Words of the Working Class: Poems From Everyday China
In December 2022, I set out from Chengdu and visited 12 county towns to find people who posted poems on the short video platform Kuaishou.
They are from all walks of life — delivery workers, shepherds, blind masseurs, house painters, vegetable farmers, street vendors, steel mill workers, unemployed youth in small towns, peasant women, as well as radio hosts, high school students, and history teachers.
On social media, they make short videos using fragments of their lives as background images. Usually there are flowers, butterflies, construction sites, town markets, villages on the loess plateau, fields, and livestock — even the process of a sheep giving birth. Poems are pasted on the screen in colored large or bold font, with some accompanied by square dance music or popular folk songs sung by themselves.
The places where they live and work, be they steel mills, vegetable patches, grocery stalls, fields, kitchens, construction sites, and delivery routes, are closely intertwined with their poems. The hands that type these words are covered with mud, dust, flour, oil, paint, and other materials.
Even though the video looks primitive, the poems are constantly evolving. These are some of their stories.
Li Songshan, aged 42, is a shepherd in Lilou Village in Henan province. Due to a delay in the treatment of meningitis at the age of four, his parents thought Li could not be cured and almost abandoned him in a field. Fortunately, they were stopped by a neighbor. Li survived, but was left with difficulty speaking and trouble coordinating his movements. He dropped out of school in fourth grade.
Li tends 20 sheep and grows winter wheat, spring corn, and peanuts on a small plot of land. He wrote about his life with his mother in his poem “Planting Trees”:
I dug a pit for a tree. She supported the sapling.
The riverbed is filled with modernized weeds.
The river was clear, splashes kissing pebbles.
The tree pit she dug was large and round.
She was an abandoned baby. A poor peasant. She never attended school.
She relied on the philosophy of pickaxe and shovel.
Now, her back hunched, her shaking hands support the saplings.
So do I. We filled the hole with soil, guiding each other.
Five years ago, he met a fellow poet, Sun Li, online. He had been writing her love poems since then. After Sun divorced her then-husband, she left with her five-year-old son. Gradually, Sun Li was moved by Li’s persistence, kindness, and sincerity, and they got married in 2021.
They sometimes create poetry together in the field, when he comes up with one line, and she another.
Once, Sun was picking peanuts in the field with her husband standing next to her, taking photos with his phone. He offhandedly said, “Mom and Little Li are picking peanuts…”
“Under the scorching sun,” she retorted.
Joking about his laziness, he replied, “While I’m pampered by the clouds.”
He added, “After a morning of hard work, there’s only one-third of the corn left on this piece of land...”
“It’s more like half...”
“You’re standing on a corner of the field…”
“You’re standing in the middle of the field…”
“Looking at the problem from different perspectives...”
“Or looking at a different problem.”
Through this back and forth, their everyday life becomes poetry. Sun records these lines on her mobile phone.
A few years back, fellow villagers introduced Li to a job in Beijing as a cleaner at a supermarket. He took the overnight train to Beijing, and the next day the supervisor said he passed the interview and could be guaranteed a minimum of 2,000 yuan ($289) per month, with a bonus for good work. Li was very excited, but after working for an hour or so, the manager called him back to the office and said he couldn’t use him anymore. The manager offered him 20 yuan, but Li refused and walked out.
He wrote in a poem, “Though I don’t really like sheep, I must love them.”
Sun continued the poem, writing “We see the same cloud, from the depths of spring. Let go of the plight, like one sheep running towards another.”
Shi Xinxin, 57 years old, has been operating a massage parlor in Luoyang, Henan province, with her husband for over a decade. They are both blind.
At the age of 12, an accident during surgery left Shi blind in both eyes. She could only go to a school for the handicapped. Once, she got lost outside the school and was taken back to the dormitory by a deaf-mute classmate. In response, she wrote her first poem, “Thank You, Brother.”
As an adult, she went to a massage school and embarked on a common career path for the blind in China. At least, in her words, she was “no longer a burden to my family, or a child that worried my parents.”
In her poem “Dad’s Dream,” she wrote:
One day, Dad said he had a dream.
In the dream
Rong’s eyes had regained sight.
The whole family silently shed tears.
