Rural Woman and Modernity in Globalizing China: Seeing Jia Zhangke's The World



In this article, I consider Jia Zhangke's 2004 film The World (shijie) as a tool for critical thinking about the challenges of modernity and globalization for internal migrants in contemporary China, especially young rural women working in Beijing, and the gender politics of their representation. A close reading of the film, juxtaposed with ethnographic studies on China's internal migration and rural women, demonstrates that The World's visual and narrative techniques provide valuable insight into the disjuncture between transnational imaginaries and local material conditions, which together contour migrants' experience of globalization. However, to effectively deliver its critique, The World relies upon a chauvinistic convention of using “rural woman” as a sign of social ills, rather than an agent of social change. I suggest that deconstructing the gendering of modernity and national identity by recognizing rural migrant women as agents of globalization can mitigate the dire message of  The World that, ultimately, rural woman and modernity are incompatible, as are, allegorically, China and globalization.


In this article, I consider the film The World, by the critically acclaimed young Mainland Chinese director Jia Zhangke, to be a useful tool for critical thinking about the challenges of globalization and modernity for China's internal migrants, especially young women from the countryside, and the politics of their filmic representation.1 A close reading of the film juxtaposed with qualitative studies on China's internal migration demonstrates that The World's narrative and visual techniques provide valuable insight into the disjuncture between transnational imaginaries and local material conditions, which together contour migrants' experience of globalization. However, to effectively deliver its critique, The World relies upon a chauvinistic convention of “primitivism” (pace Rey Chow 1991), in which the figure of the rural Chinese woman is “sexualized, feminized, infantilized, oppressed, inarticulate, impotent, and backward” on the one hand and identified with the “primordial, native, and authentic” on the other (Marchetti 2006:87). In fact, according to my ethnographic research (Gaetano 2004, 2005, 2008), rural migrant women are ambivalent about “becoming modern” precisely because it conflicts with their idealized role and identity as bearers of tradition, and because of their limited options in a context of gender and rural-urban inequality. But, I argue, female protagonist Tao's encounter with modernity is unnecessarily negative because the filmmaker positions her as “the object, rather than the subject, of the gaze,” who is denied a subjectivity that might conceivably be transformed by her experiences (Sun 2002:39) and rendered only as a sign of social ills, rather than an agent of social change (Marchetti 2006:88–89). I suggest that deconstructing the gendering of modernity and national identity by recognizing rural migrant women as agents of globalization can mitigate the dire message of The World that, ultimately, rural woman and modernity are incompatible, as are, allegorically, China and globalization.

The World, produced in 2004 and released on the international market in 2005, was the first above-ground feature film directed by Jia. Along with his three previous films,2The World completes a “tetralogy” (Teo 2005) of works that successively chronicle the impact of China's post-Mao reform and opening policies on the everyday lives and subjectivities of peasants and provincials from Shanxi province in central China.3The World poignantly conveys the social and human costs of China's rapid economic transformation by depicting the hardscrabble lives of a group of mostly rural migrants from Shanxi, who have found work in the eponymous Beijing international theme park, the World Park.

As with Jia's earlier films, the fictional setting and characters of The World mimic real places and people.4 Jia himself is from Fenyang, a small city (population <200,000) in Shanxi, which also figures as the hometown of characters in his many films (Lee 2003).5 Jia also migrated from the provinces to Beijing.6 In addition, the film was partially shot at the actual World Park in Beijing as well as at the Windows of the World in Shenzhen (Lim 2005). Similarly, Jia's realist or naturalist method of storytelling allows actors' “emotions to develop fully in the natural course of time” (Teo 2005). In the director's own words, “My way of filming allows me to describe Chinese reality without distortion” (Lee 2003). These documentary-like elements7 give added weight to the film's critical representation of contemporary China as it engages with processes of globalization and transnationalism: migration, urbanization, tourism, conspicuous consumption, flexible capitalism, and new communications technologies, and the desires for “modernity” that these invoke in individuals and communities.

In particular, through narrative and visual metaphors of space and mobility, The World deftly illustrates deterritorialization—the dislocation of “authentic” culture, identity, and meaning from place—wrought by these global processes. The park's migrant workers illustrate the uprooting of people from place according to the logics of global capital flows and labor market mechanisms, as well as the intangible quest for modernity, whereas the theme park itself depicts the global circulation of iconic places (e.g., the Leaning Tower of Pisa), and their symbolic meanings, via their replication in miniature for tourist consumption. These phenomena are the effects of, as well as indicators of, China's postsocialist drive to achieve modernity indexed by rising GNP, global competitiveness, and other markers of getting on track with the (developed) world (yu shijie jiegui). Indeed, sites like the World Park in Beijing are indices of this modernity, as they make manifest a domestic tourist market and leisure culture, and cosmopolitan knowledge.8

However, the film reveals the representational space of the theme park to be a mere facade masking the social inequalities and human injustices that are the gritty underside of globalization, particularly the alienated and commoditized forms of labor, sex and sexed bodies, and, indeed, human relations. The park workers' dull workaday lives, their relegation to the edge of the city and the backstage of the park's theater, and their meager accommodations in basement dormitories sharply contrast to the images of leisure, wealth, and travel projected aboveground by the theme park for tourist consumption. Yet, such is the lure of modernity that even the workers become pleasure-seeking consumers of the park's imaginary space, making them complicit in the production of social and spatial inequalities that are central to the park's operation as a profit-making business. Ironically, the desire for a better tomorrow that drives their migration to the city only leads to their confinement, within the walls of the theme park and its dead-end jobs. Jia's film thus sensitively captures the ambivalence of ordinary people's encounters with globalization, and the tensions between the ideals of freedom, progress, and prosperity associated with modernity on the one hand, and the social inequalities produced by neoliberal global capitalism, on the other, using the metaphor of (im)mobility.

