In response to Sun Wanning's (2014) critique that individual desire for recognition has limited the political potential of migrant worker literature, this article looks to the Picun Literature Group at the Migrant Workers Home to examine the dynamic between the collective, activist setting and the individual authors’ struggle with literary and political practice. Combining the literary technique of close reading with anthropological fieldwork, the article describes how the Group encourages and influences its members’ literary production. The works of Xiao Hai, Fan Yusu, Li Ruo, and Wan Huashan are examined to determine whether they view literature as elite or subaltern, individual or collective, art or activism. This article identifies in their writing concrete examples of a change in consciousness and the formation of identity. It argues that literary writing gives the working-class writing subject and fellow workers a sense of dignity and collective identity. Both the Picun writers and the migrant worker writers in general can be considered “unlikely writers.” The term captures their marginality in the cultural field, as well as the struggle to negotiate their subalternity and the elitist formulation of literary value. Thus, the “unlikely writer” embodies the promise of migrant worker literature in the attempt to redefine the meanings of “politics” and “literature” and bring the two together.
The emergence of subaltern writing by rural migrant workers and grassroots writers like Yu Xiuhua constitutes one of the most noted developments in contemporary Chinese literature and has prompted debate over its literary and discursive value (Liu 2010; van Crevel 2017). The theme of collectivity is highlighted insofar as the migrant worker writers are presented as a social group, and in the emphasis on the collective and historical significance of their individual stories (Pun 2005:193). However, in practice, most of the migrant workers write in very isolated conditions. Sun Wanning (2014: 216), in her seminal study of “migrant subaltern poetry,” concludes that while this poetry represents an important political intervention in the literary field, it is characterized equally by “an intense politics of cultural brokering and cultural capital.” Sun laments that the worker poets seem more focused on gaining institutional acceptance than expanding readership among their fellow workers, which in turn diminishes their power to mobilize subaltern class consciousness.
While Sun criticizes the writers’ individual motivations as limiting the political potential of migrant worker literature, several literary critics note its lack of individuality, arguing that despite its social significance, subaltern self-expression should not be confused with literature (Huo 2016; Leng 2015; Luo 2016). In other words, migrant worker literature is criticized both for its political and literary deficiencies. To properly contextualize such alleged deficiencies, Sun Wanning's (2014: 136) insights about the Migrant Workers Home achieving “activism without mobilization” should be taken as a general commentary on the restrictions of Chinese civil society today. Under the government's repressive hand, what are realistic goals for labor organizing and cultural production? Moreover, a low literary value evaluation is often the result of seeing the large number of worker writers/poets as a whole and in conjunction with the media craze surrounding some of them. It is precisely the democratic elements that contribute to the popularity of this literature in social media—its accessibility, repetition, and indexicality that are at odds with established notions of aesthetic value, mainly defined by individual artistic vision and literary sophistication. As social advocacy and aesthetic value remain two important perspectives for examining migrant worker literature, it is imperative to reconceptualize what counts as politics and aesthetics in that context (van Crevel 2019: 105–8).
As individuality serves as the anchor of literary value and collectivity is equally indispensable in claiming social significance, “migrant worker literature” sounds like an oxymoron. It is with this tension in mind that we turn to the Picun Literature Group (Picun wenxue xiaozu 皮村文学小组; also “the Group,” hereafter) at the Migrant Workers Home (Gongyou zhi jia 工友之家; also “the Home,” hereafter) to consider the members’ experience of writing literature in a collective. Combining literary close reading and anthropological fieldwork, I foreground its collective framework and institutional connection to examine how the setting encourages, sustains, and influences literary creation. Does the activist context mitigate against individual tendencies and orient the members’ writing toward the collective goal of class formation? How does the Picun Literature Group legitimize its project both as literature and as class-based cultural production, and how does each member reckon with the meaning of their writing and their position as a writing subject?
Focusing on some of the literary practices, media appearances, and information I gathered through interviews and participant observations, I try to articulate the members’ intentions and experience in writing literature. My interest lies mainly in whether literary writing constitutes an emancipatory act for the working-class subject who is a writer. As advocacy for social justice is strictly controlled, what class-based cultural production can achieve remains primarily with the creators. Although this transformation may seem limited in scale, it does not change the political nature of the endeavor. When gauging the issue of cultural influence, we tend to consider market reach/readership and configure the consumer as the exclusive subject of persuasion. In contrast, Picun literature can be taken as a document of change in which the members develop their writing skills as well as their understanding of the world, thereby locating the producer as a meaningful site of change. True, the idea that everyone can be a cultural producer has become trite and exploitative as it fuels labor extraction and Big Tech dominance, but Picun's experiment provides an important counterpoint. Borrowing the practice of participatory community media, the Group shows that cultural participation and ownership can lead to the empowerment of individual producers, especially when there is a collective infrastructure to mediate between the individual and the world (Rodríguez 2001; Stein, Kidd, and Rodríguez, 2009).
