New documentary looks to reveal the creativity of Chinese migrant worker poets

By Hu Yuwei Source:Global Times Published: 2018/5/13 18:28:40

Demolition worker turned poet Chen Nianxi speaks at a poetry recital in Beijing. Photo: Courtesy of Wang Minghao

Demolition Mark, a Chinese documentary film focusing on working class poets in China, recently put out a call for donations in order to raise money needed for post-production. The director Qin Xiaoyu, a poet and critic, stated that he hopes crowd-funding will allow audiences to have a better sense of participation in the film. 

'Silent majority'

The film delves deeper into the story of several of the migrant worker poets featured in Iron Moon, an award-winning documentary directed by Qin Xiaoyu and Wu Feiyue and based on Qin's anthology of Chinese migrant worker poetry.

"We would like to make an Iron Moon a trilogy. The films will feature poetry, but we will also incorporate relevant elements such as new rural construction and the coal and steel workers who were laid off during the implementation of China's de-capacity plan," Qin told US-China Today, a student-driven publication from the University of Southern California, adding that he hopes to use Demolition Mark to raise public awareness about these issues.

Iron Moon was screened over 4,000 times across more than 200 cities in China, and won the Best Documentary Award at the 18th Shanghai International Film Festival's Golden Goblet Awards.

The 2015 film drew global attention to Chinese migrant worker poets, many of whom have had to continually struggle with economic troubles and cultural prejudice.

For Demolition Mark, however, Qin focuses more on the extraordinary creativity of working class poets than hardships they go through.

"Since they are regarded as 'the silent majority' of society and are ignored, we hope this film will alter the stereotypical image that society has projected on them," said Qin.

The economic reform and opening up of the 1980s brought an estimated 300 million rural migrants to booming cities such as Shenzhen or Dongguan, South China's Guangdong Province, seeking manufacturing and construction jobs.

Common issues such as labor exploitation, lack of welfare protection and children being left to be raised by their grandparents have often led this group to be at the center of social and political criticism in China over the past few decades.

During the 1990s, their poems were only occasionally heard at small-scale poetry recitals or sharing sessions. As such they were not widely disseminated or popularized until the rise of the Internet after the year 2000 helped spread their pain and feelings of alienation far and wide.

Spreading the word

Xu Lizhi, a 24-year-old migrant worker who was going to be featured in Qin's documentary, attracted global attention after he committed suicide at Foxconn, the electronics giant that produces the majority of the world's Apple phones. After his death his colleague published his poems online.

In 2010 alone, the factory made headlines around the world as it witnessed 14 deaths among at least 17 attempted suicides that year.

Iron Moon was chosen to be the title of Qin's documentary as it is a visual metaphor used in one of Xu's poems:

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 labor, I swallowed poverty

swallowed pedestrian bridges, swallowed this rusted-out life

I can't swallow anymore

everything I've swallowed roils up in my throat

I spread across my country

a poem of shame

(Translated by Eleanor Goodman)

Xu represents the legion of Chinese migrant workers who pin their hopes on modern cities but end up being disappointed by grueling working conditions and poor wages.

Shocked by his death, labor groups translated Xu's poems into English, gaining the attention of Qin, who published a volume of Xu's poems.

Chen Nianxi, a 48 year old poet from Northwest China's Shaanxi Province, is another figure that Qin tracks throughout his two documentaries.

"Demolition Mark" was one of Chen's early poems describing his life as a demolitionist. It was widely circulated online and earned him the nickname of "blaster poet."

The blaster, who spent the past 16 years in and out of mining sites across Henan Province in Central China and Northwest China's Qinghai Province and Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, suffered a cervical spine injury in 2016 that forced him to quit his job.

Chen puts his own experiences of digging in gold mines into his poems. He has stated that he hopes his works can allow people to understand the hidden costs that lie behind the financial boom that China has enjoyed.

"We provided the most precious things to the world, but the world left us nothing," he said in a speech at the New York University during his trip to the US with the documentary team.

During the US presidential election in 2016, he visited both slums and Trump Tower, which allowed him to feel a connection to migrant workers from Mexico who want to make a life in the US but have been rejected by US President Donald Trump's "America First" policy.

"Trump said that China has stolen opportunities from the US manufacturing industry and that he would move some factories back to the US. I am very worried that this will result in a lot of Chinese workers like me losing their jobs," he said in his speech.

Newspaper headline: Finding a voice


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