Below are translations of poems by Xu Lizhi (许立志), the Foxconn worker who took his own life on 30 September 2014, at the age of 24, in Shenzhen, China. The translations are by friends of the Nao project, starting with Xu’s departing poem and an obituary translated from the Shenzhen Evening News, followed by other poems from 2011 to 2014.
By translating these poems, we aim to memorialize Xu, share some of his excellent literary work, and spread awareness that the harsh conditions, struggles and aspirations of Chinese migrant workers (including but not limited to Foxconn) have not diminished since the more widely-publicized spate of 18 attempted Foxconn suicides in 2010, resulting in 14 deaths. Insiders report that thereafter, although the frequency of suicides decreased (mainly due to Foxconn’s installation of nets making it more difficult for workers to jump from their dormitories, along with the development of workers’ collective resistance), such suicides have continued to the present. Including Xu Lizhi, at least 8 cases have been reported in the media since 2010, but insiders say that many other cases go unreported. We hope that in the future, workers in Foxconn and elsewhere manage to find ways around such companies’ military-style discipline and surveillance, come together, and forge collective paths out of this capitalist world of death, into a world worth living in. Don’t give up!
Several of these poems were included in the Shenzhen Evening News article linked and translated below; the others are widely available on the web, such as this post on Douban.
Obituary + “On My Deathbed” (2014)
“I Fall Asleep, Just Standing Like That” (2011)
“A Screw Fell to the Ground (2014)
“A Kind of Prophecy” (2013)
“The Last Graveyard” (2011)
“My Life’s Journey is Far From Complete” (2014)
“I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron” (2013)
“Rented Room” (2013)
“Upon Hearing the News of Xu Lizhi’s Suicide” by Zhou Qizao, a fellow worker at Foxconn (2014)
Obituary from Shenzhen Evening News, including Xu’s departing poem
by Li Fei and Zhang Xiaoqi
10 October, 2014
“On My Deathbed”
I want to take another look at the ocean, behold the vastness of tears from half a lifetime
I want to climb another mountain, try to call back the soul that I’ve lost
I want to touch the sky, feel that blueness so light
But I can’t do any of this, so I’m leaving this world
Everyone who’s heard of me
Shouldn’t be surprised at my leaving
Even less should you sigh or grieve
I was fine when I came, and fine when I left.
— Xu Lizhi, 30 September 2014
Shy, quiet, introverted, solitary
In 2010, Xu Lizhi went [from his home in rural Jieyang, Guangdong] to work at [a] Foxconn [electronics factory in Shenzhen], beginning life on the assembly line. From 2012 until February of this year , over 30 of his writings were published in Foxconn’s internal newspaper Foxconn People (富士康人), including poems, essays, film reviews, and news commentaries…. Xu posted the titles of these writings on his blog in a post called “The Maturation Given to Me by a Newspaper,” indicating his gratitude for this platform for his literary aspirations. The first time his friend Zheng (pseudonym) read Xu’s poetry, he was astonished to discover that this young man could be so talented. Henceforth, Zheng always looked for Xu’s writings in the newspaper.
Zheng’s impression was that Xu was a shy boy, “of few words, but not silent.” “Xu asserted his convictions, but he seemed quite solitary – very much the air of a poet.” When Zheng heard of Xu’s suicide, his entire [week-long] break for [China’s] National Day was shrouded in grief. He could not go outside for days.
Turning feelings into poems; fearing they be read by family
Most of Xu’s early poems were descriptions of life on the assembly line. In “Workshop, My Youth Was Stranded Here,” he described his conditions at the time: “Beside the assembly line, tens of thousands of workers [dagongzhe] 2 line up like words on a page/ ‘Faster, hurry up!’/ Standing among them, I hear the supervisor bark.” He felt that “Once you’ve entered the workshop/ The only choice is submission,” and that his youth was coldly slipping away, so he could only “Watch it being ground away day and night/ Pressed, polished, molded/ Into a few measly bills, so-called wages.”
At first Xu Lizhi found it difficult to adapt to the constant switching between dayshifts and nightshifts. In another poem, he described himself by the assembly line “standing straight like iron, hands like flight,” “How many days, how many nights/ Did I – just like that – standing, fall asleep?” He described his working life as exhausting, “Flowing through my veins, finally reaching the tip of my pen/ Taking root in the paper/ These words can be read only by the hearts of migrant workers.”
Xu once said that he never showed his poetry to his parents or other relatives, “because it’s something painful; I don’t want them to see that.”
