Paper Republic: Chinese Literature Matters

March on Beijing - The Picun Writers Group Part 1, by Weichen, Chen Diqiao and Wan Huashan

This collection of essays from the Picun Writers’ Group, a migrant workers’ writing collective from Beijing, was first published in Chinese in One-Way Street Magazine (单读) and is presented here in English in collaboration with the LARB’s China Channel.

Introduction by Wu Qi, editor of One-Way Street Magazine

A few years ago, the Picun Writers’ Group caught the attention of Chinese society and the wider world of letters. This was not simply because of their social status – they are not writers in the traditional sense – but because of their output itself, which comes closer to capturing realities than the work of many professional writers. Their words cut straight to the heart of our times, and roused the sympathy of readers. They clearly and comprehensively related the life changes of ordinary Chinese, which these days is more important than any literature technique, school or style.

The Picun Writers’ Group first started its community writing classes on September 21, 2014. Every week, volunteer teachers and fellow workers would discuss how to use writing to record and reflect on their lives. The workers gradually started to write, and let their voices be heard. Nowadays their works have been successively published in a variety of nonfiction venues, and rising numbers of readers are paying attention to them and the communities they represent. This post is the first of two (the second will follow next Friday), and will bring some of their writings into English for the first time.

To Beijing by Weichen

In late spring 2002, I failed to test into senior high, which I’d never expected to anyway. Just like that, I was out of school.

We had dinner when I got back home from the fields, then my father took me to see our village’s labor bureau agent, so he could keep me in mind if any suitable openings came up. Young people around here get jobs far away as soon as they leave school; if I’d stayed home working on the land, I’d have become a laughing stock. Farmwork was hard and tiring, and I was keen to leave it behind as soon as possible, and to have a look at the outside world.

Two days later, again in the evening, the agent came by to say: Something’s come up at a Korean firm in Tianjin, you’ll be well treated there, a kid from the next village worked there two years and now he earns eight hundred a month, more than the yield from a mu of land. Besides, he said, that guy’s two years younger than you, and three other boys from our village who graduated at the same time as you will be going too, so you’ll have company. If you’re interested, there’s an interview in the city tomorrow. The agent spoke like an “econ,” which was what we called the middlemen who helped broker cattle sales. I nodded, and my parents fell over themselves to give their consent.

First thing next morning, the few of us set off. The stars were just fading from the sky, and a pale band of light clung to the horizon in the east. The air was cool and damp, and glimmers of lamplight were scattered amongst the village houses. Then the roosters began to crow, and the little roads grew busy. It was time to head to the fields: some rode bullock carts or bicycles, others trudged along with their hoes over their shoulders. Everyone round here wakes up really early to get their work done before the noontime sun grows too viciously hot.

It took us half an hour to walk to the main road, where we waited for a bus. After more than an hour’s ride, a van picked us up and dropped us off outside a gate with a sign that said “Human Resources Co Ltd.” There were already lots of people inside. They called it an interview, but really they just wanted to read us the factory regulations, glance at our ID cards, then send us for a physical. If you passed that, you were in. I didn’t get to go, though, because they demanded a five hundred yuan deposit.

Afterwards, I made a plan with a distant cousin: the next year, I would go to Beijing with him, where I would learn carpentry and get into the renovation business.

On the sixteenth day of the new lunar year, my cousin came to tell me he was leaving that night, and I should get ready. We would meet at his house that evening. I asked him how things were in Beijing, but he’d noticed my mom was getting lunch ready, and said he couldn’t hang around, he had to go tell the others. With that, he jumped on his motorcycle and was gone. My mom grumbled that my dad should have made him stay for lunch, so he could have told us more and taken better care of me.

This cousin was a relative through my maternal grandmother, though beyond the circle of immediate family. He was a few years older than me, and we’d never even have met if our parents hadn’t introduced us. He left junior high without graduating, to become a carpentry apprentice at a local business. When his boss was killed in a car accident the year before last, he took charge of the project they were working on and settled the account, becoming the boss himself. Of course, “boss” just means he leads a renovation crew. Many people go solo after three or four years of training, so our village is full of twenty-something bosses.

Dinner was early that night, and also unusually sumptuous, with more dishes than usual. Afterwards, my father walked me over to my cousin’s house, wheeling a cart loaded with fertilizer-sack blankets and a bundle of spare clothes and shoes. My cousin was still eating. I was the first to arrive, then the others trickled in one by one, some with their belongings in carts like me, others on motorcycles. One of the bikers was followed by a four-seat 130-horsepower truck, which he said was our ride. One guy took a look and said, “I’m not going.” With that, he and his father wheeled their belongings away. A biker cursed, “Fuck it, eating and drinking on my dime, then turning on me like that.” I guess that must have been the boss of the guy who left. After a while, my mother turned up with some eggs she’d boiled for me to eat along the way. My aunt told her to go inside.