For this article, I read different versions of select works by prominent members of the Picun Literature Group in order to trace the changes in their writing and conceptions of the world that resulted from their collective training and interactions. While it is difficult to identify a singular event from the continuum of everyday life as the moment of awakening, I contend that the gradual transformations are distilled and preserved in the members’ writing. Without ascribing mechanistic relations of cause and effect, I hope to show that the articulation of class-based solidarity in their works comes not from a vacuum but from the accumulation of daily exchanges and organizational work, as well as from the issues, discursive styles, and activist practices that they have engaged with at the Migrant Workers Home.
The close reading of selected pieces in their different iterations unveils the writer's arduous process of grappling with the political and literary goals of their writing. In this article I use the term unlikely writers to capture both the marginality and promise of the Picun writers as well as migrant worker writers in general. Compared with workers writing in isolation, the Picun writers seem less prepared since most of them had never before considered writing literature. Yet this also marks the importance of their shared effort, making them more collectively minded. Taking writing as an exercise or homework, the Picun writers actually find their thought and identity as they write, making writing a transformative process. Extending the idea to migrant worker writers at large, “unlikely” refers to their distance from the institution of literature, both in material and conceptual terms—a distance that requires them to negotiate their subalternity and the elitist formulation of literary value. In other words, they must redefine what constitutes the political and the aesthetic in the collective project of migrant worker literature.
Focusing on the Picun Literature Group's influence on its members, my readings combine textual and contextual analyses, locating literary meanings not only in the text but also in the social context of its production, revision, and circulation. Combining research questions and methodologies from the humanities and social sciences entails using different disciplinary criteria that may not fully be met. However, the study of contemporary cultures of labor demands that we bring into dialogue the different discursive formations and knowledge production. As migrant worker literature represents both a literary and a social phenomenon, and the worker writers seek to negotiate the tensions between art and politics, we as academics should at least attempt the same.
The Picun Literature Group
Located in Picun, a village on the outskirts of Beijing, the Migrant Workers Home is one of the most important grassroots NGOs advocating for workers’ rights and culture in China today. In 2014, the Picun Literature Group1 started there as an informal course for migrant workers, with Zhang Huiyu, a media culture professor at Peking University (and fellow contributor to this issue), serving as its principal mentor. For the first few years, Zhang drove forty-five kilometers to Picun every weekend to teach an evening workshop, leading Group members in reading classical works and discussing current affairs; Zhang also introduced writing techniques and commented on the assignments. All the early participants of the Group that I have interviewed highlighted the regular meetings with Zhang and his close mentorship as a major motivator in their writing.
For the migrant workers, writing is daunting not only because of their material conditions of existence—long working hours, physically draining and mind-numbing labor, scant amounts of leisure time, and limited access to books and education. The general perception of writing as an elite activity makes their authorship seem illegitimate and their lives irrelevant to literature. However, at the Home, the weekly workshop gives the participants a sense of empowerment. Many members have spoken of the importance of being recognized by a Peking University professor. Even the simple fact of being heard or having their words read out loud in the makeshift classroom seems exciting. Having a group of peers to discuss literature and share writing with also creates a comradery that protects them from the indifference of the world. During the COVID-19 pandemic, workshops have continued online to regroup the scattered members stranded in cities or forced back home by unemployment. Facing mounting difficulty and flagging morale, WeChat conversations within the Group may become their last connection to literature.
Since the beginning, Zhang has been conscientious about keeping a record of the members’ writing. A collection of Picun Literature (Picun wenxue 皮村文学), (later renamed The Poetry and Songs of the Laborers [Laodongzhe de shi yu ge 劳动者的诗与歌]) is compiled every year. The annual Picun Literature Award recognizes the best writings in each genre. In May 2019, the Group launched the bimonthly New Workers Literature journal (Xingongren wenxue 新工人文学) to provide more publishing opportunities to worker writers. For an insecure working-class writer, having one's work recognized as literature worthy of collection and publication grants both legitimacy and meaning.
Exemplified by the best-known migrant worker-poet, Xu Lizhi, the migrant worker writer appears as a literary-minded youth who starts out as an avid reader of classical works, harbors the dream of literature, and writes in isolation. In contrast, most members of the Group are “unlikely writers” whose encounter with literature seems accidental. Besides Guo Fulai, none of the early members had any prior writing experience. Many compared the weekly workshop to their composition homework in school. Yuan Wei and Wang Chunyu spoke about their limited vocabularies and dependence on dictionaries when they first started to write. Fan Yusu (pers. comm., November 23, 2019) talked about a personal debt: “Teacher Zhang was so generous to come here and give us lessons every weekend; if I hadn't done the weekly assignments and handed in a small essay, I would have felt unworthy of his dedication.” Li Ruo (pers. comm., November 22, 2019), one of the first members to be published, mentioned how publication depends on the help of the Group's organizer, Fu Qiuyun, who collects, types, and sends their writings to various publication channels and writing competitions. As the workers are absolute beginners, it is clear that the infrastructure, collective setting, mentorship, and friendship provided by the Group are crucial for sustaining their efforts to write. Moreover, as their engagement with writing did not necessarily start with literary ambitions, it is even more interesting to see how literature serves them and what kinds of subject positions are created by this collective, amateur approach.