Failed efforts to get a job related to books
Although Xu lived in Shenzhen for only a few years, he identified deeply with the city. “Everyone wishes they could put down roots in the city,” he explained, but most migrant-worker [dagong] poets write for a few years and then return to the countryside, get married and have children; Xu hoped to avoid that fate. He tried setting up a street stall with a friend, but failed. He also tried transferring from the assembly line to a logistics position, where he would have more freedom. He understood that very few such poets could get out [走出来]: “[we] have to constantly fight for our lives [为生活奔波]; it’s hard to go any further than that.”
In February of this year, Xu quit his job at Foxconn and moved to Suzhou, Jiangsu. His friend explained that Xu’s girlfriend worked there, but apparently things did not go well for Xu in Jiangsu. He told Zheng that he had trouble finding a job, but he did not go into detail about what happened there.
Half a year later, he moved back to Shenzhen. In an earlier interview, Xu had said that he loved this city, that he derived great pleasure from its Central Book Mall and public libraries. If he were to return home [to rural Jieyang], there were only a few small bookstores, and “even if I tried to order books online, they couldn’t be delivered” [to his remote address].
Due to his love of books, the first job application he submitted upon his return to Shenzhen in early September was to the Central Book Mall. Zheng recalled that Xu had told him, while working at Foxconn, that his dream was to become a librarian. Unfortunately, he did not get the job, and Zheng thinks this was a major disappointment. Two years earlier, Xu had applied for a position as librarian at Foxconn’s internal library for employees, in response to a call for applications, and Xu had been turned down then as well….
Returning to the workshop for one day prior to the incident
Xu was running out of money, so after these disappointments, he returned to Foxconn, beginning work on September 29, in the same workshop where he had worked before. This should have been a new beginning, but it was not. That evening he mentioned to Zheng via online chat that someone had found him another job, so he might leave Foxconn again, but Zheng did not consider this anything special, figuring that Xu would not leave very soon, having just resumed work at Foxconn.
The next Zheng heard of Xu was two days later, when people forwarded the news of Xu’s suicide on WeChat. Zheng could not believe it: “Hadn’t we just chatted two nights ago?” Later Zheng learned that Xu had committed suicide only the morning after they had chatted, not two days later as the media had reported.
Refuting online rumors that Xu was an orphan
[Although it has been 10 days since Xu’s death,] when it is mentioned, Zheng still cannot bear the grief. He thinks that Xu’s suicide resulted from both internal and external factors: not only the disappointments he had undergone, but even more so the solitary poetic spirit in his bones.3
After Xu’s passing, some online obituaries claimed that as a young child he had been orphaned, neglected and insulted until a poor old women adopted and raised him, and that this foster-grandmother had died a few years ago, leaving Xu alone in the world.
Zheng [refuted these rumors, pointing out that] Xu’s writings often mentioned his mother and homesickness. His second poem published in Foxconn People [for example], was called “Summertime Homesickness.”
Xu’s poetry is cold and pensive, directly facing a life of misery. His poems trace a trajectory in which the scent of death becomes more and more pronounced. He had already rehearsed death hundreds of times in his writing, so the final act was merely a small step over the edge.
Selected Poems by Xu Lizhi
They all say
I’m a child of few words
This I don’t deny
Whether I speak or not
With this society I’ll still
— 7 June 2013
“I Fall Asleep, Just Standing Like That”
The paper before my eyes fades yellow
With a steel pen I chisel on it uneven black
Full of working words
Workshop, assembly line, machine, work card, overtime, wages…
They’ve trained me to become docile
Don’t know how to shout or rebel
How to complain or denounce
Only how to silently suffer exhaustion
When I first set foot in this place
I hoped only for that grey pay slip on the tenth of each month
To grant me some belated solace
For this I had to grind away my corners, grind away my words
Refuse to skip work, refuse sick leave, refuse leave for private reasons
Refuse to be late, refuse to leave early
By the assembly line I stood straight like iron, hands like flight,
How many days, how many nights
Did I – just like that – standing fall asleep?
— 20 August 2011
“A Screw Fell to the Ground”
A screw fell to the ground
In this dark night of overtime
Plunging vertically, lightly clinking
It won’t attract anyone’s attention
Just like last time
On a night like this
When someone plunged to the ground
— 9 January 2014
“A Kind of Prophecy”
Village elders say
I resemble my grandfather in his youth
I didn’t recognize it
But listening to them time and again
Won me over
My grandfather and I share
Almost as if we came from the same womb
They nicknamed him “bamboo pole”
And me, “clothes hanger”
He often swallowed his feelings
I’m often obsequious
He liked guessing riddles
I like premonitions
In the autumn of 1943, the Japanese devils invaded
and burned my grandfather alive
at the age of 23.
