From 'Technicians of the Sacred' (expanded): Six poems of desperation by worker poet Xu Lizhi

[Originally published in China Labour Bulletin January 6, 2016]


I Swallowed an Iron Moon


I swallowed an iron moon

they called it a screw


I swallowed industrial wastewater and unemployment forms

bent over machines, our youth died young


I swallowed labor, I swallowed poverty

swallowed pedestrian bridges, swallowed this rusted-out life


I can’t swallow any more

everything I’ve swallowed roils up in my throat


I spread across my country

a poem of shame



I Know a Day Will Come


I know a day will come

when those I know and don’t know

will enter my room

to collect my remains

and wash away the darkened blood stains I’ve shed across the floor

rearrange the upturned table and chairs

toss out the moldering garbage

take in the clothing from the balcony

someone will help me write the poem I didn’t have time to finish

someone will help me read the book I didn’t have time to finish

someone will help me light the candle I didn’t have time to light

last will be the curtains that haven’t been opened for years

someone will help me open them, and let the sunlight in for a while

they will be closed again, and nailed there deathly tight

the whole process will be orderly and solemn

when everything is tidy

they will all line up to leave

and help me quietly shut the door  



Waiting in Line


The packed crowds in this city

crawl up and down the streets

crawl up and down the pedestrian bridges, into the subway

crawl up and down this earth

one lap around is one life

this fire-driven fire-singed species

busy from birth to death

only at the moment of death do they not cut in line

they lower their heads, follow in order

and burrow back into their mothers’ wombs



Single-Dish Menu: Twice-Cooked Meat


Garlic scape twice-cooked meat

Bitter melon twice-cooked meat

Green pepper twice-cooked meat

Dried tofu twice-cooked meat

Potato twice-cooked meat

Cabbage twice-cooked meat

Bamboo shoot twice-cooked meat

Lotus root twice-cooked meat

Onion twice-cooked meat

Smoked tofu twice-cooked meat

Celtuce twice-cooked meat

Celery twice-cooked meat

Carrot twice-cooked meat

Beansprout twice-cooked meat

Green bean twice-cooked meat

Pickled bean twice-cooked meat

Xu Lizhi twice-cooked meat



Obituary for a Peanut


Merchandise Name:  Peanut Butter

Ingredients: Peanuts, Maltose, Sugar, Vegetable Oil, Salt, Food Additives (Potassium sorbate)

Product Number: QB/T1733.4

Consumption Method: Ready to consume after opening the package

Storage Method: Before opening keep in a dry place away from sunlight, after opening please   


Producer: Shantou City Bear-Note Foodstuff Company, LLC

Factory Site: Factory Building B2, Far EastIndustrial Park, BrooktownNorthVillage, Dragon

     Lake, ShantouCity

Telephone: 0754-86203278    85769568

Fax: 0754-86203060

Consume Within: 18 Months          

Place of Production: Shantou, Guangdong Province


Production Date: 8.10.2013



My Friend Fa


You’re always holding your lower back with your hands

just a young guy

but to the other workers, you look

like a pregnant woman in her tenth month

now that you’ve tasted the migrant worker life

when you talk of the past, you always smile

but the smile doesn’t cover over hardship and misery

seven years ago you came alone

to this part of Shenzhen

high-spirited, full of faith

and what met you was ice,

black nights, temporary residence permits, temporary shelter….

after false starts you came here to the world’s largest equipment factory

and began standing, screwing in screws, doing overtime, working overnight

painting, finishing, polishing, buffing,

packaging and packing, moving finished products

bending down and straightening up a thousand times each day

dragging mountain-sized piles of merchandise across the workshop floor

the seeds of illness were planted and you didn’t know it

until the pain dragged you to the hospital

and that was the first time you heard

the new words “slipped disc in the lumbar vertebra”

and each time you smile when you talk about the pain and the past

we’re moved by your optimism

until at the annual New Years party, you drunkenly

grasped a liquor bottle in your right hand, and held up three fingers with your left,

you sobbed and said:

“I’m not even thirty

I’ve never had a girlfriend

I’m not married, I don’t have a career—

and my whole life is already over.”



Source: Eleanor Goodman, “Obituary for a Peanut: The creatively cynical world of worker poet Xu Lizhi,” in China Labour Bulletin, January 6, 2016.


     What emerges here is something beyond a state & party controlled “workers poetry” but the continuation & development of a popular literature written in the vernacular & confronting the fullest range of human thoughts & feelings, even the most skeptical, negative & self-destructive.  Of Xu Lixhi (1990-2014), Eleanor Goodman writes as translator: “Xu Lizhi is an excellent example of a modern incarnation of the century-old baihua, or vernacular, poetry tradition. His language comes out of the factory and life lived in the lower rungs of society, and revolves largely around nouns: words like screw and worksheet and twice-cooked meat. He tells the stories of workers, of his immediate world, and of his own psyche in plain but moving terms. The baihua movement began as a revolt against the rarified and largely inaccessible language of traditional Chinese literature. Today, there is no longer a strong division between the Chinese as formally written and as spoken, or between common speech and ‘literary’ speech. Nevertheless, a strong division remains in literature in terms of subject matter and approach. Rather than serving as a removed observer or a sympathizer of the plight of workers, farmers, and the poor in contemporary China, Xu experienced this all first hand. The fact that he could write about it with such eloquence and simplicity is a testament to his skill with the language of everyday life, as well as with poetic technique.”

     And further:  “I first came across Xu Lizhi’s poetry in the film Our Verses, a documentary that follows six different manual laborers who also write highly accomplished poetry. As I translated the poetry and then the subtitles for the film, I was immediately attracted to Xu’s straightforwardness, honesty, and darkness. Although his life was clearly unhappy—indeed, he committed suicide at the age of twenty-four by jumping out of a Foxconn factory dormitory window a little over a year ago—there is very little self-pity evident in his poetry. Rather, he casts a cold eye on the larger society, on the conditions in which he worked, and on himself. His reality was one that millions of other people face across China, but particularly in the south, which has become a center of production and exploitation. His ‘poem of shame’ is not a personal one, but a public and national one.”


[N.B. Eleanor Goodman’s book of translations, Something Crosses My Mind: Selected Poems of Wang Xiaoni (Zephyr Press, 2014) was the recipient of a 2013 PEN/Heim Translation Grant and winner of the 2015 Lucien Stryk Prize. A collection of her own poetry, Nine Dragon Island, which was shortlisted for the Drunken Boat First Book Prize, will be published early next year.]