The film explores these contradictions through a focus on the female protagonist, Zhao Xiao Tao, played by actress Zhao Tao, who has appeared in other of Jia's films. Tao, a migrant from China's rural hinterland (i.e., Shanxi province), works as a dancer-entertainer in the theme park. In the evenings, she appears in Las Vegas showgirl-style acts presented to a largely male audience (Figure 1). During the daytime, she rotates around the park's “international circuit,” posing for tourist photos and demonstrating erotic “ethnic” dances. Dressed provocatively in “national costumes”—the powdered face and layered kimono of a Japanese geisha, the kohl-lined eyes and gossamer sari of a Hindu goddess—she blends into the postmodern pastiche of the park's landscape.9

Figure 1.

 Performing for tourists at the World Park. Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.

For Tao as for other migrants, the park and the city that encases it—while also keeping it “sealed-off ” (Jaffee 2004)—are spaces of representation, where they project their desires to partake of a modernity associated with the urban, consumption, transnational travel, and new technology.10 Tao's experience should be one of broadening horizons, exercising autonomy, and securing a better future. Instead she is subjected to exploitation not only on the basis of her class, itself compounded by her rural origins, but also gender, as her body is sexualized and commodified. Further, she is caught between incommensurable moral orders, as conservative social norms associated with rural patriarchy clash with urban values and lifestyle. As even the intimate sphere of human relations is infected by neoliberal values of competition, individualism, and instrumentality, ethical living becomes more difficult as Tao faces choices with grave consequences.

Below I first explore the film's use of space and movement to represent the contradictions of globalization and modernity and critique the growing social inequalities in China. Next I focus on how the film narrative articulates the impact of such contradictions on social identity, ethics, and cultural authenticity, and I analyze the gendered assumptions of this aspect of social critique. Finally, I interpret the film's conclusion, and offer alternate readings that deconstruct the gendered trope of the rural woman as embodiment of nationhood.

The Lure of Modernity and the Contradiction of Globalization

The World effectively illustrates the phenomenon of “time–space compression”—simultaneity and speed wrought by new technologies of transportation and communication (Harvey 1989) that are the hallmarks of contemporary global capitalism. The touristy World Theme Park represents the world in miniature, via “ersatz reproductions” of iconic global architecture like the Eiffel Tower, London Bridge, and Leaning Tower of Pisa, assembled together for tourist consumption (Lim 2005). Slogans such as “Give Us a Day and We'll Give You the World” succinctly express the ambitious potential of global integration to create a “small world” and integrated human society.

But such slogans carry empty promises to the park's workers, representatives of the tens of millions of largely rural Chinese who have left the countryside in search of work in the urban centers of the economically robust coastal regions since the 1980s. About half of all rural labor migrants are women; most are young and single like Tao. A majority finds employment in light industry and in service occupations, as well as in entertainment or sex work. They migrate for a host of reasons, primary among them to contribute to the family economy and to “see the world”—to gain life experience, exercise autonomy, and learn new skills (Gaetano 2004; Jacka 2006; Lee 1998; Pun 2005; Zhang 1999). In the context of the film, however, such aspirations are ironic, because they underscore the vast distance between, on the one hand, the migrants' transnational yearnings for prosperity and freedom, and, on the other hand, their reality of relative poverty and confinement. Although their labor—as the park's entertainers, tour guides, and security personnel—helps to produce the park's image for the (domestic and international) tourists, these migrant workers in fact experience limited, if any, actual economic, social, and spatial mobility.

In China, an “internal passport” or hukou (household register) system regulates migration and functions to discourage a majority of migrants from settling long term in the largest cities.11 The hukou ensures a cheap and flexible migrant labor force, as it channels migrants into low-skilled, least remunerated, and insecure jobs. Local residence permits are further required for full access to basic services in urban areas at affordable (partially subsidized) rates, such as health care, medical and employment insurance, and children's education. The state and municipalities have been reluctant to take on the burden of providing social welfare for an underclass of mostly manual laborers. Instead they aim to keep costs of reproducing the labor force low by ensuring that migrants remain dependent in the long term on rural communities and families.12 Without directly referencing these real structural and institutional barriers, The World clearly conveys that migrants are trapped by conditions not of their own making.

The paradox of relative immobility in a globalizing world is reinforced in the film's visual presentation of the characters' cyclical daily routine as well as their circumlocutions of the park's perimeter. Tao is repeatedly shown riding the monorail at noontime, calling to chat with her boyfriend, Chen Taisheng (Chen Taisheng), a park security guard, on her cell phone. Daily life is dull and not at all like the excitement of the fireworks around the “Eiffel Tower” during a Christmas celebration display. Scenes featuring shots of commercial jetliners juxtapose transnational mobility with migrant workers' relative stasis. For example, Tao is shown dressed as an airline hostess seated in the cockpit of a grounded, partially dismantled, passenger jet, taking a break with her boyfriend from role-playing for tourists. In another scene, Tao watches a plane fly overhead with Little Sister, an oddly named male youth from Taisheng's hometown who has just begun a job in construction. “Who flies on those planes?” he asks. Tao replies that she does not know; she has never known anyone who has flown on a plane. The statement starkly reinforces just how remote London and New York really are from these migrants' horizons of possibilities given the limited avenues for social mobility that keep the migrant workers in their dead-end theme park jobs.

