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 labour, 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
Five years ago today, in the southern city of Shenzhen, the young worker poet Xu Lizhi took his own life.
He was just 24-years-old when he died but Xu left behind a remarkable body of work. A New Day (新的一天), an anthology published in 2015, contains about 200 poems that chronicle not only his own frustrations and unhappiness but those of millions of other low-paid, over-worked and under-appreciated labourers in Shenzhen and across China. As the writer and translator, Eleanor Goodman notes, “His ‘poem of shame’ (I Swallowed an Iron Moon) is not a personal one, but a public and national one.”
What would Xu have made of Shenzhen and the lives of China’s workers today? Five years ago, Shenzhen was at a turning point. Foxconn, where Xu worked for three years, had already opened a massive new facility in the central city of Zhengzhou and gradually transferred most of its iPhone production there. Many other manufacturers moved production elsewhere as well. There are still factories in Shenzhen, of course, but the vast majority of young workers today are employed in the broad spectrum of service industries that have emerged in the city over the last decade, everything from food-delivery workers to the software engineers they deliver lunch to in their gleaming office towers. The Foxconn workers who remain are being priced out of their homes as developers move in and start to gentrify the old “handshake” apartment buildings surrounding the factory, described by Xu in his poem Rented Room. Subway lines and new middle-class housing estates now extend all over the city, creating a vast anonymous suburban sprawl.
Perhaps Xu Lizhi would have written about the “losers” at the Sanhe recruitment market not far from Foxconn in Longhua district. Here young men and women look for casual work that can pay the rent for a few days before moving on to another gig. Perhaps, he would have joined the army of delivery drivers who jam the city streets every day, told where and when to go, when to arrive, and how much they will get paid by the app on their phone. Perhaps he would have finally landed his dream job of working in a bookstore, but given the cutthroat nature of the retail industry in China, that bookstore would probably close down suddenly and without notice, leaving employees out in the cold with no compensation and owed wages in arrears.
The nature of work in Shenzhen may have changed on the surface but the pressures of work, the mind-numbing and body-breaking effects of work for young migrant workers, described in My Friend Fa, have not changed very much at all. In fact, you could even argue that, over the last five years, the situation has actually deteriorated and that the prospects of decent work and decent pay have diminished further with the emergence of the gig economy.
That is why Xu Lizhi’s work is still relevant today. Factory work may be in decline but working and living conditions, and the social and economic pressures on young workers trying to get ahead remain as harsh as ever. At the time of Xu’s death, China’s Communist Party leader Xi Jinping was already promoting the idea of the “China Dream.” Xu Lizhi knew it was a fantasy then. Today, even the “lucky” ones employed in the hi-tech sector are tired of working 996 in pursuit of their dreams and are demanding a fundamental shift in labour relations that will give them a greater say in their pay and working conditions and allow them to enjoy a better work/life balance.
Xu Lizhi’s poetry is dark and cynical and gives the reader little cause for optimism. But because it articulates so starkly the reality of working-class life in China, Xu’s poetry can perhaps act as an agent for change. For some, it may reconfirm a sense of hopelessness, for others however, it may just galvanise them into action.