A New Day: Remembering Shenzhen’s worker poet Xu Lizhi

27 June 2019

Around two o’clock on the afternoon of 30 September, 24-year-old poet Xu Lizhi took the elevator to the 17th floor of the AAA Building in Shenzhen, not far from the Foxconn factory where he had spent much of his short working life. He climbed on to a window ledge and jumped.

Ten hours later, at midnight on 1 October (China’s National Day), a pre-set one line message appeared on his micro-blog. It said simply “a new day” (新的一天).

Xu Lizhi in Shenzhen. Photograph. Southern Weekend

A New Day is now the title of a forthcoming anthology of Xu’s work that contains nearly 200 poems dating back to 2010. Most of the poems were written while Xu was employed as a production line worker at Foxconn’s massive Longhua factory complex in Shenzhen.

The poetry critic Qin Xiaoyu who edits the new anthology describes Xu as both the voice and the chronicler of China’s millions of dispossessed migrant workers. Xu’s poetry, he said, was “simple yet powerful, both lyrical and critical, often using absurd or shocking images to reveal the tragedy of life on the lowest rungs of society.”

Qin first noticed Xu's poems back in April 2014 when he was compiling another anthology of Chinese workers’ poems from the 1970s to the present day. He had already selected several well-known and well-established writers such as Zheng Xiaoqiong but wanted to include younger, more current voices. He was immediately struck by Xu’s talent.

"His works are really very special." said Qin. “Some are just a flood of emotion but others are really inspired.”

Qin selected two of Xu’s poems for the last page of his original anthology. Work then began on a documentary film to support the anthology that would show the work, life and writing experiences of ten of the worker poets selected. Qin insisted that Xu should be included in the film but, to his surprise, the documentary’s director refused. 

Xu’s response on hearing the bad news in August was to announce that he would give up writing poetry.

Apart from the poems he left behind, very little is known about Xu Lizhi. Last month however, the Southern Weekend newspaper talked to his family, friends and fellow poets and built up a fractured, partial picture of this quiet, introverted and at times very dark young man who loved books but struggled to find a place in the highly commercialised, cut-throat world of modern China.

Xu was born on 28 July 1990 in a small village in Jieyang near the coast of Guangdong. After attending his local high school, he worked in the city of Jieyang and the provincial capital Guangzhou before arriving in Shenzhen in 2011 with just 99 yuan in his bank account, not even enough to make a withdrawal from an ATM. In February that year he got a job on the Foxconn production line and the next month he got his first pay cheque, 1,700 yuan; a huge amount for Xu at the time. The work at Foxconn was dull and repetitive but Xu told friends that he was “more or less happy.”

What really made him happy however was writing poetry and in the autumn of 2011 Xu’s work was published for the first time in the journal Worker Poets. The journal’s editor-in-chief, Luo Deyuan, was a former migrant worker himself and instantly recognised a kindred spirit. Soon after publishing his first poem, Luo invited Xu to attend the journal’s tenth anniversary party. It would be first and only time they met.

Luo described Xu as tall and thin with a pimply face. He was excited to attend the party but was quite shy and was soon overwhelmed by the throng of worker poets. The fact that he worked at Foxconn, which had witnessed a highly publicised series of suicides, made him something of an instant celebrity. Luo saw a bright future for Xu but that future never materialised.

Also at the party was Zheng Xiaoqiong, who was ten years older than Xu and probably the most famous worker poet in China. A collection of Zheng’s poems was found in Xu's room. She had escaped the production line and had gone on to on to win the "People's Literature Award" for her poetry in 2007. In 2011, she was selected as a Dongguan deputy to the Guangdong Provincial People’s Congress.

Zheng was also impressed with Xu: “I read some of his poems and thought that he was better than me at that age.” But she was concerned that poetry would not be so kind to him. There are thousands of worker poets, she said, but very few could make a living from poetry as she and Luo had done.

Xu tried to get a job at a major Shenzhen bookstore. In his application letter he repeatedly stressed his love for books and listed the works that he had published. His application was rejected. As his elderly father in Jieyang said, Xu was naive enough to believe that a love of books, in and of itself, was a good qualification for working in a commercial enterprise like a Shenzhen bookstore.

Xu worked at Foxconn for about three years during which time he was promoted to line manager. His poems gradually became darker and he found it more difficult to get published. He also developed health problems, suffering from regular headaches, insomnia and lack of appetite.

At the end of 2013, Xu broke up with his girlfriend. She was a university student in Guangzhou who got a job in a bank after graduation. Her parents apparently disapproved of the relationship. “They think we are too poor." said his father. "At least the breakup confirmed for him the fact that he did not have any social status or money."

On 15 January 2014, Xu wrote a poem in which he expressed his despair and hatred of factory life. A month later, his employment contract with Foxconn expired and he left the factory in search of a better life. He did not tell his family that he had left and just invented stories about life in Shenzhen when he phoned home. He cut off ties with other poets and quit the online "Poetry Club of Workers" founded by his friend Ran Qiaofeng. Some said he went to Jiangsu for a while but he eventually returned to Shenzhen and on 26 September he signed a new three year contract with Foxconn.

“I can’t imagine how he felt, being rejected by everyone and then having to return to Foxconn,” said Qin Xiaoyu.

Back in Jieyang, Xu’s father said that he had never held out much hope for his son. "I never thought he would write poems; he never mentioned that." After he failed the college entry exam, his father suggested he follow his elder brother and learn a skill like computer repairs but Xu went his own way.

"He chose the wrong path,” his father said. “He spent so much time and effort in writing stuff but he still could not even earn a day’s wages.”

In death, it seems, Xu will finally start to earn a day’s pay.

A New Day will be published in early 2015 after twice the 60,000 yuan required to produce 3,000 volumes was raised through the crowd-funding website ZhongChou (众筹网). Qin Xiaoyu stresses that he will not be paid for his work on the anthology and that all the profits will go to Xu’s immediate family.

Five of Xu’s poems have been translated by Lucas Klein, Assistant Professor at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Chinese, and are published here on the CLB website. Several other translators have also rendered Xu’s poems into other languages and we hope this process will continue in the future.

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