The park workers' yearnings for freedom are all the more poignant when juxtaposed against the backdrop of international travel and glamorous destinations represented in the park. In one scene, we see Tao at the top of the “Eiffel Tower” peering through a pair of binoculars, as if hoping to discern what lies beyond the park and the present. In analogous fashion, Tao takes off on a city bus one night after an argument with Taisheng. But she has no destination or other option but to return to the park. Her boyfriend recognizes this, asking rhetorically, “How far can you go?” in a text message he sends her. She receives the message on her cell phone just as the bus she rides on passes by former leader Chairman Mao Tse-tung's portrait in Tiananmen Square, as if posing the question to the nation itself. In another scene, Tao begs Taisheng to take her out of the park on an errand he has to run, complaining (with foreshadowing) that the longer she stays in the park, the more she resembles a ghost. Her craving for mobility and freedom is effectively illustrated through animated sequences that further emphasize the impossibility of ever satiating such desires. One depicts Tao in her air hostess uniform flying like a bird in the sky, over and out of the park toward the Beijing skyline. Another sequence shows Tao and Taisheng taking a simulated magic carpet ride in which the park's monuments are the backdrop. Even as they hope to escape the park's confines, the migrant workers are virtual prisoners and the freedom they do experience is only fleeting and imaginary, albeit pleasurable (Figure 2). Moreover, Tao's spatial mobility greatly depends on the help of the men in her life. For example, she is shown as a passenger in a taxi driven by Taisheng and on a horse being led around the park by Taisheng.

Figure 2.

 Tao (left) having fun with coworkers in the World Park. Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.

The film highlights the injustice of tighter border controls practiced by states concerned with security in an era of globalization characterized by mobile labor and unfettered capital flows. In the film, the migrant workers at the theme park aspire to acquire passports and undertake international travel, but only a few succeed, and at great cost. Given the difficulty of securing Beijing residence permits, the likelihood for a migrant's being able to accrue the money, education, skills, and connections necessary to attain a passport and a foreign visa are remote. The long-term migrant and relatively successful (financially) fashion designer Qun from Wenzhou is finally issued a visa to France, but only after years of waiting and separation from her husband. Tao's former boyfriend Liangzi likewise has secured a passport and a visa for Mongolia where he will find work. But when he shows it to Tao she intones, “I don't understand what's written on it,” thereby noting that she lacks the qualifications needed to acquire, or make use of, a passport. And an all-too-realistic scene shows newly arrived female Russian recruits for the park dance troupe reluctantly surrendering their passports, and hence their freedom, to their (male) employment broker—and probable pimp. Again, the film conveys that the human right to mobility associated with travel, passports, and visas (i.e., legal citizenship) is rarely, if ever, directly bestowed on women. Rather, women gain (or lose) this right only through their associations with men, as dependents on husbands, bosses, or pimps.13

The World's migrant workers share—albeit unequally—frustrated desires to “go places,” literally and figuratively, yet they are alienated from each other in the urban built environment. Social interactions are mediated by technology that, rather than bringing people together, actually pushes people apart. In particular, the park workers' ubiquitous cell phones fail to foster connectivity, and instead impede communication. Missed and unreturned calls and text messages incite the couple Niu and Wei to argue, and threaten to estrange them from one another. Likewise, it is a cell phone that conveys to Tao the fateful text-message revealing Taisheng's infidelity. By deleting this message meant for Taisheng, Tao deprives him of his lover Qun's last communication with him before she emigrates to France, and the knowledge of Qun's affection for him. A later scene shows Taisheng transfixed to his cell phone, presumably puzzling over Qun's reticence and waiting for her final goodbye. The park's virtual world of architectural replicas and simulated flight—the “world commodified” (Rosenbaum 2005)—threatens to replace the real world and people's authentic experience of it and each other.

Significantly, in a couple of scenes in the film, technology is used to attempt to control women and constrain their physical mobility. Through calls and text-messages, Niu obsessively keeps tabs on his girlfriend, Wei, whose fidelity is questionable. Wei's colleague teases Niu that he should buy his girlfriend an expensive cell phone model that includes a Global Positioning System, so he will always know where she is. In another scene, security guard Taisheng monitors the park from a vantage point atop the “Eiffel Tower”—the same spot from which Tao peered out through binoculars. From this lofty location, resembling a prison watch-tower, Taisheng charts Tao's movement out of the park, coordinating her surveillance with his counterpart at the south gate by means of walkie-talkies. One woman, Youyou, Tao's immediate supervisor who earned her position by sleeping with Director Mu, likewise carries a walkie-talkie. But in a conversation with Tao, she insists that she is no different, as if to suggest that, with or without walkie-talkies, they are equally powerless. The film thus implies that men determine rural women's economic and social mobility just as they do their spatial movements, and implicitly, their citizenship rights. In this sense the film effectively exposes gender inequality that operates within global (Chinese) capitalism.

