‘The Mine Was Our Home’: Narrativising Nostalgia between Socialist and Post-Socialist Mining Zones
At a Chinese-owned fluorspar mine in Mongolia, one group of workers stood out from the rest. Their life stories—often narrated with a tinge of nostalgia for home and a golden age of industrial labour—were closely intertwined with fluorspar. Joining them on an annual trip from their workplace to their once fluorspar-rich hometown in Jiangxi Province complicated the narrative. The discrepancy between nostalgic narrative and lived experience raises a curious question: why do the workers claim a past that was never fully their own? This essay points to nostalgia as a strategic self-representation necessitated by the post-socialist labour market as a potential answer.
‘Three generations of our family have worked in the fluorspar industry, from my parents to my siblings and me, and to my niece,’ Feng Jinhua, a 47-year-old laboratory manager told me. Proud of her fluorspar pedigree, Jinhua set herself apart from the other laid-off workers who entered this industry by sheer coincidence. She added: ‘The mine was our home. As soon as I graduated from the middle school for miners’ children, I started working in the mine. It has been three decades now.’
I met Jinhua in 2017 at a Chinese-owned fluorspar mine in Mongolia, where I conducted fieldwork. Established in 2013, the mine employs both Chinese and Mongolian workers. Like her Chinese colleagues, Jinhua had suffered the consequences of mass layoffs in the early 2000s, which were estimated to have caused between 30 and 60 million job losses in state-owned enterprises (SOEs) across China (Hurst 2009a). A few years ago, she arrived in Mongolia to establish a new economic foothold. While many workers at the current mine had never heard of fluorspar before, several workers hailing from Jinhua’s hometown in Jiangxi Province had been dealing with the mineral their whole life. Major events in their lives were closely intertwined with fluorspar, from birth to education, from marriage to migration.
Yu Hongmei, a flotation operator in her early fifties, is another case in point. Although Jinhua and Hongmei used to work at the same fluorspar mine in Jiangxi (hereinafter ‘the old mine’), they were not personally acquainted before relocating to Mongolia. Hongmei spoke fondly of the heyday at the old mine, when there were more than 2,000 formal employees, including hundreds of administrative staff. She sorely missed the vibrant social life after work: ‘Back in the 1980s, our income was not much, but we built a very good rapport. We joked. We sang and danced. We would play tug-of-war and basketball. We had a lot of fun.’ In comparison, the current mine in Mongolia compressed leisure time to increase productivity, discouraging workers from returning to the dormitory. Meanwhile, the fear of Sinophobia in Mongolian society constrained contact between Chinese workers and their Mongolian counterparts, leading to a lack of the sense of ‘togetherness’ for which Hongmei yearned.
Often narrated with a tinge of nostalgia for home and a golden era of industrial labour, the life stories of Jinhua and Hongmei piqued my curiosity. Their enduring, if not inborn, bond with fluorspar validates their status as experienced workers in the industry. To a historically minded researcher such as myself, their narratives also presented an alluring tale of continuity, withstanding post-socialist transition and transnational migration. To explore the stickiness of their profession, as well as their loyalty and pride as industrial workers, I set out for the fluorspar town in Jiangxi at their invitation. However, the trip not only revealed the discrepancy between nostalgic narratives and lived reality, but also shed light on nostalgia as a constructed self-representation necessitated by the post-socialist labour market.
Hongmei arrived on a caramel-coloured scooter to pick me up in her hometown. She lived in a spacious two-bedroom flat, where the interior decor was simple but indicative of an adequately middle-class taste. In 2013, her family was one of the last to move out of the mine compound to the newly developed urban periphery. Hongmei introduced me to her husband, Lin Deping, who had been a worker and administrator at the mine before the layoff. He warmed to me when I asked about a portrait of Mao Zedong hanging across from the entrance to the flat, emanating talismanic vibes. Deping longingly expressed his enduring respect for Mao: ‘Chairman Mao was our saviour and the founding father of the People’s Republic of China. Under his rule, material conditions were admittedly tough, but the social atmosphere was excellent. Mao’s prestige is still alive and well. Everyone supports him.’ I asked him how the interpersonal relations in the Maoist era compared with those of today. ‘Of course, it was better then,’ he blurted:
At that time, friendship was friendship, and sisterhood was sisterhood. Now it’s all about money. After the Reform and Opening Up, people’s mentality has changed. Now the poor are poor, and the rich are rich. Everyone has to migrate for work, and couples divorce more as a result.
