The poetry and brief life of a Foxconn worker: Xu Lizhi (1990-2014)

xu lizhi

Translations of poems by Xu Lizhi (许立志), the Foxconn worker who committed suicide on 30 September 2014, at the age of 24, in Shenzhen, China. Also includes an obituary with some explanatory notes.

Note: Below are translations by friends of the Nao project, starting with Xu's departing poem and an obituary, followed by other poems from 2011 to 2014. By translating these poems, we aim to memorialize Xu, share some of his excellent literary work, and spread awareness that the harsh conditions, struggles and aspirations of Chinese migrant workers (including but not limited to Foxconn) have not diminished since the more widely-publicized spate of 18 attempted Foxconn suicides in 2010, resulting in 14 deaths. Insiders report that thereafter, although the frequency of suicides decreased (mainly due to Foxconn's installation of nets making it more difficult for workers to jump from their dormitories, along with the development of workers' collective resistance), such suicides have continued to the present. Including Xu Lizhi, at least 8 cases have been reported in the media since 2010, but insiders say that many other cases go unreported. We hope that in the future, workers in Foxconn and elsewhere manage to find ways around such companies' military-style discipline and surveillance, come together, and forge collective paths out of this capitalist world of death, into a world worth living in. Don't give up!

Several of these poems were included in the Shenzhen Evening News article linked and translated below; the others are widely available on the web, such as this post on Douban.

Obituary + "On My Deathbed" (2014)
"Conflict" (2013)
"I Fall Asleep, Just Standing Like That" (2011)
"A Screw Fell to the Ground (2014)
"A Kind of Prophecy" (2013)
"The Last Graveyard" (2011)
"My Life's Journey is Far From Complete" (2014)
"I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron" (2013)
"Rented Room" (2013)
"Upon Hearing the News of Xu Lizhi's Suicide" by Zhou Qizao, a fellow worker at Foxconn (2014)

Obituary from Shenzhen Evening News, including Xu's departing poem
by Li Fei and Zhang Xiaoqi
10 October, 2014

“On My Deathbed”

I want to take another look at the ocean, behold the vastness of tears from half a lifetime

I want to climb another mountain, try to call back the soul that I’ve lost

I want to touch the sky, feel that blueness so light

But I can’t do any of this, so I’m leaving this world

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, 30 September 2014

Shy, quiet, introverted, solitary

In 2010, Xu Lizhi went [from his home in rural Jieyang, Guangdong] to work at [a] Foxconn [electronics factory in Shenzhen], beginning life on the assembly line. From 2012 until February of this year [2014], over 30 of his writings were published in Foxconn’s internal newspaper Foxconn People (富士康人), including poems, essays, film reviews, and news commentaries {…} Xu posted the titles of these writings on his blog in a post called “The Maturation Given to Me by a Newspaper,” indicating his gratitude for this platform for his literary aspirations. The first time his friend Zheng (pseudonym) read Xu’s poetry, he was astonished to discover that this young man could be so talented. Henceforth, Zheng always looked for Xu’s writings in the newspaper.

Zheng’s impression was that Xu was a shy boy, “of few words, but not silent.” “Xu asserted his convictions, but he seemed quite solitary – very much the air of a poet.” When Zheng heard of Xu’s suicide, his entire [week-long] break for [China’s] National Day was shrouded in grief. He could not go outside for days.

Turning feelings into poems; fearing they be read by family

Most of Xu’s early poems were descriptions of life on the assembly line. In “Workshop, My Youth Was Stranded Here,” he described his conditions at the time: “Beside the assembly line, tens of thousands of workers [dagongzhe]1 line up like words on a page/ 'Faster, hurry up!'/ Standing among them, I hear the supervisor bark.” He felt that “Once you’ve entered the workshop/ The only choice is submission,” and that his youth was coldly slipping away, so he could only “Watch it being ground away day and night/ Pressed, polished, molded/ Into a few measly bills, so-called wages.”

At first Xu Lizhi found it difficult to adapt to the constant switching between dayshifts and nightshifts. In another poem, he described himself by the assembly line “standing straight like iron, hands like flight,” “How many days, how many nights/ Did I – just like that – standing, fall asleep?” He described his working life as exhausting, “Flowing through my veins, finally reaching the tip of my pen/ Taking root in the paper/ These words can be read only by the hearts of migrant workers."

