Migrants Workers and the Art of Resistance

By Jenn Marie Nunes (Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures)

I speak this sharp-edged, oiled language / of cast iron—the language of silent workers / a language of tightened screws . . . / a language like callouses . . . / . . . of severed fingers . . . between the damp steel bars (Zheng 2016). So begins Zheng Xiaoqiong’s “Language,” rich with a dark, painfully embodied expression of migrant worker life in China. Winner of the 2007 Liqun Literature Award for Peoples’ Literature, Zheng is one of 288 million-plus migrant workers who have left rural homes for low-paying jobs in urban centers, making possible China’s “economic miracle” (CLB). Despite efforts to amend the hukou 户口 system, China’s “floating” population[1] remains vulnerable, facing job and housing insecurity, social stigma, and lack of access to resources. Women like Zheng, constituting 35% of the migrant worker population (CLB), face additional pressures related to gender roles and reproductive health (Gaetano 2004). Representation of migrant workers by the Chinese media has aggravated their marginality via a dehumanizing natural disaster discourse: migrant workers are a “wave,” “flood,” or “tide,” bringing prostitution, drugs, disease, and crime. However, a growing group of migrant worker poets, battler poets[2], or dagong poets 打工诗人, have countered this homogenizing discourse by writing and sharing poetry online. In the past fifteen years, their singular voices have garnered significant attention from writers, scholars, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and the public, leading to mixed results in terms of improved representation and conditions. Continue reading