Wu Xia works in a clothing factory. She frequently works twelve-hour days or twelve-hour nights. At the age 35, she has been working in various factories for 21 years, or nearly two-thirds of her life. What is striking about Wu Xia, and this comes through clearly in her appearance in the documentary film Iron Moon, is the way she accepts the burdens that poverty and the migrant-worker lifestyle have placed on her and her family, and, simultaneously, how much her poetry resists it.
Bowls Wearing Earrings
The factory cafeteria is lined with
bowls of different patterns. They’re sent one by one up to the counter,
and perhaps one will vanish. That’s disturbing,
because losing a bowl is like losing one’s soul.
Mama bored holes in the sides of her bowl and of mine
and attached loops of iron wire,
so when we pick them up, they shake and clatter.
When I went to get my food, my coworkers laughed and said the bowl
was wearing earrings. But soon they were copying it.
More and more bowls wearing earring appeared in the cafeteria,
like girls just beginning to dress up.
We all worry about losing our jobs,
but the bowls don’t have to worry about getting lost.
This poem reveals much about the migrant worker lifestyle: the cafeteria lined with anonymous bowls, and the way the workers are also treated as essentially anonymous. How mother and daughter work together in the same factory. How the workers here are female, indicating the kinds of internal segregation in workforces these factories perpetrate. How a utilitarian object, even one as seemingly impersonal as a bowl, becomes akin to a “soul.” How these places are pervaded with the workers’ fears of being fired or laid off, and the omnipresent threat of bosses.
Wu Xia’s poetry is often plainly “feminine” and soft in tone. She writes about flowers and sundresses and earrings and sunshine. But underlying all of this is a powerful articulation and rejection of the kinds of depravations workers face in their jobs and lives. In her poem “Sundress,” she describes pressing, folding, and carefully boxing up a sundress that will be sent to a boutique where “it will wait for only you.” This is the kind of store that Wu Xia herself does not enter; she wears cheap dresses that she buys from street markets.
Rather than focusing on this imparity, or on what she cannot have, Wu focuses instead on what she is giving to the world: “unknown girl / I love you” she writes. Her resistance also comes in the form of a deep generosity toward her fellow citizens. In a discussion with the filmmakers after the screening of Iron Moon in Shanghai, one of the audience members stood up with tears in his eyes and said that of everything in the film, he had been most moved by Wu Xia. “You never see people like that in China anymore,” he said.
Over the past several years, China has been undergoing a kind of spiritual crisis, a reevaluation of its culture, values, and common decency. The freewheeling economic development that has brought millions of people out of poverty has also led to a profound interpersonal impoverishment. The social structures that held villages, towns, cities, and the whole country together have been crumbling. The group to bear the brunt of these rapid changes are the ordinary workers in factories, coalmines, construction sites, paper mills, chemical plants.
Within that context, Wu Xia’s resistance with softness is a strategy that should not be underestimated. There are many forms of fruitful resistance, but some messages that will be ignored if delivered with anger or resentment may be accepted if delivered with a lighter touch, as the man in the movie discussion demonstrated. He’d never thought much about the workers that are everywhere in Shanghai, he told the audience. But now he couldn’t help but pay attention.
Many, many thanks to Stacey and David for giving me the blog floor for a week! It’s always great a pleasure. Please feel free to visit my website at www.eleanorgoodman.com and the kickstarter page of the movie Iron Moon at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/963482307/iron-moon-the-poetry-of-chinese-migrant-workers. The book Iron Moon: An Anthology of Chinese Migrant Worker Poetry will be out this coming spring.