Iron Moon: An Anthology of Chinese Migrant Worker Poetry
Ed: Qin Xiaoyu; Trans: Eleanor Goodman
White Pine Press
It’s hard to think of anywhere in the world where becoming a poet is a canny career move, but this is especially true for the poorest and most disadvantaged trying to get a foothold in China’s frenzied special economic zones.
In recent years there have been a flurry of documentaries highlighting the hardships of China’s migrant workers, but the 2015 film Iron Moon drew attention to a very specific figure: the migrant worker poet. It follows several young writers battling economic and cultural prejudice in their attempts to sublimate 14-hour shifts on assembly lines into lines of poetry. We watch the young, tender-minded Wu Niaoniao (whose name means Blackbird) wandering from stand to stand in Guangzhou’s vast strip-lit Southern China Job Market, enquiring about editorial positions on internal factory newspapers. With a knowing mix of fatalism and hope that permeates the poetry of China’s migrant workers, he reads a poem and awaits their responses with a sheepish smile.
“I know young people want to follow their dreams, but . . . ” says one cynical recruiter without finishing the sentence. Another peers over his glasses and enquires “but what do you do? With an education you can make a lot of money. Without an education you can’t do business, get it?” One recruiter simply wonders if Wu ever considered writing things that were a little more upbeat.
While no one would expect construction and factory tycoons to be on the look out for the next Charles Bukowski, their collective response, paying lip service to impersonal pragmatism and business savvy, inadvertently reinforces Wu’s humble, unprofitable ambitions.
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The plight of rural migrants is not new to Chinese fiction. The New Culture Movement of the 1910s and 20s, driven by concerns about how to modernize China and highlight those marginalized by the old feudal society, gave prominence to Lu Xun, arguably the greatest Chinese writer of the 20th century, whose pioneering use of vernacular Chinese in The Real Story of Ah Q detailed the life of a rural peasant in the city. He was followed by Lao She’s rural orphan in Beijing in Rickshaw Boy and Zhang Leping’s long-running cartoon serialization of the “aimless drifter” San Mao in the 30s and 40s. And yet, these were still migrant stories written at a remove. And even though the three decades of Maoist rule that followed enforced the centrality of the worker, peasant and soldier in fiction, it produced poor quality, state-controlled literature that had little bearing on the actual experiences of those it claimed to represent.
That all changed in the 1980s. Since China’s reform and opening-up era of agricultural de-collectivization, privatization of industry and the shift towards a self-styled socialist market economy, it is estimated that 274 million Chinese migrants have moved from the countryside to work in mines and on urban assembly lines. Once foregrounded by the Communist revolution, this rapid degradation of the worker, stripped of all welfare benefits, is beautifully captured in a poem by former construction worker Xie Xiangnan, in which a young migrant compares the glorious image of “Lenin on the Rostrum” from his school days with the sight of forlorn hordes of migrants at Guangzhou train station, carrying their home in plastic bags “like packages of explosives.”
Still, in those early post-socialist years, such disenchantment wasn’t always there. Migrant worker poetry (not to be confused with the propagandist “worker poetry” of the Great Leap Forward) was one of many genres to sprout in the cultural wasteland following Mao’s death in 1976. But unlike the better-known elite (and beguilingly named) genres of “scar literature” and “misty poetry,” it’s one that, until recently, has been largely overlooked. Certainly, going from its earliest incarnation, one would be forgiven for doing so.
After decades of ingrained party loyalty, early migrant worker literature mainly reflected a continued allegiance to state policy. In the early 80s, this meant mass-producing formulaic self-helpy success-through-hard work narratives in line with the government’s drive towards urbanization, of which Anzi’s Posthouse of Youth: The True Life of Migrant Women in the Special Economic Zone is perhaps the most impressive. (Anzi became a model female migrant worker, whose entrepreneurial success codified the urban dream as reality.) These autobiographies and stories of social mobility in Shenzhen were embraced by newspapers and state-run TV channels as handy proof that those rural workers bearing the greatest burden of the country’s early economic transformation were also benefiting from it. But as with so much literature that follows a state-sponsored literary purge, much of it is more of anthropological than literary interest. As Xie laments in his poem “Production, the Middle of Production, Is Soaked by Production,” “a floating country can’t pillow a broken dream.”
