On the last day of September, a 24-year-old migrant worker in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen killed himself. Xu Lizhi jumped out of a window of a residential dormitory run by his employer, Foxconn, the huge electronics manufacturing company with a million-strong workforce that makes the majority of the world’s Apple iPhones.
In most cases, Xu’s suicide would have been yet another footnote in the vast, sweeping story of China’s economic boom and transformation. He is one of a legion of young Chinese migrants who emerge out of rural obscurity to find work in China’s teeming cities, only to end up crushed by both the dullness and stress of factory jobs, insufficient wages and a steady accumulation of personal disappointments.
But Xu was a poet. And, after his death, his friends collected his work and got some published in a local Shenzhen newspaper.
The poems, translated at the leftist website Libcom.org, are a wrenching echo of the alienation and hardship felt by countless people in modern China and, for that matter, in other parts of the developing world. They lament the grinding ennui of the assembly line, the squalor of a migrant worker’s narrow, frustrated existence.
Xu wrote of his “Rented Room” in 2013: “Every time I open the window or the wicker gate/I seem like a dead man/Slowly pushing open the lid of a coffin.”
Shenzhen, on the other side of the border between Hong Kong and the mainland, is a sprawling metropolis of 13 million. A few decades ago, it was a sleepy fishing village. Now, a visitor stumbles into a surreal landscape of gleaming skyscrapers, gated communities, and bustling malls. It’s a giddy embodiment of China’s own rise.
But it takes a toll on those who get swallowed up by it. The London Review Books cites this poem by Xu, which is a play on another verse by the famous Chinese poet Gu Cheng:
We ran along the railway,
arriving in some place called ‘the City’
where we trade in our youth, and our muscle.
Finally we have nothing to trade, only a cough
and a skeleton nobody cares about.
Midnight. Everyone is sleeping soundly,
We keep our pair of young wounds open.
These black eyes, can you really lead us to the light?
According to accounts from his friends, Xu tried multiple times to leave his job at Foxconn. Applications for positions in libraries and book stores in Shenzhen proved unsuccessful. He also was turned down for a job at an internal library within Foxconn’s compound. Xu moved away for a spell to be with his girlfriend in the city of Suzhou, but that relationship fell through, and he eventually made his way back to Shenzhen and Foxconn.
His bitterness is clear in a poem penned in December 2013:
I swallowed a moon made of iron
They refer to it as a nail
I swallowed this industrial sewage, these unemployment documents
Youth stooped at machines die before their time
I swallowed the hustle and the destitution
Swallowed pedestrian bridges, life covered in rust
I can’t swallow any more
All that I’ve swallowed is now gushing out of my throat
Unfurling on the land of my ancestors
Into a disgraceful poem.
Xu is not the only Foxconn employee to commit suicide: in 2010, a spate of suicides put the international spotlight on the Taiwanese-run company, which is China’s biggest private employer. Foxconn has since taken efforts to improve working conditions and dormitories. There have been 18 attempted suicides of Foxconn employees in the past five years.
The last poem Xu penned, perhaps even on the day he killed himself, signals his decision.
I want to touch the sky, feel that blueness so light
But I can’t do any of this, so I’m leaving this world
Everyone who’s heard of me
Shouldn’t be surprised at my leaving
Even less should you sigh or grieve
I was fine when I came, and fine when I left.
A distraught friend and fellow Foxconn employee also wrote a poem. “Another screw comes loose/Another migrant worker brother jumps,” Zhou Qizao writes, a day after Xu’s death. The poem ends: “A white-haired father, holding the black urn with your ashes, stumbles home.”