How China’s Labor Migrants Write Poetry in the Workshop of the World

The labor of hundreds of millions of rural-to-urban migrants has spurred China’s incredible levels of growth. This social transformation has birthed a tradition of migrant worker poetry, documenting the hardship of the workers behind China’s economic miracle.

A woman works in a textile factory in the Pearl River Delta industrial belt. (Qilai Shen / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Time’s giant beak yawns     moonlight on the  machine / turns to rust . . . she sits in her seat / the products flowing by interlock with time     swallow it down     so quickly / she’s old now . . . for many years     she has stood guard / over the screws     one screw     another screw     turn to the left     turn to the right / fixing her dreams and her youth to a product     watching / her pallid youth     running always     from the rural backland / to a city on the seaboard     then to a store shelf in the US / exhaustion and workplace disease pile up in her lungs / stick in her throat     her period no longer on time / her coughing fierce . . . the machines around her / are shaking     she kneads her eyes red and swollen     then takes her self / and sticks it in between the products flowing by

Sticking your self, or what’s left of it, in between the products on the assembly line is the perfect image of alienation. A woman from the Chinese countryside is sucked into the factory workshop, becomes the lifeless export product she is made to assemble, and ends up thoroughly displaced and for sale. This chilling scene comes from Zheng Xiaoqiong’s “Woman Worker: Youth Fixed to a Seat,” the opening poem in Stories of Women Workers (Nügong ji, 2012). (This essay draws on my work on battler poetry since 2017. All translations are mine.)

A labor migrant from Sichuan province, Zheng spent close to a decade on the assembly line in Southeast China’s Pearl River Delta, also known as the “Workshop of the World.” She is the face of China’s battler poetry and Stories is a landmark book. With the incisive empathy of an insider, it documents the suffering of female migrant workers and their resilience.

Battler literature (dagong wenxue) is the most common designation of writing by precarious workers in post-socialist China that addresses their socioeconomic experience. Hardship and social injustice are its most prominent themes. In English, this writing is often referred to as migrant worker literature. Fair enough, as many precarious workers are labor migrants, in China as elsewhere. Yet calling it “battler literature” matters because it does justice to its Chinese name. “Battler” is an Australian English approximation of the Chinese dagong, which means something like working for the boss. Those who dagong eke out a living while faced with the vicious insecurity of low-status precarious labor. And like dagong, “battler” is a colloquialism that can signal not just hardship but also the pride of persevering in the face of adversity.

Precarity is a defining feature of our age, with global capitalism teaming up with new authoritarianism, the dismantling of social security, and the gig economy to dig to new depths of inequality. In China, the ranks of the precariat have swelled since the 1980s, as urbanization and industrialization have reached breakneck speed. Up to 300 million people have left the countryside for the cities in search of economic well-being and urban adventure — or to escape from unemployment, poverty, and the patriarchal strictures of village life. These battlers work in manufacturing, construction, and the service industry, meaning everything from courier delivery to sex work — any place that needs expendable bodies to work for the boss.

And they write poetry. Not all of them by any means, but enough for battler poetry to enter the public eye. In another poem from Stories, village girl and factory worker Hu Zhimin dies of alcohol poisoning at age twenty-three after she is forced into prostitution. Zheng read the poem, which identifies Hu as her coworker, to an audience of over a thousand at the 2019 Poetry International Festival Rotterdam. Those who were new to battler poetry or unaware of how things work in the Workshop of the World must have been shocked. Zheng’s poetic voice is pained, unfazed, insistent, and brave. It works well for getting her message of social engagement across in mainstream literary settings and giving battler poetry pride of place.

What drives China’s battler poetry? Above all, this is a poetry of social identification and the restoration of dignity in the precarious worker as a writing and reading subject. It also feeds into testimony, advocacy, and activism, and it pursues an aesthetic that aligns with the social experience of the battler life. Finally, and rarely, it can provide the individual author with opportunities for socioeconomic betterment.


China’s spectacular economic growth hardly erases the suffering of the countless labor migrants and other precarious workers who have made it possible. They are essential to the country’s rise but have not always benefitted from it. Many work under conditions that have been likened to slavery. Low wages, structural overtime, abusive contracts, mind-boggling health and safety risks, forced on-site living that limits free movement, the disruption of social structures (families, village communities) and personal development (sexuality, parenthood), and the list goes on.