This year i turn 23.
— 18 June 2013
“The Last Graveyard”
Even the machine is nodding off
Sealed workshops store diseased iron
Wages concealed behind curtains
Like the love that young workers bury at the bottom of their hearts
With no time for expression, emotion crumbles into dust
They have stomachs forged of iron
Full of thick acid, sulfuric and nitric
Industry captures their tears before they have the chance to fall
Time flows by, their heads lost in fog
Output weighs down their age, pain works overtime day and night
In their lives, dizziness before their time is latent
The jig forces the skin to peel
And while it’s at it, plates on a layer of aluminum alloy
Some still endure, while others are taken by illness
I am dozing between them, guarding
The last graveyard of our youth.
— 21 December 2011
“My Life’s Journey is Still Far from Complete”
This is something no one expected
My life’s journey
Is far from over
But now it’s stalled at the halfway mark
It’s not as if similar difficulties
Didn’t exist before
But they didn’t come
But all is futile
I want to stand up more than anyone else
But my legs won’t cooperate
My stomach won’t cooperate
All the bones of my body won’t cooperate
I can only lie flat
In this darkness, sending out
A silent distress signal, again and again
Only to hear, again and again
The echo of desperation.
— 13 July 2014
“I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron”
I swallowed a moon made of iron
They refer to it as a nail
I swallowed this industrial sewage, these unemployment documents
Youth stooped at machines die before their time
I swallowed the hustle and the destitution
Swallowed pedestrian bridges, life covered in rust
I can’t swallow any more
All that I’ve swallowed is now gushing out of my throat
Unfurling on the land of my ancestors
Into a disgraceful poem.
— 19 December 2013
A space of ten square meters
Cramped and damp, no sunlight all year
Here I eat, sleep, shit, and think
Cough, get headaches, grow old, get sick but still fail to die
Under the dull yellow light again I stare blankly, chuckling like an idiot
I pace back and forth, singing softly, reading, writing poems
Every time I open the window or the wicker gate
I seem like a dead man
Slowly pushing open the lid of a coffin.
— 2 December 2013
“Upon Hearing the News of Xu Lizhi’s Suicide”
by Zhou Qizao (周启早), a fellow worker at Foxconn
The loss of every life
Is the passing of another me
Another screw comes loose
Another migrant worker brother jumps
You die in place of me
And I keep writing in place of you
While I do so, screwing the screws tighter
Today is our nation’s sixty-fifth birthday
We wish the country joyous celebrations
A twenty-four-year-old you stands in the grey picture frame, smiling ever so slightly
Autumn winds and autumn rain
A white-haired father, holding the black urn with your ashes, stumbles home.
— 1 October 2014
- We repost this here because two of the translators posted it on Nao before co-founding Chuang in 2015. Chuang and Nao continue to exist as separate projects.
- From the 1990s through the 2000s, dagongzhe referred mainly to migrant wage-laborers from rural areas, often working in precarious employment positions, as opposed to urbanites working in stable positions (usually in state-owned enterprises), who were called gongren, the socialist-era term for urban “workers” with permanent positions in state-owned and collective enterprises. In the past few years, however, these two terms have become somewhat interchangeable (perhaps reflecting the convergence of conditions among different types of workers), so here we translate dagongzhe simply as “workers.” (Below we add “migrant” in a few cases where it seems necessary for clarification; in general, the term reflects the ambiguity of migrant workers’ status in China today – as workers differentiated from other workers, as neither urbanites nor peasants – somewhat like the ambiguous status of international migrant workers in other countries, such as people from rural Mexico working in the US.) For discussions of these two terms as used in the 2000s, see “China’s Migrant Workers” by Prol-position, and the introduction to Made in China by Pun Ngai (Duke University Press, 2005).
- We at Nao would like to point out that this explanation neglects the profound hatred of life on the assembly line reflected so clearly in many of Xu’s poems quoted above and translated below, coupled with his desperation after repeatedly failing to find a more satisfactory way out of that life, including the possibility of returning home to the empty, poor village where he would be cut off from access to books – his main source of pleasure and meaning in life (along with – presumably – the possibility of being together with his girlfriend or getting married, which would require more money than Xu would have been able to make in the countryside). This account also fails to explain why so many other workers – at Foxconn and elsewhere – have chosen to commit suicide – even those who were not poets.