This article conceptualizes storytelling as epistemic labor that is critical to the everyday meaning-making and future-making of Chinese rural migrants. Compared to stories told by scholars and migrants turned writers and artists, those told by migrants in a quotidian setting are largely overlooked because of their lack of representational value. However, narratives of success, fortune, and the future that circulate on China's urban fringe are essential in three ways: (1) stories, rather than numbers and calculations, help rural migrants make sense of their economic reality; (2) storytelling allows rural migrants to cope with unexpected events; and (3) stories are often imbued with moral sentiment through which moral boundaries and group identities are established. Overall, epistemic labor makes the present sensible, reality tolerable, and the future imaginable under conditions of hyper-uncertainty in which spatial instability negates routinized time and linear accumulation is denied by dramatic market fluctuations and unpredictable displacement. Epistemic labor proves that migrant agency not only resides in eventful resistance but also in constant negotiations.
Storytelling, Epistemic Labor, and Agency
In the early 1990s, Zhejiangcun 浙江村, an urban village hosting thousands of rural migrants in southern Beijing, became a research site for two social sciences students: Li Zhang and Biao Xiang. Xiang was studying sociology at Peking University and working on his MA thesis. Zhang, then a doctoral student in anthropology at Cornell University, was conducting dissertation fieldwork. Zhang (2001) saw Zhejiangcun as a migrant community made possible by China's postsocialist conditions and in 2001 published an ethnography, Strangers in the City. Xiang (2005) showcased Zhejiangcun as an emergent socioeconomic sphere and emphasized its vibrancy. He published Transcending the Boundaries, first in Chinese in 2001 and then in English in 2005. Thanks to these works, now classics, Zhejiangcun entered the public view and became the best-known urban village due to its informal economy. Then in the 2010s, Picun 皮村, outside Beijing's Fifth Ring Road, replaced Zhejiangcun as the best-known Beijing urban village. Picun's prominence was linked to the Gongyou zhi jia 工友之家 (Migrant Workers Home), a social enterprise founded and managed by a group of rural migrant activists. Since its inception in 2003, the Home has engaged in cultural activities and political advocacy through music, theater productions, literary writings, and live performances. It has become the most influential grassroots organization to speak on behalf of China's 285 million migrant workers.1 After the Home moved to Picun in 2007, the name “Picun” was no longer just the name of the village itself; for scholars and intellectuals, it was interchangeable with the Migrant Workers Home.2 Scholars in migration, labor, and media studies, anthropology, and the performing arts have documented Picun's artistic and advocacy work and evaluated its influence from various angles (Qiu and Wang 2012; Picerni 2020; Yin 2020; Sun 2002, 2012; Florence 2019; van Crevel 2019). In most of these writings, urban villages are understood as the space of workers.
Thus, in under a decade, an epistemological paradigm shift occurred in the representation of Beijing's urban villages in scholarly literature. Zhejiangcun represented an entrepreneurial space, while Picun was primarily understood as a workers’ space. The shift in the scholarly perception of and interest in urban villages proves that the urban village is not only a concrete spatial form but also a conceptual construct. How scholars problematize urban villages reflects their own theoretical concerns as well as the problematization of particular time periods. Beyond academia, migrants turned writers, musicians, and poets tell stories of their own. The best known, such as Xu Lizhi, Chen Nianxi, and Fan Yusu, have not only become storytellers themselves but also the subjects of scholarly storytelling (Xu and Ming 2019; van Crevel 2017, 2019; Wright 2017).
Two types of narratives, stories about urban villages by scholars and stories from urban villages by migrants turned writers and artists, have garnered attention in academic and cultural circles for their representational value. However, there can be pitfalls if we only consider stories for what they represent, because first, representations often foreground the agency of the storytellers rather than that of the represented subjects. Situated in such power dynamics, we are more likely to treat migrants’ lived experiences as “raw materials.” Second, stories by migrants turned writers and by researchers circulate in academic, literary, and artistic circles. They no longer belong to the rural migrants or their communities and turn out to have little to do with the lives of most rural migrants.
