Thinker, Toiler, Scholar on the Fly: Hegel and the Factory Worker
In his small rented apartment in Xiamen, in the southeastern Fujian province, all 31-year-old migrant worker Chen Zhi needed to unwind after a hard day’s work was a desk.
It only had to be big enough to fit a small potted plant, a Kindle, a second-hand laptop, a few philosophy books, and a collection of printed-out essays by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger.
For the last few years, Chen’s routine at an electronics factory rarely varied. He finished his long day on the assembly line, ate dinner at around 8 p.m., and sat down at his desk to read. Through most of 2021, he mainly devoured Heidegger, Nietzsche, and the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard — one of his favorites.
“But Heidegger is a bit more profound, so I want to spend more time reading him,” says Chen. Apart from reading, he often stayed up well past midnight to translate American philosophy professor Richard Polt’s work “Heidegger: An Introduction” to Chinese from English, which he taught himself.
Apart from his desk, his 20 square meter, 550 yuan ($87) a month apartment has little furniture. His wife Lin Xiuxiu usually lounges on the twin bed, watching shows on her phone with earphones on. There’s no closet, so all their clothes are piled atop a chair by the door. A cramped bathroom and a balcony that doubles as a rudimentary kitchen round out the rest of the house.
For Chen, it was a vast improvement. Before moving to Xiamen to live with Lin last July, Chen assembled iPad screens at Foxconn in Shenzhen. There, he shared a single dorm room with nine other workers from different assembly lines.
So every evening after work, Chen sat under the streetlamps at a park near the Shenzhen factory to read his Kindle, on which he had more than 1,200 books. He says that, in the dormitory, “If someone saw me reading books in English on my Kindle, they’d make a huge deal about it and I’d be embarrassed. But I couldn’t live without reading.”
When he began translating “Heidegger: An Introduction” in April 2021, he had to wait for his weekly day off. He took his laptop to a library near the factory, found a free desk, and worked on translating the book from 9 a.m. until the library closed at 8 p.m.
He only took a short break at noon to wolf down a 10-yuan meal, and usually translated about 3,000 words each day.
The translation project wasn’t just a personal interest; it had a more practical goal: Chen hopes the completed work will get him into university.
From spring until autumn, across Shenzhen and Xiamen, the translation took him four months to complete. Every time he finished a chapter, he’d post it online to ask: “Who here will be kind enough to contact an editor and see if there’s any chance of getting this published? Because I’m on the bottom rung of society, not a scholar.”
Each appeal got few responses, and his messages to publishing houses went unanswered. He thought about writing a cover letter to professors at different philosophy faculties, but never worked up the courage.
Then on Nov. 7, 2021, two weeks after he quit the electronics factory in Xiamen, Chen posted online again. This time, on China’s social platform Douban, he explained his circumstances and his desire to study at university.
It was titled: “I am a migrant worker. How do I get into college?” And in no time, Chen Zhi went viral. As did his struggles as a migrant worker, his inner demons, and his unflinching dedication to pursuing philosophy.
Online, it also triggered heated debate on topics such as class, access to education, and exploitation of labor, even as he drew attention from China’s mainstream media. All the publicity eventually landed Chen an interview at a university in a northern city.
Despite his plea online, Chen was once a student in university. In 2008, after graduating from high school, he got into a college in Hangzhou, in the eastern Zhejiang province, majoring in mathematics.
At the school library, Chen, then 18, read his first philosophy book: “The Tree of Philosophy” by Stephen Palmquist. It introduced him to giants like Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche and the concepts of metaphysics, phenomenology, and existentialism.
He grasped little, but philosophy had him firmly hooked. “At the time… I didn’t care about anything else. I spent the whole day thinking chaotically about these ideas, trying to find an explanation to everything,” he says.
Eventually, he lost interest in mathematics, his major. He says, “Though the techniques we learned were very precise, I felt like none of it was all that important.”
He pored over books on psychology in a vain attempt to explore ideas such as “What is consciousness? What is the essence of perception?” But, much like mathematics, he felt this discipline “didn’t go deep enough.”
Ultimately, he found his answers in Hegel, particularly the German philosopher’s assertion that “The rational is real, and the real is rational.” Though Chen no longer agrees with this statement, he recalls being stunned when he first read it.
“Hegel says that the entire universe, including human society, at its core, is a manifestation or extension of rational thought. Everything in the universe is a product of the self,” says Chen.
And since he spent more time on philosophy than mathematics, his grades began to slip. In the second year of his program, the school asked him to drop out.
The university he attended didn’t have a philosophy department, so he couldn’t transfer, and his family would never have let him start over. So confident was he about studying philosophy independently that he dropped out of college.
He recalls his mother tearfully begging him to reconsider but, for the first time, he went against her wishes. His father, meanwhile, became distant. “I don’t know. I don’t pay much attention to him,” says Chen.
