BooksWeekend

A Poem of Shame: In the Words of China’s Workers

Iron Moon: An Anthology of Chinese Worker Poetry, edited by Qin Xiaoyu and translated by Eleanor Goodman, collects work by Xu Lizhi and 30 other worker poets.

In 1923, not long after returning from working as a correspondent in Moscow, becoming the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and translating “The Internationale” for the first time into Chinese, Qu Qiubai wrote the poem “Iron Flower” (which I’ve translated below). It was written at an odd moment in CCP history: a literati like Qu could accomplish all he did politically and write modernist poetry, as much about the revolution as about signifying a new kind of beauty.

I’m not of a soft and smooth nature,

I’m not in the midst of glam and grace;
inside this smoke-filled factory,
forging my iron flower, fire surges.

Iron flower not receiving the warmth of sunlight,
iron flower not getting the solace of moonlight;
the unifying gale of fire in the furnace,
it cracks to burst the pistils into flame.

That place’s sound of hammers is dull,
that place’s sound of metal is staccato;
like a copper pine whipping the hard wind,
I’ve fallen in love, and can’t bear desertion.

This isn’t a fan dance, lightly circling across the floor —
but wherever you look are callouses — strong hands.
The inextinguishable flame burns in the factory,
and shines on my resolute and bold chest.

I billow labor’s rage in the iron furnace,
I envision, envision the Great Community,
and drunkenly belt out a song… the masses!
Forging my iron flower, fire surges.

Over the next 11 years Qu would form alliances with Lu Xun and other luminaries  of China’s left wing avant-garde, be demoted in CCP rank, and would then embark on the Long March — where he would be captured by the Nationalists, tortured, and executed. During the Cultural Revolution his reputation would suffer heavily for his personal idiosyncrasies, though he would be officially rehabilitated by the CCP in 1980. His literary and political dream of the “Great Community” — the somewhat mystical, classless society invoked by modern utopian thinkers in China — would go unrealized.

Seventy years after Qu’s death, a migrant worker in Shenzhen named Xu Lizhi would jump to his death from the roof of the Foxconn plant where he worked. He was one of many — that year, Foxconn experienced a rash of worker suicides. Left behind were his poems, later collected into the volume A New Day. They show a young writer (he was 24 at the time of his death) with a talent that almost no one, including his family, knew about. Unlike Qu Qiubai, he wasn’t a political leader; he was a laborer. Like Qu Qiubai, he expressed a severe sort of beauty that intertwined with politics. His well-known poem, “I Swallowed an Iron Moon,” is a good example.

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 (198)

Xu uses one of the supreme tropes of Chinese poetry, the moon, to illuminate the erosion of personal life. But in Xu Lizhi’s “rusted-out life” there’s also an echo of what Lu Xun praised in 1927 as the “rusted words and language” of politically aware youth: unadorned expression that, in its refusal to accommodate the usual modes of poetic complaint, demonstrates a fiery spirit of defiance. Xu’s poem, ending in a particularly memorable couplet of indictment, points at the CCP’s failures.

A volume of similar indictments, Iron Moon: An Anthology of Chinese Worker Poetry, edited by Qin Xiaoyu and translated by Eleanor Goodman, collects work by Xu Lizhi and 30 other worker poets. Their poetry ranges from lyrical, like the above piece, to experimental (exemplified by another of Xu’s poems, a verbatim listing of a peanut butter production slip).

Poems are in verse, prose, and combinations thereof. Some tell stories, some list facts, some offer only fragments. The formal variety is on par with what you would get from any major anthology in the US (excepting spoken-word poetry).

The authors are not members of literary coteries, either. Aside from being poets, all they have in common is that they are migrant laborers.

In China, migrant labor is defined by a household registration system. Migrants who have left a countryside bereft of economic opportunity to work in cities are at the mercy of employers’ often unfair contracts and labor practices, as well as of the state: a worker without a registered household has few recourses to injustice. But migrant laborers cannot gain local household registration if they are members of a floating population.