More importantly, the representational approach overshadows what I call “epistemic labor” by rural migrants that takes the form of storytelling. After all, scholars and migrants turned writers and artists are not the only ones who tell stories. Rural migrants I encounter on Beijing's urban fringe tell stories all the time. Even though some scholars take this third type of narrative, stories by migrants, as their analytical focus (Zavoretti 2017; Sun 2014; Florence 2020), few go beyond the representational approach to examine storytelling as a form of labor that burdens the marginalized people with trying to establish a positive relationship between the present and the future.
Acknowledging epistemic labor among rural migrants complicates our understanding of migrant agency in China. So far there are two major interpretations regarding such agency. First, there is the resistance framework. Since the late 1980s, China scholars have exerted immense efforts to capture the systemic social exclusion rural migrants face. Inspired by Marxian and Foucauldian approaches, these scholars have revealed how Chinese rural migrants are exploited as laborers and become “docile bodies” in the context of marketization, urbanization, and globalization (Pun 2005; Yan 2008). Informed by citizenship studies and liberal philosophy, scholars have examined China's household registration system, land rights, labor regime, education system, and social welfare, and have explained the uneven distribution of rights and citizenship (Ling 2019; Solinger 1999). One issue that goes hand in hand with structural repression is resistance as the most prominent form of agency.3 In the 1980s, some scholars considered migrating to urban areas as a form of resistance for Chinese rural migrants (Mallee 2003). Later studies have revealed how migrant workers find ways to oppose management in workplaces and dormitories (Pun and Smith 2007; Yin 2020), and how they resist discrimination from law enforcement bodies (Tian 2017).
Second, migrant agency is associated with strategic postponement. In his recent research on migration and mobility, Xiang Biao has argued that millions of Chinese migrants are “in suspension.” He explains, “In suspension, people move frequently and work tirelessly in order to benefit as much as possible from the present, and escape from it as quickly as they can” (Xiang 2021: 234). “Suspension” highlights the migrants’ eagerness to participate in China's fast-growing economy, as they generally believe their efforts in the present will lead to a better tomorrow. This linear understanding of time is reinforced by decades of China's rapid economic growth. A few scholars note that the migrants are aware that their stay in the urban villages is temporary because the villages will be demolished and turned into shopping malls, pet shops, and other “modern” sites soon. While staying in the urban villages, rural migrants postpone present enjoyment for the sake of an imagined hao shenghuo 好生活 (good life) in the future (Zhan 2015, 2021).
However, the epistemic labor of storytelling is hidden yet essential because a positive, optimistic relationship with the future is not easy to sustain, especially under conditions of hyper-uncertainty in which the spatial instability negates routinized time—key aspects of the modern urban experience and the basis of the linear relationship between the present and the future. Life in urban villages is constantly interrupted, and the chasm between reality and aspirations can be vast. Even though migrants often act according to a shared positive vision of the future, their experiences do not necessarily cohere to a linear and accumulative time. It is under these circumstances that storytelling as epistemic labor takes hold. David Graeber (2012) refers to the efforts of marginalized groups to explain their feelings to those in power as interpretative labor. He argues that historically, many of the interpretive techniques we employ have served as weapons of the weak far more often than as instruments of power. The interpretive labor required to allow the powerful to operate while remaining oblivious to much of what is going on around them falls on the powerless, who thus tend to empathize with the powerful far more than the powerful do with them (Graeber 2012: 105). Epistemic labor in the form of storytelling among rural migrants is similar to interpretative labor in the sense that those in power have a much lighter burden to shoulder in such labor. Only those who live in hyper-uncertain situations need to perform such labor to make life explainable and future imaginable. But unlike the interpretive labor discussed by Graeber, the storytelling discussed in this article does not amount to explanations given to the powerful but rather constitutes a common effort among migrants themselves.