Winter evenings darken quickly. We’d barely exchanged a few words before it was time to turn on our flashlights. Working together, we managed to haul all three motorbikes onto the truck bed. Some people tied them in place while the rest of us tossed out a few armfuls of the maize stalks at the back and loaded up our belongings. My cousin said, “Make sure you all have a piss. Once you get on, we’re not stopping for anything.” When we were all on board, someone pulled a tarp over us and tied it in place. The driver inspected it with his flashlight, then got into the cab. Soon after that, we set off.

This was my first time away from home, let alone in a truck driving through the night. Sitting on maize stalks with my back against my bedding roll, I was thrilled. The dozen or so other guys were all from nearby villages, around my age. Some had been doing this for a few years, but for others it was their first time, like me.

The truck jolted its way down the dirt road out of the village, and sped up once it got to the highway. The tarp over us flapped in the wind, and the temperature plummeted. Someone grumbled, “If I’d known this was our ride, I wouldn’t have agreed.”

“A boss in Tianjin asked me before. I wish I’d gone with him.”

“How come they’ve put us in a truck this year?”

“The bosses wanted to bring the motorcycles along, to make it easier to get jobs.”

As it got colder, people were already pulling their blankets over themselves.

“Don’t be squeamish about the blankets. Our worksite floor will be even filthier.”

“How much are they charging us for the ride? I didn’t dare to ask.”

“A hundred each. The three bosses will split the other costs.”

“Fuck me, that’s even more than a bus!”

“Shh, don’t let the bosses hear. It’s freezing, let’s huddle up.”

All of a sudden, the truck braked and the driver got down to tell us, “The provincial border is up ahead, and the crossing guards are strict. Whatever happens, don’t make a sound. Just stay where you are and go to sleep.”

The truck started again, much slower now. After another bumpy stretch, the guy next to me whispered, “We’re on the bridge now. Across this river, we’ll be in Hebei.”

Flickering police lights seeped through the tarp. There was a commotion up ahead, and we came to a halt. Now and then, a flashlight shone our way. We squeezed together, breathing as shallowly as possible. Abruptly, the truck lunged to the left, then swung wildly to the right, shuddering as if we might flip over. Our heads crashed into the railings, and our bodies were tossed in the air—luckily, the tarp was there to catch us. The truck careened madly ahead, while sirens wailed behind us. As we sped up even more, the tarp’s flapping lengthened into a jittering whine. The wind cut through my blanket, and I felt as if I were hurtling naked through the air. Then the sirens faded away, and the police lights were no longer visible. We slowed down to normal speed. Someone in the cab rapped on the glass partition and said, “Everything okay in the back?”

“We’re fine,” someone called out. “Lucky the bikes were tied up tight.”

“As long as you’re all right.” We heard the muffled sounds of them talking to each other:

“Got a cigarette?”

“Here.”

“Fucking awesome, dude.”

“I changed the license plates earlier.”

“What if the police had caught up?”

“I’ve seen this on the news—they don’t dare go all out when they chase. If anything happens, they have to take responsibility.”

“That’s how things are in this society. Be bold and win it all. Cowards starve to death.”

As for us in the truck bed, no one said a word. Everyone was probably lost in thought.

The cold wind blew away the last shred of sustenance from our dinners of cornmeal porridge, and we began to shiver. Our hearts raced. All we could do was huddle even more tightly together, trying to stave off the bitter chill and hold on to the warmth of our bodies.

The Silent Majority And Those Who Want To Talk by Chen Diqiao

“Disadvantaged communities are those who have words they cannot speak. And because of these unspoken words, many people assume they don’t exist, or that they’re very far away. These people make up the silent majority. There are many reasons for their silence. Some lack the ability to speak, others the opportunity; then there are those with things to hide, and those who, for one reason or another, loathe the world of speech.”

In “The Silent Majority,” Wang Xiaobo talks about the links between language and power, and the connection between the ability to speak and the dispossessed. There are people who are good at using language, while others do their best to remain silent.

There wouldn’t be such a thing as “disadvantaged communities” in this world if life truly were fair, particularly where there are many people agitating for it. Unfortunately, reality doesn’t work out the way we’d like it to. This world divides humankind into a multitude of ranks and classes, and many people regard this as a normal state of affairs.

Before I turned eighteen, I knew absolutely nothing about the structure of society. Maybe that’s because I lived in a rural village, and had never seen any rich people, which means I had no personal experience of the gap between rich and poor. I didn’t understand about the accumulation of wealth and the mechanisms of distribution. It wasn’t like today, when anyone can just open their eyes to see the enormous wealth gap and injustice.

This world is ridiculous. Most of the planet’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of the 1%, and many people think this is normal, even if they’re not part of the 1%.

