Proletarian China: A Century of Chinese Labour

In 2021, the Chinese Communist Party celebrated a century of existence. Since the Party’s humble beginnings in the Marxist groups of the Republican era to its current global ambitions, one thing has not changed for China’s leaders: their claim to represent the vanguard of the Chinese working class. Spanning from the night classes for workers organised by student activists in Beijing in the 1910s to the labour struggles during the 1920s and 1930s; from the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution to the social convulsions of the reform era to China’s global push today, Proletarian China reconstructs the contentious history of labour in China from the early twentieth century to this day (and beyond). This will be achieved through a series of essays penned by scholars in the field of Chinese society, politics, and culture, each one of which will revolve around a specific historical event, in a mosaic of different voices, perspectives, and interpretations of what constituted the experience of being a worker in China in the past century.

The book, co-edited by Ivan Franceschini and Christian Sorace, is forthcoming with Verso Books in June 2022 but will also be available open access on our website.

Table of Contents

The Proletariat Is Dead, Long Live the Proletariat! – Ivan Franceschini and Christian Sorace

  1. 1898: ‘A Cheaper Machine for the Work’ – Corey Byrnes
  2. 1902: Techno-Utopias and Robots in China’s Past Futures – Craig A. Smith
  3. 1915: An Extraordinary Journey: Chinese Labourers on the Western Front during the Great War – Xu Guoqi
  4. 1920: A Day Trip to Changxindian – Deng Zhongxia (translated by Zhou Ruixue)
  5. 1921: Setting Sail: The Foundation of the Chinese Communist Party – Lin Chun
  6. 1922: The Anyuan Strike of 1922: Lessons in Leadership – Elizabeth J. Perry
  7. 1923: The 7 February Massacre – Luo Zhanglong (translated by Tony Saich)
  8. 1925: From the May Thirtieth Movement to the Canton–Hong Kong Strike (Apo Leong)
  9. 1925: Everyday Politics in Tianjin Factories – Gail Hershatter
  10. 1925: The Founding of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions – Wang Kan
  11. 1927: The Third Armed Uprising and the Shanghai Massacre – S.A. Smith
  12. 1927: Organising Rural Society: Disintegrating Rural Governance, Peasant Associations, and the Hailufeng Soviet – Alexander F. Day
  13. 1928: Feminist Agitation inside Chinese Factories – Yige Dong
  14. 1929: Striking for Rice: The Struggle for the ‘Rice Allowance’ in Republican China – Seung-Joon Lee
  15. 1938: Resurgence of Labour Activism in Prewar Hong Kong – Lu Yan
  16. 1941: The New China Daily and the Moral Language of Class in Wartime Chongqing – Joshua H. Howard
  17. 1942: The Rise and Fall of Wu Manyou, China’s First Labour Hero – Bo Ærenlund Sørensen
  18. 1946: Production in Revolution: Agricultural and Political Labour during Land Reform – Brian DeMare
  19. 1948: Women Workers and the Shanghai Cotton Mill Strike of 1948 – Emily Honig
  20. 1949: On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship (Excerpt) – Mao Zedong
  21. 1949: Continuity and Change: Women Workers in the Early People’s Republic of China – Robert Cliver
  22. 1949: A Spark Extinguished: Worker Militancy in Taiwan after World War II (1945–1950) – Po-chien Chen and Yi-hung Liu
  23. 1951: Li Lisan on the Relationship between Management and Unions – Li Lisan (translated by Malcolm Thompson)
  24. 1951: Revolutionising the Factory through the Mass Political Campaign – Jake Werner
  25. 1952: Housing the New Socialist Worker: The ‘Workers’ New Village’ in Shanghai – Mark W. Frazier
  26. 1952: The First Patriotic Locust Extermination Campaign: Rural Labour Mobilisation and Pest Control in the Early People’s Republic of China – John Williams
  27. 1955: The Short-Lived Eternity of Friendship: Chinese Workers in Socialist Mongolia (1955–1964) – Christian Sorace and Ruiyi Zhu
  28. 1957: How Do Unions Handle Contradictions among the People? – Lai Ruoyu (translated by Malcolm Thompson)
  29. 1957: Confronting the State: The Strike Wave of 1957 – Chen Feng
  30. 1958: Beyond the Wage: Zhang Chunqiao, Bourgeois Right, and Maoism as Theory – Benjamin Kindler
  31. 1958: Reorganising Chinese Labour: The Establishment of the Household Registration System – Jane Hayward
  32. 1960: Workers’ Peril in the Workers’ State: The Laobaidong Colliery Disaster –  Tim Wright
  33. 1960: The Angang Constitution: Labour, Industry and Bureaucracy during the Great Leap Forward – Koji Hirata
  34. 1960: Production First, Life Second: The 1960 Ban on Hand Spinning and Hand Weaving – Jacob Eyferth
  35. 1961: Anatomy of a Woman Worker: Collectivisation and Labour during the Great Leap Forward – Aminda Smith and Fabio Lanza
  36. 1962: Working Together in Agricultural Production Teams: The Work Lives of the Majority of Chinese Under Mao – Jonathan Unger
  37. 1963: Gods, Ghosts, and Workers: ‘Feudal Superstition’ and the Socialist Education Movement, 1963–1966 – S.A. Smith
  38. 1964: Learning from the Daqing Oilfields – Maggie Clinton
  39. 1964: The Third Front Campaign – Covell F. Meyskens
  40. 1967: The January Storm of 1967: From Representation to Action and Back Again – Patricia M. Thornton
  41. 1967: The Hong Kong Riots of 1967 – Ray Yep
  42. 1968: The Establishment of the First Workers’ University – Andrea Piazzaroli Longobardi
  43. 1969: ‘Oppose Restoring the Old!’: The Culmination of the Rebel Workers’ Movement in Wuhan during the Cultural Revolution – Joel Andreas
  44. 1970: Building Uhuru: Chinese Workers and Labour Diplomacy on the Tan–Zam Railway – Matthew Galway
  45. 1972: Transforming Urban Youth into Peasants: The Maoist Rustication Movement of the 1960s–1970s – Michel Bonnin
  46. 1976: The Blank Exam: Crises of Student Labour and Activism in the Late Cultural Revolution Film Juelie – A.C. Baecker
  47. 1980: Echoes of the Rise of Solidarity in Poland – Jeanne L. Wilson
  48. 1981: Abandoning Collective Farming and the Effects on Labour – Jonathan Unger
  49. 1983: Dagongmei: Gendered Troubles in the City of Dreams – Mary Ann O’Donnell
  50. 1986: Sex Workers in China: From Criminalisation and Abuse to Activism – Tiantian Zheng
  51. 1988: The Lifting of Martial Law and the Rise of Taiwan’s Independent Labour Movement – Ming-sho Ho
  52. 1989: Workers on Tiananmen Square – Yueran Zhang
  53. 1993: Voices from the Zhili Fire: The Tragedy of a Toy Factory and the Conditions It Exposed – Anita Chan
  54. 1994: One Law to Rule Them All: The First Labour Law of the People’s Republic of China – Sarah Biddulph
  55. 1995: From Green Shoots to Crushed Petals: Labour NGOs in China – Jude Howell
  56. 1995: The Blocked Path: Political Labour Organising in the Aftermath of the Tiananmen Crackdown – Kevin Lin
  57. 1997: Xiagang: The Fifteenth Party Congress and Mass Layoffs in State-Owned Enterprises – William Hurst
  58. 2001: China Joins the World Trade Organization: Implications for Workers – Dorothy J. Solinger
  59. 2002: The Liaoyang Strike and the Unmaking of Mao’s Working Class in China’s Rustbelt – Ching Kwan Lee
  60. 2003: The Sun Zhigang Case – Chloé Froissart
  61. 2007: Slaving Away: The ‘Black Brick Kilns Incident’ of 2007 – Ivan Franceschini
  62. 2008: The Labour Contract Law and Its Discontents – Mary E. Gallagher
  63. 2008: ‘Make Contributions and Offer Your Youth for Tomorrow’s Dream’: The Establishment of the Shenzhen Migrant Worker Museum – Eric Florence and Junxi Qian
  64. 2009: Zhang Haichao’s ‘Open-Chest Case’ – Ralph Litzinger and Yanping Ni
  65. 2010: The Nanhai Honda Strike – Chris King-Chi Chan and Elaine Sio-Ieng Hui
  66. 2010: The Foxconn Suicide Express – Jenny Chan
  67. 2011: Rupture at the Centre: Evicting Migrant Schools in Beijing – Eli Friedman
  68. 2013: Chinese Workers on the Belt and Road – Aaron Halegua
  69. 2014: Bearing Witness to History: Dagong Poets from the 1980s to the Present – Wanning Sun
  70. 2014: The Yue Yuen Strike – Marc Blecher
  71. 2015: Replacing Humans with Machines – Huang Yu
  72. 2015: Labour NGOs under Assault – Chloé Froissart and Ivan Franceschini
  73. 2018: The Jasic Struggle – Manfred Elfstrom
  74. 2018: Factories of Turkic Muslim Internment – Darren Byler
  75. 2019: The Birth of a New Trade Union Movement in Hong Kong – Anita Chan
  76. The Future: Folding Time: Futuristic Reflections on Class Divisions in Contemporary China – Carlos Rojas
  77. The Future: The Affective Fallacy – Chen Qiufan


