A Migrant Pen6 min read

How Fan Yusu wrote dignity back into migrants’ lives – Ting Guo

In April 2017, an article written by a migrant worker named Fan Yusu went viral on Chinese social media. The piece, titled simply ‘I Am Fan Yusu,’ was published by Beijing-based new media outlet NoonStory and recounts Fan’s family life in a small northern Chinese village, as well as her own story of running away to the southern island province of Hainan, returning home, and becoming a country teacher – all by the age of 12 years old.

Fan goes on to illustrate her present life as a domestic helper in booming, cosmopolitan Beijing. She details how a mistress to the husband she works for begs for his love; how the capital’s migrant children struggle to obtain an education; and how her fellow migrant workers gather together in local reading groups. Many college-educated urban intellectuals and journalists have said they feel “humbled” by Fan’s command of language, her obvious literary talent, and her sharp insight into the marginalized social class to which she belongs.

Though most of Fan’s stories are familiar to Chinese readers of so-called peasant literature, she deftly animates a cast of often-overlooked figures in a rapidly changing society. Despite the realism of her work – Fan, after all, has lived these experiences herself – the narrative nonetheless carries an absurdist hue thanks to her literary flair. “My life is a disheartening book; fate has bound me badly,” she writes. “Art originates from life, and yet all present life is absurd.”

Fan’s dignified, elegant writing has drawn so much public attention as her style is markedly different from the peasant literature normally associated with people of her background. Some have questioned her professional ethics over her depictions of her employers’ private lives; others decry her portrayals of certain female characters as sexist. Given the criticism that Fan has taken, what does it say about our impressions of how migrant workers, the disempowered, and China’s rural population are portrayed in literature?

Whenever I meet those who are weak, like me, I share with them love and dignity. – Fan Yusu”

A reporter who first helped to popularize Fan’s writing recounted that she first discovered Fan’s work in Picun Literature, a magazine of writing by migrant workers that recently carried a story about someone who dreamed of becoming an astronaut. This topic is rather unusual for peasant literature, which normally consists of autobiographical accounts of the personal struggles of the downtrodden. The power of Fan’s writing, however, does not always come from her sharp accounts of hardship; instead, her work shines with the joy she takes in words, perhaps thanks to the literature class she attended at Picun Workers’ Home in Beijing.

It is clear from Fan’s prose that she does not see herself as a disempowered figure, but as a strong individual whose curiosity pushes her to understand, to observe, to learn, and to question the world around her. She saves some of her most moving passages for her family, who remain gracious, talented human beings no matter how compromised they might be financially. “I think my family members were kings and aristocrats in their previous lives, though they are nobodies in this life,” Fan said in an interview. “The so-called high and low classes still share the same soul.”

To which genre does Fan’s writing belong? The Guardian has compared her favorably with Dickens – no doubt because they both write about the drudgery of the working classes. More appropriate is the analysis of her NoonStory editor, who compared her to the character of Sancho Panza in Don Quixote, a faithful observer casting an ironic gaze over the contradictions around her. For her part, Fan has referred to her writing as magical realism. Indeed, her stories draw inspiration not only from the recognizable world in which we live, but also from worlds beyond it, where vivid imaginaries and sensibilities emerge to disrupt our familiar reality.

In particular, the women in Fan’s family demonstrate the kind of integrity and strength that are rarely found in peasant literature, which more commonly depicts women as tragic, put-upon figures suppressed by a patriarchal society.

Fan notes that whenever she encounters injustice in the big city, she reminds herself that she is the daughter of courageous female villagers. “The love of my mother saved me from the repulsive hardships I encountered as a migrant worker,” she writes. “Only love could cure me of them.” She recalls how her mother, at the age of 82, fought against the unjustified requisition of her family’s land and was shoved to the ground by public order officials, dislocating her arm. “Whenever I meet those who are weak, like me, I share with them love and dignity,” she writes. “I hug the homeless and the disabled on the streets of Beijing; I hug those who are mentally ill. I reciprocate my mother’s love by loving others.”

Fan’s staunch sense of sisterhood is liberating. As others have remarked, emotional and moral support networks among rural Chinese women should be a rich vein of inspiration, but these remain practically ignored by writers, the media, and popular culture. There may be an uncomfortable reason for this: namely, because our social preconceptions are founded on ignorance. We assume that writing about the burdens we bear – depicting the unbearable heaviness of being women – is the best way to move readers. Yet the women in Fan’s stories challenge this assertion in the same way that Fan herself no longer conforms to the stereotype: After all, she is now a peasant woman from a patriarchal environment enjoying overnight success and global praise.

Fan’s sudden rise to fame is not unprecedented. In the 1980s and ’90s, too, a generation of working wordsmiths established themselves in the public consciousness. Xing Chen’s 1982 novel Backlight, later made into a film, is well-known in China for its poetic opening line: “Spring arrived, with dripping footprints.” Similar to Fan’s writing, it also tells a story of class, fate, and human agency, while reflecting on the contemporary social and political environment through human relationships – all with a touch of magical realism.

In fact, many famous literary figures today, including Wang Anyi, the author of the internationally acclaimed novel Song of Everlasting Regret, taught at workers’ study units and night classes in the ’80s. Such organizations once received state support, producing dozens of great writers and enriching the lives of many young workers in a socialist society rapidly coming to embrace the material benefits of economic reform.

Fan’s fame is also related to workers’ organizations – specifically Picun, which houses the literary magazine in which Fan first began to publish and provides not only shelter to migrant workers, but also a cultural space that cultivates, nourishes, and encourages those from deprived backgrounds. Lately, however, Picun has faced the prospect of demolition. It is one of modern China’s great tragedies that such groups are so often left fighting to survive.

Literature can be healing and transformative. It empowers both reader and writer to articulate their personal dignity and integrity in environments that seek to suppress these qualities. In this context, ‘I Am Fan Yusu’ is significant. As John Berger put it: “The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out.” We hope Fan’s work will encourage more peasant writers to express and share their experiences, so that one day we are no longer shocked by the graceful literary talent of a migrant worker. ∎

A earlier version of this article appeared on the LARB China Blog in July 2017.