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Migrant Workers Find the Pen Mightier than the Plough

Buckets are inseparable from the life and work of 32-year-old poet Liu Dongwu.

Liu is chief editor of Nanfeiyan, a literary magazine based in Dongguan, south China's Guangdong Province. The name translates as "wild goose flying southward." Liu has managed to rise to literary fame from his hard beginnings as a migrant worker from the countryside.

His poetry, along with the works of many others like him, has been praised for its candid but realistic portrayals of the lives and experiences of migrant workers in urban centers.

Liu grew up in a small village of Longjing, in east China's Anhui Province. He says old wells were once the centre of village life.

Villagers would typically rest and talk with each other around the old town well while waiting with their wooden buckets to fetch water.

Liu joined his fellow rural residents to leave his old village in 1992. He and others struggled to build a life in Guangdong after he failed to pass the national college entrance examination. Among their initial discoveries was that plastic buckets had already replaced the traditional wooden ones in urban centers.

"On hot summer nights, sinking our heads into the water in the buckets was a way to cast off nostalgia about our homes," says Liu.

He worked as an apprentice in a toy factory, for a meager income of just 100 yuan (US$12) a month. He worked 12 hours a day. "As an apprentice, you have to do everything required by every other person," says Liu.

But the mental anguish was more troubling than the physical hardship.

With no permanent urban residency, or hukou, Liu and his migrant worker friends until very recently lived and toiled with few opportunities to enjoy the same rights as urban residents.

Liu was mostly worried about uncertainty of the future, dissatisfaction with his menial work, fears of losing his job, and homesickness.

"Every night, more than 20 workers slept on the straw mattresses on the floor of one room. We could not fall to sleep and most played poker or talked about sex," he recalls.

He didn't join the crowd, but sat in the corner of the small room, with a pen and pieces of used paper, trying to record his feeling through poetry, Liu says.

Apprenticeship is only a beginning and never has an end.

Everyday is an examination paper, and every minute is a question in the paper.

All days of a migrant worker

are in fact part of an apprenticeship. (Apprenticeship)

In 1993, he returned to his hometown to join the army, but stiff competition among local youth prevented him from realizing his dream of leaving the impoverished reality of rural life behind. Liu returned to Guangdong the same year after working temporarily in Shanghai as a roadman.

The hardships continued, but Liu tried to look at life with an air of acceptance.

Luckily, his writing was recognized and he got a job as an editor at a small township newspaper. He didn't make much money, but the job was more stable.

Liu is not the only migrant worker-turned poet. He has edited migrant workers' poems in several magazines in Dongguan since the mid-1990s.

This is different from the situation of other literary groups, says Liu Dong, a literature professor at Peking University. But Liu Dongwu says that poems are simply what migrant workers can afford to write.

"To write a novel, you need at least a quiet room and plenty of time, which most migrant workers do not have," he says.

"But poetry is much simpler. You only need a pen or a pencil, several pieces of used paper, and most importantly, an emotional and imaginative mind."

Poems have helped change the life of some people such as Liu Dongwu, but most others remain migrant workers sweating in factories and construction sites throughout the country.

"It is undeniable that many migrant workers write poems in hopes of changing their lives. Although poems have largely been neglected, they remain the cheapest available option for migrant workers who love literature," Liu Dong says.

Zhang Shougang is a typical example of a migrant worker whose life has been changed by poetry.

The native of Yunyang County in southwestern Chongqing Municipality used to work in a brick factory in Central China's Hubei Province, and a colliery in north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

He settled in Guangdong in 1994, where he worked in a leather factory, as a factory guard, and finally as a logistics manager.

"At first I had nothing to do in my spare time and I tried to write poems as way of avoiding the boring things others engaged in," Zhang says.

Like other migrant poets, Zhang first focused on nostalgic musings of the farmland he had ploughed before going to work in Guangdong.

In Farmland he wrote:

I saw farms, on the train,

they are flying, like waves,

rise and fall after waves.

"I filled my heart with compassion while writing poems," says Zhang, who found he had become more and more active in trying to help his rural peers.

With his help, migrant workers in his factory formed a literature club that encouraged its members to write, recite and exchange their poetry or prose. Their employer, who saw it as a positive sign of spirituality, has supported the club.

Zhang was promoted to the position of logistics manager.

"But compared with the enrichment and enjoyment poems brought to me, the promotion is minimal," Zhang says.

Twenty-five-year-old Zheng Xiaoqiong has Zhang to thank for her own success in the world of poetry.

Born to a rural family in Sichuan Province, Zheng managed to enter a nursing school, but only got a job at a small rural hospital after graduation. She often had to wait for a long time to be paid.

Zheng decided to go to Guangdong in 2000 to work in a factory .

"Before I came to Guangdong, I had never thought of writing poems," Zheng says.

But upon arriving, she learned to read the local poetry magazines and started writing some of her own poems. "At first I just wrote some to fight my homesickness and uncertainty," she says.

She mailed her poems to Zhang, who was already well known as a migrant poet. Zhang immediately replied and encouraged her to continue writing.

"I did not want to become famous. I wrote poems to express my feelings of the troubles of daily life," says Zheng.

She wrote in The Migrant Worker:

It is difficult, and sad,

to speak the term "migrant worker."

In the village, it was an upward ladder,

But now it is a snare

drawn by a hurt finger.

Zheng wrote the long poem in 2003, and completed it only in one hour.

Migrant workers have created a lot of literature, and Tang Xiaodu, a literary critic with the leading Beijing-based publisher Sanlian Press, has been trying to publish an anthology for migrant poets. This is a very difficult task, however.

Most Chinese readers have lost interest in reading poetry, and migrant worker poets hold even less appeal, says Tang.

The book has a potential readership among migrant workers, but it is difficult to get copies to this marginalized group through the ordinary book market.

Tang praises some migrant worker poets, but says that as a whole, most of the poetry is unpolished. This makes it difficult to establish a literary genre based on migrant worker poetry.

(China Daily February 7, 2006)

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