Miner reading at his desk
SOCIETY

I Sacrificed 16 Years to the Mines

Miner-poet Chen Nianxi tells the harrowing story of his years working as a blaster underground

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The gold mines of Qinling and the “Army of 100,000”

My name is Chen Nianxi, and I’m from Danfeng county, Shaanxi province. I worked 16 years as a blaster in the mines, and I’ve been a writer for almost 20 years as well. My life has been like the wind and rain, always in flux.

My hometown was extremely poor. A family of three might be allotted only one-sixth of an acre by the government, with poor soil unsuitable for growing crops. I remember, back when I was going to school, seven or eight little corn cakes and a small pail of pickled vegetables was all the food I brought from home for the whole week. When I finished the vegetables, I couldn’t even bring myself to wash the pail.

When school let out on Fridays, I had to walk 90 li (almost 50 kilometers) to get home. When I came upon a stream, I would dip the pail in the water, and drink up the lingering taste of the vegetables. A few sips, and I could keep walking a long way.

I graduated from high school in 1987. Out of my class, only eight people got into college, all of them vocational schools. By then, migrants were already flooding into southern China to find work, but few people from our parts went. This is because around 1979, they started mining the Qinling Mountains for gold, and whole towns went to work in those mines.

Our region’s topography is fairly flat, aside from the abrupt thrust of the Qinling range. If it wasn’t for the mines, this area would have remained a backwater.

The first time I went to the Qinling Mountains was in 1987. My high school teacher had a relative who was a contractor for work crews in the mountains, so he took 20 of us up there to move ore. In those days, there wasn’t much organization—small private mines seldom had equipment for transporting the ore, so it had to be carried down by humans, bit by bit.

When we got to the mining area, it was a flurry of activity. There were countless switchbacks and mine openings, and a dark mass of human heads moving among them. Men and women, old and young…there were all kinds of people there. They were all carrying ore, moving step by step in a continuous flow.

This is what people back then called the “Army of 100,000.” The sight persisted for over a decade.

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Chen’s home

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Carrying ore

When I first started carrying ore, I remember that the mine tunnels were all around 1.8 meters in diameter. Tracks ran through the tunnels, and whenever a minecart went by, you had to plaster yourself against the walls. If you didn’t, you’d end up getting crushed.

Even after walking three or four li (2 kilometers), we still wouldn’t have reached the end of the tunnel. Then we sometimes had to climb 50 or 60 meters up or down ropes in the mineshafts. The whole mountain had been blasted into a labyrinth. It was impossible to get your bearings. I remember one time, all of us were in a mineshaft, climbing up a thick rope. We were scrambling up the rock’s surface with our feet, like a swarm of locusts. But the workers above us didn’t know we were down there, and threw down a sack of ore, smashing and maiming the leg of one of our crew.

The mines were a chaotic place in those days—working there, you needed luck on your side.

But the good thing was, we ended up making 27 RMB a week, which was inconceivable riches for the time. We were all thrilled to be making so much money at such a young age.

Many years later, when I returned to work in the mines, it was because of this memory.

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Mines in the Qinling mountains

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Fortune road

The mine was a typical one. All kinds of vendors set up camp around the base of the mountain, selling gear, gloves, anything you might need. There were little diners scattered all over the mountain, as well as clinics, in particular orthopedic clinics.

Here, so long as there was money to be made, somebody would rise to the task.

Day in and day out, year after year, the mines drew in the labor force. I, too, fell into fate’s magnetic field.

Many years later, my brothers were starting families. Back then, if you wanted to build a house, you had to build it yourself, brick by brick, tile by tile. The whole family got involved: We spent three years on my oldest brother’s house, three years on the second oldest’s, and immediately after that, three years on my own. In the blink of an eye, ten years went by. My wife and I sank ourselves deep into debt to get our house built. Then, in 1999, my child was born. For a while, our family was in dire straits.

But thanks to the mines, I didn’t need to abandon my wife and newborn child to go work in the city. Thus, I began my career underground.