In addition, Niu's and Taisheng's surveillance of their respective girlfriends may be interpreted as efforts to maintain their authority and masculinity amid the challenges posed by their new environment. Despite Niu's untiring efforts, he cannot always monitor Wei and thus be certain of her emotional and sexual commitment to him. Only his dramatic gesture toward self-immolation wins her full attention and, ultimately, her hand in marriage. That desperate act to get in his girlfriend's line of vision viscerally communicates the psychological toll of migrant life. As gender and kinship protocols dictate that sons should financially support their parents and provide for their future family, young rural men like Niu can be under considerable pressure. Indeed, earning money to renovate or construct a house, essential to attract a bride in a competitive marriage market, is a primary motive for young men's migration to the city. Niu's rash behavior also bespeaks his invisibility not only to his beloved, an affront to his masculinity, but metaphorically to the global system of capital, as a mere laboring body denied personhood altogether. The most experienced among fellow migrant workers, Taisheng shoulders responsibility for Tao and his kinsmen. His solicitude toward his girlfriend is his duty as her (male) protector. Yet like Niu, Taisheng is rendered rather ineffective in the context of globalization. His attentive ministrations to his peers cannot shield them from the instability and even violence of “the world.” Innocent Erxiao, Taisheng's younger cousin who is also employed as a park security guard, becomes seduced by money and turns to crime. The unfortunate Little Sister, whose feminine moniker hints at vulnerability, works overtime on a construction site to earn extra pay, and is crushed to death when a beam falls in the unsafe building—an all too accurate reflection of reality according to recent news reportage from China.

The World is thus an ominous vision of the effects of globalization on individuals and on society. Migrants' spatial immobility so carefully illustrated in the film parallels their inability to surmount structural and institutional forms of power that keep them at the bottom of an economic, social, and spatial ladder. In the words of one film critic, the theme park is testimony to “the stubborn persistence of place in the age of telecommunications and transglobal travel” (Scott 2004:79). More accurately, while place is clearly mobile—the idea of romantic Paris embodied in the “Eiffel Tower” travels even if the actual city does not—the park workers' daily reality is testament to the persistence of asymmetrical social relations of power, including gender, that construct space.14 For the migrants working in the park, modernity as hope for a better tomorrow and freedom to shape their own futures are elusive goals under conditions of globalization.

In the next section, I take a closer look at Tao's gradual “awakening” to the reality of her limited life choices within a context of gendered social inequality. Along with her peers, Tao experiences a cultural disorientation as social mores and values learned in the village community prove incompatible with individualism, competition, and instrumentality that necessarily govern their lives as migrant workers struggling to succeed amidst the ruthlessness, corruption, and injustice of an urban, capitalist environment. Tao's inability or unwillingness to adapt carries through to the film's abrupt and ambiguous conclusion, which implies that what is rural, traditional, and female are incompatible with the urban, modern, and male.

Deterritorialized Identity and Moral Crisis

At the outset of the film, Tao appears naively hopeful for her own future. Lacking in worldliness, she is innocent of the difficulties and dangers facing a migrant woman in the global city. Visually she appears content as she places a noontime phone call to Taisheng; she seems to enjoy the “magic carpet ride” they share; and her face lights up when she receives a cell phone text message from her colleagues announcing a “party tonight; let's be happy.” Her urban experiences likewise yield some satisfactions. She forges a friendship with a Russian dancer, Anna; she shares some romantic moments with Taisheng; and she finds some friendship with coworkers. More importantly, Tao is insulated from the harsher aspects of globalization by her grounded identity as a rural woman and her certain knowledge of the norms, values, and morality that guide social behavior. Only as she is exposed to alternative systems of value and challenged by changing circumstances does she lose faith in the world, human relationships, and the future.

The film reflects the cultural ideal of the family as the heart of the nation and primary anchor of identity. In China, great importance is placed on family formation. Marriage is nearly universal, particularly in rural areas, and is the central marker of adulthood. In the film, Tao's boyfriend, Taisheng, is under some pressure to get married. His cousin Sanlai arrives at the park bringing news from home. After reporting on Taisheng's parents, uncle, and cousins, Sanlai asks Taisheng when he plans to marry Tao. Taisheng shrugs off the question, but Sanlai persists, saying, “It's time to have children … . Who will take care of you in your old age?” Sanlai's question is not idle curiosity. In rural China, although elders no longer arrange their children's marriages, there is still a sense that marrying is a filial duty, and is more than just an individual matter. Family formation is of practical concern too, as children are still the primary means of support for the aged. In asking about Taisheng's marriage plans, Sanlai acts as an emissary from home, conveying parental concerns and wishes to his cousin.

Tao's wish is to marry Taisheng, who has followed her to Beijing. Marriage will settle her future the way migration and work, being temporary, cannot. In widespread Han patrilineal–patrilocal custom, brides marry into their husband's family and place of residence. Hence marriage largely determines a woman's legal and civil rights, to the extent that these are associated with place (e.g., rural or urban). Moreover, marriage decreases rural women's employment prospects in urban China as employers favor young and single employees (Tan 2000). Marriage, which is almost always followed by childbirth, also brings new responsibilities that make it more difficult for rural women to work far from home, which further limits their employment prospects (Jacka and Gaetano 2004). Like many of her migrant female peers, Tao is aging out of the marriage market; the age bar is set lower for women than for men as men tend to marry women younger than themselves. No wonder we see her sighing with longing and perhaps envy over an invitation to the wedding of Niu and Wei, who have finally ceased their sparring. Shortly afterward, Tao broaches the issue of marriage to Taisheng, but he does not respond. The pressure to marry is much greater for Tao, whose marriage prospects quickly deplete as she ages, than for Taisheng, whose prospects conversely will expand as he delays marriage and increases his financial savings.

