Across China: Drawing circles -- literary dreams in a migrant workers' village

Source: Xinhua| 2017-05-01 09:26:17|Editor: An
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By Xinhua Writers Bai Xu, Zhang Manzi

BEIJING, May 1 (Xinhua) -- An obscure village on the outskirts of Beijing is the center of a literary storm, since a short memoir somehow went viral on Chinese social media.

"Do you know that Fan is famous now? Very famous! Our yard is crowded with journalists." Migrant worker Fu Qiuyun from Picun village is gossiping on her phone with a friend.

The Fan of whom she speaks is Fan Yusu, 44, from central China's Hubei province, now a baby-sitter in Beijing who used to live in Picun. Her article "I Am Fan Yusu" began circulating on WeChat earlier this week and was read more than 100,000 times only in a couple of days.

"My life is a book which was bound in such a clumsy way," begins the 8,000-character autobiography.


A quiet woman with short hair who usually wears subdued colors, Fan stopped her studies during middle school, but clung on to her literary dreams.

Fan started reading novels at the age of six or seven. As a teenager, she read all the books and magazines that she could find in her village. She loved the romances by popular Taiwan writer Chiung Yao so much that, at 12, she changed her name as "Yusu" to sound like heroines of the novels.

At the age of 20, she left for Beijing "to see the bigger world."

She married a man from northeast China. They had two daughters before Fan divorced him for domestic violence.

"In the years when I was away from home, I found it difficult to trust anyone," she wrote. "Sometimes I was even afraid of saying 'hello.' I read self-help books to try to cure myself."

She told Xinhua that one of the reasons she liked Beijing was she "could find many books to read here."

"I am very familiar with the Capital Library of China and the National Library," she said.

In 2014, she joined a literature group in Picun. "I attended classes for a year," she said. "When life was extremely difficult, I read, to stop thinking of the hardship."

"Her life was not easy," said Zhang Hua from her home town in Hubei, Xiangyang. "More than 20 years ago in our village we believed that a married daughter was like water poured out that could never be retrieved. Few people chose to divorce. Her sisters were in poor health. She raised two daughters alone in a city far away."


Picun, which literally means "rubber village," is just a few kilometers from the Capital International Airport. A trip to the nearest town in the neighboring province of Hebei takes about an hour, while a bus ride to downtown Beijing takes about two.

In the village of 20,000 people with planes forever zooming over the red brick bungalows, only around 1,000 residents are native to Beijing. The rest are migrant workers like Fan.

Picun was famous once before. A "cultural club" was founded in 2002. The migrant workers had a theater, a library and a museum showing how China's rural laborers eked out a living and fought for their rights in cities during 30 years of reform.

The organizers felt the club was not meeting the spiritual needs of the migrant workers and after discussion, they came up with a solution: writing.

The literature group was founded in October 2014. Fu Qiuyun, then 22, was one of the founders. They posted an online notice to find a writing teacher. "At first a magazine editor contacted us, but soon gave up because the village was too far away. Then came Zhang Huiyu, a professor with the Chinese National Academy of Arts."

Zhang himself had been a farmer before attending Beijing University and he had cousins who were migrant workers. "We had finally found someone who really knew Picun," Fu said.

When everything was ready, Fu and other founders made a loudspeaker announcement, telling workers in the village they were welcome to writing lessons every Sunday evening.

Fu remembers one of the group members, Yuan Wei, once told her "I don't know how to write that character."

"Draw a circle instead," she replied.

"Then my paper will be full of circles," Yuan said. But workers love the group.

Wang Chunyu changed his job to work in Picun because of the group. He came to Beijing in 2003 and has worked as janitor, gardener and delivery driver. He wrote a poem about Picun that was adapted into a song by another worker.

Xiao Hai (not his real name) has written more than 400 poems during his 14 years of migrant life, many on the bus home from work. He used lines from John Lennon and Bob Dylan to record his own life.

Workers have their own journal, Picun Literature, in which they talk about love, about life, about their impressions of the city and nostalgia for their family, under different pen names.

Fan Yusu had been active in the group. "She didn't talk much usually, but in class, she liked speaking, sometimes with extravagant gestures," Fu recalled.

"I feel a sense of dignity in this yard," Fan said. "No discrimination here." She attended classes there until she found a job elsewhere in Beijing and had to leave Picun.


"I am a woman struggling to survive at the bottom of society," Fan said in an interview with a local media in Beijing.

Her younger daughter now studies at a school in Hebei. "She has no chance to study in Beijing. But if she goes back to our hometown, she would not be able to see her mom," she said.

China's reform and opening-up drive started in rural areas in 1978 with collectively-owned farmland contracted to individual families. This freed about 100 million peasants from farm work. A policy change in 1984 first allowed farmers to find jobs in cities but the massive migration of redundant rural laborers did not start until after China decided to move to a market economy in 1992.

According to a report by the National Bureau of Statistics, at the end of 2016, there were 280 million rural migrant workers in China.

Migrant workers and their families face many problems, such as left-behind children and elderly parents, and household registration, or hukou which is a crucial document entitling residents to social welfare in a given city.

Fan once wrote a poem, Monologue of a Migrant Mother:

I only dare to weep in the depths of night

I am a migrant, and so are my daughters

If possible, let me alone face the plight

Leaving my dear children only the happiness

"She is not alone. In fact, Picun is an icon, an example of the life of their group," said their teacher Zhang Huiyu. "They managed to carry on thanks to their literature dreams."

On the back cover of Picun Literature there is a sentence: Without literature our history will not be preserved; without history we will have no future.

Fan Yusu plans to write a novel based on the real stories of her acquaintances, but she is still not confident about writing.

"I have no talent," she said. "I have never dreamed of changing my destiny with a pen. I am used to labor work and will continue to be a migrant worker."