I ended up pushing carts on the mountain. I was referred to the job by a friend. Blasting the tunnels produces a lot of rubble which the carters have to haul out. The boss was very canny. He put a scale by the mine opening, so that when you got to the entrance, he could calculate your pay by weight. The rate was one cent per half-kilo, so if you hauled 500 kilograms, then it was 10 RMB. Back then, in order to make more money, we hauled like our lives depended on it—each of us could fit 1,000 kilos in one of those little two-wheeled carts!

Behind our struggle, there was a feeling of hope. It was as if we could resolve all of our families’ troubles by working in the mines.

I remember that the road leading to the mines had three forks, and one of the paths had a large boulder in front of it. When the mine workers got there, they would all sit and rest for a bit. Later, somebody chiseled three characters into the boulder, reading “Fortune Road.” Later on, someone filled in the characters with red paint, so you could see them from a long way off. This became a landmark.

I figure they expected to make it big someday, resting all their hopes on this mining road.

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A poem Chen wrote to his wife

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A blessing and a curse

The first year I hauled ore as a student, I only stayed seven days. This time round, I had to be there day after day, and was able to discover many realities of life in the mines over time.

Carters’ work was exhausting and dangerous. As a single person pulling almost a ton of ore in those low, narrow tunnels, you had to keep a death grip on the cart handles. The impact of any little jolt, any wobble, could be infinitely amplified. Many carters got their fingers crushed this way.

But that was the easy part. One of my clearest memories from those times is when we were clearing an abandoned mine shaft for our boss. One day, we were digging ore, when all of a sudden we broke through the mine’s wall. Holding up a candle, we looked through the little hole we made. Inside, there was a plank bed with two young men lying on it, wearing work clothes and rubber boots. Their bodies had been left there for who knows how many years. Due to the lack of oxygen, though the corpses had become desiccated, they hadn’t decomposed.

Most likely, they had died in some accident, so they were left in the tunnel, forever one with the mountain.

This was the first time I’d come face-to-face with death in the mines, but at the time, I couldn’t afford to dwell on it. My family needed money, and I had to find a solution.

Thus, I became a blaster’s apprentice. There were many kinds of work in the mines, including carters, mechanics, ventilation workers, as well as the blasters who were always on the front lines. The main job of the blaster was to jackhammer holes into the rockface suited to the structure of the rock. Then, based on the desired strength and velocity of the blast, they would select the appropriate powder formula and blow the rock apart. This was the highest-paying job on the mountain—the wages were two or three times that of the cart workers.

In 2000, after a year of apprenticeship, I officially became a blaster. From then on, I started traveling across the country, going wherever there was work. In this way, I got to see the conditions in many different mines.

Many of the mine operations were enormous, like underground fortifications. Riddled with myriad branches and forks, they could extend 2,000 meters into the earth and accommodate up to 4,000 workers at a time. Other mines had tunnels that were highly extensive—you could dig 30,000 meters horizontally without piercing through the other side of the mountain.

Deep in the tunnels, under the pressure of thick rock strata, the structure and composition of these mines became even more complex. Flooding, cave-ins, and leaks of noxious gases became more common as well. The oppressive atmosphere, the stifling heat, and the darkness also numbed our senses. Risks that would normally have been within our control became dangerous in such environs.

Thinking back to those nameless corpses I came across during my first year in the mines, I realized: Death wasn’t a matter of chance, but rather a daily part of life in the mines.

A seam of ore wasn’t simply a blessing from the heavens; it was also a curse.

And my ride-and-die workmates from the mines—some were blasted into a bloody pulp, and others were sliced in half by detonation pressure…

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Deep in the depths of a mine

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De Cheng

I’d seldom met anyone with lips as thick as De Cheng’s. He was especially fond of smoking. A thin cigarette pressed between the two slabs of his lips—it was quite the funny sight.

De Cheng was from my hometown, and had also worked many years as a blaster. My town had more than 200 blasters, but everyone had their own routes, so it was rare that we encountered one another in our work. Therefore, De Cheng and I treasured each other’s company—meeting each other in as far-flung a place as Xinjiang felt like a mark of fate.

Even though I didn’t smoke, he would still light up two cigarettes at a time, and give me one.

We were split up into two crews, blasting toward each other from opposite directions with the aim of boring through the mountain. As long as we followed the vein of ore, we would meet in the middle. Back then there was no way of knowing exactly where we would link up.