Detecting my interest in the history of the fluorspar mine in Jiangxi, Deping gave me a nostalgia-infused mini-lecture. The mine began operation at the beginning of the Great Leap Forward. As a useful flux for steelmaking, fluorspar was increasingly mined amid the enthusiasm for steel production. Being an SOE, the mine offered promising economic prospects and stable employment, which drew labourers from Jiangxi and nearby provinces. During the 1960s and 1970s, the mine began to provide infrastructure and maintain social facilities in the previously rural area. After graduating from a technical secondary school (中专), Deping was assigned a job at the mine, where both of his parents also worked. Reminiscing on that era’s sense of prosperity, he said: ‘Everyone was united in one goal—that is, to ensure the smooth running of the mine. We were told that workers could be masters, and leaders should adopt any opinions and suggestions from us. The mine was our home.
This row was built in the 1950s, by the workers, and for the workers. I grew up here. Back in the day, each family would set up their dinner table in the yard. We shared our food with neighbours, eating a bit from here and there. I miss the old days.
Recalling vivid memories of her childhood, Jinhua painted a nostalgic picture of her home and its vibrant neighbourhood sociality.
In 1958, Jinhua’s parents arrived in Jiangxi, fleeing a disastrous flood in Shandong Province. Her father pushed carts at the mine, while her mother kept records. They raised six children, most of whom held permanent or temporary jobs at the mine. Jinhua knocked on one of the wooden doors: ‘Can we come in? I used to live here before 1999.’ A young family currently living in the house nodded as they let us in. The new occupants had no connection to the mine and only moved from a nearby village a few years ago. A faded poster featuring Mao and Zhou Enlai watched over the dinner table and safeguarded the fortune of the family amid a row of empty homes.
During my stay at Hongmei’s, I woke to a heated argument between her and her husband. The quarrel began with Deping blaming Hongmei for spending lavishly on gifts for her relatives. Hongmei retorted by stating she had a right to splurge to her heart’s content because it was her hard-earned money. She then accused him of earning too little, being too complacent, and failing in his manly obligation as the breadwinner.
Hongmei seemed to have lost respect for the man whom she once admired for his literary talents and his ‘iron rice bowl’ (铁饭碗)—as the cradle-to-grave jobs in the work units of the Maoist era were called. While Deping had a genealogical connection to the mine through his parents, Hongmei was a first-generation mine employee who was born in a nearby village, as she explained to me later. Before her marriage, she had envied the good life of blue-collar workers, who worked only eight hours a day, earned a stable salary, and received urban grain rations (商品粮) from the state. In contrast, village life was rough: she received a pittance for backbreaking labour at the agricultural collective. Marrying a mine worker was an opportunity for her to escape the rural predicament. Through Deping’s connection, she found a temporary job at the fluorspar factory as a dependent worker (家属工). A few years later, she changed her household registration status from rural to urban, as people with rural status rarely obtained permanent employment in the state sector (Walder 1986: 55). When she eventually became a permanent employee at the SOE and unlocked privileges such as bonuses and dietary supplements, however, her supposedly lifelong tenure lasted only four years before she was laid off.
The privatisation of the factory turned out to be a watershed in their marriage. While Deping suffered from a layoff that cost him a stable job and a sense of belonging, Hongmei came to relish the economic freedom and personal mobility afforded by migration. In the following decade, she tried her hand at a Foxconn electronics factory, worked as a nanny, and sought employment at fluorspar factories across the country. Although she began with limited technical skills, she quickly learned flotation techniques from a former colleague and accumulated relevant experience. As the demand for flotation workers remained high with the discovery of new fluorspar deposits in China and Mongolia, she was able to negotiate her salary and move about. Instead of relying on the income of her husband, she began to earn higher wages and dispense her savings, which included contributing to their daughter’s mortgage.
In contrast, Deping’s choices appeared more conservative and, indeed, nostalgic. He tried to stay on at the old enterprise after privatisation, which proved untenable due to the lowered salary. Forced to join the wave of migration, he bitterly remarked: ‘Reform enriched the entrepreneurs, but privatisation harmed numerous workers. We had to find our own way out.’ Even though doing the same job in other parts of the country yielded greater income, Deping preferred to stay in his home province. Having reached the age of retirement, he received a pension from the state, while his wages from intermittent work helped contribute to their daughter’s mortgage.
According to William Hurst (2009b: 117), laid-off workers’ nostalgia can be classified into three subtypes: relational, material, and ideational. The specific combination of nostalgic sentiments not only anchors group identity, but also frames grievance claims. While this system was used to underline regional variation in popular discontent, the narratives of Hongmei and Deping reveal a divergence at the individual level; their uneven status before layoff inevitably shaped their different relations to the past. Despite transitioning from casual to formal employment, Hongmei remained a marginal worker on the shopfloor and a financially dependent wife in the family. Her nostalgia was limited to the non-material aspect of the socialist working life: the convivial spirit and social events. On the contrary, Deping, as a fully fledged worker-cum-administrator before the layoff, was proudly part of the industrial and discursive production of that time. Hence, he felt more acutely the loss of stability, status, Maoist ideology, and esprit de corps in the reform era.