Hyper-uncertainty and the Circles of Urban Fables
Urban fables are rooted in urban villages, the temporal communities where rural migrants are concentrated. These places, on China's metropolitan fringe, are locations of hyper-uncertainty. The extreme uncertainty is primarily the result of city planning and urban redevelopment. Urban villages have proliferated since the 1990s, when rural migrants concentrated in Beijing. By the 2008 Olympics, there were over four hundred urban villages. The number had dropped to a little over one hundred by 2014 due to periodic citywide gentrification campaigns to accommodate Beijing's mega events and real estate – centered development. In 2017, the mass eviction of rural migrants and suppression of much of the city's informal economy accompanied a citywide campaign against illegal buildings in urban villages. Even though those in power consider the urban process as linear “development,” the migrants, as marginalized groups, experience the process as highly disruptive.
Furthermore, within each urban village, informal rental housing development contributes to hyper-uncertainty. Local households make small, periodic investments to construct informal rental housing to host rural migrants. Their investment cycles accelerate the spatial transformation of the urban villages (Zhan 2022). When I lived in Picun in winter 2014, it was undergoing a construction boom. About 40 percent of the local households were either upgrading or rebuilding rental house structures to maximize profits.4 Right outside my window was a construction site. In under three days, an old, tile-roofed building was demolished, and in under a week, a four-story building was erected. These investment booms repeat every three to five years.
Moreover, uncertainty in social life is related to the fluctuations and risks in the informal markets. The migrants I know on Beijing's urban fringes are mostly short-term workers, casual laborers, domestic workers, peddlers, street vendors, scrap collectors, and small business owners. They experiment with informal businesses without consistent government regulations or legal protections. Informal business endeavors succeed and fail; small business owners come and go. Informal and casual laborers are paid on a daily basis. Many change jobs regularly for the sake of “better opportunities.” Most are unsure if they can sustain their business and maintain their current income in the coming month. Therefore, most migrant residents cannot and do not plan for the near future.
Uncertainty is clearly a product of social inequality and is distributed among the population unevenly. As early as the 1960s, Walter Benjamin ( 2020) proposed the notion of a “constant state of emergency” to articulate that the oppressed are more likely to live in conditions where the future is unpredictable. Since the Industrial Revolution, modernity has been expressed in the consolidation of space and the routinization of time (Bauman  2013). As the technologies of time (such as numerical and statistical thinking) evolve, time and space can be more accurately measured, controlled, and predicted. Linear time allows the future to be imagined based on the present. For example, managing the future and its uncertainty is common in the insurance and finance industries (see Mun Young Cho's contribution in this special issue). These sectors transform raw uncertainty into likelihood, which can be managed and controlled (Appadurai 2013). However, for marginalized people, unpredictability is the norm, not the exception. Hyper-uncertainty foregrounds time and often causes disorientation among rural migrants, making the future unavailable for them. What is next? How will the future look? How can we get to where we want to be from here? These are ever-pressing questions in hyper-uncertainty.
Narratives of hyper-uncertainty have low representational value. Even when migrants relate their stories factually, many of the stories contradict each other and often fail to cohere with shared experience within and beyond urban villages. In addition, the majority lack discernible sources. An outsider like me can quickly develop a suspicious attitude toward them and is tempted to call these stories “rumors.” But migrants seldom describe them as yaoyan, rumors, because in the Chinese context, yaoyan carries strong negative connotations (Ma 2008; Leibold 2011) for its lack of representational value. But narratives of hyper-uncertainty, though often unverifiable, bear people's desire for transcendence and carry the everyday significance of meaning-making and future-making. They are “inseparable from the social life” (Mazzarella 2004: 346) and are the nodes through which rural migrants construct their social worlds and make sense of reality. In this sense, narratives of hyper-uncertainty are not stories about urban villages but rather stories that make urban villages livable, thus constituting an integral component of the uncertain socioeconomic environment in urban villages.
