Sacred Life, Sacred Living: On the Life and Poetry of Xu Lizhi
by Eliot Cardinaux
Inspired by a recent event in China that received little attention, except for on social media, this essay addresses the life and death of a Chinese poet, Xu Lizhi, and the legacy he left behind in his work. He died by his own hand while employed at a factory run by Foxconn, the manufacturer of forty percent of the world’s electronics. His was one of many suicides, all by workers in their early twenties, related to the horrendous working conditions at Foxconn’s manufacturing facilities.
Another inspiration for this essay was the film Manufactured Landscapes, which surveys the work of the photographer Edward Burtynsky. In his work, Burtynsky documents places where humankind’s imprint on nature has transformed it into something else, as the film’s title implies. The opening scene depicts an enormous factory warehouse in China, where workers, mostly young, are depicted at workstations that go on for rows and rows along a wide open space. This image affected me deeply and caused me to think more about the story of Xu Lizhi and to explore his life, death, and poetry in my writing.
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.
—Xu Lizhi, from “On My Deathbed,” 2014
On September 30, 2014, a 24-year-old poet who assembled iPhones in the lines of a Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China jumped out of the window of his dormitory room and left this poem behind. Including a spate of eighteen reported suicide attempts within a brief period in 2010, there have been between nineteen and twenty-two suicide-related deaths of Foxconn workers in the past five years (“The Poetry”). Our consciences may remind us that workers in China suffer daily for the sake of our technological convenience, some of them even dying, yet the pioneers of the technological industry are touted as the heroes of our generation. Am I saying that technology is inherently evil? Am I saying that technological innovators should be stopped? Am I saying that workers’ lives don’t matter? No, I don’t think so. Life is sacred and technology and its economics seem inexorable. However, the tension between these two opposing realities creates an existential dissonance for many of us today.
The life and death of Xu Lizhi, and the legacy he left us in his poems, sit uncomfortably at the pivot point between these two poles. Xu’s case is compelling, not only because of the circumstances of his life and death but also because of his voice as a poet. The words that he left behind tell a story: a story of someone who tried to tell the truth, and although we do not know for certain, it is natural to imagine that the truth he told was unbearable to him. Although it seems Xu was at peace on the last day of his short life, in the poem “I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron,” written about a year earlier, it is clear that he had reached a point of disgust with his own truth-telling:
Youth stooped over 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)
His shame at his poem kindles within me a sense of compassion and even camaraderie. The mention of his ancestors, which seems to qualify his judgment of his poem as disgraceful, may be culturally determined, for we in the West might no longer typically invoke our ancestors as our arbiters. And yet, the feelings he expresses of being force-fed and having to swallow everything (“the hustle, the destitution”) and his pitifully uncontrolled output (“gushing out of my throat / unfurling”) are quite accessible to us, perhaps even familiar. It seems as if he is asking, “Why am I even writing these poems if all I’m doing is vomiting up pain and despair?” The sense of futility is clear, caused by the conditions of his life and art. Perhaps the shame he felt at being powerless to overcome the conditions of his life and lift his art beyond regurgitation can help explain his suicide.
But Xu Lizhi’s poetry is not only lament; it is also protest poetry, and the way he left this world raises questions about the broader function that the poetry can serve. Though I could never accept Xu’s suicide as necessary, I am tempted by his words to see it, like his poetry, as an effort to transcend his experience, a form of protest. This could also be true of the many others like him who have chosen that path. Returning to the notion of his feelings of powerlessness, perhaps he was at peace at the time of his death because he had taken some kind of control, however self-defeating. By expressing that peace in his poem “On My Deathbed,” he reached beyond the reality of his daily life, as well as the sense of futility that he and others around him must have felt. These are mere suppositions, however; we can never know.