De Cheng and I were on the same team. That day, I needed to get in touch with my family about something, so I spent half the day searching for a phone signal instead of going to work. De Cheng went down alone. I was still on the surface looking for a signal when I heard some muffled sounds from underground, followed by a sharp blast.

Something was wrong. In all my years of blast work, it was only when there was open space that a blast could sound so sharp. Perhaps the two tunnels had linked up—but then why did the explosions follow in such quick succession?

I rushed down into the tunnels with my workmates. But De Cheng was already dead.

De Cheng had died on the job. He was on one side of the mountain, with the tunnel halfway finished. The team on the other side didn’t suspect a thing and set their charges. An immense force blasted through the wall in front of him, dashing his upper body into a cloud of bloody mist.

Everyone fumbled to put what remained of his body together, bundled him into a cart, and brought him up the shaft in the elevator cage. I held heavy, complicated feelings: The merest breath of air would set my heart trembling. When we were almost at the surface, rays of golden light bounced down the shaft and into the cage. The moment we rose out of the shaft mouth, I saw a red sun like an enormous wheel on the western horizon. I had never seen a setting sun so big.

The sunset in Xinjiang is quite unusual—the sky goes dark as soon as the sun disappears below the horizon. Not like my hometown, where the sun takes its time setting and the sky darkens gradually with it.

That day, the sun seemed to hover over that distant horizon, and in my heart I willed it to stay.

But in the end, it still set.

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A miner swings his pickaxe

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Wu De

A person’s attitude toward death can change.

When you are several thousand meters underground, your only companions are darkness and a few workmates. That kind of life is like a walk through the night. On a night walk, you sing loudly. If you can no longer hear my voice, then either I have walked off too far, or I am no longer with you.

In that helpless atmosphere, if you die, you die—there really is nothing you can do about it.

But you go to different places and among different work teams, and meet different people. Each person has their own burden to bear. With the passage of time and family transitions—like children growing up, parents aging and dying—I also came to bear a heavy burden. At this point, you come to fear death. If any workmate had even the tiniest accident, it would unsettle me greatly. Involuntarily, my mind would start running through the whole of that person’s past and future.

Wu De was in Karamay, Xinjiang, with me as a foreman on a mining crew—I think he was from Bazhong in Sichuan province. He was short and thin, but had real character, and was as reliable and hard-working as they come.

When we wrapped up our blasting shift, Wu De would go off on his own with a sledgehammer and continue smashing rocks for a while. When there was a rock he absolutely couldn’t split, he would have us drill holes and blast it into pieces the next day. He was able to cut costs that way, and wring a bit more pay out of his hard work.

He was also stingy when he trimmed fuses, always trimming off a few extra centimeters to save money. Once, we finished drilling fuse holes and left to go up to the surface, leaving him alone to prepare the blast.

But before he resurfaced, we heard a muffled boom, and the ground shook. I knew then that something had happened to him, but I hoped in my heart it was a fluke, that maybe he had managed to dodge the explosion.

The mineshaft was billowing clouds of thick smoke, looking like a giant chimney. We braved the smoke and went down into the shaft, only to see that he had already been sliced in two by the explosion.

Only later did I understand: That day, in order to save money, he had trimmed all the fuses to just 30 centimeters. But there were over 60 fuses to light. Perhaps he had too much faith in his abilities, or a slip in his judgment—either way, before he could finish lighting all the fuses, the first ones had gone off. He didn’t even have time to turn away from the blast.

I thought, even if nothing bad had happened this time, something was bound to happen the next time. Every person seemed to have their own fate. He died down there, out of a desire to earn some petty cash.

Wu De had a photo on the wall in his room. It was a photo of him with his sister, taken in a yellow-green autumn. The two of them standing on a mountain, with golden rice paddies stretching out behind them.

After he left, I brought this photo to the cellar where I slept. It was dry down there, so the photo could be preserved longer.

I thought, as his body was already in pieces, there was no way of returning his bones to his ancestral home. As long as this cellar remained there, then the photo would also remain, and he could have a place to rest in peace.