Moreover, until she becomes engaged, Tao also feels compelled to maintain her virginity, and hence her “good” reputation. Tao's purity, and chastity, is represented by her wrapping her body in a rain poncho to keep her clothes from being soiled by dirty linen on hostel or dormitory beds, or used as a tarp to protect her from the rain. For single rural women, unlike for men, sexual virtue (or at least its semblance) is a valuable possession that can be harmed by gossip about aberrant or overtly sexual behaviors. Protecting a reputation is all the more difficult as more and more unmarried women work outside of their villages, participating in unisex workspaces and social activities (e.g., going to dance halls and karaoke bars) that elders especially associate with immorality (Friedman 2000; Gaetano 2004), not to mention the obvious exploitation of female sexuality in certain occupations. Indeed, many young men profess to eschew migrant women as brides, suspicious of their innocence. In an important scene, Taisheng accuses Tao of feigning her virginity. She is deeply offended and angered by this, and her reaction convinces us of her purity and unsullied innocence. Next Taisheng puts pressure on Tao to sacrifice her virginity to him by appealing to romantic feelings, suggesting that she must not really love him if she does not give herself fully to him. “Prove that you love and trust me,” he begs. From Tao's perspective, giving away her virginity without first securing a guarantee of marriage is risky, not least because she might get pregnant, and out-of-wedlock pregnancies are just not socially accepted. Worse, she could find herself without any marriage prospects, and hence a bleak future both economically and socially. In these scenes the film poignantly conveys the pitfalls for women of modern, progressive ideals of romantic love—expressed by Taisheng—over old-fashioned emphasis on formal social ties and reciprocity (also Gaetano 2008).

From Taisheng's perspective, on the other hand, Tao's reluctance to sacrifice her virginity signifies her lack of confidence in Taisheng's ability to be a good husband and provider, and thus fulfill key masculine responsibilities. Taisheng suffers a bout of jealousy and insecurity when Tao's ex-boyfriend from home, Liangzi, visits Tao and tells her that he will go abroad (to Mongolia). Taisheng asks Tao if she regrets breaking up with Liangzi, recognizing that she might regret not sharing in the bright future represented by his passport. Although Tao reassures Taisheng of her love and loyalty, it is not unreasonable for him to suspect that she might be waiting to find a man who can give her a more comfortable future. Taisheng is fully aware of the instrumentality of human relations fostered by the urban and capitalist environment.

Tao's sense of moral certainty is further challenged by the gender politics of capitalism, which values women primarily as youthful, sexual objects for (male, urban) consumption. Little by little, she is exposed to a seedier side of the entertainment industry and the sexual politics of her workplace, as she is pressured to exchange her body and sex for money. She observes her colleague Youyou keeping company with the park's Director Mu in his chauffeured limousine. Shortly afterwards, Director Mu announces Youyou's promotion; she becomes Tao's direct supervisor. Anna, the Russian dancer who has just been recruited to the troupe at the start of the film, is central to Tao's loss of innocence. Sharing intimate details of their lives through gestures and pictures and few words, the women forge a close friendship. Yet at first Tao misrecognizes Anna, and the mutual unintelligibility of their respective languages fails to correct her vision. As a foreigner, Anna is the epitome of cosmopolitanism in Tao's imagination. Over dinner and drinks at the local restaurant, Tao expresses to her, “I envy you. You can go abroad. You are free.” Anna in turn tells Tao her sad life story, of her children back in Russia whom she needs to support, of her sister married off to Mongolia and not seen again. As she drowns her sorrow in drink, she tells Tao that she will start a new job, one that she “hates to do,” clearly alluding to prostitution. Tao remains oblivious to this truth, until one night when she responds to a cell phone invitation from her immediate supervisor to “join a party.” The party is also a form of work: she is expected to sit with, drink with, and entertain some businessmen at a karaoke club. With a phony call to her cell phone, a Mr. Zhang lures Tao away from her coworkers and attempts to seduce her with the promise of a passport, travel to Hong Kong, and jewelry into agreeing to become his escort. She is shaken by the incident, and takes refuge in the ladies toilet. There, she encounters Anna, made up like a hostess-hooker, and in a heart-wrenching scene, realizes Anna's true profession. In that moment, Tao loses the last of her innocence and her optimism, and she recognizes her friend's fate as her own.

Tao's encounters with the businessman and then with Anna at the karaoke club are pivotal to her decision to lose her virginity by sleeping with Taisheng without first having secured a marriage proposal. However, in a moment of postcoital reflection on her sacrificed virtue, Tao says to Taisheng: “You're my whole life. If you're unfaithful, I'll be left with nothing.” Taisheng remonstrates her not to be so foolish. “These days you can't count on much,” he says. Indeed, Taisheng has already formed a romantic attachment to the clothing designer Qun, who will soon depart for Paris to search for her long-lost husband. He cautions Tao, “Don't have so much faith in me.” Tao then responds, “Never mind.” Her decision to consent to a tryst with her boyfriend could be construed as a desperate effort to satisfy her boyfriend's lust in hopes of securing a marriage proposal. Or it could be construed as her increasing indifference to her own future, and hence to her “purity,” recognizing that she is already tainted by urban modernity and has little else to lose. Regardless of her motivation, her act appears a measure of the fraying of the moral fabric of society with the dissolution of norms governing sexual and social relations rooted in family and kinship.15

The World's critique of the erosion of ethical life under new neoliberal regimes of value, in which instrumentality and even ruthless greed are dominant, is achieved through other plots as well. Erxiao is caught stealing money from the purses of the women dancers he is meant to protect. Qun's brother spends her hard-earned money on gambling and women. Taisheng himself engages in a black market in forged identification cards (passports?) for extra income. The film's most poignant moment shows Little Sister's bereaved parents, dressed in peasant attire and fresh off the train from Fenyang, pocketing the lump sum payment offered them by the construction boss as reparation for the accident that killed their son, in return for their agreement not to sue the company for blatant violations of safety and labor codes. Their stoic faces, sympathetically portrayed, belie their utter helplessness in the face of the “economic juggernaut” of contemporary China (Morrison 2005:10). Even Little Sister recognized that he would be worth more in death than in life. His “last words” are a hastily scribbled will listing his outstanding debts, presumably to be repaid out of an industrial accident insurance compensation payout.16