Older sister, to the side, said, Tongren Hospital can transplant eyeballs
So I’m willing to donate one eye to Rong.
These were the voices of the brother and the younger sister.
Rong smiled foolishly, and counted
One, two, three
As if counting the brightest stars in the sky.
Dad sighed, said, you’re all too young.
There’s still a long way to go.
If it’s possible, your mother and I will each donate one to Rong.
We’re getting older.
With one eye left,
As long as we can see the road of life, that’s fine.
At the age of 30, Shi gave birth to a son. When she was young, her son often brought his classmates home to play, but as he grew older they visited less. Before every parent-teacher meeting, her son would tell her she did not have to go, but she was never absent.
In a composition titled “Dream” in his fifth grade, her son wrote, “May all disabled people in the world have health.” Her son wanted to learn the piano, but Shi and her husband could not afford it. It was Shi’s father who bought him a new piano.
Shi writes poetry on her phone, and her son helps her correct typos and puts them into Word documents. Her husband wanted more professional certifications, and the applications were also prepared by their son, who would also take care of buying plane and train tickets for them.
People in their neighborhood often praise the son for his good looks. A customer at the family’s massage parlor saw him and asked, “Whose child is this handsome young man?” Shi quickly responded, “He’s mine, my child.” She imagined her son’s appearance, thinking “He should have big eyes, long eyelashes like his father’s, a slender face, a fair complexion, and he’s tall and gentle.”
Her son is going to study fashion design in London. Her husband was worried about not being able to afford his education, but they didn’t hesitate to borrow over 200,000 yuan.
Shi’s poem “Blind Jump-Rope Competition,” which she gave to a teacher in her creative writing class, reads:
The referee’s whistle sounded.
The athletes quickly adjust their positions
And pricked up their ears.
Hand gripping the rope,
Waiting for the signal to start.
They heave the rope in their hands
Like hoisting a beloved wreath.
Riding on a heatwave
With open arms,
Like a flock of eagles flying at the lowest altitude,
Sweat cascaded down the court,
Throwing countless golden beams under the sunlight.
The teacher was very confused about her description of pricking ears and adjusting positions, and suggested changing it. But Shi insisted, because she believes it’s important. Those who are not visually impaired usually open their eyes wide, but blind people need to prick up their ears.
But how does a person who was healthy before losing her vision later in life use her other senses to experience the world and then convert it into poetry? “The Chinese Peony has fewer layers and thinner petals than other flowers, which have thick layer upon thick layer of petals, but their flowering period is very brief, and they are surrounded by holly,” Shi explained.
I asked her why she put her poetry online. She replied, “My hope is that disabled people can also participate in society, and let society see us and understand us as a group. If I didn’t write about it, how would you know that blind people can jump rope –– and even hold jump rope competitions?”
And what does poetry mean to Shi?
“Poetry is also a kind of sight, one that embodies spirit, love, and passion. If you don’t read poetry or love literature, you might not realize that,” she said.
The vegetable farmer
In Chezhuang Village in Shandong province, 60-year-old vegetable farmer Murakami Shiman, who nicknamed herself after the Japanese author Haruki Murakami, has planted several vegetable fields. She is allergic to many chemicals, so she never uses pesticides. Insects on her crops are eaten by her chickens, ducks, and geese. She only grows seasonal vegetables.
She uses a tricycle cart to take her husband and a load of vegetables to the city every day to market, making an 80-kilometer round trip. Along the way, she notices the sun high in the sky, takes a photo, and writes “Chasing the Sun.” Every day she is busy and gets home at around 10 p.m. She takes pictures of the moon above the eaves and writes, “I wonder if it’s like me, anticipating a torch.”
Even when seeing the beautiful dusk of the countryside, she can’t stop to enjoy the scenery. She wrote a poem about the fatigue of life:
Sunset across the river met with a tricycle loaded up
with the person.
She stopped to watch for only a few extravagant seconds.
The last few withered leaves
Turn and turn, with the wind
Only exhales, and lightly.
Speaking of her marriage, she said, “He was a migrant worker for over 20 years, while I grew vegetables at home and raised three children.” Later, her husband suffered from declining health and became increasingly depressed and irritable, and began drinking heavily. As he was no longer able to go without her care, she had to take on his share of work around the house. The mess around her home shows her hectic life.