In 2017, an essay by Fan Yusu (2017), “I Am Fan Yusu,” went viral on the Chinese internet and attracted over four million views in three days (Wu 2017). This kind of media craze is often seen as an individual's once-in-a-lifetime chance for social mobility, but in this case it was shared with the Group. Fan Yusu went into hiding after taking a few initial interviews, so a press conference was organized by the Home during which the organizers, teacher, and fellow members of the Group spoke on her behalf to introduce their collective attempt at writing literature. The appearance of the Group in place of Fan as a lone individual foregrounds the collective setting and political project undergirding their literary attempt. Since the Fan Yusu media craze, the heightened visibility of the Group has attracted more scholars, writers, and literary magazine editors to become involved as teachers and mentors. With this support from the intellectual community, Zhang Huiyu stepped back from being the main instructor. The frequent change in speakers may have resulted in less regular feedback for the members’ writings, yet the diversity has also brought a broader spectrum of knowledge and issues of concern, wider exposure to the cultural field, and more opportunities for publication and professional training. While still focused on fostering new worker literature, the weekend workshop has developed into a platform for a network of concerned intellectuals including writers, editors, activists, and academics.
The foregrounding of the collective setting and intellectual mentorship clearly shows the uniqueness of the Group in migrant worker literature. The intellectual sponsorship and mobilization of ordinary migrant workers for writing literature has no parallel in today's China, but there are important precedents in the Mao era. During the period of high socialism when workers were seen as the dominant subject of history, deep-rooted cultural inequalities were addressed by bolstering the working-class subject as a producer of culture. With the sustained mentorship of professional writers such as Sun Li and Ai Qing, the Workers Cultural Palace in Shanghai, Tianjin Workers Literature Creation Society, and the Literary Journal of the Wuhan Steel Factory (Wuhan wenyi 武钢文艺) became some of the important sites that nurtured worker literature and culture beginning in the 1950s (Xie 2010; Zhang 2018; Geng 2014). This statist project was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution and defunding finally ended it after the privatization of state enterprises in the late 1980s.
Despite the similarities in the institutional arrangement, both Zhang Huiyu and Wang Dezhi (pers. comm., November 20, 2019), a cofounder of the Home, denied any socialist connection. Instead, Zhang cited community organizing programs in the West and in certain East Asian cities that use art for empowerment (see Zhang's contribution to this issue). This rejection of the socialist inheritance needs to be understood in the context of contemporary literary ideology in China. The creation of a workers’ literature and culture notwithstanding, an important limitation of the socialist attempt from the 1950s until the 1980s lies in the state's strict ideological control and the narrow parameters allowed for creativity. Denounced since the 1980s, this socialist literature is seen as statist, rigid, ideological, and propagandist. In contrast, the return to a “modern literature” centered on professional writers and literary experimentation following the reform era is cast in terms of the triumph of liberalism over ideological dogma, individualism over collectivism, modernism over realism, and truth over propaganda. Alignment with the elitist, “modern,” “pure” literature is therefore vital if migrant worker literature is to be legitimized. Focusing on the language and sensibility of that literature, Zhang Huiyu contends that migrant worker literature is not a successor to revolutionary literature but that it grew out of the new literary culture of the 1980s.
If the alignment with “modern literature” places migrant worker literature solidly in the postrevolutionary moment, its connection with earlier socialist experimentation has not been completely forgotten. Wang Dezhi (see Wang's contribution to this issue) has repeatedly credited his enlightenment as a labor organizer to Ai Siqi's Dialectic Materialism and Historical Materialism and Mao Zedong's “Yan'an Talks on Art and Literature”—two important texts that guided the development of Chinese Marxism and the worker culture project. Fan Yusu also calls herself a fan of Mao's writing. Whether the form of a weekend lecture by a historian of socialism, or a first impression mistaking the Home for an institution like a workers’ cultural palace (Qiu and Wang 2012), China's socialist heritage continues to seep through the communal consciousness of the Home as some distant historical resource awaiting rediscovery.
