More than three decades after scribbling his first poem as a teenager in the mountains of northern China, Chen Nianxi is living a literary dream. He has published two critically acclaimed books. He hobnobs with intellectuals around banquet tables. He tours the country promoting his writing, flitting between book fairs and university lecture halls.
Still, he often finds his joy tempered with a sense of alienation.
“I can’t completely leave behind my old life. I also don’t really know how to participate in this new life,” said Chen, 51, in a video interview from the southern city of Ningbo, where he was attending a book trade fair. “So I really feel like I’m in a very awkward position.”
The source of that tension is the vast gulf between his new circumstances and his old. For more than 15 years, he labored in gold, iron and zinc mines across China, detonating explosives by day and scrawling poems on the backs of newspapers at night:
I while away my middle age at 5,000 meters deep
I explode the rocks layer by layer
And through this rebuild my life
My lowly family is far at the foot of Mount Shang
They are sick, their bodies covered in dust
However much of my middle age I cut off
However much their old age can be prolonged
Chen has emerged as one of the best-known practitioners of a relatively new genre in China: migrant worker literature. As China’s breakneck economic growth has collided with growing awareness of the human toll exacted, readers have increasingly sought out the voices of people like Chen.
His poems speak of the loneliness of the mines, the deaths of fellow workers and the distance between modern life and his work underground. They lament the toll of physical labor, while also valorizing its clarifying power. This summer, two years after publishing his first poetry collection, he published a book of essays, “To Live Is to Shout at the Sky.”
Its title comes from a poem, “Qinqiang,” that he wrote after a night of singing with fellow workers at a mine in Xinjiang. Qinqiang is a type of traditional opera from northwestern Shaanxi province.
Sing of great sorrow and great joy, sing of great love and great hate …
The downpour of Qinqiang enlightens you …
Makes you realize
To live is to shout at the sky
Chen speaks of wanting to fill a gap in China’s literary and pop culture. But he is also wary of being confined as a writer only to that gap — and to the accompanying low expectations.
“There will definitely be people who treat you as a spectacle: ‘You’re so underprivileged, your life is so distant from literature, and you actually wrote something,’” Chen said.
He insists on his work being judged on its artistic merits, not his hardscrabble background.
“Look at this work’s literary value, its social nature. Don’t wear colored glasses to look at it,” he said. “When we compare our works to today’s mainstream literature, when it comes to weight or artistry, they are not at all inferior to anyone else’s.”
Critics have agreed. In a review in The Paper, a popular state-run newspaper, Ma Zhen, a contemporary literature scholar, said there was a roughness to Chen’s poems but that they also carried “classical bloodlines,” with frequent allusions to classical Chinese literature.
Chen was born in the mountains of Shaanxi, his father a carpenter, his mother a farmer.
The 1980s were a time of rapid social and economic liberalization in China, and a teenage Chen devoured the resulting explosion of newspapers and literary journals. He wrote his first poem in high school, about a plane sowing seeds.
He chose poetry, he said, because its length made it seem the most accessible form of writing.
After high school, Chen farmed and got married. He published some poems in local publications. But in 1999, after his son was born, the family needed to pay for baby formula. Mining paid relatively well. So he headed for the Qinling mountain range, which hulks horizontally across Shaanxi.
He worked deep underground, in claustrophobic conditions. Accidents claimed the lives of several colleagues, as well as the hearing in his right ear. He eventually traveled across the country for work, going months without seeing his family.
Before then, he had written flowery poems about the beauty of nature, copying the poets he had read in magazines in hopes of getting published. But in the mines, with no real hope of publication, he turned to his own experiences.
“In the middle of the night, when everything is quiet and you’re living in a shed, you really feel how small you are,” Chen said. “Writing is like opening a window in your head and letting out some pressure.”
He used empty kegs of explosives as tables. He kept his writing from other workers, worried they would see him as snobbish.
In 2011, he found a broader audience via the blogging craze then spreading across China. Online, he met other poets, amateur and professional. One day in 2014, a well-known critic, Qin Xiaoyu, happened across Chen’s blog and asked to meet.
Over the next year, Qin and a filmmaker, Wu Feiyue, followed Chen and five other migrant worker poets, for a documentary called “The Verse of Us” (later released internationally as “Iron Moon”).
The film, released in 2015, received considerable attention — in part because of tragedy. Another poet it featured, Xu Lizhi, a factory worker for electronics giant Foxconn, killed himself during the filmmaking process. His death, which followed a string of deaths of other Foxconn workers, renewed international scrutiny of Chinese laborers’ working conditions.
The documentary also came amid growing awareness of how reliant China, and the world, had become on this labor force, said Faye Xiao, a professor of modern Chinese literature at the University of Kansas.
“Our everyday lives cannot last for even one day without the labor of migrant workers. But at the same time, they remain politically voiceless and socially marginalized,” Xiao said. “That is why more and more intellectuals and middle-class readers want to know more about their everyday struggles.”
The film’s timing was lucky for Chen. He had recently left the mines, after undergoing neck surgery for a work-related injury. Through his new recognition, he found work writing copy for a tourism company — his first white-collar job. In 2019, he published his poetry collection, “Demolitions Mark.”
But even as he was finally making a living by writing, he said he felt increasingly removed from his primary inspiration, the physical labor of the previous decades. He also worried about retreading the same ground and being typecast with the label of worker poet.
At the same time, he felt like an outsider in the glamorous world he had entered. He recalled meeting a rich businessman at a dinner in Shanghai who declared that he had been so stirred by “The Verse of Us” that he would now always pay his workers on time.
A poem Chen wrote to his son, who unlike him would go on to college, captured his ambivalence about straddling two worlds:
Your clear eyes
Penetrate text and numbers …
But still cannot see the real scenes of this world
I want you to bypass your books and see this world
But also fear that you would really see it
Despite his success, Chen is clear-eyed about the limits of art to change reality, whether society’s or his own.
Last year, he was diagnosed with pneumoconiosis, an incurable lung disease common in miners.
Chen, who coughed throughout the interview, said he had struggled for inspiration in the past year. Writing did little to alleviate his anxiety about his illness.
But he also has signed deals for another poetry collection and is thinking of writing a novel. He is also the writer-in-residence of a charity dedicated to helping those with pneumoconiosis, writing essays to raise awareness.
“We still need plentiful, diverse works to prop up contemporary literature and culture,” Chen said, adding that he hoped his work “will broaden modern people’s perspectives or remind them to look downward a bit.”
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