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The Eerie Poetry of Chinese Suicide Victims

A factory worker, a disgraced government official, and a fashion designer all left behind poetry in the place of suicide notes.

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Recently there have been some high-profile cases of suicidal people in China leaving behind poems in place of suicide notes. Some of the poetry has that "my-life-is-a-vortex-of-sorrow" quality you'd expect from someone in the throes of psychic agony, but some is downright literary.

Foxconn, the company responsible for low-wage mega-factories where some Apple products are made, famously installed  ​nets to stop their suicidal employees' skulls from cracking on the pavement. But that didn't stop Xu Lizhi, a 24-year-old Foxconn factory worker, from taking his life last month. Before he threw his own body off a building, he left behind a collection of haunting poetry that offered a peek into the regimented, soul-crushing state of factory life in China.


An electronics factory in Shenzhen. Photo by  ​Steve Jurvetson

Here's something that Xu wrote about living in the kind of company-run dormitory that Foxconn workers occupy:

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.

Here's another poem by Xu, written in January, with a dark premonition about his ultimate fate:

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.

Both translations above are from libcom​.org. Try reading that last one from bottom to top. Equally eerie.

Unlike the subject of the above poem, Xu attracted a lot of attention. After his death, his suicide and his work was covered by outlets including  ​the Washington Post, ​Bloomberg Businessweek, and ​Business Insider. But there are other cases like his that haven't achieved that level of attention in the West.

Lou Xuequan, a disgraced Chinese official from Nanjing, comm​itted suicide (link in Chinese) three months after being fired in June. In between losing his job and hanging himself, he expressed the depths of his desperation through poetry. His writing was censored online around the time of his death, but has since been shared thousands of times on social media. A sample:


At whom shall the sword of treachery point?
​ ​Intoxication hides rumbling thunder
​ ​In my roaming I have not found a confidant
​ ​I serve the master yet imbibe sorrow
​ ​My vision fills with young followers whom I can no longer protect
​ ​But a boat of old friends keep each other company
​ ​I suddenly awaken at the crossing into paradise
​ ​And relinquish a million responsibilities.

Lou's death poem is complex and written in a very traditional manner, and some words can't be properly translated. For those who can read Chinese, the original can be found here, along with some solid attempts at explanations. (In Chinese, the part about how he "serves the master yet imbibe[s] sorrow" is a much more subtle allusion to being a faithful servant to the Communist Party.​)

Persecution is the thread that seems to tie all the death poems together. An up-and-coming fashion designer named Li Yanmo killed herself in her Beijing studio in January last year and a couple months ago, it was discovered that she left behind a epicallyong poem titled "A Still Portrait." Here is an excerpt:

_ The grass grows out of the asphalt
​ And someone pours more asphalt over it
​ I feel my left foot stopping my right hand
​ Between brain paralysis and shoulder pain
​ You chose the latter
​ I can only retreat
​ Watching you two fight has always been my pleasure
​ You take off your pants
​ I remove the adjectives
​ Is that how we can be honest with each other? _

Li's story has a tabloid quality to it. She was a successful designer who had worked on the costumes of a major film in China, but Oscar-winning production designer Timmy Yip was making her life  ​difficult, according to a tell-all blog post written by Li's mother, which is how her poetry got publicized.

_ Whenever I talk
​ You slap my face
​ I'll strangle you
​ Strangle your tenderness ​ Like a grand murder. _

Her poem doesn't seem to be intended as a suicide note, but themes of hopelessness and depression run through it. The original Chinese version can be found ​here.

There's nothing to suggest that using poems as suicide notes is a new phenomenon, but these have all come to light in the last few months and the combination of tragedy and emotional writing has captured the public imagination. And in some cases these verses have attracted attention to topics that aren't often covered in the media. How many other Foxconn workers are sitting in ten-meter rooms writing poetry right now?