Literature revisits realism and labor value

By WANG CUIYAN / 07-04-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

FILE PHOTO: Wubei (No Monument) authored by Wang Shiyue

In the landscape of contemporary Chinese literature, works on industry, factories, and workers are remarkable—yet relatively less-developed. Compared with longstanding, profound writings on farmers and intellectuals, on one hand, literature about industry, factories, and workers is not advantaged both in quantity and quality. On the other hand, due to the significant role of industry in China’s modernization drive and the proletariat’s status as a leading force of the nation, this genre intrinsically acts as a barometer of the times. 

Into the 21st century, literature on industry, factories, and workers has integrated grand historical narratives, which reflect on national, social, and epochal issues, and microscopic stories concerning individual life experiences and covert mental dynamics, displaying a rich and inclusive literary landscape. The divergence, and later convergence, of “old industry narratives” and “migrant literature” is a typical phenomenon in the field. 

Old industry narratives 

Old industry narratives center on the industrial history after the founding of the PRC and zoom in on the ups and downs, as well as arduous struggle of workers in the changing times. A cohort of senior writers who rose to fame in the 20th century were luminaries of this field. Among post-1940s writers, Shui Yunxian authored the Wulong Shan Jiaofei Ji (Wipe Out the Bandits of Wulong Mountain), which became widely popular in the 1980s. In 2022, he published the full-length novel Dai Hua (Wearing Flowers), recounting life-long endeavors of two generations of smelting furnace workers. 

Guan Xinsheng, honored as one of the top 10 worker artists in Shanghai in the 1990s, co-authored with his daughter the 1-million-character novel Gongren (Workers) that traces the fate of workers over the past 100 years. The work was first published in 2012 and reprinted as Bainian Haishang (A Hundred Years on the Sea) in 2021. Moreover, Guan Xinsheng leaned into the rising non-fiction trend, compiling the narrative history Gongren Xincun: Shanghai De Ling Yizhong Xushi Jiyi (New Worker Villages: Another Narrative Memory of Shanghai) in 2019. 

Among post-1950s writers, Xiao Kefan delved deep into industry-related literature for nearly half a century. He published two long novels—Jiqi (Machines) in 2006 and Shengtie Kaihua (Pig Iron) in 2011—as a “recorder of history.” Consistently devoted to the subject of coalmining for five decades, Liu Qingbang also released novels about coalminers, namely, Hongmei (Red Coal) in 2006 and Nyugong Hui (The Painting of Female Workers) in 2020. 

In the post-1960s generation, Li Tie, reputed as a leading figure of literature on industry in China’s northeast, created the lengthy works Changmen Fangcao (Fangcao of the Changmen Village) in 2007 and Jinxiu (Jinxiu Factory) in 2021. 

The above novels not only feature frontline life experiences, but also showcase writers’ excellent writing skills, reflecting the height of industry-related literary creation at the time.  

Bainian Haishang, Jiqi, and Jinxiu started from 1921 when the Communist Party of China (CPC) was founded, the mid-1940s before Japan surrendered to China, and the 1950s after the founding of the PRC, respectively, all the way to the present. The long time span and realistic depictions of two or three generations of workers ensure the historical depth of these novels. 

Bainian Haishang, in particular, intertwines the destiny of the proletariat with the centennial development of the CPC. Amid dramatic grand narratives, it reveals the close relationship between workers’ lives and the fate of the country, the nation, and the times, demonstrating an epic scale and verve. The novel was acclaimed as a tour de force that filled the gap in workers’ literature from the Shanghai Literary School. 

Dai Hua and Nyugong Hui reproduce the endeavors, struggles, emotions, and psychology of ordinary workers in the early years following the founding of the PRC, horizontally in history. 

Dai Hua focuses on a fictional rivalry between veteran worker Mo Zhengqiang and new technician Yang Zhemin for the honor “Model Worker,” describing their struggle and disclosing the mental world of workers in those passionate years. 

Nyugong Hui portrays the romantic life of confident, smart heroin Hua Chuntang. Her love interests are unique to that specific era in China, but fundamentally, represent the ideals of a young girl. The ending is somewhat tragic, detailing the “destruction of beauty and love.” 

If Dai Hua sings the “anthem” of the times, then Nyugong Hui plays the “soundtrack” of the era. Both unveil the spiritual world of workers in those pivotal years microscopically. 