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Chen at work in a mine

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Deadly fumes

The sun will set, photos will fade, and blood will grow cold. In the face of these three absolutes of fate, I took the sorrow I had no way of expressing and alchemized it into poetry.

In the Karamay mines, everyone made their beds over empty powder kegs to sleep. I would sit hunched over a keg, writing poetry. By the time I left and went to roll up my bedding, I found the underside of it chock full of poems.

I wrote 20 or 30 poems at the mines, many them to do with the deaths of my workmates.

Heads split open by rockfall, hearts pierced through by metal rods, bodies blasted to pieces… my workmates departed one by one in these wretched fashions.

But even if the mines were willing to spare the workers, capital was not.

I once went to work in Yuncheng, Shanxi province. There was an old mine pit on a mountaintop, brimming with green water. Three pumps churned for a full day and night trying to drain it, but there was no appreciable effect on the water level. The boss ordered me to blast through the bottom of the pit to discharge the water, but there was a village down the mountain at the mouth of a ravine. The water that would come rushing down the slopes would cause them incalculable harm. So I held back a handful of explosives when packing the charge, blasting a hole no bigger than the mouth of a bowl. For that, I was fired not long after, and didn’t see a cent of my pay.

Yet capital could become still more frenzied in its quest for ore.

For example, it was common for two mining operations to tunnel into each other’s territory. To stake your claim, you had to be the first to get there. In 2010, my crew blasted a tunnel into another outfit’s area. My boss called in the “machete squad”: hired goons, each shouldering a gleaming machete to guard the tunnel.

But the other party had the upper hand: they bought 500 kilos of dried chilies and 50 kilos of sulfur, mixed the two together, set them ablaze, and directed bellows toward the tunnel entrance. We could only flee, because even in a tunnel several thousand meters deep, the deadly fumes traveled everywhere. They could make you cough non-stop, and quickly lose consciousness.

But most dangerous of all was if the boss pressured you to go down the shaft and add your explosives to the already thin and foul air. This would very likely cause carbon monoxide poisoning. If this happened, we would load up the carts and pull the victims out, then strip off their clothes and set them on the rock detritus. Then we’d grab two buckets of cold water from the kitchen, the colder the better, and pour it over their heads to help them come to their senses.

Many people were revived with this method, but there were some who never woke up.

This is why some of the mine sites could “smoke you to death.” Once the profits are high enough, capitalists can kill with impunity. Every step in humanity’s progress is paid for in struggle. There is nothing extraordinary about this.

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Chen and his mother

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Peach blossoms

Toil gives us strength in life, and relief in death.

Miners who were fortunate enough to survive the work could only become more and more reliant on their trade, thanks to the fatigue, injury, and illness that were the invisible costs of the years throwing themselves into the mines.

I also considered changing my line of work. But with my right ear gone deaf, my neck herniated, and no marketable skills besides blasting, I no longer had a choice.

I once trained an apprentice of my own, who had failed the college entrance exams by just a few points. His family couldn’t afford to pay for him to repeat a year of secondary school and try again, so he came to the mines, hoping to make some money to fund his studies for the next year. Instead, he became a blaster, and never left the mines again.

The mine is like a beast that can never be sated, gorging itself on hopeful newcomers, snatching away their hopes of ever being anything else. And outside of the mines, the workers still had their ailments to treat and families to raise—for them, life’s shoulder pole would never get any lighter.

This was a vicious cycle: the greater the poverty, the harder we had to work, and the harder we worked, the greater the harm and the cost to us. We all understood that the mines were like a microcosm of society; a snapshot of the era we lived in. They taught us our place in society.

I turned 43 in 2013. I went to the mines as soon as I finished celebrating the Lunar New Year, and worked there for three months, until the peach blossoms were in full bloom on the mountain. Some of the peach trees grew right in front of our mine entrance. Every time there was a blast, the whole mountain shook, and peach blossoms would rain down—into the mines and the alleys, or drifting into our shacks with the breeze.

One day, I emerged from the mineshaft at the close of my shift when the sun was already about to set. The early spring breeze felt pleasant against my clothing. As soon as my phone picked up a signal, it began to ring. This didn’t feel like a good omen.

It was my younger brother. He said my mother had cancer of the esophagus, in the late stage.