Xu once said that he never showed his poetry to his parents or other relatives, "because it's something painful; I don't want them to see that."

Failed efforts to get a job related to books 

Although Xu lived in Shenzhen for only a few years, he identified deeply with the city. "Everyone wishes they could put down roots in the city," he explained, but most migrant-worker [dagong] poets write for a few years and then return to the countryside, get married and have children; Xu hoped to avoid that fate. He tried setting up a street stall with a friend, but failed. He also tried transferring from the assembly line to a logistics position, where he would have more freedom. He understood that very few such poets could get out [走出来]: "[we] have to constantly fight for our lives [为生活奔波]; it's hard to go any further than that."

In February of this year, Xu quit his job at Foxconn and moved to Suzhou, Jiangsu. His friend explained that Xu's girlfriend worked there, but apparently things did not go well for Xu in Jiangsu. He told Zheng that he had trouble finding a job, but he did not go into detail about what happened there.

Half a year later, he moved back to Shenzhen. In an earlier interview, Xu had said that he loved this city, that he derived great pleasure from its Central Book Mall and public libraries. If he were to return home [to rural Jieyang], there were only a few small bookstores, and "even if I tried to order books online, they couldn't be delivered" [to his remote address].

Due to his love of books, the first job application he submitted upon his return to Shenzhen in early September was to the Central Book Mall. Zheng recalled that Xu had told him, while working at Foxconn, that his dream was to become a librarian. Unfortunately, he did not get the job, and Zheng thinks this was a major disappointment. Two years earlier, Xu had applied for a position as librarian at Foxconn's internal library for employees, in response to a call for applications, and Xu had been turned down then as well. {...}

Returning to the workshop for one day prior to the incident

Xu was running out of money, so after these disappointments, he returned to Foxconn, beginning work on September 29, in the same workshop where he had worked before. This should have been a new beginning, but it was not. That evening he mentioned to Zheng via online chat that someone had found him another job, so he might leave Foxconn again, but Zheng did not consider this anything special, figuring that Xu would not leave very soon, having just resumed work at Foxconn.

The next Zheng heard of Xu was two days later, when people forwarded the news of Xu's suicide on WeChat. Zheng could not believe it: "Hadn't we just chatted two nights ago?" Later Zheng learned that Xu had committed suicide only the morning after they had chatted, not two days later as the media had reported.

Refuting online rumors that Xu was an orphan

[Although it has been 10 days since Xu's death,] when it is mentioned, Zheng still cannot bear the grief. He thinks that Xu's suicide resulted from both internal and external factors: not only the disappointments he had undergone, but even more so the solitary poetic spirit in his bones.2

After Xu's passing, some online obituaries claimed that as a young child he had been orphaned, neglected and insulted until a poor old women adopted and raised him, and that this foster-grandmother had died a few years ago, leaving Xu alone in the world.

Zheng [refuted these rumors, pointing out that] Xu's writings often mentioned his mother and homesickness. His second poem published in Foxconn People [for example], was called "Summertime Homesickness."

Xu's poetry is cold and pensive, directly facing a life of misery. His poems trace a trajectory in which the scent of death becomes more and more pronounced. He had already rehearsed death hundreds of times in his writing, so the final act was merely a small step over the edge.

Selected Poems by Xu Lizhi


They all say

I'm a child of few words

This I don't deny

But actually

Whether I speak or not

With this society I'll still


-- 7 June 2013

"I Fall Asleep, Just Standing Like That"

The paper before my eyes fades yellow

With a steel pen I chisel on it uneven black

Full of working words

Workshop, assembly line, machine, work card, overtime, wages...

They've trained me to become docile

Don't know how to shout or rebel

How to complain or denounce

Only how to silently suffer exhaustion

When I first set foot in this place

I hoped only for that grey pay slip on the tenth of each month

To grant me some belated solace

For this I had to grind away my corners, grind away my words

Refuse to skip work, refuse sick leave, refuse leave for private reasons

Refuse to be late, refuse to leave early

By the assembly line I stood straight like iron, hands like flight,

How many days, how many nights

Did I - just like that - standing fall asleep?