A haunting respect for those who fight on despite a sense of futility is rendered beautifully by Bei Dao, another Chinese poet, in a poem called “Sower,” written around 1993. In it, he reflects on the myth of the humble sower, who enters the great hall to confront the emperor. In speaking truth to power, he draws his authority from nature. Meanwhile, power seems to lack authority, serving only its own empty ends, much like technology, or those who use it to escape reality: “I come in the name of fields,” he says, “it’s war out there / and you awash in emptiness.” Then the poem concludes with a powerful and ambiguous image:
but something haunts me furiously:
he’s sowing seed across marble floors[.] (Bei Dao)
In these lines, Bei Dao offers us the perspective of the poem’s narrator. It is for us to decipher whether the speaker is only pointing out the futility of speaking truth to power, or whether he admires the fact that despite the futility of speaking, the sower speaks anyway. Recounting the myth of the sower, the speaker realizes his own form of protest, which may give him a feeling of triumph and accomplishment. However, his words, like the sower’s seeds, will perhaps never germinate because they too are being metaphorically sown across marble floors. Bei Dao seems to raise the following question: Even though it’s futile, should I keep protesting? Or do I give up and live my life in silence? This feeling is universal, and to me it relates to what Xu Lizhi must have felt at the time of his suicide. The difference, which I relay not to make a judgment but merely to elucidate it, is that Bei Dao continued to write, despite the sense of futility he encountered.
One strength in “Sower” is that, through it, Bei Dao extols the virtue of the myth of the sower while at the same time warning against accepting it at face value. I would warn many readers of Xu Lizhi to do the same when reading his life as a potential myth. “Sower” is powerful when thought of in the context of Bei Dao’s life. When he wrote it, he was forced by his government to live in exile—a result of their fear of his poetic and political stance. As the story goes, he was originally forced to write in a darkroom, due to the fact that the poetry and stories he wrote were deemed too “misty,” “abstract,” or “obscure” by the Chinese government’s rigid laws (“Bei Dao”). It is easy for us in the West to romanticize the story of someone like Bei Dao, or Xu Lizhi. However, in “Sower,” Bei Dao deepens our sense of the difficulties he might have faced through protest, poetic or otherwise.
We must recall, also, that Bei Dao wrote poems that lay in direct opposition to the despair that he must have felt. Not only did he write about speaking truth to power; I believe he also wrote to instruct the current generation how to combat forces that were out of their control, including their despair. In a poem titled “Teacher’s Manual,” Bei Dao describes what it is like for a child to wait to be let out of school. While school is still in session, the speaker describes the feeling as being “irritable, restless, but exercising restraint”:
a pen to paper breaks the siege
the river declines the bridge invites[.] (Bei Dao)
“[T]o be let out of school is a revolution,” Bei Dao continues. In his poems, conventional things are endowed with enough animation to reach any reader with a sympathetic, open heart. An act of patience, the art of writing, and a child’s release from school: he chooses these not simply to decry the education system. He is once again deepening our sense of a myth, this time a myth of ordinary life, and allowing for that myth to be something to live by: a manual of sorts. This guide is not only for school teachers, as the poem’s title implies, but for anyone who seeks a way out of despair; not only for themselves, but also for those around them who need it.
Xu Lizhi wrote what may have been the only truth that he knew. Tragically, it is a very common truth for those in his generation. Though he and others like him may never have their stories told by the mainstream media, if we do not listen and believe him, who will? And while it may be easy for us to see a martyr in Xu, any discomfort his may words cause us should in no way discredit his truth.
In a way his words can remind us that, whether or not we share this truth with Xu Lizhi and his generation, we must be wary of forgetting our own lives and our own greater purpose. Perhaps his poems can remind us first to educate ourselves, and then to step further and encourage those around us, spreading the knowledge we attain, through art, action, and conversation. Such action may even help to reveal parts of us that remain locked and hidden away, whether from presumed censure or reproach or from a personal sense of futility with which we must come to terms.
Bei Dao. “Sower.” Forms of Distance. Trans. David Hinton. New York: New Directions, 1994.
Bei Dao. “Teacher’s Manual.” Unlock. Trans. Eliot Weinberger and Iona Man-Cheong. New York: New Directions, 2000.
“Bei Dao.” The Poetry Foundation. Chicago: Poetry Foundation, 2015. Web. < http://www.poetryfoundation.org/ bio/bei-dao>.
“The Poetry and Brief Life of a Foxconn Worker: Xu Lizhi (1990-2014).” Nao’s Blog. 29 Oct 2014. Web. <https://libcom.org/blog/xulizhi-foxconn-suicide-poetry>.
Xu, Lizhi. “I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron.” 19 Dec 2013. Nao’s Blog. Web.
Xu, Lizhi. “On My Deathbed.” 30 Sept 2014. Nao’s Blog. Web.