In this context, Dai Jinhua's (1999: 25–35) notion of a cultural shared space—the collaboration and cohabitation of conflicting ideologies, interests, and players—captures the multifaceted association and identities of the Migrant Workers Home and the Picun Literature Group surprisingly well. On the one hand, the Group's literary practice represents a shared space between modern literature and socialist worker culture. It is only by keeping both influences in view that the new worker culture project can maintain its critical edge, politically and aesthetically. On the other hand, the Home can be seen as a shared space between a local socialist heritage and a particular strand of global leftist activism. Despite obvious differences (top-down or bottom-up; emphasis on control or individual initiation), the shared space reminds us of their commonalities, especially in terms of the importance of cultural subjectivity as necessary to class formation and empowerment, as well as the belief that the imaginative transformation in art can prefigure enactment in reality.2
Prioritizing Literature or Activism?—Wan Huashan and Xiao Hai
As stated above, the collective setting of the Group stands in sharp contrast to the more common situation of a lone migrant worker writing in isolation. The solitary condition poses a higher demand on the writer in terms of tenacity, education, and digital media literacy (as internet forums and blogs represent the necessary channel for reaching out to fellow writers and potential readers). Xu Lizhi, the celebrated migrant worker-poet made famous by his suicide in a Foxconn factory complex, embodies the typical narrative of a literary-minded youth oppressed by the brutal discipline of the assembly line, who turns to literature in defiance to reclaim his or her humanity. This is also the biography of two younger members who joined the Group later in 2016, Xiao Hai and Wan Huashan, who had both written extensively during their factory days before coming to Picun.
In isolation, it takes a particular kind of self-perception and mental fortitude for a migrant worker to write. Seeing himself in the image of Xu Lizhi, Wan Huashan (pers. comm., November 23, 2019) says explicitly, “Although we are not part of the cultural elite, our pursuit is actually very elitist, and so is our self-perception.” His remark transgresses class boundaries in claiming his identity as an intellectual whose destitution attests to the intensity of his spiritual yearning. Yet it also reveals the dilemma of many worker writers who are caught between their desire for class mobility and their claim to authenticity as a marker of the difference and the value of their work. For the Picun writers, the dilemma is sometimes posed as a question of priority: aesthetics or politics? But the two coexist comfortably most of time, as the Migrant Workers Home's survival increasingly depends on institutional acceptance (see Iovene's introduction to this issue). Official recognition and cultural capital, whether an invitation from the state-sponsored Beijing Lao She Institute for Literature or the opportunity to appear in a reality TV show, are not just seen as “lucky breaks” for individuals but also as extra protection for the Home (see Maghiel van Crevel's contribution to this issue).
Although Wan Huashan's priority obviously lies in literature, he is not insensitive to the collective pathos and activist orientation of the Home. As one of the most prolific writers of the Picun Literature Group and the main editor of New Workers Literature, Wan's dedication to the collective project is evident in his unpaid labor in editing the journal and coordinating the workshops. At times he also finds the politics of the Home restraining (Wan H., pers. comm., November 23, 2019). For instance, his proposal to explore questions that cross class lines was rejected, as the organization prioritizes marginalized, class-based issues. Wan's interest in writing genre fiction such as romance and martial arts stories also seems incompatible with the more serious tone of the Group. Although the Group does not interfere in the members’ creative choices, its collective setting and activist background definitely play a role in encouraging certain types of writing.3
Despite a background similar to Wan's, Xiao Hai, the most prominent poet from Picun, assumes a different subject position. In 2017, he told reporters that by writing poetry he is “not pursuing a dream of literature, but is trying desperately to live his true self” (Yang 2017; emphasis added). In an essay, he further confesses a sense of futility in the pursuit of the arts. “Rimbaud, Van Gogh, and T. S. Eliot—none of them have saved me from the engulfing garbage dump that is modern civilization. In retrospect, I have already squandered my youth with rock and roll, folk music, and so-called art” (Xiao Hai 2017a: 220).4 The essay continues to recount how the disillusionment and emptiness he experienced in his individual struggle for meaning gradually give way to a sense of calm and rootedness after he found the Migrant Workers Home. Xiao Hai started working at the Home's Tongxin Secondhand Store in 2017. Despite the dramatic letdown as he “came to Beijing in pursuit of rock and roll, but ended up amid piles of used clothing,” Xiao Hai (pers. comm., November 24, 2019) still feels like “a seed that has found a stretch of soil.” The salvation that he failed to find in poetry and music, he now experiences in the collective project symbolized by the Home, in his everyday work managing a secondhand store-cum-library and homework studio for his fellow workers and their children, and in his participation in the creation of workers’ theater and literature.