-- 20 August 2011

"A Screw Fell to the Ground"

A screw fell to the ground

In this dark night of overtime

Plunging vertically, lightly clinking

It won’t attract anyone’s attention

Just like last time

On a night like this

When someone plunged to the ground

-- 9 January 2014

"A Kind of Prophecy"

Village elders say

I resemble my grandfather in his youth

I didn’t recognize it

But listening to them time and again

Won me over

My grandfather and I share

Facial expressions

Temperaments, hobbies

Almost as if we came from the same womb

They nicknamed him “bamboo pole”

And me, “clothes hanger”

He often swallowed his feelings

I'm often obsequious

He liked guessing riddles

I like premonitions

In the autumn of 1943, the Japanese devils invaded

and burned my grandfather alive

at the age of 23.

This year i turn 23.

-- 18 June 2013

"The Last Graveyard"

Even the machine is nodding off

Sealed workshops store diseased iron

Wages concealed behind curtains

Like the love that young workers bury at the bottom of their hearts

With no time for expression, emotion crumbles into dust

They have stomachs forged of iron

Full of thick acid, sulfuric and nitric

Industry captures their tears before they have the chance to fall

Time flows by, their heads lost in fog

Output weighs down their age, pain works overtime day and night

In their lives, dizziness before their time is latent

The jig forces the skin to peel

And while it's at it, plates on a layer of aluminum alloy

Some still endure, while others are taken by illness

I am dozing between them, guarding

The last graveyard of our youth.

-- 21 December 2011

"My Life’s Journey is Still Far from Complete"

This is something no one expected

My life’s journey

Is far from over

But now it's stalled at the halfway mark

It’s not as if similar difficulties

Didn’t exist before

But they didn’t come

As suddenly

As ferociously

Repeatedly struggle

But all is futile

I want to stand up more than anyone else

But my legs won’t cooperate

My stomach won’t cooperate

All the bones of my body won’t cooperate

I can only lie flat

In this darkness, sending out

A silent distress signal, again and again

Only to hear, again and again

The echo of desperation.

-- 13 July 2014

"I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron"

I swallowed a moon made of iron

They refer to it as a nail

I swallowed this industrial sewage, these unemployment documents

Youth stooped at 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.

-- 19 December 2013

"Rented Room"

A space of ten square meters

Cramped and damp, no sunlight all year

Here I eat, sleep, shit, and think

Cough, get headaches, grow old, get sick but still fail to die

Under the dull yellow light again I stare blankly, chuckling like an idiot

I pace back and forth, singing softly, reading, writing poems

Every time I open the window or the wicker gate

I seem like a dead man

Slowly pushing open the lid of a coffin.

-- 2 December 2013

"Upon Hearing the News of Xu Lizhi's Suicide"
by Zhou Qizao (周启早), a fellow worker at Foxconn

The loss of every life

Is the passing of another me

Another screw comes loose

Another migrant worker brother jumps

You die in place of me

And I keep writing in place of you

While I do so, screwing the screws tighter

Today is our nation's sixty-fifth birthday

We wish the country joyous celebrations

A twenty-four-year-old you stands in the grey picture frame, smiling ever so slightly

Autumn winds and autumn rain

A white-haired father, holding the black urn with your ashes, stumbles home.

-- 1 October 2014

Translators' notes:

  • 1. From the 1990s through the 2000s, dagongzhe referred mainly to migrant wage-laborers from rural areas, often working in precarious employment positions, as opposed to urbanites working in stable positions (usually in state-owned enterprises), who were called gongren, the socialist-era term for urban “workers” with permanent positions in state-owned and collective enterprises. In the past few years, however, these two terms have become somewhat interchangeable (perhaps reflecting the convergence of conditions among different types of workers), so here we translate dagongzhe simply as "workers." (Below we add "migrant" in a few cases where it seems necessary for clarification; in general, the term reflects the ambiguity of migrant workers' status in China today - as workers differentiated from other workers, as neither urbanites nor peasants - somewhat like the ambiguous status of international migrant workers in other countries, such as people from rural Mexico working in the US.) For discussions of these two terms as used in the 2000s, see “China’s Migrant Workers” by Prol-position, and the introduction to Made in China by Pun Ngai (Duke University Press, 2005).
  • 2. We at Nao would like to point out that this explanation neglects the profound hatred of life on the assembly line reflected so clearly in many of Xu's poems quoted above and translated below, coupled with his desperation after repeatedly failing to find a more satisfactory way out of that life, including the possibility of returning home to the empty, poor village where he would be cut off from access to books - his main source of pleasure and meaning in life (along with - presumably - the possibility of being together with his girlfriend or getting married, which would require more money than Xu would have been able to make in the countryside). This account also fails to explain why so many other workers - at Foxconn and elsewhere - have chosen to commit suicide - even those who were not poets.

