The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Thursday, August 18, 2022


Deep underground, a Chinese miner discovered poetry in the toil
A strip coal mining operation in Shenmu, Shaanxi Province, China, on June 8, 2007. Chen Nianxi, who for more than 15 years labored in gold, iron and zinc mines across China and wrote poems at night, has published two critically acclaimed books and risen to fame as one of the best-known practitioners of a relatively new genre in China: migrant worker literature. Chang W. Lee/The New York Times.

by Vivian Wang



NEW YORK, NY.- More than three decades after scribbling his first poem as a teenager in the mountains of northern China, Chen Nianxi is living a literary dream. He has published two critically acclaimed books. He hobnobs with intellectuals around banquet tables. He tours the country promoting his writing, flitting between book fairs and university lecture halls.

Still, he often finds his joy tempered with a sense of alienation.

“I can’t completely leave behind my old life. I also don’t really know how to participate in this new life,” said Chen, 51, in a video interview from the southern city of Ningbo, where he was attending a book trade fair. “So I really feel like I’m in a very awkward position.”

The source of that tension is the vast gulf between his new circumstances and his old. For more than 15 years, he labored in gold, iron and zinc mines across China, detonating explosives by day and scrawling poems on the backs of newspapers at night:

I while away my middle age at 5,000 meters deep

I explode the rocks layer by layer

And through this rebuild my life

My lowly family is far at the foot of Mount Shang

They are sick, their bodies covered in dust

However much of my middle age I cut off

However much their old age can be prolonged

Chen has emerged as one of the best-known practitioners of a relatively new genre in China: migrant worker literature. As China’s breakneck economic growth has collided with growing awareness of the human toll exacted, readers have increasingly sought out the voices of people like Chen.

His poems speak of the loneliness of the mines, the deaths of fellow workers and the distance between modern life and his work underground. They lament the toll of physical labor, while also valorizing its clarifying power. This summer, two years after publishing his first poetry collection, he published a book of essays, “To Live Is to Shout at the Sky.”

Its title comes from a poem, “Qinqiang,” that he wrote after a night of singing with fellow workers at a mine in Xinjiang. Qinqiang is a type of traditional opera from northwestern Shaanxi province.

Sing of great sorrow and great joy, sing of great love and great hate …

The downpour of Qinqiang enlightens you …

Makes you realize

To live is to shout at the sky

Chen speaks of wanting to fill a gap in China’s literary and pop culture. But he is also wary of being confined as a writer only to that gap — and to the accompanying low expectations.

“There will definitely be people who treat you as a spectacle: ‘You’re so underprivileged, your life is so distant from literature, and you actually wrote something,’” Chen said.

He insists on his work being judged on its artistic merits, not his hardscrabble background.

“Look at this work’s literary value, its social nature. Don’t wear colored glasses to look at it,” he said. “When we compare our works to today’s mainstream literature, when it comes to weight or artistry, they are not at all inferior to anyone else’s.”

Critics have agreed. In a review in The Paper, a popular state-run newspaper, Ma Zhen, a contemporary literature scholar, said there was a roughness to Chen’s poems but that they also carried “classical bloodlines,” with frequent allusions to classical Chinese literature.

Chen was born in the mountains of Shaanxi, his father a carpenter, his mother a farmer.

The 1980s were a time of rapid social and economic liberalization in China, and a teenage Chen devoured the resulting explosion of newspapers and literary journals. He wrote his first poem in high school, about a plane sowing seeds.




He chose poetry, he said, because its length made it seem the most accessible form of writing.

After high school, Chen farmed and got married. He published some poems in local publications. But in 1999, after his son was born, the family needed to pay for baby formula. Mining paid relatively well. So he headed for the Qinling mountain range, which hulks horizontally across Shaanxi.

He worked deep underground, in claustrophobic conditions. Accidents claimed the lives of several colleagues, as well as the hearing in his right ear. He eventually traveled across the country for work, going months without seeing his family.

Before then, he had written flowery poems about the beauty of nature, copying the poets he had read in magazines in hopes of getting published. But in the mines, with no real hope of publication, he turned to his own experiences.

“In the middle of the night, when everything is quiet and you’re living in a shed, you really feel how small you are,” Chen said. “Writing is like opening a window in your head and letting out some pressure.”

He used empty kegs of explosives as tables. He kept his writing from other workers, worried they would see him as snobbish.

In 2011, he found a broader audience via the blogging craze then spreading across China. Online, he met other poets, amateur and professional. One day in 2014, a well-known critic, Qin Xiaoyu, happened across Chen’s blog and asked to meet.

Over the next year, Qin and a filmmaker, Wu Feiyue, followed Chen and five other migrant worker poets, for a documentary called “The Verse of Us” (later released internationally as “Iron Moon”).

The film, released in 2015, received considerable attention — in part because of tragedy. Another poet it featured, Xu Lizhi, a factory worker for electronics giant Foxconn, killed himself during the filmmaking process. His death, which followed a string of deaths of other Foxconn workers, renewed international scrutiny of Chinese laborers’ working conditions.

