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  • Chris McMillan

Words of the Working Class. Poems From Everyday China

Sixth Tone

8th May 2023

Words of the Working Class. Poems From Everyday China

From fields to vegetable farms to steel mills, ordinary workers across China document everyday mundanities in extraordinary verse.

In December 2022, I set out from Chengdu and visited 12 county towns to find people who posted poems on the short video platform Kuaishou.

They are from all walks of life — delivery workers, shepherds, blind masseurs, house painters, vegetable farmers, street vendors, steel mill workers, unemployed youth in small towns, peasant women, as well as radio hosts, high school students, and history teachers.

On social media, they make short videos using fragments of their lives as background images. Usually there are flowers, butterflies, construction sites, town markets, villages on the loess plateau, fields, and livestock — even the process of a sheep giving birth. Poems are pasted on the screen in colored large or bold font, with some accompanied by square dance music or popular folk songs sung by themselves.

The places where they live and work, be they steel mills, vegetable patches, grocery stalls, fields, kitchens, construction sites, and delivery routes, are closely intertwined with their poems. The hands that type these words are covered with mud, dust, flour, oil, paint, and other materials.

Even though the video looks primitive, the poems are constantly evolving. These are some of their stories.

The shepherd

Li Songshan, aged 42, is a shepherd in Lilou Village in Henan province. Due to a delay in the treatment of meningitis at the age of four, his parents thought Li could not be cured and almost abandoned him in a field. Fortunately, they were stopped by a neighbor. Li survived, but was left with difficulty speaking and trouble coordinating his movements. He dropped out of school in fourth grade.

Li tends 20 sheep and grows winter wheat, spring corn, and peanuts on a small plot of land. He wrote about his life with his mother in his poem “Planting Trees”:

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