Posted By

Oct 29 2014 07:56


  • They all say/ I'm a child of few words/ This I don't deny/ But whether I speak or not/ With this society I'll still/ Conflict

Attached files


Nov 3 2014 06:33

I don't know if the comparison is appropriate, but these make me think of Phillip Levine.

Nov 4 2014 19:23

Without asking our permission, Bloomberg published an article quoting substantially from our translations and using information from this post. We did write "Feel free to repost these translations anywhere," and Bloomberg does include a link to this post, but the link is hidden under the word "poetry," neither Libcom or Nao is mentioned in the article, and the article implies that the author gathered the information and did the translations themselves. In the future perhaps we should clarify that our material may be freely reposted for non-commercial purposes; no profit should be made off of our work, not to mention off of the writing of workers such as Xu Lizhi.

If you want to help us post comments on Bloomberg, the link is here:

Nov 5 2014 04:26

Here's the email of the author who posted the Bloomberg piece, if you want to help us complain to her that way too, heave at it: christina [dot] larson @ gmail [dot] com

Joseph Kay
Nov 5 2014 06:22

The default license for libcom content is creative commons attribution non-commercial share-alike, if that helps:

Nov 5 2014 13:44

Here's her Twitter account.

Nov 5 2014 17:53

Just hypothetically, how does one go about enforcing a creative commons license? (We can't be bothered to actually do this, and would be politically opposed to doing so if it involves turning to the state for support, which presumably it would, but we're just wondering. In fact all we can do is just post comments on Bloomberg, the author's twitter, etc. At least they did include a link to this post, which might actually attract more traffic to this blog and website, but I think that technically they did violate the creative commons license by failing to state that the source clearly, and by doing so on a for-profit website. (Apparently permission is not relevant, and we did explicitly invite people to repost - albeit to spread awareness rather than to make money.)

Joseph Kay
Nov 5 2014 18:07

I think you'd first write to them and request they do X (remove it, pay a license fee, whatever), giving the reasons (terms of license), with a deadline. After that it would be a civil action via a lawyer/solicitor (so via the state, but civil rather than criminal law).

Nov 6 2014 20:41

I arrived here via the link on Bloomberg. I had never previously heard of Nao or Libcom, but now I have.

Nov 7 2014 08:49

Now several other websites have quoted these translations. Glad Xu Lizhi's tragic fate and excellent poetry are getting the attention they deserve. (It's worth noting that all these other websites do a better job than Bloomberg in clearly indicating the source of these translations.)

Nov 8 2014 21:23

Thanks so much for translating these, I have also seen these posted elsewhere so it's really great that you've done this. It is beautiful and horrible in equal measure

Nov 11 2014 20:19
Nov 13 2014 19:41

Thank you for publishing that footnote # 2. It is a crucial clarification that needs to be stressed for the American readers. Too often, in this country's culture, poetry is viewed as a "solitary" individualistic depoliticized endeavour. You're doing important work in letting people know about this great writer, and the deep struggle of the Chinese workers. Thank you!

Nov 14 2014 22:18

Agree with chrisS. Thanks for publishing all this and don't give a bugger about the capitalist piracy.

Nov 15 2014 19:12

Thank you so much for taking time and effort to translate these! A tragic story that needs to be told, and represents so many people's lives all over the world. I'm really glad it's been picked up by mainstream media -- as much as it sucks that Bloomberg cited the source badly, it's been cited better since then, and will bring more attention to the story, to this blog, and to Libcom in general, which can only be a good thing.

PuppetMattster wrote:
I arrived here via the link on Bloomberg. I had never previously heard of Nao or Libcom, but now I have.

Glad you're here! Welcome!

Juan Conatz
Nov 15 2014 20:24
Nov 15 2014 23:41

I am giving a public poetry reading in Cambridge University (UK), tomorrow. It is a student-organised poetry evening focusing on work by writers who have been imprisoned. I would like to read a translation of 'Rented Room', and I will say a few brief words about Xu Lizhi's life as well. I hope I can do him justice.