The documentary also came amid growing awareness of how reliant China, and the world, had become on this labor force, said Faye Xiao, a professor of modern Chinese literature at the University of Kansas.

“Our everyday lives cannot last for even one day without the labor of migrant workers. But at the same time, they remain politically voiceless and socially marginalized,” Xiao said. “That is why more and more intellectuals and middle-class readers want to know more about their everyday struggles.”

The film’s timing was lucky for Chen. He had recently left the mines, after undergoing neck surgery for a work-related injury. Through his new recognition, he found work writing copy for a tourism company — his first white-collar job. In 2019, he published his poetry collection, “Demolitions Mark.”

But even as he was finally making a living by writing, he said he felt increasingly removed from his primary inspiration, the physical labor of the previous decades. He also worried about retreading the same ground and being typecast with the label of worker poet.

At the same time, he felt like an outsider in the glamorous world he had entered. He recalled meeting a rich businessman at a dinner in Shanghai who declared that he had been so stirred by “The Verse of Us” that he would now always pay his workers on time.

A poem Chen wrote to his son, who unlike him would go on to college, captured his ambivalence about straddling two worlds:

Your clear eyes

Penetrate text and numbers …

But still cannot see the real scenes of this world

I want you to bypass your books and see this world

But also fear that you would really see it

Despite his success, Chen is clear-eyed about the limits of art to change reality, whether society’s or his own.

Last year, he was diagnosed with pneumoconiosis, an incurable lung disease common in miners.

Chen, who coughed throughout the interview, said he had struggled for inspiration in the past year. Writing did little to alleviate his anxiety about his illness.

But he also has signed deals for another poetry collection and is thinking of writing a novel. He is also the writer-in-residence of a charity dedicated to helping those with pneumoconiosis, writing essays to raise awareness.

“We still need plentiful, diverse works to prop up contemporary literature and culture,” Chen said, adding that he hoped his work “will broaden modern people’s perspectives or remind them to look downward a bit.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










Today's News

November 14, 2021

The show goes on, even after China tried to shut it down

A new exhibition reunites paintings and drawings by Peter Paul Rubens with the antiquities that inspired him

MOCA Toronto's online platform Shift Key launches new film and video offerings for 2021/22

Gladstone Gallery opens an exhibition of seven new landscape paintings Alex Katz

Gilcrease works on view across the country during museum's reconstruction

Lisson Gallery announces representation of Cheyney Thompson

Four months, 5,000 miles: A refugee puppet looks for home

Prada opens an exhibition by Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg,

Graeme Edge, drummer and co-founder of the Moody Blues, dies at 80

Bettina Grossman, an artistic fixture at the Chelsea Hotel, dies at 94

The Centro Botín presents Itinerarios XXVI, a new engagement with the present state of contemporary art

Cornelius Annor's debut solo exhibition in the United States opens at Venus Over Manhattan

Saving the forgotten Connecticut farm that helped spark MLK's dream

Brazil's Instituto Inhotim to house the Museu de Arte Negra (Museum of Black Art)

Theater professors are under the gun in 'Preparedness'

Deep underground, a Chinese miner discovered poetry in the toil

A frenzy of book banning

Exhibition highlights representative works from the six decades long career of New York based Rakuko Naito

Pristine Lincoln ferrotypes from private collection featured in Heritage Auctions Americana & Political event

18th-century Tipu Sultan Throne Finial worth £1.5 million at risk of leaving UK

Pieces from prominent Texas estates sparkle and shine at Heritage Auctions' holiday jewelry event

Legendary novelist Wilbur Smith dies aged 88: publisher

'Be nice to tourists': New York's arts scene needs international visitors

A Bank of England Newcastle on Tyne £5 note to be sold by Dix Noonan Webb

The Ultimate Guide to the fall 2021 Fashion Trends

Seven Shopping Tips to Buy During the Sale Season in a Smart Way!

LEARN HOW TO WEAR A SWEATSHIRT FROM THE INVENTORS




Museums, Exhibits, Artists, Milestones, Digital Art, Architecture, Photography,
Photographers, Special Photos, Special Reports, Featured Stories, Auctions, Art Fairs,
Anecdotes, Art Quiz, Education, Mythology, 3D Images, Last Week, .

 



Founder:
Ignacio Villarreal
(1941 - 2019)
Editor & Publisher: Jose Villarreal
Art Director: Juan José Sepúlveda Ramírez

Royalville Communications, Inc
produces:

ignaciovillarreal.org juncodelavega.com facundocabral-elfinal.org
Founder's Site. Hommage
to a Mexican poet.
Hommage
       

The First Art Newspaper on the Net. The Best Versions Of Ave Maria Song Junco de la Vega Site Ignacio Villarreal Site
Tell a Friend
Dear User, please complete the form below in order to recommend the Artdaily newsletter to someone you know.
Please complete all fields marked *.
Sending Mail
Sending Successful