From that day on, Chen has been a migrant worker.
The silent man
Before they got married early in 2020, Lin Xiuxiu did not know of her husband’s keen interest in philosophy.
She liked Chen Zhi’s quiet, bookish demeanor — a contrast to her bubbly, sociable nature. Still employed at an electronics factory, her job requires wearing disposable dust-proof suits and looking through a microscope to check manufactured phone cameras for dust.
She works 12 hours a day and doesn’t dare take her eyes off the task at hand. Once done, she says her lower back aches and her eyes feel rough and dry, like they’ve been scrubbed with sandpaper.
Chen, however, says he didn’t actually want to get married — his idea of a perfect life was “spending my time by myself, studying philosophy … Marriage was just a way to appease my mother a little,” he says.
Lin recalls visiting his parents for the Spring Festival before they got married, going without money or gifts — his bags were full of philosophy books. His mother was so enraged that she tossed them outside; he silently went out to retrieve them later.
Lin once tried to wrap her head around what her husband read, but the words in the books were so obscure and esoteric that they gave her a headache. Now, the couple has a son, and Lin no longer disturbs Chen when he reads.
Chen disparages the novels and TV soaps Lin consumes, to which she retorts, “I know they are meaningless, it is just a way to kill time. I’m so tired after work, I just want to relax when I get home.”
They no longer fight about it anymore. Now, after work, they spend their time separately.
It’s not just his wife. Chen says he did not interact with others on his assembly line at all — nor was he willing to refer to them as colleagues or coworkers. To him, such words imply familiarity. No one at the factory suspected Chen spent most of his time studying philosophy.
He wasn’t capable of working in the same place for too long either. Often, he switched jobs every three or four months, and occasionally took on daily gigs as well. Given his volatile temperament, Chen, over the years, has traversed across Guangdong, Fujian, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang provinces, and even Beijing for migrant work.
He has noticed that it has become hard for him to even enunciate properly after bouts of long-term solitude — at its worst, he can’t even say the word “I” without stuttering. And on the rare occasion that he did speak, someone at the factory would invariably imitate him, which only made Chen more reticent about communicating.
He doesn’t tell his wife about every single incident. He doesn’t need another person’s understanding or reassurance — he just needs an environment that makes him feel safe.
According to Lin, she realized that he only stuttered when she heard him speak with reporters on the phone. At home, “He doesn’t have any problems speaking. There are even times when I think he talks too much,” she says, laughing.
When they speak to their son back in his hometown in the eastern province of Jiangxi — where he is taken care of by his grandparents — on a video call, Chen always feels like he has little to say. Chen wonders: How can an infant possibly understand an adult?
But Lin still insists: “Your son is so excited whenever he sees you. Come, say something to him.”
Feeling lost after he dropped out of college in 2010, Chen recalls that reading Søren Kierkegaard helped bring his life back on track, almost four years later. “Kierkegaard says that he must find a truth that belongs to him personally, and he must survive in the world according to that truth,” Chen paraphrases.
At the time in 2014, he assembled toy cars at a factory in Shantou, in the southern Guangdong province. “On reading that line, I realized that I also needed to find a truth that belongs to me,” he says. However, this realization did not help him escape reality.
The next morning, he opened his eyes to his cramped room and trudged off to the same assembly line, where — exactly as he had in the days before — he put together parts and stuck on labels.
Back in Xiamen, his job at the electronics factory lasted three months. On returning home one day, he told Lin: “I’m tired. I want to rest for a while.”
She didn’t object, and only replied: “OK, if you’re tired, then rest.” Soon he handed in his letter of resignation, again.
The Xiamen job was one Lin had carefully arranged for him: maintaining and repairing machinery in the automated workshops of an electronics factory is relatively laid back. After about six months, a promotion to technician is possible, where one can earn 1,000-2,000 yuan more per month than assembly workers.
“I hoped that if he just held on for a bit, he could become a technician,” says Lin. But Chen felt the factory’s stringent regulations — like mandating proper uniforms and always displaying identification cards — were ridiculous.
Lin didn’t blame him, she merely said, “When someone’s paying you, you don’t have a choice but to do things their way.”
“As long as it doesn’t disrupt his daily life — as long as he works and just makes philosophy a hobby, I don’t have any objections,” she says. When he quit the Xiamen job, she stayed calm. She recalls that Chen Zhi rested for 10 days or so before starting another job hunt — she knew he cared.
“Online, people say that he doesn’t look after his family, but he’s willing to do everything I’ve taught him,” says Lin. When it comes to chores, cooking, buying essentials for his children, he’s still very conscientious, she underscores.
While Lin speaks in affectionate tones, Chen tries to avoid intimacy. He says he doesn’t see a point in talking about how he does the laundry or what tasty dishes he’s made for her. Pressed about it, Chen said cryptically: “I don’t want to appear too close to my wife.”
He brought up the story of the renowned Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who turned down an astronomical inheritance.