In 1993, over eighty women migrant workers burned to death and close to fifty were seriously injured in a factory fire in Zhili, a tragedy whose precedents can be found in other times and places worldwide in the industrial era. The owners had blocked the factory and dormitory windows with iron bars and locked the exits from the outside, including the fire escapes. In the early to mid-2010s, two dozen Foxconn workers killed themselves as a result of the notoriously cruel labor regime at the company’s Shenzhen factory.

One was a skinny, soft-spoken, twenty-four-year-old man named Xu Lizhi, who leapt from the seventeenth floor of a nearby building. Xu had been writing increasingly desperate and morbid poetry ever since working at Foxconn. Alongside a fiery j’accuse leveled at the discrimination of migrant workers, he wrote up dark, inward-looking musings on self-harm and feelings of guilt and shame. His suicide would catapult him to international fame. The death of the poet, preferably at a young age and by their own hand, carries with it a certain universal mystique.

That Xu Lizhi was also a labor migrant working at Foxconn, the epitome of corporate-capitalist abuse, allowed Western media outlets to see in his death a uniquely modern tragedy. In these accounts, genuine solidarity is mixed with voyeurism and patronizing romanticism. In aggregate, their effect was to draw attention to the hard lot of China’s battlers, making their suffering better known in China and elsewhere. Literary translation and foreign scholarship on battler poetry to date have mostly focused on Zheng Xiaoqiong but foreign mass media and labor activists have turned to Xu, because his tragic fate is easily written up as yet another chapter in the history of the scary new superpower and the history of precarity.

Dehumanization in the workshop bursts through the seams of one of Xu’s best-known poems, “A Screw Falls to the Ground,” whose final line appears to foretell his death:

a screw falls to the ground / in this night of overtime / it drops straight down, with a faint sound / and it won’t attract anyone’s attention / just like when some time ago / in a night just like this / a human being fell to the ground

Xu and the other Foxconn workers who ended their lives did so in the highly visible manner of throwing themselves off buildings on or near the Foxconn premises. Inasmuch as the quick succession and similarity of the suicides make them collective in nature, they can be seen as political protest. Of similar and more extreme “suicide shows” by subaltern subjects in today’s China that were posted on video-sharing sites, Oxford scholar Margaret Hillenbrand writes that “the nation’s new poor, so often invisible to their social others on the street . . . turn the rooftop into a site of performance that acts out the excruciating distinction between those who belong within the polis and the dispossessed.”

This distinction and the attendant urban prejudice lead to widespread discrimination against migrant workers. This is facilitated by the household registration, or hukou, system. Hukou can keep labor migrants administratively tied to their hometowns even as they physically move away for years and indeed decades. In the cities, the system denies them access to things like affordable health care and education for their children, tearing apart tens of millions of families. If all goes well, the children are raised by their grandparents. Many only see their parents during the Spring Festival holidays, when work shuts down for a few weeks and labor migrants get to go home.

Faced with the tension between the need for labor and the cost of labor in an era of accelerating globalization, the Chinese authorities have not turned a blind eye to the battlers’ ordeal. Yet state intervention, when it has taken place, has done more to control the bosses than to emancipate the workers. Jungle capitalism in the service of the state has benefited from the Communist Party’s monopoly on political organization and effective unionization remains out of reach.

Poetry as Social Practice

Poetry is many things. It can express intense emotion and radically renew language. It can carry its audience along without the need to understand or be able to reproduce what they just heard or read. Poetry is also an ancient tradition of what we might call a musical, ritual form of public speaking, where sound and rhythm propel words and images, and the speaker can perform something not unlike prayer, prophecy, incantation. And poetry is language that speaks of shared realities yet draws attention to itself. Thus, words extricate themselves from the world, the better to see that world and talk back to it from a range of sociopolitical positions.

This array of powers explains why poetry is not just art but a social practice encompassing everything from government propaganda in the Iran-Iraq War to Gil Scott-Heron’s warning to 1970s America that the revolution will not be televised. It helps that you don’t need expensive equipment to write it, and you can learn it by heart and carry it around. A smartphone will do, or a factory order form.

Poetry as social practice has always been firmly rooted in Chinese society, from allusions to the Book of Poetry (Shijing) in political debate at the imperial court two thousand years ago to battler poetry’s conspicuous presence in media coverage of precarious workers today. In modern times, battler poetry stands in a somewhat twisted genealogy of Chinese workers’ literature. In broad strokes, this literature starts with leftist intellectuals as would-be saviors of the proletariat in the 1920s and 1930s, holding forth against injustice of which they have little firsthand experience (thus recalling the story of 1930s proletarian literature in the United States).