This turning from individual to collective meanings as an anchor for personal identity can also be found in Xiao Hai's favorite self-introductory phrase—“a failed aging bachelor” (daling shibai nanqingnian 大龄失败男青年). Under this title he published two essays—one on The Livings (Wangyi renjian 网易人间) website (Xiao Hai 2017b), and the other in New Workers Literature (Xiao Hai 2019). Although the two essays are similar in content, there are significant differences that deindividualize the narrator in the later version. The change of title from “Picun Poet Xiao Hai: I Am a Failed, Aging Bachelor” to “The Monologue of a Failed, Aging Bachelor” turns the phrase from a specific definition of Xiao Hai the poet to introducing Xiao Hai as one of the failed, aging bachelors. The term “monologue” and its categorization as “oral history” further downplays his identity as a published poet. Moreover, the personal details of Xiao Hai's attempts and failure to find a spouse were deleted in his 2019 essay. The initial use of his poems to accentuate moments in his autobiographical account was changed to references to cultural resources that he has discovered at different life stages: Chinese rock, classical Chinese poetry, Bob Dylan's music, “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg, Hai Zi's poetry. Taken together, the 2019 version extends Xiao Hai's personal privations and reinterprets “failed aging bachelor” as representing the collective gendered experience of male migrant workers.5
Xiao Hai's self-designation as the figurehead of the “failed aging bachelor” gains its political valence precisely through his status as a poet well versed in what is generally considered high culture. His cultural credentials put pressure on his self-definition as a failed youth defined at the outset of both essays by his lack—no house, no car, no savings, no wife. The juxtaposition of high culture and failure in the figure of Xiao Hai mocks the hypocrisy of the suzhi 素质 (quality) discourse, which still functions as a powerful tool in defining and managing migrant workers today. A vague term, suzhi refers to the “innate and nurtured physical, psychological, intellectual, moral, and ideological qualities of human bodies and conduct” (Jacka 2009: 524; cited by Sun 2014: 39). The term was initially used in official rhetoric to call for educating the rural population for the modernization of the nation, and as such it also indicates a technology of self-development. Many rural workers see their migration to the cities as a way to acquire suzhi and refashion themselves into “a body of value” (Anagnost 2004: 202). However, what Xiao Hai concludes from his fourteen-year-long factory experience is that a migrant worker cannot escape the exploitative condition of the assembly line no matter how much suzhi he has accumulated. Xiao Hai's juxtaposition of high culture and his failure thus belies the suzhi discourse as a means to class mobility and the legitimization of class stratification.
While suzhi consists of competencies that do not naturally inhere but must be built into the body, as Ann Anagnost (2004: 191) argues, its formative power “enables the transfer of economic value from one body to another” in the manner of capital accumulation. The migrant worker's body, seen as less worthy, becomes the site for the extraction of surplus value. Therefore, the definition of migrant workers as having low suzhi is indispensable in maintaining their low wages and inhibiting their upward mobility in order to secure the continued extraction of surplus value for the nation's middle class. Sun Wanning (2009: 632–33) notes how the place of origin, identified by accents, daily habits, and food preferences is reinscribed onto the bodies of the migrants as a way to define and classify them. Consequently, from a set of qualities that must be acquired and built into the body, suzhi becomes something that “supposedly inheres in the bodies from that particular place” (637). The suzhi discourse changes from a myth of self-making into an essentialist discourse targeting the bodies of the workers. In his essays, Xiao Hai uses the term “aging bachelor,” a body degraded in the labor market and rejected in the marriage market, to articulate this essentialist devaluation of his body and self in the capitalist regime extending from production to social reproduction.
As the term “failed, aging bachelor” suggests vulnerability and shame, Xiao Hai's public embrace of it in his first essay reveals his critical consciousness of the place of labor in the capitalist accumulation of value, along with a newfound confidence as he started to feel grounded in the Migrant Workers Home. The 2019 version turns the label into a condition of collective deprivation and sheds light on the structure of exploitation. Xiao Hai is no longer just speaking for himself but also, more importantly, on behalf of “us”—migrant workers as a collective working-class subject. As Xiao Hai (pers. comm., November 24, 2019) stated very clearly when I interviewed him, “In this shift from ‘I’ to ‘we,’ we have to consider the collective fate of the new workers, not just our own. If my poetry can be read by fellow workers and they find any comfort in it, then it is already meaningful to me; then I don't have to consider its impact on my own life so much.” Shown by both Zhang's and van Crevel's contributions to this issue, the focus of Xiao Hai's poetry during his time at Picun gradually gives shape, subjectivity, and agency to a collective working-class subject. This transformation would not likely have taken place without Xiao Hai's active involvement at the Home.
Literature as a Tool for the Subaltern: Fan Yusu
Treating individuals as human capital, the discourse of suzhi not only differentiates social groups hierarchically according to their economic value, but also “works ideologically as a regime of representation through which subjects recognize their positions within the larger social order” (Anagnost 2004: 193). A central characteristic of Fan Yusu's writing is her disregard for this social hierarchy. Fan does not deny the reality of class, but she repudiates its implications for human worth, physical or psychological strength, intellectual capability, and moral understanding.
In “I am Fan Yusu,” Fan's description of her rural childhood deviates pointedly from the dominant view of rural Hubei as a culturally impoverished backwater. Her older brother dreamed of becoming a writer and brought home literary classics and journals; her second brother was a prodigy who could recite traditional novels from memory; and her second sister pens fine modern poetry. Fan taught herself to read Journey to the West at the age of eight and devoured everything from traditional classics to popular novels with no preconceptions of high and low culture. Her essay depicts a childhood enriched by books and learning outside formal education. In 2018 when she appeared on the reality show Super Orator (Chaoji yanshuojia 超级演说家),6 Fan described her childhood as “growing up in the roaring sound of knowledge,” “surrounded by super orators” (her older siblings), and taken care of by her grandmother who ran “a Montessori-style preschool surrounded by nature” for all the grandchildren in her care. With all the key components of an ideal childhood that the urban middle class hungers after for their only child, Fan portrays her rural lower-class experience in the deprived, disdained countryside as different but far from inferior.
