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The Assembly-Line Poet

How one factory worker shocked the world with his haunting poetery

11·20·2014

The Assembly-Line Poet

How one factory worker shocked the world with his haunting poetery

11·20·2014

On September 30th, Xu Lizhi (许立志) jumped to his death from the window of his factory dormitory. His death, like that of other factory employees in the past, was marked by the overworked and militaristic life he led as an assembly-line worker. His voice, however, wasn’t silenced by his suicide.

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Xu Lizhi
许立志

In spite of his assembly-line job, Xu Lizhi was a gifted poet with an affinity for raw and haunting prose. His writing embodies his experiences at the Foxconn electronics -assembly factory in Shenzhen, where he began working in 2010. After his death, Xu’s friends gathered some of his poetry and published it in the Shenzhen Evening News and in the Foxconn Person.

“I stand like iron by the assembly line, my two hands flying/ How many days and how many nights/ I stand there like that, falling asleep,” he wrote in his poem “I Fall Asleep, Just Standing Like That” in 2011.

“His poems trace a trajectory in which the scent of death becomes more and more pronounced,” said Li Fei and Zhang Xuaoqi, two of Xu’s friends. At just 24 years old, Xu’s death wasn’t wholly unexpected. After the continual failure to get jobs at bookstores and libraries, Xu moved to Suzhou to live with his girlfriend. After the relationship ended, he returned to Shenzhen and to Foxconn.

In his poems, Xu’s life moves between the monotony of factory work and the blankness of his life outside of work. This morbid picture of his life at the factory was confirmed by the reports from other workers: that the living conditions are militaristic at best, with constant surveillance, only ten minutes to go to the bathroom, and long stretches of overtime. Since factory workers are highly replaceable in China, one mistake could cost an assembly-line worker their job. His final poem, titled “On My Deathbed”, explored the helplessness that he felt and the tragedy of his decision.

“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.”

On My Deathbed, 2014

Foxconn in particular has come under fire for its working conditions, with 18 attempted suicides in 2010 alone. Most famous for assembling the iPhone, Foxconn is a Taiwanese manufacturing company with major factories all over China. After the widely publicized suicides of 2010, Foxconn attempted to reform its practices to promote greater happiness within the manufacturing plants. However, the reduction of suicides in the factories to just 8 since 2010 has been largely attributed to the installation of suicide nets on the dormitories. According to the Wall Street Journal, Foxconn has provided assistance to Xu’s family. The factory also provides services such as a 24-hour hotline and professional counselors for depressed workers.

Suicide is unfortunately only a side effect of the larger problem in the working conditions of many of these factories. The mind-numbing monotony and loneliness of Xu’s poetry speaks to many young Chinese workers, and the living conditions that many workers endure have been widely criticized by human rights groups across the world. The prevalence of guolaosi, or employees who work themselves to death, is tragically not uncommon in the Chinese workplace. The overall competition for jobs and inability for many degree-holding, qualified graduates to find jobs only adds pressure to already the stressed workers.

As for Xu Lizhi, his poetry will serve as a testament to the humanity of the factory workers and a raw reminder that the suffering of one man can expose the quiet suffering of thousands.

Here is a selection of translated poems, translated into English by the worker’s rights activist Nao” on  Libcom.org.

 

《我弥留之际》
“On My Deathbed”

我想再看一眼大海,目睹我半生的泪水有多汪洋

我想再爬一爬高高的山头,试着把丢失的灵魂喊回来

我还想摸一摸天空,碰一碰那抹轻轻的蓝

可是这些我都办不到了,我就要离开这个世界了

所有听说过我的人们啊

不必为我的离开感到惊讶

更不必叹息,或者悲伤

我来时很好,去时,也很好

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.

– September 29th, 2014

 

《我就那样站着入睡》
“I Fall Asleep, Just Standing Like That”

眼前的纸张微微发黄

我用钢笔在上面凿下深浅不一的黑

里面盛满打工的词汇

车间,流水线,机台,上岗证,加班,薪水……

我被它们治得服服贴贴

我不会呐喊,不会反抗

不会控诉,不会埋怨

只默默地承受着疲惫

驻足时光之初

我只盼望每月十号那张灰色的薪资单

赐我以迟到的安慰

为此我必须磨去棱角,磨去语言

拒绝旷工,拒绝病假,拒绝事假

拒绝迟到,拒绝早退

流水线旁我站立如铁,双手如飞

多少白天,多少黑夜

我就那样,站着入睡

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

 

《谶言一种》
“A Kind of Prophecy”

村里的老人都说

我跟我爷爷年轻时很像

刚开始我不以为然

后来经他们一再提起

我就深信不疑了

我跟我爷爷

不仅外貌越看越像

就连脾性和爱好

也像同一个娘胎里出来的

比如我爷爷外号竹竿

我外号衣架

我爷爷经常忍气吞声

我经常唯唯诺诺

我爷爷喜欢猜谜

我喜欢预言

1943年秋,鬼子进

我爷爷被活活烧死

享年23岁

我今年23岁

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
Facial expressions
Temperaments, hobbies
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

 

《最后的墓地》
“The Last Graveyard”

机台的鸣叫也打着瞌睡

密封的车间贮藏疾病的铁

薪资隐藏在窗帘后面

仿似年轻打工者深埋于心底的爱情

没有时间开口,情感徒留灰尘

他们有着铁打的胃

盛满浓稠的硫酸,硝酸

工业向他们收缴来不及流出的泪

时辰走过,他们清醒全无

产量压低了年龄,疼痛在日夜加班

还未老去的头晕潜伏生命

皮肤被治具强迫褪去

顺手镀上一层铝合金

有人还在坚持着,有人含病离去

我在他们中间打盹,留守青春的

最后一块墓地

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

 

Photo’s Courtesy of (X)

Main photograph is not from Foxconn Factory in Shenzhen.