Wittgenstein once considered signing up to fight in World War I hoping he would be killed on the frontlines. But after publishing his now canonical “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,” he ended up becoming an elementary school teacher, and never married. “His lived experiences were completely at odds with mainstream values,” says Chen.
But Chen still sometimes judges himself according to society’s practical standards. He often thinks people in his rural hometown look down on him: he once had the best grades, but now finds himself struggling to make a living on various assembly lines — a life that he says makes him “the most useless type of person.”
He wants to put an end to the constant media interviews to focus on finding a job so he can shake off the anxiety that comes from not having a salary.
He feels like his wife also holds him in contempt. “I don’t earn as much as she does,” he says. He’s expressed this to her before, something she has repeatedly denied.
“Why would I ever think that way? It’s not as though you’re living off your parents — you’re working to sustain yourself,” she tells him.
In 2017, when his job at the toy factory in Shantou had long ended and he couldn’t find a new one, Chen truly experienced what it was like to “not be able to afford to eat.”
In desperation, he borrowed a few hundred yuan from a coworker — one of the rare few whom he’s willing to call a “friend.”
He tried to immerse himself completely in philosophy and get a few papers done. He hoped to write more than 40 essays on Heidegger’s philosophy, but ultimately fell into a void of hopelessness and self-doubt that he couldn’t complete a single one.
This was when he first drank baijiu, a potent Chinese liquor. Soon, he began buying the cheapest brand available just so he could get drunk and fall asleep.
Over the next three years, he abandoned philosophy. He sold or threw out all his books and tore up all his notes. He even vowed never to study the subject again.
During this time, he tried other methods that people said could earn him some money — investing in stock, programming, and assisting at an e-commerce livestreaming company — none of which led anywhere. Convinced he was doomed to be poor forever, he fled back into the waiting embrace of philosophy.
Zhang Wen is a postgraduate student at Lanzhou University’s Department of Philosophy whose main fields of research include Heidegger. He was impressed by the translations that Chen Zhi had posted online: they didn’t have any egregious errors, and rendered the German philosopher’s ideas quite faithfully.
“At first, I thought either he does this for a living, or he was maybe like an elementary or junior high school teacher who did these things on the side,” says Zhang about Chen.
Zhang was more impressed when he saw Chen’s interviews. He says, “Studying philosophy isn’t restricted to a given social class: If you have the books, which you can either borrow from a library or buy at a small cost, you can learn it.”
“But what touched me the most is that Chen Zhi studies far more efficiently than many of my friends and classmates who have the luxury of not working. They undoubtedly produce far less in a year than he does. I think it’s kind of ironic.”
However, this kind of affirmation isn’t of much help to Chen Zhi. His profound suffering nonetheless permeates his writing. “I feel as though I only turned to philosophy when I had no other prospects in life — philosophy did not come looking for me nor seek my participation,” says Chen.
Zhang, however, is more confident. “I believe Chen will have absolutely no problem doing a master’s degree,” he says.
But what next? Zhang continues: “There are sixteen or seventeen students in my class, of whom perhaps 80% will just test to become government functionaries.”
When he returned to his independent philosophy studies full-time in 2021, Chen’s expectations were far more realistic. Translation alone obviously wouldn’t get him into college again.
After his post went viral, a professor at a department of philosophy encouraged him to attempt a self-study examination to obtain the necessary qualifications for further studies — a suggestion Chen turned down.
Asked about it, Chen says the knowledge tested in these exams was not worth his time. If society required him to prove himself in this way, that was society’s problem. “These so-called stepping stones are unreasonable — why should I subject myself to them?” he asks.
Pausing for a moment, he adds: “I think I can spend the rest of my life suffering like this, right? Most people in these factories suffer. I can take it too.” He repeated for emphasis, “I can, too.”
In his early 20s, he didn’t like Nietzsche, whom he thought was opposed to democracy and equality, and was misogynistic too. Now he has seemingly reached a truce with this philosopher.
“One thing that Nietzsche says is ‘love your fate — amor fati.’ He believes in affirming your destiny. No matter what kind of setbacks or hardships you’ve experienced, you must still love it and not allow yourself to be defeated,” says Chen.
He hasn’t told his parents that he made it into the news. “But if I get back into university, then I’ll definitely tell them. Working at a university sounds very prestigious,” he says. He also wants “to publish as soon as possible.” Moreover, he hopes to publish in English as well, but he’s frustrated with his current level of proficiency.
On his computer is his translation of a quote on truth by Kierkegaard: “The crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.”
Chen Zhi, Lin Xiuxiu, and Zhang Wen are pseudonyms.
A version of this article was originally published by White Night Workshop. It has been translated and edited for length and clarity, and is republished here with permission.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Zhi Yu and Apurva.
(Header image: Oleksandr Malysh/VectorStock/People Visual, reedited by Sixth Tone)