After the war with Japan and the founding of the People’s Republic, Chinese workers’ literature resurfaces as high socialist cultural production in the 1950s and 1960s. Now members of the working class are often doing the writing themselves, albeit under the tutelage of the state, as strict as it is loving. By and large, this reflects the deafening optimism of state propaganda, with oil rigs, construction sites, and factory workshops as places of jubilant conquest that props up the worker’s dignity.

And then, in the post-socialist era, workers’ literature morphs into the grassroots phenomenon of battler literature, with poetry as its most prominent genre. This is when economic reforms shatter the “iron rice bowl” of social security and neoliberalism makes ever deeper inroads into daily life. Social class becomes a politically sensitive notion in an official discourse that urges the atomized individual to rely on the positive energy of the enterprising self. This vision is hard to align with Zheng Xiaoqiong’s portrayal of the woman worker who disintegrates on her seat at the assembly line. Or Xu Lizhi’s image of the human being falling to their death with no one blinking. Or the misery in many other battler poems that see workers being operated by machines rather than the other way around, and ground down in the process.

But what moves someone who works fourteen-hour shifts to write poetry? Paradoxically, it is precisely the unforgiving labor regime that can feed the urge to stretch oneself even more, to find time where there is none. The dehumanizing experience of a fourteen-hour shift can compel someone to start writing like there’s no tomorrow — because arguably, precarity means there is no tomorrow. This is exactly what Xiao Hai did during a dozen years he spent on the assembly line in a string of cities in southern China, having left his home in Henan province at age fifteen, when his parents could no longer afford his school fees. In “Chinese Workers,” he writes:

I am a Chinese worker / in reinforced concrete buildings of desire rearing our low-priced youth / Spring summer fall winter the changing of the seasons does not belong to us / Grain and vegetables no longer belong to us either / All we can do is make the mysterious signs that say MADE IN CHINA flow across the four oceans and seven continents into every river and the middle of every street / and then trade the spoils of the October Revolution for one ticket stub after another for going home as the New Year approaches . . . I want to send a letter across the Pacific to those golden-haired blue-eyed yuppies . . . to ask them why the sun at dawn is covered in black clouds / why after the rain there is no rainbow in the sky / why night in the city is ablaze with daytime light / why once mighty rivers are now just glistening or covered in weeds / There grow the Chinese workers like stones piled up in the Great Wall

Just like Zheng’s “Woman Worker,” Xiao Hai’s “Chinese Workers” shows a painful awareness of being way down in the global capitalist food chain. The closing lines of the above passage are an indictment of the resulting ecological destruction, which is another frequent theme in battler poetry.

Xiao Hai is a gregarious, intense person. Unlike Xu Lizhi, he — it may not be an exaggeration — was in fact saved by poetry. In his own words, he found salvation, in 2016, when he made his way to the Migrant Workers Home in Picun near Beijing, an NGO that works for labor rights through what they call cultural education. The Home has given Xiao Hai steady work in a thrift store for secondhand clothing and encouraged him to continue to write. A jaw-dropping moment came with his first visit to the Museum of Battler Culture and Art, a grassroots outfit maintained by the Home in an old factory building. There he saw the big picture behind his own history, documented in a place that covers everything from labor regulations and the Zhili factory fire to stories of individual betterment and a legendary workers’ folk-rock band that has been the Home’s calling card for twenty years.

Xiao Hai is now a prominent member of the Home’s Picun Literature Group (recently renamed the New Worker Literature Group, as tussles over terminology continue), alongside Fan Yusu, a domestic worker whose bleak yet proud account of the battler life made international headlines in 2017 after it went viral in China.

A Wild Ride

Starting in the 1980s, expanding in the 1990s, and coming into its stride in the 2000s, battler poetry’s journey has been a wild ride from doggerel graffiti on bathroom stalls to factory newsletters, self-published or “unofficial” (minjian) journals, and eventually single-author books and multiple-author anthologies. Equally (if not more) important, the smartphone has been a game changer for the genre. Since the mid-2000s, countless battler poems have appeared online, sometimes on official websites such as those of the Chinese Writers Association, but mostly self-published on blogs and social media. Outside China, battler poetry has gained exposure in many languages since the 2010s, with Iron Moon: An Anthology of Chinese Migrant Worker Poetry, edited by Qin Xiaoyu and translated by Eleanor Goodman, as a shining example.