She wrote in a poem:
No matter if there’s anyone around
This is my own dusk.
I am now a queen of the dance,
Dancing with my partner the wind, lightly across the water,
Dancing in golden light,
Like a magpie standing on a field’s ridge.
In the vegetable cellar, her cabbage had frostbite. She quickly squatted down, picked off the rotten leaves, loaded them into a small wheelbarrow, and pulled them to the vegetable field to use as fertilizer.
It was snowing heavily, and there weren’t many people in her village. She was tightly wrapped up, with only her eyes visible under the brim of her red wool hat. She described herself as someone who has “always been out of place in the village.” The village women get together to gossip, but she would rather be left alone. She doesn’t care about the social life of the village.
Her poetry is usually written only during breaks. Some lines pop up into her head, then she waits until she is finished with work and writes them down on her phone, sending them out without changing anything.
The steel mill worker
Cao Huishuang, born in 1970, inherited her father’s occupation and has worked at the state-owned steel plant in Laiwu, Shandong province, for 25 years.
The steel plant is massive, and the operation of the machinery shakes the ground. Standing 1.5 meters tall, she is dwarfed by the factory machinery.
She picked up the iron powder and showed it to me. These dark particles, which do not reflect a single bit of light, are the raw materials for making steel. Her production line is responsible for transporting the iron concentrate powder with water to the next factory for steaming and drying, and then transporting it on to Laiwu’s main plant.
She described it in a poem:
Father built up experience in life,
Accumulated into rich, mined experience.
Father uses talk to mine hard ores,
I use the production process of listening, to crush one level after the other,
Use thought to select to grind out iron powder of comprehension,
Use reflection to select the flotation of refined copper or cobalt powder of realization,
Use sincerity to select the gold powder of understanding.
If I want to have both quality and market value of various metals,
I must bow down and categorize,
Smelt them step by step.
While working, she often sneaks into a deserted corner of the factory, picks up a poetry collection, or writes some lines in her notebook. Her husband does not understand them, and her colleagues just gossip about her.
She has been writing two or three poems a day since the 1990s. “The path of literature and art is that the older you get, your perspective accumulates,” she said. “You have to take your time.”
In 2005, as Cao was unable to find like-minded people around her, she wanted to attend a literary forum, so she went to a training school to learn how to use a computer. The tuition cost 860 yuan, when her monthly salary was only between 500 and 600 yuan at that time. She also spent more than 5,000 yuan on a computer. At the time, her child was in elementary school and she and her husband had just bought a house. Things were tight, and her husband was not very supportive. “You bought this thing, but you don’t even know what to write, do you?” he said.
She responded, “I will write well.”
Her favorite poet is Marina Tsvetaeva from Russia. She feels a spiritual connection in this foreign woman’s poetry.
So far, her poetry has accumulated into 2.8 million words. Her 354 notebooks from under her bed, under the table, and from the closet stack together to a height of 3.8 meters. The notebooks are filled with scribbling. She smiled shyly and said, “I’m the only one who can read my handwriting.”
Her poems all emerge from the cracks of her life. “When the sky is only slightly bright, I wetly pour out. The page number is the same as the pen’s sorrows,” one poem reads. Even writing about the most ordinary things, like a piece of tofu or a stick of celery, gives her a sense of boundless freedom. “My imagination is very good,” Cao said. “I want to travel around the world, but I can’t do it yet. After all, a mother can’t be too willful.”
For 25 years, she has had to consider herself as tough as a piece of steel in order to survive. Her 354 notebooks are presented as a monument to her long conversation with herself and her resilience to the life of steel.
Reading allowed her to jump free of her inner struggle.
Writing helped her break free from her negative emotions.
Books helped her to see people’s hearts.
Writing helped her abandon her impatience.
Once the long dormancy has passed,
Her bud will burst open.
A version of this article originally appeared in Yuanye Jihua Now. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and published with permission.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Xue Yongle and Elise Mak; visual editor: Ding Yining.
(Header image: One of Zhu’s subjects poses for a photo. Courtesy of Zhu Lingyu)