Through these cumulative narratives, the film conveys the message that migrants are literally and figuratively prostituted or exploited by global capitalism and betrayed by the elusive imaginary of modernity. Tao's vulnerability is manifest in her constricted life choices, which are largely to be determined by men, rather than by herself. She has few options for her future other than to marry a man who loves another woman, to return home and risk becoming an “old maid,” or, like Anna, turn to prostitution to make a living. Tao is also emblematic of the “malaise of modernity” or crisis of identity that occurs as individuals become unmoored from traditional values and social commitments (Taylor 1991). She is thus a victim of uniquely gendered demands of global capitalism and “gendered modernity” (Hodgson 2001). Ultimately, like Little Sister, Tao meets with tragedy.

Rural Woman and Ethical Modernity

In the penultimate scene, Tao is dressed as a bride in a white, Western-style wedding gown, poised in a doorway contemplating a downpour that she must pass through to get to the theater where she will perform. Looking out at the rain, she remarks to her supervisor Youyou that it is curious that winter snow has not yet fallen. The reference to winter weather perhaps alludes to the lack of warmth and human feeling in a world characterized by social anomie. Indeed, Tao has recently discovered Taisheng's emotional and sexual infidelity. It may also allude to the loss of her maidenhood as well as be a harbinger of her imminent death (white being the traditional color of mourning, and winter the season of old age and death). She steps out into the downpour without the cover of a protective tarp, embracing the elements and the impurity of the world (Figure 3). On stage she performs the dance of a bride in winter snow, achieving in fantasy what she cannot have in real life.

Figure 3.

 Tao walking in the World Park's reproduction of San Marco Square. Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.

The final scene begins outside the park, somewhere in the city, and out-of-doors, revealing a cold and rainy winter night. Tao is house-sitting for Niu and Wei, while the couple is on their honeymoon in South China. Tao sits on a stool beside a coal stove, upon which rests a slightly steaming teakettle. Taisheng enters, presumably summoned by Tao. Tao is unresponsive to his small talk about the weather. When we next see the couple, it is daybreak, and snow is starting to fall. They have been laid out on the snow-covered ground, each wrapped in a blanket, by neighbors who discovered them inside the apartment, poisoned by a “gas leak.” A voice-over is heard of Taisheng asking, “Are we dead?” and Tao responding, “No, this is just the beginning.”

Critics generally disliked this final scene, calling it “tragic melodrama” (Lim 2005) or “abrupt and stylishly awkward” (Rosenbaum 2005). Although admitting the scene is “ambiguous” and open to many interpretations, critic Susan Morrison (2005:10) interprets their deaths as accidents, that are particularly apropos as testament to the precariousness of migrants' existence and, I would add, the callousness of modern life under conditions of global capitalism.

Alternately, the ending might be interpreted as a double suicide of two people who have been disillusioned by love—Taisheng by Qun's departure for France and Tao by Taisheng's infidelity—the last vestige of authenticity in a world given over to social anomie. However, there is neither foreshadowing of Taisheng's untimely death nor any clue that he is in despair. A case might also be made for interpreting the ending as Tao knowingly poisoning an unsuspecting Taisheng and herself, based on her previous remarks about imminent winter and snow, and an earlier threat that she would kill Taisheng if he were ever unfaithful. However, these perspectives probably ascribe to the protagonist more agency than the film as a whole allows.17 Despite its very realistic portrayal of a migrant woman's constricted options under existing gender, social (especially rural and urban), and economic inequalities and the sympathetic depiction of Tao's painful recognition of this truth, the film is not overtly “feminist” in that it does not have an explicit gender critique nor does it ascribe agency to its heroine. Whether accidental or as a suicide, Tao's demise is meant only to symbolize a rejection of a world that is alienating, exploitative, and morally corrupted. It is a bleak conclusion, although Tao's last words (spoken after death) convey an inkling of optimism, the possibility of a more utopian life-after-death, or a rebirth into a better world (e.g., according to Buddhist reincarnation).

The World's antimodern(ization) message of social critique has been similarly conveyed by other recent films from China that feature rural migrant women.18 These films in turn follow a long-established convention in modern Chinese literature, film, and television of using the figure of the rural woman as a “barometer of social ills” (Marchetti 2006:89) and focal point of social change (e.g., Chow 1991; Donald 2000; Rofel 1994; Sun 2002; Tang 2003; Yan 1999). From its opening scene, The World identifies rural women as an embodiment of the nation suffering the deleterious effects of globalization. As the opening credits roll, we hear Tao calling out to her coworkers for “a Band-Aid” as she strides through her workplace clad in her work “uniform.” The former is the backstage of the park's grand theater; the latter consists of a provocative, gauzy pants-and-halter sari ensemble evocative of Hollywood's vision of the Oriental harem (Figure 4). In this first scene, the viewer's attention is drawn from Tao's sexy costume and high-heeled shoe to focus on her blistered foot, and thus her laboring body and the abuse it suffers as it is turned into a sexual commodity for the (male) tourist gaze. Her body metonymically references China as the source of cheap, disposable labor for global capitalism. The colorless backstage where she doctors her foot represents the everyday reality of the park's workers and is a somber contrast to the glitzy version of fantastical reality that Tao performs on the stage.

Figure 4.

 Wei and Tao backstage at the World Park's theater. Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.