A while back, the essay “I Am Fan Yusu” went viral, or rather Miss Fan herself did. As a result, the media started paying attention to the writers’ group run out of a Migrant Workers’ Home in Picun.

Actually, the writers’ group had existed for a long time, and quite a few of its members already had a little bit of fame. For instance, Li Ruo had some essays on a NetEase non-fiction board, each of which got half a million clicks. The group was always low-key, otherwise more people would have found out about it sooner, and it wouldn’t have taken Fan Yusu to put us on the map. That reflects a greater truth: too many people don’t care about the working classes, and pay even less attention to working class literature, or you could call it labor writing, or migrant worker writing. Looks like even literature has a multitude of ranks and classes.

No one could have expected Fan’s essay to catch fire the way it did. She’d published one piece before that, and it didn’t get many readers. Mean-spirited people said there must have been someone manipulating things behind the scenes, which just goes to show you can always find a way to condemn someone. Our group has written and published a huge number of pieces. Why didn’t the others take off in the same way?

As for these examples of working class literature and the reality they present, the greater truth about the working classes is that the majority is silent. A couple of days ago, an undergrad from one of the Beijing colleges posed a question to his peers: Can Fan Yusu represent most of the working classes? From the question, it’s easy to tell that the dispossessed are mostly represented by others. Why can’t they speak for themselves? Wang Xiaobo explains this by quoting Foucault: words lead to power, and through dialectical analysis, power produces words. Looking at reality, we have to ask who controls our media resources? How many of the delegates at the People’s Congress are truly of the People?

At this point, I have nothing further to say. I’m just a nameless pawn in all this, part of the silent majority, seldom bothering to write. Just like Fan Yusu said, she didn’t believe words could change anyone’s life, and was used to relying on hard work instead.

Some people who write for a living think that as long as they keep they wield the pen, they get to denounce whoever they like, criticizing writers as well as readers, like emperors in the realm of words. They’re completely wrong. It’s the 21st Century now, the age of the internet. No matter how you vilify and dismiss us, most people aren’t buying it. I guess no one would, unless they were in the same stinking trough as you.

After all, as the People’s Daily said, “We can’t merely admire how well-written Fan Yusu’s essay is, but ignore the personal stories and social problems it depicts.”

First Trip to Picun by Wan Huashan

I came to Beijing in 2016. First I worked in a bookstore, selling handicrafts and tidying the shelves. Then I was transferred to the editorial department of the same company, at an office in Zhongguancun, a small district of just a few blocks. There was a window ledge with some plants that flourished all year round, past which the warm morning sun poured in.

I stayed in the company dorm, right next to Zhongguancun’s prosperous Chuangye Street. A gleaming road with neat flower borders. I ate, got the subway, went to lectures – working nine to five, with plenty of leisure time. Those were days of ease, the wind wafting gently against my face.

During that time, I often felt I was living in a world of isolation, like an alien creature suddenly beamed down to earth.

In October 2016, I got to know Xiaohai. He was a windswept guy who looked like a born drifter, and reminded me of my days as a casual laborer. Only after talking to him did I learn he was a poet with more than four hundred verses to his name, and a lover of rock’n’roll too. There was something mesmerizing about him, and by sticking to him I came into contact with Picun.

One afternoon in December, I got the subway from Zhongguancun and, after two hours of wending my way through Beijing, arrived at the west exit of Picun station. Here I was at last, at the holy land Xiaohai had spoken of: Picun.

I was caught off balance, completely unprepared. My encounter with Picun took place in the mists of winter. Through the thick haze gleamed the overhead LED signboards of various hotels and foot massage joints. We looked like women fleeing the fog of war, scarves wrapped across our faces as we wandered the ruins in search of survival.

At street level were shops and stalls on either side, fluorescent lights suspended from them and loudspeakers blaring. Clothing and shoe stores proclaimed their discounts, while the only advertisements needed by the fast food places and snack bars were the overwhelming aromas wafting from the roast ducks and so forth hanging by their entrances. At the end of the street was a place called “Henan Steamed Buns.” I hadn’t had lunch, so I bought a couple. Fifty cents each—no way would you find anything that cheap in Zhongguancun.

This was Picun Commercial Street. At six or seven in the evening, beneath the chaotic winter lamplight, it became criss-crossed with people and vehicles: trishaws, motorcycles, electric scooters, old and new bicycles (shared bikes didn’t exist back then). There were workers silently trudging homeward, giggling young ladies on a shopping spree, mischievous brats, and shuffling oldsters. A moment’s calm, then the next roiling wave. A burst of winter rain had left the ground swampy, with little puddles dotted around. One false step, and your leg was mud-spattered. Wandering this landscape, like nothing I’d seen before, I felt I didn’t know who or where I was.

On one hand, the bustle of traffic; on the other, wilderness in all directions.