Trained with little formal education, none of Fan's siblings were able to turn their learning into a destiny-defying career, but they are, nonetheless, well versed in culture and informed about the world. They are poor and have a low station in life, but this does not diminish their value as humans. The sense of dignity is most clearly reflected in Fan's writing about her brother, who seems to have accumulated only failure. In her first published essay, “My Big Brother the Farmer,” Fan (2016) recounts his grandiose, outlandish dreams. From his ambition to become a writer as famous as Lu Xun to his attempt to build an airplane from scratch, Big Brother is fanciful, impractical, and passionate. The more fervently he dreams, the hungrier the family gets. Yet what is lacking in terms of food is compensated for by the books and the uplifting imagination that Big Brother brings home. While Fan mocks Big Brother's dreams, she does not attack his dignity. Unlike the mainstream media's condescending patronage of the lower classes’ right to dream, Fan shows that such dreams have costs and entail pain; but even so, there is nothing that they cannot endure. Fan's writing touches on many personal hardships, but they are treated with surprising lightness. Her use of irony and humor display an audacity that may be unique to the subaltern: an awareness that since they have lived with pain and hard work, there is little else to fear.
In her writing as well as media presence, Fan expresses a vision of equality that cuts through the false cultural hierarchy ubiquitous in the dominant discourse. For her, culture is not the prerogative of the elite; it is not an entity separated from everyday material life and secluded in some intellectual, spiritual corner. Fan grew up in the 1980s countryside where the traces of an earlier socialist era imparted a more egalitarian view of cultural ownership, and the cultural fever from the urban centers made reading literature a major pastime. Compared to Wan Huashan, who sees his literary pursuit as far superior to the commercial culture of his adolescence in the new millennium, Fan narrates the cultural life of her childhood as commonplace and unremarkable. Turning to reading because her family could not afford a TV, Fan (pers. comm., November 23, 2019) sees literature as just another form of entertainment. In fact, when growing up, she was more envious of people who had useful skills. Her refusal to rank these activities into the neat, hierarchical categories of manual versus intellectual labor, material versus spiritual pursuits, and mass versus elite culture is indicative of a radically egalitarian attitude that challenges the hegemonic discourse structured along such dichotomies.
For Fan, writing is simply a way to expand her life beyond the drudgery of earning a living. Yet, with her humble position and spirit of equality, she yanks literature from its elite enclave and turns it into a tool for subaltern self-expression. Although for over a year Fan taught at the school for migrant workers’ children run by the Home, she rarely participated in any activities other than the Picun Literature Group's workshops. It seems that Fan's independent views on class and culture owe less to the activist environment of the Home than to her own upbringing. However, the mentorship, peer pressure, publication opportunity, and the infrastructure of the Group remain crucial factors in Fan's writing and accidental rise to fame.
Writing as Responsibility: Li Ruo
Fully immersed in the Home's activism from 2012 to 2017, Li Ruo was the organization's poster child before Xiao Hai. She was the first member of the Group to be published and remained one of the most read authors at The Livings website for some time. Her writing is always an important part of the yearly collections of Picun Literature, which constitutes a paper trail showing her growth as a writer and an activist. For example, her short story “Uncle Long (Dragon)” (“Long shu” 龙叔) was written in 2015, revised and published on The Livings website as “A Dragon Drowned in a Pond” in 2016, then reprinted in New Workers Literature in 2019 as part of a special section featuring her works (Li 2016a, 2016b). The first version is significantly shorter; it recounts the misfortune of honest but poor Uncle Long, a relative of the author-narrator, who exhausts his resources to find a wife but is tricked into marrying an intersex person. The piece laments the peasants’ ignorance of the premarital physical examination and legal protections against marriage scams. Using testimonies from fellow villagers to elaborate on Uncle Long's shock and misery on his wedding night, the piece adopts a voyeuristic gaze at the intersex condition and depicts the bride as subhuman. In the revised version, Li Ruo gives a more restrained, scientific explanation for the bride's condition, with the events of the wedding night reduced to a minimum. The text instead diverts our eyes to a scene in which Uncle Long and the bride's father face each other, both with equal amounts of shame and sorrow: the father for his deception and Uncle Long, kneeling, for his inability to accept the bride. The indignation over the “marriage scam” in the first version is now replaced by recognition and sympathy for their different sufferings.