Whereas Hongmei’s migration to Mongolia increased the distance between her and Deping, relocation reinforced Jinhua’s extended familial bonds. Jinhua’s older sister had worked at the same mine in Mongolia for a few years before Jinhua’s arrival. According to her Chinese colleagues, Jinhua’s sister was praised for her professional skills and well-liked for her forthrightness. On returning to China to care for her grandchildren, she recommended Jinhua to take up her job at the mine. Intrigued by the interweaving of kinship and work, I asked Jinhua whether I could speak to her sister. Despite her initial enthusiasm for the idea, Jinhua soon became evasive.
Frustrated by her sudden avoidance, I turned my attention to the municipal archive, where historical documents from the old mine had been stored since privatisation. In the roster of workers, I spotted the names of Jinhua’s parents and siblings, but not hers. In a later conversation with another interlocutor who was well acquainted with Jinhua’s family, it was confirmed that Jinhua had indeed grown up and attended school at the mine. However, unlike what she had implied in her narrative, she did not inherit her parents’ jobs (顶职) because her older siblings had already done so. Instead, she held a casual job elsewhere until she was laid-off during the restructuring of enterprises. Contrary to her nostalgic claim of having worked three uninterrupted decades at the fluorspar mine, she had learned the skills of titration and assay from her older sister only a few years earlier. Unlike the inseverable transgenerational connection to fluorspar she had initially declared, her fluorspar career only took off at the confluence of family connections, social change, and coincidence.
Intrigued by the discrepancy between Jinhua’s ‘continuity’ narrative and the messier picture pieced together by archival fragments, I wondered why Jinhua claimed a past that was never fully her own. Without an opportunity to frankly discuss this with her, I could only resort to hypothesis. One possible explanation is that by strategically adopting a nostalgic narrative, she fashioned herself as an experienced fluorspar worker, irreplaceable in a competitive labour market. Given the limited legal protection of foreign workers in Mongolia, she had every reason to defend her precarious position, including in front of me, as she had initially worried I was an informant for the mine boss. Industrial nostalgia implied abundant experience in the sector, which could be an asset in a volatile job market. My request to interview Jinhua’s older sister risked creating a clash between the front stage and the backstage of her self-presentation (Goffman 1959), thereby necessitating an intentional avoidance.
Additionally, the relationship to the audience and the location of storytelling may have impacted the narrative. During my initial field visits, I frequently encountered generic nostalgic narratives from the laid-off workers, who presented their generation as the shock-absorbers of reform-era policies. My interlocutors melded personal experience and social transformation to tell tales of suffering and loss. Only after an extensive period at the mine did they allow me to glimpse the finer details of their personal experience—laden with complexity, contingency, and paradoxes. Jinhua’s backstory evinces a more tenuous connection to fluorspar than what she liked others to believe. In the case of Hongmei, her transition from temporary to permanent employment was omitted in her initial narrative. Her lack of reminiscence about the economic and familial arrangements at the old mine only became apparent after learning the fuller story of her life.
Anthropologists have been accused of ‘disciplinary nostalgia’ (Berliner 2015)—that is, feeling for the cultural loss of the other and building discourse around it. Meanwhile, nostalgia, as an analytical device, has been critiqued for simplifying complex memories and reducing the protean history to fit neat categories (Lankauskas 2015). By tracing the semantic drift of nostalgia (from homesickness to critique of the present) through the displacement of labour (from a socialist to a post-socialist mine), I hope this essay has illustrated that nostalgia can be a useful analytical frame when applied with caution and attentiveness.
Gail Hershatter (2007: 73) conceptualises the rearrangement, distortion, and omission of the past as the ‘wrinkle in time’ phenomenon. In her oral history research on rural women’s experience of China’s collective past, Hershatter and her collaborator Gao Xiaoxian encountered forgetting, misremembering, silence, and hostility from their interlocutors. Instead of despairing at the informational failures, Hershatter (2007: 77) underlines the importance of paying attention to ‘what silences structured answers, what fears went unspoken, what uncertainties flattened affect’. While recent discussions of nostalgia have focused on the gaps between official history and popular memory, the inconsistencies between lived experience and personal nostalgia need scholarly attention as well. As an intimate discourse of continuity and change, nostalgia at the personal level requires the researcher to build a relationship with the interlocutor and explore their lifeworld beyond the field site. A refined ethnographic lens is well suited for capturing the incongruent creases and folds in the personal past, which are the building blocks of social history.
Featured image: Arterial road demarcates the mine from the village, Jiangxi Province. PC: Ruiyi Zhu.