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date: 02 December 2022

Chinese Workers’ Literature in the 20th and 21st Centurieslocked

Chinese Workers’ Literature in the 20th and 21st Centurieslocked

  • Paola IovenePaola IoveneEast Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Chicago
  •  and Federico PicerniFederico PicerniDipartimento di Studi sull'Asia e sull'Africa Mediterranea, Università Ca' Foscari Venezia

Summary

“Chinese workers’ literature” is an umbrella term that comprises diverse writings by workers, for workers, and about workers. In the 1930s, roughly at the same time that an international proletarian arts movement was flourishing, a factory-based reportage literature—mostly written by leftist intellectuals and partly inspired by Russian and Japanese experiments—developed in semicolonial Shanghai. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, writings by workers themselves were officially promoted and published in state-supported venues. Largely consisting of edifying stories, poems, and plays, workers’ literature from the 1950s to the 1970s provided models of behavior and contributed to a shared sense of dignity among industrial workers; it was, however, severely limited in its expressive range. Along with the implementation of market reforms beginning in the 1980s and the privatization and contracting out of most state-owned industry, a new literature emerged in the Special Economic Zones of South China and has grown into a heterogeneous phenomenon encompassing poetry and prose written by countless rural-to-urban migrant workers, the mainstay of the country’s new workforce. These writings have been appreciated for their intimate portrayals of the human costs of economic development, for giving voice to the silent majority of precarious laborers who have made it possible, and for potentially restituting a measure of dignity to a social group whose members were once considered “masters of the country” but who, in the early 21st century, enjoy little job security and few rights.

While it is possible to hear resonances across these disparate times and locations, much has changed along the way, including the social position of the worker and the groups associated with this term, the forms they have experimented with and the media through which their writings circulate, and the extent to which the workers have actively contributed to its production and circulation.

Subjects

  • Asian Literatures
  • 20th and 21st Century (1900-present)
  • Non-Fiction and Life Writing
  • Poetry
  • Cultural Studies

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