The narratives of hyper-uncertainty discussed below are related to money, fortune, and success and were collected from two urban villages in Beijing—Picun and Dongcun—from 2013 to 2014. They emerge from and travel beyond three social circles: First, the social groups of local villagers. The villagers form a strong social group not only because they have known one another for decades, but also because their status as locals means they have shared interests. They exchange information, share knowledge, and help each other with their rental businesses. Second, there are laoxiang 老乡(fellow villager) networks that connect rural migrants to the people from their home villages. These place-based social groups are particularly prominent in Dongcun, where about 70 percent of the migrants are from Henan province. Laoxiang networks are crucial in labor recruitment and for the circulation of stories. Third is the gender-based social circle made up of women raising children. They usually congregate in public spaces after dinner so their children can play together before bedtime. They quickly get to know one another and form strong social networks of their own. Gossip, rumors, and other types of stories circulate in and across these circles. The following sections will explore the three archetypes of the narratives of hyper-uncertainty.
Who Makes More? Parallel Narratives on Economic Reality
Most rural migrants travel to urban villages to earn money, not to settle. The pressing issue on their minds is to save enough so they can start a life elsewhere. To that end, many restrict their spending and live frugally in the hopes of building savings (Zhan 2015; Zavoretti 2017). Most have definite savings goals (e.g., a car, an urban apartment, or tuition for their children's education). Yu Yu described his life plan to me in 2013 after we had become friends: “I will work in Beijing for three more years and by then I should have saved enough to open my own hair salon in my hometown.” His words demonstrated that his future prospects depended on how much money he could make, and how quickly.
It is natural for an anthropologist to consider the income status of the informal laborers in the villages. In February 2014, I had a long chat with Lao Qi, a scrap collector who had come to Beijing in the early 2000s. I asked how much he earned per month, and he responded, “It depends.” A few days later I rephrased my question and asked how his business had gone the previous month. He replied:
It was bad. The price of recycled paper was so high last month, and it just collapsed this month. We had no way to predict the quick downturn and I'll be lucky if I can make ends meet this month. This damn business is getting harder each year. If you want to know who makes the most money, go ask those street vendors—especially those who sell rice noodles. You are still new here and you may not know this. But they are actually the ones who make a fortune in this village. Think about it. People have to eat no matter what. Rice noodle vendors have regular customers. You know how rich they are? I heard they make 40,000 yuan [USD 6,000] a month. As long as you make decent noodles, you can make a fortune in just a few summer months.
Two months after this conversation with Lao Qi, I sat down with Ying Ying, a street vendor originally from Henan, who had been selling rice noodles in Picun for over two years. Before moving to Picun, she had worked in a toy factory in Shenzhen, and then had tried a shoe-shining business with her husband. Now, both Ying Ying and her husband worked as street vendors, struggling to raise their two children. I asked Ying Ying about her monthly income, and she responded:
Our income isn't too bad. We can make ends meet. Last month the business wasn't bad, and we made 8,000 yuan [USD 1,100]. But both of us were exhausted. My husband Wu was sick for a whole week and couldn't help with anything. I was totally stressed out as I had to get up before 4:30 a.m. We can't compare with those scavengers [scrap collectors]! Some people look down on them because they think the job isn't decent. Yes, their work environment is filthy, and they deal with garbage every day. But you know, they really are the ones who make loads of money. I heard some of them have even bought buildings in Beijing. Beijing! We couldn't imagine getting an apartment in Beijing. But those scavengers . . . they are really rich.
