In South China’s many clustered industrial zones, a vast army of young workers slave away on assembly lines, performing mechanical movements in robotic synchrony. It’s a life that leaves many of them feeling numb. After yet another day of monotonous work, they might search for some semblance of meaning in their lives by spending their earnings at one of the various malls in the vicinity of their factory.
These malls have few, if any, of the public services or cultural activities that were once offered in China’s workers’ cultural “palaces.” Their highly intensive, repetitive jobs generally deprive them of the time and energy necessary to enrich themselves culturally and intellectually, anyway. Yet these workers are not passive, indifferent consumers. The advent of cheap mobile phones, internet cafés, and other technologies have allowed them to make the best of their industrial surroundings, achieve a semblance of spiritual fulfillment, and even develop their own cultures.
A view of a so-called download shop. Courtesy of Wang Hongzhe
In contrast with the gaudy and often prohibitively expensive entertainment venues found in China’s central business districts — which are dominated by high-end shopping malls and movie theaters — the “urban villages” home to many factory workers offer a more diverse array of affordable facilities and services. Cheap karaoke venues, internet cafés, nightclubs, and skating rinks allow workers to entertain themselves, maintain their social networks, and fulfill their spiritual and emotional needs, all at a good price. “Download shops,” for example, allow workers to download colossal collections of songs and films to their phone or computer for just a dozen yuan, far cheaper than the cost of even a single movie ticket.
At the same time, the rapid development of various social media platforms has pushed many workers to seek their entertainment and culture online. Hundreds of millions of workers from different industries all over the country now have a way to connect with one another. In this era of self-made, democratized media, migrant workers have forged online identities and even created their own genres and schools of literature. Many working-class writers write what they know: the fate of those on the bottom rungs of society. A few, like the domestic worker and author Fan Yusu, have even garnered readerships that span social classes.
In the process, the internet has subverted the control that the middle-class and elite once had over China’s cultural discourse, helping to restore, at least in part, the notion of a “proletarian public sphere” to the country. The Foxconn factory worker and amateur poet Xu Lizhi captured the imagination of poetry critics and ordinary Chinese alike with lines such as “I swallow a moon made of iron.” His subsequent suicide sent a shockwave through Chinese society, triggering a discussion about the mental health of contemporary workers.
Although very few workers are able make a career from their literary works, as some still did in the 1990s, there is no lack of literary and artistic talent on display in contemporary China’s urban industrial zones. I once met a chef from the central Hunan province who had a side-gig teaching guitar to students who lived in the same urban village. His room doubled as both a residence and a classroom. After getting off work, he would pass the time by singing and playing guitar alone. His guitar was not just a way of making money, but also a source of spiritual sustenance.
Fan Yusu poses for a photo in Beijing, April 25, 2017. Wang Pan/IC
In recent years, the rise of short-video platforms like Kuaishou and Douyin has given workers even more space for self-expression. Online, their identity as grassroots workers doesn’t pose an obstacle to their widespread popularity as content creators. On the contrary, it has become a selling point, helping them attract more views and followers. For example, the short-video star Manual Geng worked as an auto-mechanic and welder in Beijing before returning to his hometown, where he started making videos showing off his professional skills.
One of the best-known online communities of working-class Chinese can be found among its truck drivers. Millions of drivers spend their breaks and limited free time on Douyin and Kuaishou, forming friendships with others in their profession — people they’ll most likely never meet. It’s a way to free themselves from their social atomization, but also a powerful latent organizing force. Last year, at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak in the central city of Wuhan, drivers organized through Douyin to deliver fresh vegetables to the region from around the country.
Yet for all the real, interesting, and engaging work being produced by working-class Chinese, whenever it’s picked up on and rebroadcast by mainstream media outlets, all of the experiences and perspectives of workers are inevitably boiled down in the most patronizing fashion possible and tagged with insipid labels like “inspiring,” “heartwarming,” and “moving.” Worse, when the jokesters on social media sites like Weibo share these videos, they tend to poke fun at their rustic, stuck-in-time character. Working-class Chinese become objects of entertainment and amusement, not people to be taken seriously.
Today’s workers lack many of the benefits enjoyed by the socialist-era working class, whose members were mostly employed by state-owned enterprises and enjoyed stability, welfare programs, and access to state-supported recreation institutions like cultural palaces. But the new generation of migrant workers has clearly still created its own cultural spaces and forms of art. Only, these are rapidly changing shape, even as the workers themselves are pushed out of South China by the relocation of factories farther inland.
Then again, what part of Chinese society isn’t undergoing the same rapid transformations? The anthropologist Xiang Biao once famously said that “Chinese people are like hummingbirds, suspended mid-air by the fluttering of their wings.” This state of suspension — frantically flapping our wings to avoid falling to the ground, with no spiritual safety net to break our fall — seems like a good encapsulation of the current era.
With contributions from Zhang Yuping.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Visual elements from Wang Hongzhe, @手工耿 on Weibo, and People Visual, re-edited by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)