The film's depiction of contemporary China is not the image of prosperity and development projected by the state and desired by citizens. Tao symbolizes a nation that has naive expectations of modernity and has been heretofore uncritical of globalization. Through her, Jia issues the clarion call to his compatriots to “wake up” to reality and “to heal” the nation, echoing the pleas of the revolutionary-era writer Lu Xun. Tao's request for a Band-Aid is answered at the end of this opening sequence. But consistent with the ironic “black humor” (Rosenbaum 2005) sprinkled throughout the film, and as the term “Band-Aid measure” suggests, a bandage only masks the sore; it does not cure the root illness (i.e., zhibiao bu zhiben).

The young maiden from the (rural) hinterlands is a powerful vehicle for a critique of globalization, as she represents the local against the global, the traditional against the modern, the authentic against the inauthentic, or the indigenous against the foreign (Freeman 2001). Through the character of Tao and her story, The World concludes that these are incommensurable pairings. In contrast, in some television dramas, the Chinese internal migrant woman bridges tradition and modernity, rural and urban, and successfully embodies an “ethics of material urbanization” (Yan 1999:275). Such a theme was prevalent in Chinese films of the 1920s and 1930s as well, whereas contemporary films tend to depict migrants, and the (rural) virtues they embody, as incompatible with the uncivil environment of the city (Donald 2000:121–138). Importantly, critical cinematic narratives like The World counter patronizing and elitist (sexist) rhetoric, common in popular and official discourses, about the civilizing effect of cities on uncultured (sexually promiscuous) migrant women (Guang 2003). Moreover, The World's sensitive and empathetic portrait of Tao challenges dominant images of migrants as a homogenous mass or of the migrant female as a pitiable but ridiculous country bumpkin, for example as depicted in Zhang Yimou's Not One Less (1999; Sun 2002:37).

However, these representations have in common their essentialist constructions of gender and representation of women as sexualized objects rather than subjects of history. This convention forecloses the possibility that modernity and globalization may engender positive changes in the lives of migrant women (Sun 2002:31). Indeed, qualitative studies, including my own, reveal that rural women in China gain self-confidence and self-awareness and acquire valuable resources such as monetary savings, practical skills and knowledge, social networks, and symbolic capital as a result of their migration experiences (e.g., Gaetano 2004, 2005; Gaetano and Jacka 2004; Jacka 2006). Although many migrant women are thwarted from fully realizing their potential upon returning home, they nonetheless derive personal satisfaction from these developments (e.g., Lou et al. 2004). The individual project of self-transformation can also effect larger social change (Taylor 1991). Peng Xiaolian's film, The Women's Story (1989), conveys this convincingly, as three migrant women return to their hometowns armed with new ideas and resources, empowered to challenge rural patriarchy in small but significant ways (Donald 2000:98–100).19 Elsewhere, I too describe how migration enables some rural migrant women to exercise greater control over their marriages and hence their futures, such as by asserting themselves in the selection of partners, the courtship process, and postmarital residence and relations (Gaetano 2008).

With respect to The World, a more feminist and agentive approach might acknowledge that rural migrant women like Tao have the capacity to imagine and desire, to choose and to act (or to choose not to act) even amid the structural inequality produced and exploited by global capitalism that the film so effectively exposes. In circumstances where women's agency is “designated” or mediated by others (McClintock 1996:269), there may still be room to maneuver.20 Indeed, several undeveloped narrative strands in the film present less dire possible alternatives to Tao's filmic fate (and still others could be invented). For example, she could reunite with her former boyfriend, Liangzi, or become the mistress of the businessman from the karaoke club. Embarking on a relationship with either man would likely increase her spatial mobility, through transnational resettlement and travel respectively, albeit with certain risk. Transnational marriage and other sexual liaisons are strategies available in particular to (some) women as a means to better their own, and perhaps their families', social and economic circumstances, although upward mobility is but one of many possible motives for undertaking such unions, and is hardly a guaranteed result (see, e.g., Constable 2004; Freeman 2004).21 These hypothetical scenarios are instructive because they highlight the complex and contradictory ways that gender and power intersect and impact agency. Transnational intimacy may not fundamentally alter gender and other inequalities of the global political economy, but it does present possibilities for women especially to favorably reposition themselves vis-à-vis such structures and relations.

Moreover, as agents, migrant women are quite capable of developing a “diasporic subjectivity,” successfully renegotiating their identity in the new social-moral space of the urban and modern (Silvey 2000). Tao interestingly does lose her virginity, but only after prolonged reluctance and resistance, and perhaps, in her final scenes, regret. In the allegorical framework of the film, she could not actively use her sexuality for more strategic advantage or monetary gain in the ways I suggested above. Rather, her virginal body and the traditional code of ethics that valued her sexual purity are besieged by the modern and amoral regime of value associated with global capitalism. In death the film's heroine can escape the world's impurity and preserve China's authenticity. In contrast, the real-life heroines of my own research doggedly adapt to new circumstances. For instance, in matters of sexuality, marriage, and family they maintain certain values, ideals, and practices and discard others. They sacrifice chastity for love but insist on marriage, choose their own husbands but lobby for their parents' approval, and live apart from in-laws yet dutifully contribute to their financial well-being (Gaetano 2008).

Acknowledging migrant women's agency complicates The World's stark assessment of modernity and globalization. Moreover, it exposes the representational artifice of the film, which doubly displaces the rural woman by first speaking for her, and second by patronizing her as a repository of authenticity (virtue) and upholder of ethics. As with Tao in The World, real migrant women also must contend with dominant gender constructions focused on the presence and absence of moral–sexual purity. However, unlike their filmic counterpart, they do so as active agents who quite capably navigate patriarchal structures and adapt to changing social norms. Despite a very natural and sensitive portrait of Tao and her migrant peers, and an effective use of visual motifs to convey disillusionment with modernity under an unequal and exploitative system of globalization, The World disappointingly fails to critique the gender bias of its own critique, ironically perpetuating this social inequality.


