China's Factory Workers-Their Poets Speak

The Economist August 14th 2021 pp33-34|China|Proletarian culture “Production-line poets” “Factory-workers find creative ways to express their disillusionment”



Image from SCMP.COM



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Summary offered by 2244


They are called migrant workers and praised by the “government...as patriotic and self-sacrificing” but “The hardship of factory work is glossed over, as are the common injustices such as withheld wages” and more. An estimated 300 million Chinese youth have labored in this way over the last four decades. The expectation has been that they would earn a wage and as “outsiders...[they] will return to their rural hometown.” “But today’s working-class youth have no interest in going back to the land.” “They want to put down roots. Although marginalized in mass culture, workers are expressing themselves in forms as varied as poetry and short videos shared online.” They do so under the radar of the Chinese Communist Party by publishing poetry and videos in underground forums. These works deliver the harsh reality of the factory working-life and of being social outcasts in their adopted cities.


Examples of the labor poetry


A sample from by Xu Lizhi, a Foxconn (iPhone Manufacturer) worker written before his suicide at age 24 in 2014.


“I Swallowed An Iron Moon”


I swallow an iron moon

they called it a screw

I swallowed industrial wastewater and unemployment forms

bent over machines, our youth died young

I swallowed labor, I swallowed poverty swallowed pedestrian bridges, swallowed this rusted out life

I can’t swallow any more

Everything I’ve swallowed rolls up in my throat

I spread across my country

A poem of shame


Another by a female poet Wu Xia


Excerpt from “Sundress”


The packing area is flooded with light

the iron I’m holding

collects all the warmth of my hands

I want to press the straps flat

so they won’t dig into your shoulders when you wear it

And then press up from the waist

a lovely waist

where someone can lay a fine hand

and on the tree-shaded lane

caress a quiet kind of love


More of similar works have been translated into English and published in 2016 in an anthology entitled “Iron Moon”


There’s much more to this story of early and current ways these workers are rebeling or withdrawing from factory life but also a coming together to “cheer each other on” and share information about better wages and better working conditions or even other career paths.


“A fellow worker-poet and friend of Xu wrote in tribute after his death: ‘Another screw comes loose/Another migrant-worker brother jumps/You die in place of me/And I keep writing in place of you.”