Lao Qi and Ying Ying had constructed parallel yet contradictory narratives about their earnings. They both emphasized their own hardships and thought the other made the easy money. Their narratives demonstrate that the economic reality in the migrant community is more fluid than often assumed. By consolidating the fragmented information I had gathered, I gained insight into Lao Qi's and Ying Ying's economic status. When business was good, Lao Qi could earn over 15,000 yuan (USD 2,000) in a month. Other times he might lose money and work for nothing for an entire month. The market fluctuation was unpredictable. Ying Ying's situation was no better. Her street vending business depended on the seasons and the weather. In summer, when people often ate out, her street vending business was usually profitable. In the best scenario, she could earn nearly 20,000 yuan in a month. But in the winter, her income dropped. If it rained for consecutive days, business would also taper off.
The vagueness in Lao Qi's and Ying Ying's income narratives was partly due to fluctuations in the informal economy that made it difficult to determine who actually made more. But it was also a result of the need to depend on stories to construct the local economic reality under conditions of hyper-uncertainty. In this way, they could make sense of their social position in the urban village. As a result, when asked about their income, people would rarely provide accurate numbers. Instead, everyone had a story about their difficulties making ends meet. During my stays in the urban villages, I encountered numerous narratives on moneymaking and income. Like Lao Qi's and Ying Ying's narratives, these stories revealed more about the social circumstances than actual income figures would have done.
The most crucial component in these parallel stories is the narrative of the struggles the migrants experience as self-employed workers in informal economy, such as how hard it is to make money and how exhausted they are each day. These stories can be considered a new form of suku 诉苦 (speaking bitterness), which has been pointed to in previous scholarship as the “dominant narrative pattern of modern Chinese history” (Farquhar and Berry 2004: 117). Many have argued that this discursive practice converts personal suffering into the nation's collective narrative: it was through speaking bitterness that the leadership could transform people into state subjects (Makley 2005; Wu 2014; Anagnost 1997). In urban villages, while speaking bitterness does not mediate individuals’ relationships with the state, the parallel narratives of moneymaking does help translate the fuzzy economic conditions into a reality that makes sense. In this way, market uncertainties can be tolerated. It is through moneymaking narratives that individuals confirm their relationship with the informal markets.
Besides speaking bitterness, the parallel stories also allow rural migrants to recognize their peers and use them as references. Instead of attaching aspirations to numbers and calculations, migrants use their peers as mirrors and project their hopes on to the perceived success of others. Which version of the stories is accurate is irrelevant. What matters is that through the blurred images of the fortunate others, people anchor their aspirations and maintain optimism, thus rendering the future as conceivable. By turning their unpredictable experiences in informal economy into narratives of hyper-uncertainty, migrants carry out the epistemic labor to give the unpredictable condition a cultural logic. Through epistemic labor, people reflect on the shared challenges within structural constraints. It could be argued that immersion in the fantasized success stories of and by China's migrant laborers is a prerequisite to their continued subsumption into capitalist system because the desiring machine is central in governance and social control (Rofel 2007).
“Everything Happens for the Best!”
Fang and Li were a young couple from Hebei province. Fang was born in 1980. At the age of sixteen, she dropped out of high school and migrated to Guangzhou, the most important city in the special economic zone of the Pearl River Delta. At the age of twenty-three, Fang met her husband Li. The couple decided to leave Guangzhou and try something new in Beijing. At the age of twenty-eight, Fang became the owner of a small daycare center. Her husband Li worked as an engraver. When I met the couple, Li was also a driver and delivery worker and responded primarily to delivery orders for refrigerators and air conditioners from nearby stores and malls. During his spare time, Li also recycled discarded electronic devices such as television sets, computers, refrigerators, air conditioners, and so forth. The couple had an eight-year-old daughter, Xi Xi.