Today the most famous migrant worker poet is 24-year-old Xu Lizhi who committed suicide in 2014. He worked at Foxconn city, the electronics mega-factory in Shenzhen famed not only for manufacturing all our Apple products, but for a spate of suicides in 2010 that exposed the sinister myth of opportunity and social mobility on the assembly line: “To die is the only way to testify that we ever lived,” wrote one blogger at the factory. (Foxconn subsequently erected netting to prevent not the despair but the death toll.) But when Xu threw himself from the 17th floor of a building four years later, having published much of his work online, it was not his death that made headlines, but his skill as a poet.
Time magazine published his brief life story alongside his work under the headline: “The poet dying for your phone.” In China, the host of a national culture show innocently marveled at the depths of this uneducated worker’s feelings. In giving shape to his experiences through poetry, Xu highlighted our own automated disconnect from the people who manufacture the clothes we wear and the electronics we consume, as conveyed in the final lines of his poem “Terracotta Army on the Assembly Line”:
(. . .) these workers who can’t tell night from day
all at the ready
silently awaiting their orders
when the bell rings
they’re sent back to the Qin
In 1956 Erich Fromm warned that “the danger of the past was that men became slaves. The danger of the future is that men may become robots.” Migrant workers in Xu’s poetic universe represent both the entombed foot soldiers of the ancient Qin dynasty and, when at work, the automata of the future. They have become the dehumanized, chillingly synchronized embodiment of Fritz Lang’s once futuristic Metropolis.
This month the first translated anthology of migrant worker poetry will be published to accompany the documentary, both of which were curated by the poet and critic Qin Xiaoyu. Skillfully translated by Eleanor Goodman, the collection includes work by 31 poets (skimmed from more than 100 in the Chinese edition). Each of them provides concrete evidence that they have debunked the myth of social mobility; they are aware of their own exploitation, the economic pursuits that corrupt human values. Since the mid-90s, their experience of powerlessness has fortified their literature with a fresh, intimidating strength and honesty. The anthology is also titled Iron Moon, a visual metaphor taken from one of Xu Lizhi’s most well-known poems:
I swallowed 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 roils up in my throat
I spread across my country
a poem of shame
Given the primacy of the moon in classical Chinese poetry—as an image of solitude, of romance, of companionship—linking it with iron, says Goodman, conjures “a head-on collision of traditional Chinese culture with an explosion of capitalism, of humanity with mechanization, romance with an unromantic world—it becomes an amalgam of extremes. And these poets are dealing with this very consciously.” They are using poetry, China’s most treasured and esteemed classical art form to counter the brutalizing experience of modernity.
Zheng Xiaoqiong, one of the finest poets in the collection, has pioneered her own distinctive “aesthetic of iron”, a peculiarly expansive and pliable metaphor to convey a life that is mercilessly cold and hard. Having worked for years in a die-mold factory and as a hole-punch operator, it is clear from the opening lines of “Language” how seamlessly she forges the physical and intellectual symbiosis of man and metal:
I speak this sharp-edged, oiled language
of cast iron–the language of silent workers
a language of tightened screws the crimping and memories of iron sheets
a language like callouses fierce crying unlucky
hurting hungry language back pay of the machines’ roar occupational
language of severed fingers life’s foundational language in the dark place
between the damp steel bars these sad languages
. . . . . . . . I speak them softly
It’s a theme that pervades the collection, including miner Chen Nianxi’s “Demolitions Mark,” in which he writes, “I don’t often dare look at my life / it’s hard and metallic black / angled like a pickaxe.”