Migrant literature

Migrant literature narrates China’s massive rural-to-urban labor migration, following the lives of workers on the assembly line in “world factory” cities like Shenzhen and Dongguan in south China’s Guangdong Province, from the 1990s to the present. A number of authors born in the 1970s and 1980s, such as Wang Shiyue, Zheng Xiaoqiong, and Sai Ren, who had ever worked in those cities and embarked upon their literary journey by dint of their own experiences, are outstanding in this sub-genre of literature on industry, factories, and workers. 

Born in 1974, with experience as an overhead crane operator at a steel enterprise in central China’s Hubei Province, Sai is a representative of non-fiction migrant literature. Rising to prominence around 2010, Wang (born in 1972) and Zheng (born in 1980) emphasize the bitterness of the migrant working life and the alienation of labor on the assembly line. Distinct from Wang and Zheng, Sai consciously made it her responsibility to draft an alternative to the dominant depictions of misery in migrant literature, arguing that literature on factory workers should be more than an archive of hardships. 

In her 2023 work Wuchen Chejian (Dust-Free Workshop), Sai details her experiences working in jewelry, electronics, toy, and shoe factories, and writes: “The assembly line is a bowl of clean and, dignified, rice.” This affective stance contrasts sharply with Zheng Xiaoqiong’s portrayals of beleaguered assembly line workers. 

In Zheng’s poem “Shenghuo” (“Life”), the assembly line means “one’s name is reduced to a work card,” and “weary shadows are projected onto machines, carrying the disappointment and grief of migrants.” 

Under Sai’s pen, on the contrary, labor on the assembly line signifies clear, honest wages, precisely correlating to each working hour. The assembly line is always open. It allows workers to eat and sleep well, and will never drive anyone into a corner, so it has comforted many people, giving them humble sweetness and reassured self-sufficiency. 

Wang Shiyue’s attitude towards the migrant working life is between Zheng’s and Sai’s. As an iconic writer of migrant literature, Wang’s works are widely recognized for their depth of thought and literary purity. He also sheds light on bitter realities of the migrant working life, but meanwhile, he endows his characters with the power of redemption through his advocacy of ideals, tolerance, and love. Despite their varying identities, the small business owner, Li Xiang, and Zhang Huai’en in Guojia Dingdan (National Order) published in 2008 and Lao Wu, Boss Huang, Ms. Lin, Axia, and Axiang in the 2009 novel Wubei (No Monument) all have honorable characteristics in terms of human nature. These characters end tragically for social causes, and also for their inherent human weaknesses. By facing misery directly and leveraging the power of understanding, tolerance, and love, Wang lifts documentary writing of workers’ real life to the height of reflections on survival and faith in life. 

Labor value and realistic aesthetics

The differences, complementarity, and interactions between old industry narratives and migrant literature in subjects, intent of writing, and aesthetic style, constitute the basic landscape of literature on industry, factories, and workers in the 21st century. Both sub-genres focus on the relationship between labor and humanity, and anchor industrial production scenarios and workers’ everyday lives in grand themes like the times, the nation, the country, and history. As a result, these works are distinct from once-popular romantic aesthetics such as fantasy or time-travel literature, exhibiting a solid realistic aesthetic style. Although realism in these works is critical, neutral, or combines with idealism, their tone is generally realistic. 

In the historical course of contemporary Chinese literature, works on industry, factories, and workers have evidently reexamined the tradition of realism and labor value. 

First, novels like Bainian Haishang, Jiqi, and Jinxiu have traces of fiction on revolutionary history. The growth of contemporary workers and role models such as Wu Boping, Mou Mianhua, Wang Jinbing, and Gu Dahe is typical of heroic legends. In Jiqi, the failed romance between Mou Mianhua and Bai Xiaolin results from the class-consciousness of “model workers” at the time. When fiction confronts this reality, it records a historical truth. 

Second, in Luo Rixin’s two-part work Gang De Cheng (City of Steel), published in 2019 and 2022 successively, which centers on the transformation of a century-old steel enterprise, we can also see the deepening of reform literature. Although the author’s narrative revolves around reforms conducted by three generations of the enterprise’s managers, its value stance differs essentially from reform literature. From an equality-based and appreciative standpoint, Luo unveils the tough spirit of ordinary workers who support each other and bounce back from low points in their lives. This is not only the author’s idealistic inclination, but also his reflections on and summarization of history in the new century. 

Third, in Wang Shiyue’s works like Guojia Dingdan and Wubei, we see the author break through the binary model of capital and labor. His revelation of workers’ predicaments reflects a deep contemplation of laborers’ personal dignity and labor value, and represents an advancement of traditional workers’ literature.  

Wang Cuiyan is a professor from the Department of Cultural Popularization at China University of Labor Relations.