Comparing the two versions of the story allows us to witness Li Ruo's remarkable conceptual change regarding equality and minority rights. The first version pits the interests of Uncle Long against the bride; his dream for a normal (heterosexual) marriage is crushed by her “monstrous,” unspeakable condition. Previously denied any human sympathy, the bride in the revised version is depicted as a person and a victim through her father's sorrow and regret. Moreover, rather than ending the story with the wedding and treating it as the only cause of Uncle Long's tragedy, the new version narrates Uncle Long's experiences as a migrant worker and how he eventually suffers a head injury while working at a construction site. With no proper compensation or access to legal justice, Uncle Long is sent back to the village. He quickly loses his mental and physical capacity and passes away. From a strange tale of personal misery to a typical migrant worker narrative, the framework of the story shifts from conflict among the poor to class-based solidarity, from individual fate to the structural production of collective misery. During her time at Picun, Li Ruo (pers. comm., November 22, 2019) was formally employed at the Home and lived in its dormitory, intensively immersing herself in its activist environment. While in interviews she stressed the impact that the Home had on her decision to write, it is her writing that offers the most compelling evidence of how consciousness changes and social identification is formed. The changes that I see in her texts may, of course, be due to a variety of factors, and yet, they must have been, at least in part, shaped by the study sessions, lectures, and discussions held at the Home.
Indeed, among the members of the Group, Li Ruo seems to embody the strongest activist consciousness. Since she returned to her hometown in 2017, her writing has increasingly focused on the withering of the villages. She writes about a countryside robbed of its population and vitality, as well as those who were abandoned there: the elderly who commit suicide, the granny who cannot find someone with eyes good enough to pull the thorns stuck under her fingernails, the injured, debilitated, unemployed, and mentally ill who were thrown back to their native homes. Telling their stories as a daughter, a niece, an aunt, a neighbor, or a friend, Li Ruo becomes the only person remaining to bear responsibility for remembering these forsaken lives. In the opening paragraph of “Village Lunatics,” Li writes, “After hearing these stories, I had the idea to write about these people around me—the ones who are forgotten, who live like wild grass. Facing the weight of these lives, I feel powerless, but I cannot turn a blind eye to them. Because I am unable to help them, I feel as though I owe them something. As a way of repaying them, I've jotted down the marks they've made on this world.”7
Why “jot down the marks” left by these forgotten lives? As Yan Hairong (2003: 586) suggests in her study of rural-to-urban migration, the material production of the countryside as a wasteland is the counterweight to the ideological construction of the city as space of modern civilization. Therefore, writing about the countryside is just as necessary as writing about the factories. The bodies that have value and those without are both governed by the same logic, constantly put under threat of annihilation as dictated by neoliberal economic calculation (Anagnost 2004: 201). As such, writing about these abandoned bodies not only unveils their destruction by the capitalist regime but also helps to restore their dignity. However perverse and worthless the village lunatics are, for example, once we hear their stories, their deaths cannot be “as trivial as the death of an ant” (Li 2019: 9). The stories of the countryside can be dramatic and bizarre, often involving extreme situations of life and death. Li Ruo avoids the melodramatic and the exotic and writes in a voice that is calm and gentle. Withholding moral judgment, she gives her characters ample space to reveal the inner logic of their actions. As a result, even the developmentally disabled Mumi in “Village Lunatics” exhibits an unconventional sense of agency in her casual sexual encounters. It is Li Ruo's tolerance and spirit of equality that allows the lives in the village to slowly reveal their unusual shapes and colors and display the full spectrum of their subjectivity.
While we often associate migrant worker literature with urban and industrial zones, migrant workers have also become important narrators of rural China. Observing the deterioration of the countryside motivates Li Ruo to act on behalf of those left behind. She dreams about building a retirement home to take care of the abandoned elderly. Without the means, she has turned to writing to raise the issue. Without detracting from its literary value, we can also see that her writing is utilitarian. As she stated frankly, “I write with the hope of attracting attention and generating a collective will to address these problems. I will probably stop writing once these issues are resolved” (Li R., pers. comm., November 22, 2019). In other words, Li Ruo uses writing to assume responsibility for her native world. Hers is an attempt to act against the spectralization of the countryside, to preserve and expand “the fund of collective good” eroded by neoliberal forces (Anagnost 2004: 206), and to rekindle the socialist project, either in alignment or not with the state strategy of “rural revitalization” (see Zhong Yurou's contribution in this issue).
When the media flocked to Picun in pursuit of Fan Yusu in 2017, the Group's excitement was mixed with anxiety. For Zhang Huiyu (pers. comm., May 7, 2020), visibility attracts official censorship as well as moral support. Sustainability is preferable to media attention or political influence. Operating in a tightly controlled society, what can and should new worker literature do? Writing in the 1930s when revolution was at a low ebb, Xia Zhengnong and Ai Siqi urged the workers to continue creating literature as it gave their labor meaning and helped nurture a revolutionary culture distinct from the elitist, consumerist urban culture (Feng 2019). Reflecting on the backlash against feminist class politics, Sonali Perera (2018: 2) proposes to look at “writings that are not of monuments but of moments,” and not to think about them in terms of the logic of revolution but to “ask the question of the lasting ethical transformation that can alone secure the political.” The Picun writers’ attempt to create new worker literature should be understood in a similar way. Whether it is Wan Huashan's intellectual pursuit, Xiao Hai's striving for collective meaning, Fan Yusu's rendering of literature as a subaltern tool of self-expression, or Li Ruo's assumption of responsibility for the common good, all seek an ethical transformation to help them reclaim the everyday from the neoliberal economic forces that subjugate them and, by so doing, to give themselves and their fellow workers a sense of dignity and collective identity. In response to Sun Wanning's critique of migrant worker literature's political powerlessness, the Picun writers are reinventing both “politics” and “literature” to fit their daily, situated, material conditions, so that the project of new worker literature remains relevant and sustainable.