‘This volume offers an exciting engagement with the extended historical event of the proletariat in China. Through dialogue between past and present and among scholars across the globe, the anthology’s chronological organization makes it ideal for teaching, research, and casual reading. More important, the march of time demonstrates how workers as a class made themselves into a proletariat even as they were simultaneously unmade through state repression, capitalist advance, internal division, and globalized diffusion. In its insistence that any genuine commitment to communism take seriously the proletariat as a specifically laboring class, this book marks out a clear political position. The individual chapters are short, readable, informative, and passionate.’ – Rebecca E. Karl, New York University, History Department


‘This is not a history of Chinese labour or the Chinese labour movement. Proletarian China is rather a chronicle of insurgency, of a proletarian politics that again and again opens and disrupts spaces of representation. The Chinese Communist Party is of course implied in this history, which nevertheless goes well beyond it and often challenges it. A century of proletarian struggles, uprisings, and dreams parades before readers’ eyes composing another history of contemporary China and at the same time inciting to imagine the future anew—in China and beyond. This is a remarkable book!’ – Sandro Mezzadra, University of Bologna


‘A tour de force! A single book that covers an entire century of the Chinese working class, its various phases, diverse voices, and hopes for the future. As it is customary for the Made in China Journal, the most salient thoughts and reflections are collected here.’ – Luigi Tomba, University of Sydney

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