I’d heard that United Heart Elementary School for workers’ children was nearby, and imagined the kids walking to and from school along this street, tramping through mud and rotten vegetables, laughing and joshing around, shoving each other as sunlight pinched their grubby cheeks, just like anywhere else on earth.

Finally, Xiaohai showed up. Without him, I might have wandered all night without finding the place. We twisted and turned down cramped, dark alleyways, squeezed between the crumbling clay walls of the tile-roofed houses on either side that left our hands covered in grime if we brushed against them. Beneath our feet was a primeval dirt road, with no street lighting. We stumbled along. Who could have imagined something so dilapidated might exist in our prosperous capital city?

And yet, this was Xiaohai’s holy land, and soon became mine too. It seemed fated that we would meet in this place, in Picun, at the Migrant Workers’ Home.

As we drew closer, the air began to fill with the chug of machinery. It took me a while to figure out what was going on: Picun was being invaded by business interests, who were trying to tear down the Workers’ Home. The sound I heard was a diesel generator, because their electricity had been forcibly cut off.

Xiaohai and I arrived at a little office in the courtyard. The workers were very friendly, shaking our hands and making small talk about this and that, chatting about our dreams of literature. There were no boundaries here, no restrictions. I felt as if, for once, I’d managed to shake off my loneliness. In a bid to recover the energy of my youth, I said a lot of big things, most of them irrelevant.

And yet, the Workers’ Home was, at that moment, filled with rage and sorrow. Soon, my spirits drooped and I walked away in silence.

This was a multi-home compound, and one of its buildings housed the Workers’ Art Museum, the only post-reform institution in China to keep a record of migrant workers’ collective memories. There was also a library of donated books—quite a good collection, a treasure trove for the workers and their kids; a clothing store selling cheap garments, also donated, a favorite place for moms to bring their children; and even a cinema that screened free films every evening. A cultural center organized various nighttime events for the workers; the day I visited, there was a small concert.

The courtyard also contained ping pong tables and bathrooms, and a few stalwart trees; otherwise, it was bare. Kids played here, and the space was often full of children jumping around and roughhousing. That day, though, with the shrouding noise of the generators, my companion and I could barely hear each other speak.

Xiaohai’s mouth spewed puffs of white in the icy air. He shouted, the concert’s about to begin.

We walked into the movie screening room, the night’s venue. The heaters were turned off because the generators weren’t producing enough electricity, and as a result the place was absolutely freezing. The walls were resplendent with murals, god knows whose handiwork, probably the art school students who volunteered here. At least these lent a measure of warmth to the frigid space.

A dark mass of adults and children filled the room. The grown-ups stood with shoulders hunched and arms wrapped around themselves, while the kids caused a hullaballoo darting through the crowd, dressed in gaudy clothes with hair like messes of hay. Children’s hearts are always full of such joy, especially at this time of year.

Time for the show to start. Most of the invited performers were migrant workers: poet-laborers, underground singers, bricklayers who happened to be folk opera hobbyists…

A worker named Shen Si read Li Bai’s “Bring in the Wine” in a powerful voice, with the same swagger as Li Bai’s drunken swashbuckling. By the end, this January room no longer felt cold, but full of boozy warmth.

A poet who later became a good friend, Xu Liangyuan, performed a stand up routine, “Mr. Bridge Talks Bridges,” that he’d written and directed himself. Who would have thought there were so many bridges in Beijing? Not to mention how many more bridges we have to cross in life. The road is long, with many branches!

Next was Xu Duo, the union leader and rock star, kicking off with “Little Sister Comes to See Me.” The tune began with a high-pitched wail of the suona, and then a plaint of the worker’s yearning, despairing love: “Little Sister, you must come to see me, but don’t take that train…”

The concert ended, and the workers of Picun brought their children home, but the admirers who’d come from afar weren’t satisfied yet. “Encore! Encore!” Xu Duo picked up his guitar again, but unluckily, the electricity cut out just then, and the room plunged into silence and darkness. A sort of helpless sorrow crept into my heart. Then someone turned on their phone flashlight, and others followed suit. Soon, the stage was bright again. “Life is a battlefield.” Everyone held up their phones and enveloped him in their glow.

In that wavering light, my heart stirred. My journey from Zhongguancun to Picun meant stepping from a clean, prosperous area into a patch of mud, yet what tenderness was in that mud, so many hands to be clasped. Amidst the blaze of song, I couldn’t help recalling how, aged seventeen, I’d entered the world of work, and the difficult road I’d walked since, drifting through unfamiliar territory, constantly isolated with no one to depend on. Today, I had finally found my companions, my community.

LARB + Dandu

This piece first appeared in Chinese in One-Way Street Magazine (单读) Magazine and is published in collaboration with the LARB China Channel.

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