Handle with Care: Representing Chinese Factory Workers

Penny Wang | June 11, 2018

Penny Before Christmas

Stories about the miseries of Chinese factory workers have been regarded in the West as welcome gestures against the dehumanising globalised market economy to which China has submitted itself. These expository accounts have been applauded as signs of critical reflections against the silence imposed by the Chinese government—a government the Western media label as authoritarian and indifferent to the lower-income populations victimised by its profit-oriented policies. Much as I appreciate the necessity of such exposés, either through reports or slightly fictionalised accounts, I usually find these narratives deeply problematic. Taking an event I recently attended as an example—a screening of the short film Before Christmas directed by Chuyao He on 11 May at Edinburgh Printmakers (part of the Edinburgh Short Film Festival), I would like to examine exactly what is wrong with these representations.

In an interview conducted by the Festival, He describes her encountering the photographs of workers in Chinese Christmas decoration factories as “very much like a discovery”, for “[w]ithout the photograph[s], no one would know this type of job exists.” It is also these photos that inspired her to make the film. I wonder, however, exactly who doesn’t know about these jobs?  If, as she claims, underage labour under inhumane conditions is “an open secret in Chinese society”, who is the film informing? Clearly a Western audience. Apparently the awareness of this situation by this privileged audience is what matters. Considering, however, the popular connotations of “made in China” and the prevalent image of Chinese sweatshops in Western discourses, her film can hardly “offer [the audience] a new perspective”. Like many of its kind, this self-proclaimed “revelation” elicits only a fleeting condemnation from the audience, who just verified their pre-knowledge about which they had done nothing substantial and probably never will. It fails to incite sustained discussions or effective actions, either domestic or abroad, to deal with the structural problems causing these issues.

Why claim to offer a glimpse into “reality” when it does not? Because this “reality” is exactly the stereotypical expectations a white and well-off audience would have of a film made by a director from and about a “developing country”. Confirming rather than challenging existing discourses, Before Christmas is a privileged telling that eases its way into international acceptance and fame by profiting from, rather than speaking for (which can also be problematic), marginalised groups. The film focalises a teenage boy who reluctantly follows his father’s order and moves to the city with his parents to work in a Christmas decoration factory. Boasting a social realism, the film offers only compiled clichés. The fact that it is filmed at real locations only deepens its problematic nature: real workers in such factories are mostly women (muted and relegated to the background in this film) who cannot afford the boy’s clothes, his accessories, or the brand new tableware used by the boy’s family. These disparities between the representations and the workers’ lived experiences could have been caused by ignorance, or worse, negligence, on the part of the filmmaker.

Like other similar narratives, this film elicits a knowing “Ah!” from the white audience secretly revelling in another piece of evidence (A confession from a “native”!) that supports their conviction of the fundamental “barbarity” of the Chinese. Such films thrive by pandering to age-old Western stereotypes masked as appeals for a more humane Chinese society. The “free land” in the song the protagonist listens to on his mobile device during/between work shifts provides the contrast to the miserable reality he is confined to. This uncritical evocation of the ideal of freedom with its apparent symbolism and the deliberate reference to “China Dream” at the beginning of the film remind one of the old binaristic divide between socialism and capitalism; ironically, it is exactly these factories and their products that the so-called “free world”—the capitalist West—relies on. Reassured of the superiority of the system they live in, the audience uphold it with their daily labour: their liberal-minded condemnation turns out to be hypocritical.

This is not to say that one should refrain from representing the realities of the “developing countries” to a Western audience, but that it should only be done when one is adequately informed and willing to proceed with respect and nuance. The representations should at least facilitate discussions that will help to make a difference in the lived realities of these marginalised groups. Fulfilling these requirements does not solve all the problems, but it is a step forward.

About Penny

Penny Wang is currently doing an MSc in Literature and Modernity at the University of Edinburgh. Her academic interest mainly lies in postcolonial and diasporic literature as well as feminist studies. She generally likes having deep (but light) conversations about life and believes in the necessity and potential of empathetic connections.


Before Christmas. Directed by Chuyao He, Zhang Hao, 2017.

He, Chuyao. Interviewed by Paul Bruce. ESFF Film-Maker Interviews #4 – Chuyao He, 30 Apr. 2018, http://www.edinburghshortfilmfestival.com/esff-film-maker-interviews-4-chuyao-he/. Accessed 13 May 2018.

Edited by Anna Kemball, Vivek Santayana, Valentina Aparicio

One response to “Handle with Care: Representing Chinese Factory Workers

  1. I think a major problem lies in the fact that current affairs are always narrated rather than reported, and this narration can never be culturally or ideologically neutral no matter where it comes from.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s