I would like to thank Elizabeth Bowditch and Wang Zhengxu for their assistance in gathering materials for this essay, Stephen Teo for helpful input, and Caren Freeman, the reviewer for VAR, for extremely constructive advice. An earlier version of this article was presented in a seminar at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.


  1. 1Jia is highly regarded both at home and abroad, and his works have garnered numerous prizes. The World did well in the domestic China market according to box office receipts, despite limited screenings. Jia discusses the difficulties of marketing his independent films in an interview with China Youth Online's Xu Baike: Electronic document,, accessed February 5, 2007.

  2. 2These are The Little Thief (Xiao wu [1998]), Platform (Zhantai [2000]), and Unknown Pleasures (Ren xiao yao [2002]).

  3. 3Jia's subsequent film Still Life (sanxia haoren), which won the top award at the 2006 Venice Film Festival, continues this theme. It follows two Shanxi natives on their quests to seek their estranged spouses in Fengjie, a town on the Yangtze River that is due to be submerged as part of the Three Gorges Dam hydroelectric project.

  4. 4Like many of his contemporaries, Jia often incorporates nonprofessional actors into his films. Jia's technique of assigning to fictional characters the names of the actors who play them also humanizes and individualizes those characters, particularly significant for portraying ordinary people and peasant masses.

  5. 5In The World, it is mentioned that some characters come from Yulin, a small city in neighboring Shanxi province. Others have worked in Taiyuan (population ca. 1.5 million), the capital of Shanxi province. The film narrative also suggests that the main characters have rural or small-town origins, regardless of their residence before migrating to Beijing. Film viewers will assume the protagonists are “urban refugees” from the villages and small towns that were the settings for Jia's earlier films (Koehler 2005:57).

  6. 6Indeed, the director was motivated “to make a film that reflected my impressions of urban life, of Beijing” (Jaffee 2004).

  7. 7In fact, some of Jia's feature films (e.g., Unknown Pleasures and Still Life) began as documentary projects (see Lee 2003; also Dupont 2006).

  8. 8The park's slogan (actual and filmic), “See the World Without Ever Leaving Beijing,” puts the city on par with other global cities that are showcased in the theme park. Might the film, ironically, bespeak the persistence of the nation-state in an era of globalization, as critic Jonathan Rosenbaum suggests (in an interview included in the Canadian release version of The World)? United States–based reviewers in particular have remarked upon the nationalist tones of the scene in which Erxiao, pointing out to Little Sister the park's replicas of the Twin Towers of the U.S. World Trade Center, jests that Beijing still has the Towers while New York City does not.

  9. 9As one reviewer observed, these superficially “ethnic” performances “offer further homogenization of world cultures by being themed into national (and historical) displays of costume … with no attempt being given to matching costume with the music and dance traditions of the countries represented” (Morrison 2005:9). Rather, the music and the choreography are both generic “electronic pop” (Morrison 2005:9). See also Jaffee 2004.

  10. 10In China, modernity is associated with the urban (Chen et al. 2001) and going abroad (Sun 2002).

  11. 11Detailed studies of the hukou include Chan and Li (1999), Seldon and Cheng (1994), and Wang (2005).

  12. 12The system also creates new dependencies of women on men, particularly as wives of migrant husbands, and of elderly left behind on youthful laborers' remittances (see Fan 2003; Murphy 2004; Otis 2003; Zhang 2000).

  13. 13Similarly, under the household registration system before the 1980s, male peasants had more opportunities to officially transfer to urban hukou, through military service and political appointment.

  14. 14Thanks to Tracey Skelton for pointing this out.

  15. 15For studies of changing beliefs, values, and social structures in rural China, see Ikels (2004), Kipnis (1997), Liu (2000), and Yan (2003).

  16. 16In reaction to high rates of industrial accidents, particularly in mining and construction, that disproportionately affect migrant male workers (and received much publicity), in 2004 the Chinese government passed legislation guaranteeing worker's compensation and injury/accidental death insurance to workers in these occupations.

  17. 17Following Chinese historical and literary convention, female suicide may be interpreted as an act of moral protest, and an expression of agency, albeit in the context of gender inequality (see Ko 1994; Wolf and Witke 1975). An untimely death could turn one into a ghost who could achieve revenge or justice on the living through supernatural means.

  18. 18For example, Ermo (Donald 2000:121–123; Sun 2002:21–42; Tang 2003) and Women from the Lake of Scented Souls (Marchetti 2006; Tang 2003).

  19. 19To a lesser extent, so too does Li Hong's documentary Out of Phoenix Bridge (1997; Marchetti 2006:69–89).

  20. 20Thanks to the anonymous reviewer for VAR for helping me to articulate this.

  21. 21Although most transnational marriages in the contemporary world involve the movement of women from poorer to richer regions, reality does not neatly conform to the expectation of upward mobility (see, e.g., Constable 2004; Freeman 2004).

Arianne Gaetano is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow of Contemporary China at the Center for East and Southeast Asian Studies of Lund University in Lund, Sweden. She earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Southern California in 2005. From 2006–07, she was a postdoctoral research fellow in migration at the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore. Her publications include a coedited volume with Tamara Jacka, On the Move: Women and Rural-to-Urban Migration in Contemporary China (Columbia University Press 2005) and a recent article in Gender, Place, and Culture.