Return migration, online entrepreneurship and gender performance in the Chinese ‘Taobao families’

Author: Chiu-Wan, Liu (Graduate Institute of National Development, National Taiwan University)

Publisher: Asia Pactific Viewpoint


This paper centres on analysing how return migrants’ participation in online businesses impacts marital power dynamics in rural families alongside the rise of e‐commerce in rural China. During 2016 and 2017, I conducted an ethnographic study in a Chinese ‘Taobao village’ which I have termed ‘Xinyi’ whereby the majority of villagers make their livelihoods by selling furniture via the online marketplace Taobao. The boom of e‐commerce has attracted many migrants to return to the village and start their online businesses. Inquiring into whether and how rural women’s increased access to online entrepreneurship challenges the gender norm that upholds male dominance in marriage, I delineate the power relations in ‘Taobao families’ within which rural women jointly operate online shops with their husbands. Drawing from my ethnographic data, I propose a conceptual framework incorporating the lenses of returnee entrepreneurship, flexible inner‐outer boundary and performance of gender to examine discrepancies between the gender norm that upholds gender hierarchy, and the practice regarding the husbands and wives’ equal engagements in online merchandising. This framework is developed to shed a more positive light on the nuances of women’s exercise of agency that entails nominal conformity to the gender norm.

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