In spring 2014, I texted Fang about the Beijing city government's new campaign to shutter unregistered migrant schools. She sent me an emoji along with a short reply, “Don't worry!” As a fellow parent who had also planned my daughter's education months in advance, I could not help but offer suggestions: “But soon her school will be closed. You should decide if you are going to send Xi Xi back home or find her another school in Beijing.” Fang responded, “We'll see how things go. I understand we might have to move soon. But it is hard to believe the government would simply shut down the schools and take away our children's access to education.”5
Two months later, I realized Fang's assessment had been correct. Even though the city government had tightened its grip over the migrant children's schools, it did not target the school near Dongcun. After all, half of Dongcun had already been leveled. Once demolition was complete, the enrollments at nearby schools would drop and become easier targets for redevelopment. I visited Fang's family again. This time, I congratulated Xi Xi on being able to stay at least one more year with her family in Beijing, and then I took the whole family out for dinner. Over dinner, Fang shared the following urban fable with me:
I choose not to worry too much. We can't foresee the future so the best thing is to leave it up to fate. When I feel anxious about the future, I always think about the story of my former neighbor, Chen Lan. He was a hairstylist and lived two doors from me in Dongcun. Two years ago, he was about to invest his entire savings of 90,000 yuan into a hair salon. On the day before he was going to transfer the money to his partners’ account, his partners kicked him out of the business without explanation. You can imagine how disappointed and angry this could make a person. Chen Lan was so upset and his eyes were red when he came home. But guess what? Only two months after his partners launched the business without him, demolition started in the village and his partners lost their whole investment and a year of rent. Chen Lan felt so lucky that he had been kicked out of the business; otherwise, he would have lost all of his savings. Now he owns his own hair salon in his hometown.
Fang's story highlights the rural migrants’ conflicted relationship with hyper-uncertainty. On the one hand, Fang acknowledges that they have little control over their future, but on the other hand, she seems to associate uncertainty with luck, hope, and fortune. Unlike workers in the formal sectors, their prospects of success do not lie in routinized work. People do not attach their future to factories and assembly lines that offer little hope for change and tether the workers to identities they want to escape. In the informal economy, migrants tolerate, if not embrace, unpredictability because it is one of the means through which they can transcend their present and envision a better future.
Note the role of the state in Fang's expression. If she had not believed that the state “cannot simply shut down the schools and take away our children's access to education,” she would not have developed an optimistic relationship with uncertainty. In other words, her acceptance of uncertainty was connected to her trust of the state. Even though rural migrants often expressed dissatisfaction with concrete government policies that directly affected them, they continued to have faith in the abstract state which was generally perceived as moral. Ironically, the recognition of the state justified the rural migrants’ embrace of hyper-uncertainty.
When I revisited Beijing in 2018, Fang and her family had returned to her husband's hometown, but I could not help but thinking of them when I met a young migrant in Picun. When I asked him about his life plan, he replied, “I don't have a plan. Everything happens for the best.” The expression yiqie doushi zuihao de anpai 一切都是最好的安排 (everything happens for the best) became a buzzword that began circulating through popular media in 2017. It then became a common expression among so-called foxi qingnian 佛系青年 (Buddhist youth) who reject the competitive goals that society pushes on them (Song 2018; Wiseman 2018). This saying also became part of the urban culture of sang 丧 (resignation). Rural migrants embraced this because they shared the feeling of losing control over their future. Narratives of losing control should not be mistaken for negativity, however. In fact, giving up the attempt to control the uncontrollable is one means of coping with hyper-uncertainty. This popular expression reminded me of Fang's text messages and her narration of the strategies in unpredictable conditions. Both were about how a person could avoid life's traps by not planning.