Thank you very much to everyone at Nao for this post and for the poetry.

Nov 16 2014 00:45

Were his poems ever published in a book and translated?

Des Donnelly
Nov 16 2014 17:33

Thank you very much for creating this and providing all the information and particularly for the translations of Xu Lizhi's work.

I have posted an article on my entitled 'At the Bottom of the Night..suicide beckons'

You mention his blog post called “The Maturation Given to Me by a Newspaper,” indicating his gratitude for this platform for his literary aspirations.

I would offer any poet who finds themselves in this position of despair at the bottom of the night a platform for their work. (Contact info) In the article you say;- Xu once said that he never showed his poetry to his parents or other relatives, "because it's something painful; I don't want them to see that."

I think perhaps that this is what poetry is really about - to bleed on a public page, writing about those sensitive private things which we all confront alone. Doing so does two things;- it gives other hope and it can help free the demons we all face.

Des Donnelly Ireland

Jan 23 2015 00:32

I read your translations about this poems. I felt inspire by Xu´s words and decided to translate them to Spanish (
I couldn´t help notice the similarities between chinese dagongzhe workers and latinamerican maquila workers. Their labor conditions are disgraceful... I have read this texts and Xu´s poems took me to the day we all found out about Blueberry ( and their rotten roots. So, I would like to make available this work of yours to others eyes in the planet. Please, take a look to my contribution to you effort and, if you are pleased, feel free to share it.


Martín Letona.


Becasue these are not in your selection, I wonder if this two poems are Xu´s:

We ran along the railway,
arriving in some place called ‘the City’
where we trade in our youth, and our muscle.
Finally we have nothing to trade, only a cough
and a skeleton nobody cares about.
Midnight. Everyone is sleeping soundly,
We keep our pair of young wounds open.
These black eyes, can you really lead us to the light?
‘Night Shift’

An old friend at Foxconn just quit
for Lanxiang, to better his skills:
Wonderful Lanxiang, the perfect fit;
Jobs for all graduates, perks and frills.
He’s back now at Foxconn. Oh shit.
City people find this funny.

They are cited in this post as his:

Nov 19 2014 17:20

I am very interested in presenting a public reading of some of these poems to help raise awareness. Does anyone know who I could speak to, to get permission to do this? I would want to speak to his family, friends and translator to make sure they were comfortable with it. Thanks for your help!

Nov 21 2014 14:11

I didn't anticipate these would strike such a chord in me, but they did, leading me to read further for a few hours and write some thoughts in my blog. Thank you very much for translating these; the issue is now transformed from worlds away political to deeply personal.

Dec 10 2014 04:25

The poet and critic Qin Xiaoyu raised some money and is compiling the complete works of Xu Lizhi into a book. Someone else is trying to make a documentary about him (difficult b/c Foxconn forced Xu's family to sign an agreement that they refuse to speak to anyone about him). If either of these projects comes to fruition, we'll post info about them here.

Here is the Chinese fund-raising page with info about the book project:

Thanks everyone for your attention and appreciation of Xu's work!

Dec 22 2014 14:17

Hi, im spanish, my name is Javier.
Noa, do you mind if I try to translate some poems?
Thank you.

Dec 22 2014 15:35
jazersances wrote:
Hi, im spanish, my name is Javier.
Noa, do you mind if I try to translate some poems?
Thank you.

hi, no they won't mind, as long as they get a credit and link for doing the translation into English

Dec 22 2014 19:57

Thank you! smile

Dec 24 2014 13:52
Dec 24 2014 13:54

Excelente trabajo Martín, gracias por compartir la traducción. Si me permites publicaré algunos de los pemas traducidos en algunos grupos de las redes sociales.

Dec 26 2014 00:05

Adelante, las3nubes, por mí no hay problema. El crédito, desde luego, es de Nao y, que piden dar crédito del origen de estos textos. Saludos.

Dec 26 2014 22:41

¿alguien por aquí sabe a quién se podría contactar para publicar un libro con su poesía? gracias y saludos solidarios.

Mar 9 2015 01:37

Hello, I am a composer based in Australia, and I was wondering if I could use some of these poems for a composition that I am composing for my ensemble? I will completely attribute poet, translator etc. I am incredibly moved by these works and I think they would suit a string work I am writing not only in terms of the political message, but also emotionally speaking.

I hope to hear back from you,