China's New Cosmopolitans: Gender, Morality and Cultural Citizenship in Chinese Labor Migration to Israel


Nily Gorin

PhD defended at: 

Hebrew University of Jerusalem


My dissertation presents an ethnographic account of how transnational migration reconfigures moral values, social identities, intimate relations and cultural practices, based on several years of ethnographic fieldwork among Chinese migrant workers in both Israel and several locations in China. Unlike most labor migration studies focusing on exploitation and subjugation, this study takes an original view of the migration process as an ethical experience of the tension between personal desires and their implications for moral subjectivities. The study demonstrates how migrants simultaneously reproduce and transform the institutions of marriage and family, and the official model of cultural citizenship, by reconfiguring cultural practices, gender norms and social relationships in subversive ways.
Three chapters investigate how migrants negotiate culturally normative gender roles and moral values in interpersonal relationships at work, in extramarital relations, and in relationships with family members in China, revealing major changes in notions and practices of intimacy and in family patterns. Especially significant are long-term extramarital relations, known as “temporary marriages” (linshi fuqi), involving new forms of intimacy that are at once commodified and transgressive yet emotionally meaningful and empowering. While migrants remain legally married in China, they nonetheless consolidate their financial autonomy and strengthen their ties with their extended natal family. Through these changing marriage and family patterns, migrants fulfil personal desires and gain new economic and sexual agency while upholding their familial commitments and roles.
My findings offer valuable insights into current debates surrounding the impact of individualization, mobility, and marketization on both the family and the moral landscape in China. A clearer picture emerges of how transnational migration enhances individual desires as well as familial commitments, facilitates the breach of gender norms and encourages the reiteration of dominant notions of femininity and masculinity, deepens the materialization of social relations and ethics while strengthening moral subjectivities.
The last chapter examines how returned migrants negotiate cultural belonging in China. My findings challenge the dominant paradigm in which rural migrants seek to establish themselves in the city and discard their rural identities, showing, instead, the ways returnees use transnational practices and state-endorsed modes of consumption to craft new rural identities that reflect progress, cosmopolitanism and patriotic commitments. In so doing, they contest the abjection of peasants and the countryside in dominant narratives of modernity and enact a new kind of cultural citizenship that goes beyond the dichotomous framework of rural backwardness/urban modernity.
The study’s innovative methodology and approach suggest new ways to explore and extend our understanding of the dynamic interplay between migration, gender, and morality, the manner in which these dynamics play out in everyday life, and the ways they relate to wider currents of social change.