Hard-Earned Money and “Black-Hearted” Money
During my stay in Dongcun, the name Uncle Liu often came up. People talked about him when they explained to me why they continued to come to Beijing even when they had already purchased houses in their hometowns. They also talked about him when they criticized others for their “unjustifiable” windfalls. On most occasions, people mentioned Uncle Liu with admiration. At first I thought he was a resident of Dongcun. After hearing so many people mention him, I decided to ask one of my informants to arrange an interview. Then I learned that Uncle Liu had left Dongcun years ago. In fact, most people who mentioned his story had never met him. They talked about him as a success story—a migrant who had come to Beijing in the mid-1990s. Below is the Uncle Liu story as told by Lao Qi:
Uncle Liu came to Beijing in the mid-1990s. He was just an ordinary rural fellow and knew little about the urban rules. One day, he met a rich woman who wanted to finish work on her new house. The house was big—three or four floors. The woman asked Uncle Liu if he could finish the whole place. At that time, Uncle Liu knew nothing about construction or finishing, but he wanted the job badly so he said he could. Being smart and diligent, Uncle Liu taught himself to work with cement and tiles. But he had no idea that he needed to waterproof the bathrooms. The ceilings and floors were ruined, and it was a disaster. But Uncle Liu was an honest guy: he redid the bathrooms and ceilings with money out of his own pocket, which cost him everything he had earned for the project. The wealthy woman was so impressed by Uncle Liu's honesty that she gave him more contracts and kept him in the construction and finishing business. Now Uncle Liu has bought his own building in Beijing! (Lao Qi, interview, Beijing, winter 2014)
In the story, Uncle Liu was a quick learner who was honest and unafraid of taking risks. There was no way for me to corroborate the Uncle Liu story or any need to do so. By telling Uncle Liu's story, people associate possibilities with hyper-uncertainty and persuade themselves to work a bit longer so new possibilities can happen. Stories like this give rural migrants hope and comfort as well as offer reference points for them to imagine their future. Storytelling also reinforces the work ethic. In this way, the narratives are crucial to everyday meaning-making.
However, not every windfall story has a happy ending. The tale of Li Jun circulated in Picun and its neighboring villages was told with disapproval. I first heard it from a taxi driver who lived in Picun. Later, several residents of Picun's neighboring village also mentioned it to me. This is the taxi driver's version—the fullest I was told.
Li Jun is filthy rich! I heard that he uses comforters that cost 110,000 yuan [USD 15,000] each. Can you image that? Why would anyone spend money like that? There is no doubt that the money he made was all heixinqian 黒心钱 [black-hearted money]. It is fine if one gets filthy rich through a windfall. But one has to have the wisdom to spend it well. Li Jun never learned how to spend it well, though. After all, he was just an ordinary nongmin 农民 [a person with rural household registration]. But he was bold. Probably the boldest man in the village. He was among the first group to build a “big yard” to rent to rural migrants. At that time, most people were so short-sighted and were still finding jobs in township enterprises. Li Jun was different. He was sensitive. People thought he would invest in a chicken farm, but he never did. He dared to borrow more money from others and rented all the land he could, and then subleased the land to outsiders. People said he even controlled more farmland than the village collective. Who knowns if that was true? But even if it was not true, Li Jun was a big landlord. There must have been some inside trading between Li Jun and the village committee.
Even though many rural migrants came to the urban village to get rich quickly, this does not mean that anything goes in hyper-uncertainty. Both Uncle Liu and Li Jun were successful money makers in the stories, yet the storytellers held opposing attitudes toward them because moral judgement matters in the narrations. People considered Uncle Liu a role model because his fortune was justified by his hard work. However, there was no ethical explanation for Li Jun's windfall.
These stories show that people embrace unpredictability in the hope of transcending the present, and they do so while maintaining a social and moral order through the epistemic labor of storytelling. Uncle Liu's success story reflects these contradictions. Migrant laborers believe they will be rewarded if they keep their moral values such as hard work and honesty. However, Uncle Liu's success was also due to a lucky encounter with a “rich woman” and to his boldness in jumping at the opportunity. Therefore, hyper-uncertainty is a double-edged sword—it can make success untenable but it can also be an indispensable ingredient for success.6 However, rapid wealth accumulation solely from luck and “eating off others” (as in Li Jun's case) is not appreciated by the rural migrants. Moral justification for the moneymaking process necessitates hard work.