The various stops on this trajectory highlight both the continuing power of poetry as part of China’s cultural DNA and the complexity of the force field in which this particular incarnation of Chinese poetry operates. To begin with, its appearance in factory newsletters and on official websites gives the lie to a simplistic picture in which battler poetry equals political protest or resistance against corporate or political power (not to mention that serious political protest is currently impossible in China). Inasmuch as these publications breathe anger, it makes more sense to view them as opportunities for workers to let off steam that are monitored and controlled by management or the government. This fits well with social media governance in China, which allows for the release of discontent as long as no red lines are crossed.

When red lines are crossed, censorship or worse kicks in, on social media and in physical reality. For example, when the conversation broaches no-go areas such as the absolute authority of the party, or when it displays the ambition to organize — as factory worker Mi Jiuping found out when he was arrested for unionizing in 2018. Unlike the poets introduced in the preceding pages, Mi is not an established name in battler poetry. But tellingly, he took to poetry when the detention center demanded he submit a written repentance, and wrote the moving “I Am with Us.”

At the same time, battler poetry’s appearance on self-published platforms such as unofficial journals, blogs, and social media shows how the genre has joined a formidable DIY tradition that counts as a gentle form of dissent from the diktats of the government’s cultural policy. This emerged when underground poetry written during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) surfaced in the late 1970s to claim an unofficial space for writing beyond the pale of politically correct, state-sanctioned literature.

Most unofficial publications are produced by members of the “avant-garde,” a politically marginal yet privileged cultural elite that operates in a different world from that of the battler poets. It is fascinating to see how self-publishing connects these two worlds and further extends its reach to include other marginalized writing, such as that of Mu Cao, China’s first openly gay poet, whose experience of political pushback against queer culture intersects with his decades-long personal history of precarious labor.

Richer, Messier, and More Dynamic

The complexity of the force field surrounding battler poetry is reflected in the stories of its authors. Zheng Xiaoqiong wrote her way out of precarity and into fulfilling employment as a ranking editor at a highly reputed literary journal. When I interviewed her in 2016 in Guangzhou, she recalled her experience on the assembly line, where the factory was a place where women workers were sexually harassed. People would fight for every minute of overtime, and those wanting to go out had to wait for the gates to be unlocked on Sunday afternoons. But the person who told me these things was now a cultural official who had just attended a national congress of the Writers Association in Beijing, where Xi Jinping laid out his vision for China’s literature and art.

The gulf between these two worlds is immense, and Zheng’s journey has required an extraordinary ability to navigate what is a veritable tangle of interests and perspectives entertained by the faraway family she worked to support, factory management, cultural officials, Chinese and foreign journalists and scholars, literary pundits, and so on. Similarly, if more modestly, Xiao Hai’s growing fame as an unofficial poet earned him an invitation to attend an intensive course at the Lao She Institute for Literature in Beijing — which is as official as it gets.

In that tired, simplistic picture of black-and-white oppression and resistance, Zheng’s and Xiao Hai’s official recognition might suggest their co-optation. But calling it that would betray a lingering Cold War vision that equates grassroots cultural practice with resistance vis-à-vis a communist state whose culture can only ever be propaganda that aims to perpetuate the oppression of the individual subject. The realities on the ground are richer, messier, and more dynamic. Zheng has continued to do literary fieldwork among vulnerable women workers and used her new position to advocate for them. Xiao Hai refers to his two-week stint at the Lao She Institute as a memory he cherishes more than any other. When I asked him about the experience he said: “It was the first time I could concentrate and wholeheartedly devote myself to studying and really learn more about poetry. The key thing was you didn’t have to worry about food and drink.”

Of course, the state is watching. Building on a millennia-old vision of literature as inherently political, the Chinese government sees censorship as a moral duty. For battler poetry, this means that even as the more merciless specimens make us gasp for breath, we know that most publications will not carry unfiltered representations of the horrors inside so-called “black” factories that make a mockery of anything resembling legal labor relations. But that doesn’t detract from the power of this poetry to raise awareness of the plight of China’s workers and to make us revisit the perennial question of how aesthetics relates to social experience. Or how art relates to life. More precisely, how whose art relates to whose life, and how this dynamic can work across social and cultural communities.

So is this poetry that happens to be about precarious labor, or is it labor activism that happens to take the form of poetry? For once, there is in fact a single right answer: there is no need to choose.