They are also spread across the work spectrum, from seamstresses to demolition workers, sometimes developing specialized skills only after years of work in the field. Because of their lack of geographical and professional stability, migrant workers are “outsiders in their own country.” (15) Despite obvious differences, Qin Xiaoyu sees a resemblance between the workers in his anthology and earlier precedents ,

These worker poets resemble traditional Chinese “itinerant
intellectuals,” leaving their homes to seek a livelihood in the cities,
concealed at the bottom of society, undergoing the hardships of their
trade. Unlike others in the same situation, these poets have a conscious
desire to write; and unlike traditional literati or contemporary
intellectuals, they frequently must make their living doing something
they despise. … Unlike purely literary writers or scholars merely
interested in the poor, the poverty that these worker-poets
describe constitutes their daily experiences. (19-20)

These experiences are  ubiquitous, yet vary in details. Turn to nearly any of the writers’ biographies and you will see someone who may or may not have formal education, but who has learned on the job; someone who has lived in more cities than have most “professionals”; people who have often persisted in their writing — publishing books and even editing magazines — despite being unable to enter the literary trade as it exists in university-centered conferences and festivals.

Zheng Xiaoqiong (b.1980, Nanchong, Sichuan) worked for six months in
a rural hospital after graduating from nursing school, and then moved to
Dongguan to work in a die-mold factory. She worked in a toy factory, a
magnetic tape factory, and as a hole-punch operator in a hardware
factory for five years. She is now an editor at a magazine. Her poetry
collections include Huangma Mountains, Collected Poems of Zeng
Xiaoqiong
, Pedestrian Bridge, and Poems Falling on Machines. (112)

Full of biographies like this, it’s easy to appreciate the poets’ sympathetic personal stories. But the poetry itself is surprising and thoughtful. Although many “peasant songs” were produced during the halcyon years of the CCP — from the founding of the People’s Republic up through the Great Leap Forward — they have a jingoistic message completely unlike what’s found in this collection. The poems in Iron Moon are critical, inventive, and reflect changes in the self-perception of migrant laborers. Migrant workers today, according to Qin, understand “that they cannot go back home to the countryside, [so] they begin to fight for their rights as workers.” (31)

As readers we can consider this anthology equal parts a document of struggle and an aesthetic reflection , but more than that it’s an appeal to solidarity. The poets included in Iron Moon \ are using their writing to both diagnose a condition and prescribe its cure. For example, the “Song of Construction Workers,” by Cheng Peng, reads:

We built it! The flower-gardened villas. Where you live
you so-called princelings, owners of the city
we’re the same age, you walk dogs, dogs of noble blood
but they’re still mutts. That glare at what we’re doing

Our construction worker blood is inlaid with bricks
to shelter you from wind and rain. You so-called high officials and VIPs
magnates, national cadres, public servants. I want to wake you with my screams use your conscience to measure the weight of our aluminum souls

National sites, official buildings, government halls, mayoral mansions
we built them! We built those thresholds for you, ones we can no longer cross
we built the Labor Law Building, where someone is dozing
we built the People’s Mansion, which we can only gaze at

Picks and banners rust into our rallying banner
let my poetry call to you!
On the great road to communism, so many ghosts
can’t return home. We built it! (140)

Although Qu Qiubai was an odd fit with the CCP, and the CCP today no longer represents the interests of the working class, the poets in this anthology show that workers with literary flair aren’t at odds with progressive politics. Iron Moon is an excellent document of the writing that is part of the construction of a different world.  Similar to the fiery beauty of “Iron Flower,” migrant workers in this anthology are attempting to build the world they want with their poems as well as their politics — they seem inseparable, just as being a migrant worker is inseparable from certain political realities.

Iron Moon: An Anthology of Chinese Worker Poetry (2016), edited by Qin Xiaoyu and translated by Eleanor Goodman, is published by White Pine Press and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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