Moral judgement on Li Jun also reflects the village's social differences. If Uncle Liu represents the migrants who work hard for a better future, Li Jun represents the local villagers who became landlords in the 1990s. To many informal workers, landlords are lazy. Unlike the money the workers earn with their sweat and tears, the easy money made by the landlords is seen as unethical. By attaching themselves to a moralized image of Uncle Liu, the informal workers distanced themselves from the local villagers and even reinforced their own identities as workers.
Conclusion: Epistemic Labor and Future-Making
Instead of focusing on what stories represent, this article has discussed storytelling as epistemic labor and explained why it matters. The attempt to go beyond a representational approach is not new. John L. Austin (1975) argues that language does not just state matters of fact but can have tangible consequences. By speaking, people do not just describe reality but also “do things with words” and transform reality. Richard Rorty (2022: 33) also challenges representationalism as he argues “there is no such thing as the correct description of anything: there are only the descriptions which, by relating it to other things, put it in contexts which serve our current, varied, needs.” Graeber's (2012) concept of interpretive labor has inspired my discussion of narratives of hyper-uncertainty, which I have proposed to consider as a form of epistemic labor. Constituting the hidden burden of the disadvantaged, such labor is hard to discern. It is both the product of and an integral part of a hyper-uncertain condition. Epistemic labor addresses Gayatri Spivak (1994)’s decades-old question on cultural representation: “Can the subaltern speak?” It is not that the subaltern cannot speak; it is not even that the subaltern is ignored or not understood on their own terms. Rather, it may well be that the subaltern speaks not only to be heard by others but also to make their life sensible, their reality tolerable, and their future imaginable to themselves.
Epistemic labor is critical in future-making for two reasons. First, hyper- uncertainty makes it difficult to sustain a positive relationship with the future. The near future is often unthinkable and unpredictable. The epistemic labor of storytelling allows migrants to repair the fragile relationship between the present and the future. This does not mean that these stories merely cheer people up. Most of the stories help people fill in the gap between reality and hope, transforming the absurd and unfair situation into a sensible reality and therefore allowing people to make sense of a social order amid unpredictable, chaotic economic conditions. Compared to numbers and calculations, stories generate more of a coherent logic of both life and economy. Through storytelling, rural migrants make sense of their lives, envision economic breakthroughs, and cope with conditions that are otherwise difficult to accept.
Second, storytelling, as epistemic labor, creates a shared reality for rural migrants. Migrants access collective agency through storytelling: By projecting hope onto each other, Lao Qi and Ying Ying can keep their faith in the positive prospects of the larger group of society in spite of the challenges they encounter every day. Moreover, future-making through epistemic labor is inherently moralistic. The stories of Uncle Liu and Li Jun convey strong moral judgements, illustrating to members of the communities what is desirable and what is not. Such epistemic labor allows people to establish a collective sense of social order, moral boundaries, and even group identities. Through epistemic labor, we discern implicit solidarities among rural migrants and the interdependent nature of future-making.
My gratitude goes to guest editor Paola Iovene who read this piece many times and offered valuable insights. I also thank Zhong Yurou, Maghiel van Crevel, Munyong Cho, Ting Ting Chun and other participants of the workshop “Cultures of Labor, Inequality, and Eviction” held in Beijing in 2019.
The number of rural migrants is based on 2020 national statistics (National Bureau of Statistics 2021).
It is very common for scholars and intellectuals to refer to the Workers Home as Picun, but for rural migrants who actually live in Picun, the term does not have that association.
This has been broached by the Marxist tradition and the rise of practice theories since the 1970s. This has brought to the fore the binary of structure versus agency as a key domain of inquiry for understanding the human condition and human actions.
Fieldwork notes, Beijing, 2014.
This resonates with Maghiel van Crevel's emphasis on a “lucky break” as one of the factors contributing to the making of the poet Xiao Hai in his article in this special issue.