To fully appreciate the significance of their efforts, we need to foreground the term “unlikely writers” and the Picun writers’ distance from literature as institution. While my conception of the term began with the fact that most Picun writers did not start with the dream of becoming a writer, this turns out to have important implications for their experience and relationship with literature. On one hand, as the Group members are novice writers, the group setting is crucial in motivating and sustaining their writing. Since most members encounter literature at an older age, they feel less stress about using literature to climb the social ladder. This keeps them more in tune with the Home's advocacy of a collective working-class identity. That said, the presence of individual artistic ambition does not necessarily undermine the collective project. Picun shows that organizational survival and individual aspirations for cultural capital are compatible and the latter needs to be understood in more nuanced terms. On the other hand, since the intrinsic value of literature is not taken for granted by the members, the meaning of literature and what it does for them is an open question. This is evident in Fan Yusu's questioning of why reading and writing are more valuable than knitting and cooking, or Li Ruo's declaration that she will no longer need literature once the rural problems are addressed. Their distance from the valorization of literature provides room for a working-class consciousness to grow and for them to figure out, individually, what their relations to literature can be.
Beyond this, the term “unlikely writers” can refer symbolically to migrant worker writers at large. It refers to their marginality in the cultural field as well as their struggle to find connection and meaning in literature. Whether it is Xiao Hai's journey from pursuing art in an individualistic manner to centering the meaning of his poetry in the working-class community, or Wan Huashan's negotiations to combine his elitist approach to literature with his loyalty to the Group and its new worker literature project, the fact that their experience does not fit comfortably into the existing notions of literature forces them to create a new path. As a political and an aesthetic project, migrant worker literature has been celebrated for and burdened by its goal of overcoming the tension between “worker” and “literature.” It is also undermined by the status of “migrant,” which indicates not only their lack of full citizenship rights but also their marginality/unlikeliness as a political subject and producer of culture. It is in this sense that the “unlikely writer” symbolizes this precarious writing subject as well as the struggle and promise represented by migrant worker literature.
The fieldwork for this article was conducted June 17–23 and November 15–26, 2019, with the financial support of a Start-up Grant by Nanyang Technological University. I thank the members and organizers of the Picun Literature Group and the Migrant Workers Home for talking to me and granting me access. A special thanks is due to Paola Iovene for inviting me to this project, for her comradeship as we conducted our fieldwork at Picun together, and her critical insights and vigorous questioning during the revision process. I also thank the reviewers and my fellow contributors to this special issue for their insightful questions and discussions.
Also known as the New Worker Literature Group 新工人文学小组. “New worker literature” is their preferred term, as it highlights the working-class subjectivity in postsocialist China.
The prefigurative function of the arts is clearly argued by writer Ah Ying 阿英 ( 2003: 405–7) in his article giving instructions on how to organize cultural activities in factories to mobilize the workers’ passion for production and revolution.
Similarly, there are very few writings that address love, sexuality, and gender specific issues in Picun literature, while these are important themes for dagongmei (female migrant worker) literature 打工妹文学 in the southern cities (Jaguścik 2011). This is related to the demographic composition of the group, which is mostly male and somewhat older. But the collective setting and political atmosphere also have the effect of prioritizing class issues.
Unless otherwise stated, all translations are my own.
Though literally translated as “overage youth,” the term “daling qingnian” 大龄青年 refers almost exclusively to unmarried men/women who are considered past their prime. Given the gender imbalance in China's population structure, it is so difficult for male migrant workers to find a wife that this has been recognized as a collective experience. That is why I have translated it as “aging bachelor.”
Since 2013, Super Orator has been a popular television show that features speech making in a competitive format. The show recruits ordinary people across different professions and class backgrounds to tell their stories and debate issues, in order to construct a diverse “nonofficial discursive field” 民间话语场. Despite its professed goal, the show's inclusion of voices from the lower classes is nominal. The complete version of Fan Yusu's (2018) speech, which is seven minutes long, was cut to fifty seconds when the show was broadcast on television. The aired episode is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o3H17ccOCpg; Fan's appearance is located at 57:50–58:40. The original seven-minute-long speech is available as a stand-alone video segment at https://v.qq.com/x/cover/8sl7g1hw8dv60dw/g00292did0v.html (accessed 23 December 2022).
See Siting Jiang's translation in this issue.