rural workers have injected new emotional and physical energy into China, which was once closed off from the rest of world for thousand of years.

Over the past 30 years, these Chinese rural workers fill China's new towns and cities like ocean waves; they are changing their own fate as well as changing the destiny of China. These 'Chinese-on-the-Move' account for 10% of China's population. They exhausted a few generations of their family, with cheap labour, heavy shoulders and zero social benefit in order to create China's economic miracle which was once only inward and backward looking. They use their bodies as coordinates in order to found an era of progress which is unparalleled in the world.

Thirty years later, the migration of Chinese rural workers is gathering an even faster pace with new diversities and new excitements. They are the founders of the wealth of new China today.

However, no one has raised the importance of these workers above the ever faster economic growth in China. This exhibition is the first of its kind to give them a platform on an International stage where they can be heard.

Martin JacquesMartin Jacques - Author, Broadcaster & Speaker

The Chinese urban young in the cities have changed so much, and very very quickly - the way they dress, the way they act and so on. They’re more self confident, more fashionable, and much freer. Those are the things that have struck me. A certain sort of self-confidence strikes me about them. Of course their horizons have hugely changed, especially migrant workers, because of where they’ve come from, and what they’ve had to contend with, and what they’ve had to learn, and what they’ve had to understand to deal with a world they’re completely unfamiliar with. It's a very interesting phenomenon and an impressive one.

Dr Reza Hasmath - University of Oxford

Reza HasmathThere are differences between the young generation and older generation of migrant workers.

The differences are that this younger generation has gone through the standardized education system; they have been socialized in a very similar way as other parts of China. As a consequence it will be difficult to find differences within this younger generation. But the older generation did not have an institutional mechanism and the same education. They did not have the same textbooks and so forth.

The younger generation tends to be more socially aware. I do think the younger generation in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai are more educated and more aware of their options and so forth. When I looked at the younger generation, what I found was that they came for opportunities in those cities, but they were not facing dire circumstances. They were pretty much like an everyday young person. They have the same aspirations, the same goals.

The reality for the older generation is to send money back home. The younger generation wants to stay in bigger cities, that is where they want to be. They are creating a livelihood there. Many are able to find work in their home provinces and many are returning or staying there. The economic situation has changed reality, for instance; if you were coming from a really poor village you would have to go to the big city and send money back home. The poor villages are not longer so poor so there is an opportunity in that village, that city or town for locals to make a living. So the reality for migrant workers is very different now than for ten years ago.

Kent DengDr Kent G. Deng - London School of Economics

China has class systems, but it is also very open to how the system is defined. Everyone can move from one class to another class easily as long as they are high achievers. Social mobility has existed in China for over 2000 years and Confucianism encourages social mobility. As a result Chinese migrant workers are high risk takers. Chinese society is full of stories of how successful entrepreneurs started with humble beginnings, many of them born as farmers but made their fortune in the cities and became the new social elite.

Chinese migrant workers are self-reliant; there is no social culture in China to rely on government support. It is still regarded as a disgrace in China to rely on charity alone. Chinese migrant workers work exceptionally hard because they only rely on themselves.

Chinese migrant workers are often better educated than we assume. They also keep up with current affairs, particularly government policies and social issues, because any changes in politics might affect their ambitions. They seek freedom of movement. They want to study and go to cities, and then they don't want to come back. Chinese people view people who return to their humble beginnings as failures.

Leslie T. Chang - Author of Factory Girls: Voices from the Heart of Modern China (Updated, 2010)

Leslie ChangMigrants are the rural elite. They are young, better educated and more enterprising than the people they leave behind… And most of today's young migrants don't come from the farm: They come from school. Farming is something they have watched their parents do.

Newer migrants have looser ties to their villages. Their trips home are no longer dictated by the farming calendar.

"If I only go to school, come out and do migrant work for a few years, then go home, marry and have children," Min said, "I might as well not have lived this whole life."

To come out from home and work in a factory is … also an adventure. What keeps them in the city is not fear but pride.

Migrants increasingly look and act like city people. Today's migrants spend money freely on themselves – on clothes, hairstyles, and mobile phones – and may send home cash only in instances of need. The newer migrants are more ambitious and less content than their elders were… Their basis of comparison is already the city.

Lakshmi IyerProf. Lakshmi Iyer - Harvard Business School

2012, China attained a historic development milestone with more Chinese citizens living in cities than in the countryside. China's rapid urbanization, and the accompanying conversion of agricultural land to non-agricultural uses, raised a number of economic, social, and political concerns. Could China maintain its food security in view of the sharply rising demand for land for urban development? How could it ensure the sustainability of local government finances? Was the growing number of land protests the harbinger of major changes in China's political institutions? How would the challenges of urbanization affect the business environment for private firms? The success and viability of China's overall growth strategy depended crucially on managing a successful urban transition.