Symbolic Bodies, Mobile Signs: the Story of the Rural Maid in Urban China

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Journal Article
Asian Studies Review, 2009, 33 (3), pp. 275 - 288
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Wang Xiaoshuai's acclaimed film, Beijing Bicycle, centres on the experiences of a young migrant man in Beijing, Guei. One day, Guei and his friend observe with desire a woman whom they assume to be an extremely wealthy city dweller. She is an attractive young woman who is seen languishing on her apartment balcony or walking down the street, clearly aware of the gaze on her, although she exudes an air of aloofness. When Gueis fellow rural migrant worker, who has his eyes on the young woman, realises that she is in fact a rural migrant domestic worker who likes to dress up in her employers clothes when left alone in the house, he blurts out, ``If I had known that she was one of us, I would have . . . His monologue is deliberately cut short and audiences are left to guess what he would have done if he had known the true identity of the object of his desire. The maids fantasy about becoming a fashionable city resident ends up as a nightmare, as, towards the end of the film, she is caught trying to steal clothes from her employer and run away. The maid is able to ``deceive her rural and city spectators for a long time, mainly because she does not look fundamentally different from others around her. With efficient camouflage of her rurality speaking little, hence revealing no accent; dressing fashionably; and looking aloof she manages to pass for an urban young woman consumer. This characters masquerade illustrates some of the issues that will be explored in this article. The difference between this woman and more privileged urban women is not primarily a matter of racialised or ethnicised difference, but rather hinges on differences of dress, bodily deportment, speech, manners and etiquette.
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