By Maghiel van Crevel
This essay offers some impressions of a grassroots literature group and the multifaceted non-governmental organization of which it is a part: the Migrant Workers Home based in Picun, in the suburbs of Beijing. In migrant worker literature the subaltern definitely speaks—and this is also true for the museum of migrant worker culture that is part of the Migrant Workers Home. After comparing this museum with government-run migrant worker museums in Shenzhen and Guangzhou, the essay returns to the Picun literature group and highlights the question of translatability in foreign scholarships engagement with China’s migrant worker poetry.
“Undress, to sleep with you” (“Tuo-guang le, shui ni” 脱光了，睡你).
1 Somewhat coarse in the source text and even more direct than the English, “sleep with you” echoes a signature text by YuXiuhua 余秀华, whose rise to fame and influence is making us rethink the dimensions of Chinese poetry yet again as we speak.
2 But the “you” in “Undress, to sleep with you” is not another human being but a bed, and the poem is not by Yu Xiuhua but by Li Ruo 李若. This sleeping is not about having sex but about resting one’s tired limbs, and Li’s poem is modest and fragile in comparison to Yu’s outburst. In another of Li’s poems, a daughter laments her inability to do more for her mother than bring her a gadget every time she visits home: a microwave, a massage tool, a radio. To make up for her absence, all the daughter can do is “when I’m not there/ to let those ice-cold electrical appliances/care for you in my stead.”
3 Li is a migrant worker; in migrant worker poetry and the broader category of contemporary Chinese subaltern writing (diceng xiezuo 底层写作), the equation of authors with speakers and protagonists is generally defensible and often the obvious way to go.
Li Ruo features prominently in the second issue of Picun Literature (Picun wenxue 皮村文学, 2016), an unofficial publication produced by the literature group of the Migrant Workers Home (Gongyou zhi jia 工友之家).
4 Based in Picun, a migrant workers’ village-in-the-city (chengzhongcun 城中村) in the northeastern suburbs of Beijing, the Home is one of the largest and most influential non-governmental organizations (NGO) working on labor in China. There are flood waves of Chinese-language material on the Home, especially online. English-language publications include coverage in Chinese media like China Org, the China Daily, the Beijing Review, the Global Times, and the South China Morning Post; the occasional mention or interview in foreign media; and scholarship by Jack Linchuan Qiu and Wang Hongzhe, Sun Wanning, Tom Cliff and Wang Kan, and Lian Zhiying and Gillian Oliver. Beautiful impressions are offered in online mini-documentaries by the Goethe Institute (2018) and by Chen Wei 陈玮 (2019, in Chinese), the latter with special attention to the literature group.
The Home was established in 2002 by Sun Heng 孙恒, Xu Duo 许多, and Wang Dezhi 王德志, three young, male migrant workers who had each come to Beijing in the late 1990s with a dream of making a living as a musician (Sun and Xu) or a crosstalk
6 performer (Wang). When that didn’t work out and they were forced into the typical precarious subsistence of rural-to-urban migrants, volunteer work for an NGO for women migrant workers introduced them to key intellectual figures of the NewLeft who helped them set up and find funding for the Migrant Workers Home.
At the same time, Sun and company had channeled their artistic ambitions into their politics—meaning the wish to fight discrimination against migrant workers as second-class citizens—by forming a band called the New Workers Art Troupe (Xin gongren yishutuan 新工人艺术团) that performed for migrant workers and their sympathizers. Their lyrics address the hard lot of the migrant workers and identify the workers as a social group, famously captured in the slogan “Migrant Workers throughout the Land Are All One Family” (“Tianxiadagong shi yi jia” 天下打工是一家) and the eponymous song.
8 The Migrant Workers Home started out as the band’s base camp and a physical place for migrant workers to gather outside work. Over the next ten years or so, it turned into a multifaceted organization that undertakes a range of activities: cultural events, education, publications, charity, vocational training, organic farming, and more.
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1 Fu Qiuyun 付秋云 and Zhang Huiyu 张慧瑜, eds., Picun Literature: Second Collection, Works from the Literature Group of the Migrant Workers Home (2015–2016)(Picun wenxue: di erji, Gongyou zhi jia wenxue xiaozu zuopinji [2015–2016] 皮村文学：第二辑，工友之家文学小组作品集 [2015–2016]) (Beijing:Gongyou zhi jia [unofficial], 2016), 38.
2 See the Yu Xiuhua 余秀华 special feature in Chinese Literature Today 7, no. 2 (2018): 4–41.
3 Fu and Zhang, Picun Literature, 39.
4 Ibid. The name literally means “the home of friends-in-work” (compare zhanyou 战友, “friend-in-battle,” “comrade in arms”). The Home has been referred to in English in various ways, reflecting that the organization used various names in its early years. “Migrant Workers Home” is the English name used by the organization itself.
5 This brief sketch of the Home gratefully draws on this material. Media: He Shan and John Sexton, “Migrant Workers Tell Their Story in New Museum,” China Org, November 7, 2008, accessed March 18, 2019, http://www.china.org.cn/china/features/content_16728913.htm; Max Jorge Hinderer and Matthijs de Bruijne, “Cultural Revolution from Below?” [Interview with Sun Heng], Linksnet, September 6, 2010, accessed March 18, 2019, https://bit.ly/2W4tZbt; Xinhua, “Reform and Opening Up Reshapes Chinese Labor,” China Daily, April30, 2013, accessed March 18, 2019, https://bit.ly/2HDVftj; Bernice Chan, “The Musician Who Became a Champion of Migrant Workers,” South China Morning Post, July 1, 2014, accessed March 18, 2019, https://bit.ly/2Ji6LwZ; Yao Wei, “Work Hard, Play Hard: Migrant Workers Stage Their Very Own Spring Festival Show,” Beijing Review, February 26, 2015, accessed March 18, 2019, https://bit.ly/2W4Wfe7; Xu Ming, “Migrant Workers Use Poetry, Rock ’n’ Roll to Uplift Spirits amid Evictions,” Global Times, December 13, 2017, accessed March 18, 2019, https://bit.ly/2W70kyp. Scholarship: Jack Linchuan Qiu and Wang Hongzhe, “Working-Class Cultural Spaces: Comparing the Old and the New,” in China’s Peasants and Workers: Changing Class Identities, ed. Beatriz Carrillo and David Goodman (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2018); Sun Wanning, Subaltern China: Rural Migrants, Media, and Cultural Practices (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014), ch. 5; Tom Cliff and Wang Kan, “Survival as Citizenship, or Citizenship as Survival? Imagined and Transient Political Groups in Urban China,” in The Living Politics of Self-Help Movements in East Asia, ed. Tom Cliff, Tessa Morris-Suzuki, and Wei Shuge (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2018); Lian Zhiying and Gillian Oliver, “Sustainability of Independent Community Archives in China: A Case Study,” Archival Science 18, no. 4 (2018). Video: GoetheInstitute, “A Theater of Migrant Workers, for Migrant Work-ers” (“Ein Theater von Wanderarbeitern, für Wanderarbeiter”), 2018, accessed March 18, 2019, https://bit.ly/2HDWPvx; Chen Wei 陈玮, dir., Roaming Picun (Liulang Picun 流浪皮村), Weibo, accessed May 1, 2019, https://m.weibo.cn/status/4366757634384252.
6 Crosstalk (xiangsheng 相声) is a traditional Chinese comedic performance in the form of a dialogue.
7 Cliff and Wang, “Survival as Citizenship,” 46–47.
8 For the song, see https://bit.ly/2ObHQdx. The troupe started out with a different name, the Young Migrant Workers Art.