Just as there is a noticeable splicing of rich, sophisticated imagery in some poems and a lean, resolute use of the vernacular in others, there is also a conspicuous range in quality. But there are fascinating through-lines: a nostalgia for a life not lived, the futility of language (“we can’t bear to put our tears and pain into our letters . . . The blank spaces of years” writes Xie), a mourning for lost limbs and one’s truncated youth: “My finest five years went into the input feeder of a machine,” Xie adds. “I watched those five youthful years come out of the machine’s / asshole—each formed into an elliptical plastic toy.”
Similar to the way the industrial revolution in England enforced a whole new concept of time as it severed workers from seasonal rhythms, so these poets speak of disrupted menstrual cycles, the blurring of night and day and the sense of unbelonging, where both countryside and city are rendered uninhabitable (several refer to themselves as “lame ducks,” maimed and unable to complete their journey back home). Of course, they are not the only ones concerned with the spiritual vacuum of China’s brutish capitalist economy or the devastating destruction of the environment, but what makes their eco-poetry so vital is that they are not writing from a distance, but at the coalface.
They work hellish hours without job security, drink water from rivers they see dumped with pollutants and chemicals, inhale air fouled by poisonous gases. They risk injury from merciless, vampiric machines that consume not only their youth, but their body parts (in 2005 there were an estimated 40,000 incidents of severed fingers each year alone in China’s southern economic zones). And they find the time outside of the 14-hour shifts and the space in their crowded dorm rooms to engage, to write about their lives and publish it online using a basic cell phone (of the many forums they use, the most comprehensive is the Worker’s Poetry Alliance www.laborpoetry.com.) This confluence of China’s industrialization with easy internet access has created an unprecedented opportunity in the history of working class literature.
No-one, of course, would envy this opportunity. As Goodman points out, they not only face discrimination as unskilled workers, they are also up against “a really deep prejudice that someone who doesn’t have a formal education can’t write poetry. Poetry has always been an essential part of the formal education structure; it was part of the civil service exams. When you talk to people in China there is a sense that someone is cultured or not-cultured—to broader society these workers are “uncultured.”’
It is a discourse unconsciously internalized at all levels, even by Xu Lizhi’s father who, still mourning his son’s death three years on, has little faith in the ability of poetry to change the lives of the lower classes—spiritually or economically: “If this [his death] hadn’t happened,” he says tearfully in the documentary, “we wouldn’t know he wrote poetry. But I don’t think there’s any future in poetry. It can’t compare with science and technology. Poetry was important in dynastic times, when it was part of the civil service exam . . . you could be an official if you wrote good poetry. But society has changed a lot. It’s not that I don’t support him, but in today’s world if you don’t have money or power it’s really hard.”
The more “intellectual” writers of the Chinese avant-garde such as Mo Yan, Su Tong, Yu Hua, and Can Xue have turned to a Kafka-esque surrealism or magical realism to broach thorny subjects. Yet when reading Iron Moon you realize how intimate and personal these young migrant writers can be. Their micro-narratives of mechanization, as self-identified screws, nails, discarded rocks, atoms of dust, come together as a powerful chorus. They offer a deeper and more meaningful connection between the grand narrative of economic prosperity and the unheard stories of the millions who sacrifice their health, youth and sanity for our benefit.
One of the most forgiving and hopeful of the migrant worker poets is Wu Xia, whose disarming benevolence towards beneficiaries of her labor is heartbreaking:
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
last I’ll smooth the dress out
to iron the pleats to equal widths
so you can sit by a lake or on a grassy lawn
and wait for a breeze
like a flower
The very act of writing these poems is self-fulfilling, a way for those without a voice to counter the detachment they feel from each other, from their work, from the things they make, and to reclaim their own sense of humanity. The poems also provide an opportunity for us not to lazily point fingers at China’s human rights abuses, but to think about our own casual complicity in these workers’ hardship. Their eloquent commitment to poetry provides another way of understanding the cost of sweatshop labor that stretches way beyond cold, unfeeling economics.
Megan Walsh is a journalist based in London whose work has appeared in The Times of London, New Statesman, and The Wall Street Journal. After two years in Beijing and Taipei, followed by a masters in China Studies, she now often writes about Chinese film and literature.