This was a severe blow to me. Death wasn’t a novelty in the mines; I’d already made mental preparation for my own demise. But never for family members’.

I sat by the mine opening and watched the peach blossoms fall in drifts in the evening breeze. Our courtyard back home also has a peach tree that my mother had planted. Now the flowers would be in bloom, but the person who’d planted them was about to depart. There was an unspeakable grief in my heart. Life was ephemeral, and you didn’t have the least power to resist it. It felt like all of my old dreams were melting into illusions.

That night I tossed and turned, unable to sleep. I got up and wrote a poem, “Blaster’s Dream”:

I wake to a headache, splitting me like a blast.
This is the gratuitous gift of heavy machinery.
It is no fault of the steel,
But only my aging nerves, brittle and frail.

I dare not look into my life.
It is unyielding, hook-black,
Bearing the airpick’s acute angles,
Brush against the rock and it bleeds.

I dispatched my best years into 5,000-meter depths.
Over and over, I split the strata at their seams,
Remaking my life in the process.

My far-flung loved ones, at the foot of distant mountains,
They are sick, their bodies vessels for powder.
I cannot know how much my prime years have been cleaved.
I cannot know how long their twilight years will stretch.

My body holds three tons of explosives,
And they are detonators
In the night, in front of their beds,
The blast spills me across the ground like rubble.

I can never stop, can never change my way of living. I do not have the capital to make such a choice. But how fragile was this existence? A string tuned too tight will always break, and that day will certainly come for me.

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Here and now

Two years ago, in order to pay for my mother’s treatment, I bit back my own pain in order to keep working. Whenever I went to the mines, I carried a big bag of medicine over my shoulder. My health got worse until 2015, when even standing still became difficult. The doctor told me if I didn’t have surgery, I might become paralyzed within a few months. On April 8th, 2015, I chose to go through with an operation. This meant that I would never be able to return to work in the mines.

But the mines have left me with more than just a herniated cervical disk: There is also the powder in my lungs.

In 2016, I started to cough, with each coughing fit trailing off in a harsh metallic sound. This is the rasping you hear as I’ve been speaking to you.

In 2020, I was diagnosed “black lung.” This disease has a 5-to-20-year latency. From the winter of 1999, when I first went up to the mines, till early spring in 2020, it had been precisely 20 years.

This heralded the end of many of my dreams.

In my time as a blaster, I’ve seen much scenery all over the country—but it was all for work. I always hoped that someday, when I had the chance, I might be able to take my time visiting those sights again. But with my injuries and illness, I will never have that chance.

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Chen on the mountain resting between shifts

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To live is to shout to the sky

But still, I will continue writing. It is my only way forward from here on out.

I once wrote this poem, called “Qinqiang (Shaanxi) Opera”:

Grief and joy song, love and hate song.
Evening faint-song, sycophant’s teary dawn.
Believing faith-song, martyrs in time’s flow.
Qinqiang’s deluge crashes down like anointment.
Leaving you drenched and speechless,
Leaving you conscious,
For rites and reason are the people’s alone.
Leaving you aware,
To live is to shout to the sky.

Later, this last line became the title for my prose collection.

Because I will always remember how I, with my workmates, have let out just this kind of broken wail on the mountain slopes.

It was in 2006, when I was working in the Karakorum range in Xinjiang. Those mountains were sharp and barren, devoid of life. We watched the snowline rise and ebb over several months, but we still hadn’t seen a cent of our pay. We were feeling low.

Then one evening, out of the blue, an old man refused to eat his dinner. Instead, he sat down at the worksite and began softly singing a dirge. The people around him heard—the mahjong players even ceasing their shuffling—and began to sing along.

Because the slopes were so steep, there was no way of pitching tents. We simply lived in the mine tunnels. For a moment, they reverberated with the majestic sound of our combined voices.

The boss thought it was unlucky and tried to stop us from singing, but to no avail.

After that, whenever anyone started singing, the rest of us would join in. We sang as we ate, walked, and worked. We sang for the whole half-year that I worked there.

When I left, they were still singing.

Translated by Nathaniel J. Gan

Photos all stills from the documentary “The Verse of Us,” from Douban

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