Constructive Criticism: Poets Give Voice to Migrant Struggles
“The Verse of Us,” an award-winning film about six Chinese workers laboring on assembly lines, was released to public audiences in China on Jan. 13. Wandering between their hometowns and adopted city, they write their lives into touching poems — reminding me of our own Worksite Poetry Festival.
In 2009, my organization, the Beijing Practitioner Cultural Development Center, launched a campaign to educate construction workers about their legal rights and privileges. To this end, we released an unofficial publication titled “The Worksite Press.” In order to give the workers themselves a platform for engaging with us, we devoted a small section of our broadsheet, the size of a chunk of tofu, to a column we titled “Workers’ Pulse.”
At the time, we had no idea that this small column would attract so many submissions from those working in the construction industry. In the seven years we’ve been publishing “The Worksite Press,” we’ve received from our readers almost a thousand poems, the vast majority of which were sent to us via text message in the dead of night by workers unable to sleep. Several workers have each submitted over a hundred poems, although the size of our paper limits the number we are able to publish.
In order to give construction workers more opportunities to express their thoughts, we organized the first Worksite Poetry Festival, which was held on May 1, 2012 — China’s Labor Day. We chose to hold it then because of the special meaning this day has for workers in the construction industry. While other industries enjoy a paid day off, construction workers are still fighting for this privilege. We hoped that by holding our festival on the holiday itself, workers could use it as an opportunity to have their voices heard. By standing alongside them in their struggle for a paid holiday, we could help them to defend their dignity.
We originally planned to hold the festival at Peking University, hoping to draw more attention to the cause, but things didn’t quite work out. The day before the festival was scheduled to be held, the university told us they were cancelling it. We had no choice but to quickly move the event to a small village on the outskirts of Beijing’s Sixth Ring Road.
Despite this setback, over 40 worker-poets from Beijing and the surrounding areas came to the festival, many of them traveling over 30 kilometers to do so. Some had gotten on a bus at 5 o’clock in the morning in order to make it. On the other hand, of the various academics we had invited, only four came, and none of the journalists we had informed of the event showed up.
One of our goals was to give the elite a chance to hear workers’ voices. The fact that so few of them came took the wind from our sails a little, and we struggled to mask our disappointment. But the workers hardly seemed to care. They had given up a day’s wages to attend, and spent the day appreciating their own work and that of their fellows. Against such a chaotic and inauspicious beginning to the Worksite Poetry Festival, their enthusiasm really shone through.
Liu Dezi, a worker from Hubei province in central China, wrote a couplet in honor of the festival:
Build a tower 1,000 meters tall; every inch of iron and every inch of earth is the work of a migrant laborer.
Build a mansion with 10,000 rooms; it will have single room units and multi-room units, while the workers live in half-rooms.
The piece not only celebrated the workers’ values, but also critiqued the unequal treatment they faced as a group. Tellingly, its coda read: “And what do the workers get?”
Wang Yunpeng, a worker from eastern Shandong province, used his poem “Laughing at Myself” to reflect on the meaning of the term nongmingong, or “migrant worker.”
Cold stares and skepticism are the order of the day;
Do not say that it is no different than before.
I console myself by thinking that one day my status will change,
That this vagrant will one day become a migrant.
Wang arrived in the city as a “vagrant” — or itinerant — worker in the 1980s, looking for odd jobs. Today, society calls him a “migrant worker.” Although the term now used to describe him may be more politically correct, in reality he is treated worse than he was 30 years ago. In the ’80s, wage arrears were unheard of in the construction industry, whereas today they are the norm. Of the 40 workers who attended our first poetry festival, only one had never experienced this problem, and even he had had bosses who paid him at the end of the year, instead of monthly as prescribed by law.
As one worker put it: “If there is no material improvement in the social status of migrant workers, then the question of what to call them is a moot point. Given the current living and working conditions in the construction industry, you could address us as ‘emperor’ for all the good it would do.”
Xie Zhongcheng, a worker from northern China’s Hebei province, described the conditions in worker cafeterias in his poem “A Fast Way to Fast.” He spoke of miniscule cuts of meat, high prices, and few vegetables. And the faster the workers burn through their meal tickets, the faster the bosses make money. After Xie’s reading, the director in charge of safety at a work site in Beijing, said mockingly: “The knife work of some work site cooks is so fine that by the time they’re done with a piece of meat, a fan can blow the slices away.”
Yang went on to say that in the construction industry, the practice of converting salary into meal tickets is commonplace. The bosses issue their own self-produced meal tickets in lieu of cash, and the workers, unable to get the salary they’re owed, have no choice but to use the tickets to buy food at company cafeterias, which are of course controlled by the bosses themselves.
The food in these workplace canteens is not only often much more expensive than that of off-site restaurants, but also much less edible. Then, at the end of the year, the boss will directly deduct the value of the meal tickets from wages. The workers call this the “double squeeze.”
Two of the more common themes in the poetry of construction workers are feelings of aimlessness and homesickness. Lu Huilin, a professor of sociology at Peking University, has shown that this is not limited to poetry, as homesickness is a predominant theme in working-class songs as well. This sentimentality on the part of workers reflects broader societal problems.
Migrant laborers occupy an awkward position in Chinese society. Workers who drift from place to place — and the wives, parents, and children they’ve left behind — represent the largest peacetime split of families in history, suggesting that the current phenomenon is by no means normal. Lu says that the term “migrant worker” represents systematic discrimination: “Some workers… say that when they can’t do this work anymore, they’ll head home. Normally, this would be no problem; but issues arise when the village’s land is no longer able to support them and the construction workers are no longer able to take care of themselves. If you look deeper, you will see broken families and an inability to find acceptance in the city.”
Of course, the Labor Day Worksite Poetry Festival is about more than just expressing solitude. Participants will occasionally discuss the future of the construction industry, and of labor relations as a whole. At one point or another, all workers have seen their hopes and dreams be met with rejection and disappointment. Even in the midst of these setbacks, however, they continue to work hard. In his poem “Cold Stare,” Xie Zhongcheng expresses his experiences over the previous few years of his working life:
… Grim circumstances make it hard to hope.
The harsh reality of life is spread out in front of me.
To achieve equality, first we must struggle;
To achieve liberation, first we must fight.
We will never allow the return of exploitation.
Our battle cry should strike fear into their hearts,
Lighting up the dark.
No matter how the wheel of history may turn,
Labor will be the hurricane,
Restoring justice and transforming the world.
During these last few years, we have collected hundreds of workers’ poems and printed four editions of “Collections of Worksite Poems.” Unlike some poets, whose poems are only appreciated by the highly educated social elite, the simplicity, earthiness, and visceral qualities of construction workers’ poetry speak to all workers across the country. These poems educate others by revealing, in stark terms, the plight of China’s construction laborers and calling on fellow workers to take action against injustice.
More interestingly, workers’ poems shine a light on grassroots socialist struggle in modern China. Most construction workers are disenfranchised laborers locked in a tussle for recognition and rights — a cause that lies at the heart of socialist thinking. To them, the only way out is to re-establish a socialist approach that acknowledges and respects labor and laborers as key pillars of Chinese society.
(Header image: A frame from the documentary ‘The Verse of Us,’ which was released to public audiences in China on Jan. 13, 2017. Weiyang/IC)