“We Are Revolution”: Introducing Asia’s Proletarian Lit

During the last election cycle, the American working class got a lot of airplay. Donald Trump’s rhetoric was a throwback to a different era of politics and a different economy. Talk of American workers often included overt and coded criticism of China, which was portrayed as a villainous and devious nation that had stolen jobs from deserving Americans. Of course, the Asian workers (many of whom are not Chinese) who were supposedly responsible for America’s declining fortunes were never mentioned.

In the past, American labor movements produced literature that was both popular and politically effective. Books like The Jungle exposed working conditions and pressed for egalitarian politics. It may feel dated today, but it raises an interesting question: What would popular working class literature look like in another context? What if The Jungle were written in an iPhone factory?

Asia’s workers, like America’s, are a diverse group. And like the US, Asia has a history of workers’ rights movements with authors from many classes, who have produced noteworthy literature. This has led to increased solidarity in struggles across political and cultural fronts—a sense of mission that continues today. The word proletarian—a term that’s now mostly absent from American discourse—is an important one in this respect, because it subsumes regional or ethnic identities while being class-based and international in scope.

The selection below is an introduction to Asian literature that tries to represent this proletarian stance. The books were chosen using a couple of criteria: They had to be available in English and from nations that have large, connected economies—in other words, from countries that will continue to shape the region.

The Crab Cannery Ship by Kobayashi Takiji

Kobayashi Takiji (1903–33) followed the petit bourgeois path of getting an education and a job at a bank. But he was an unenthusiastic banker, who wrote literature on the side, and eventually threw his lot in with striking workers by writing leaflets and joining the Japanese Communist Party. He once said that being a writer and intellectual on the one hand, and an advocate for the working-class on the other, was “like holding dual citizenship.” After he became well-known as a political writer, Takiji was arrested and tortured, and died in police custody.

The Crab Cannery Ship is, true to the title, about life on a crab cannery ship. The story features a group of workers from different backgrounds who cooperate to fight the immediate source of all their problems: the boss. Replete with organizational schema and diagrams, the novella’s cinematic narration remains fresh today. The plot to overthrow the boss fails, of course, but Takiji presents valuable insight into the lives of workers and into labor organizing. One of the most interesting things about The Crab Cannery Ship is that the characters function as a unit—there are no individual viewpoints, but, instead, didactic prescriptions and material goals. This literary technique still seems innovative all these years later, part of a vanguard of literature that subverts individual aims.

“Days and Dreams” by Kang Sok-kyong

Kang Sok-kyong (b. 1951) emerged long after the proletarian movement in Korean literature of the 1920s and ’30s ended. Many of her topics are, on the surface, the bourgeois subjects of self-discovery and authenticity. But go a little deeper, and it becomes more complicated. For example, her characters in “Days and Dreams” are prostitutes and GIs around an American army base in South Korea. While the narrative features a few central characters, the story effortlessly shuffles through multiple characters’ lives. The result feels like a modernist montage.

The story follows a prostitute who has recently moved in with a married American soldier. She fights with the man and forms relationships with other prostitutes, who accept or reject their lives with varying degrees of cynicism. It’s compelling as a story about individuals in a working underclass, but it also complicates social status and national status, at times rejecting national and ethnic solidarity in favor of solidarity among those who simply understand one another. As one character puts it, “The Koreans don’t accept us, and neither do the Americans. Over and over we sacrifice ourselves for dollars and we end up foreigners’ girls. Knocked around like fish on a cutting board.”

“My Kampung” by Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925–2006) is one of those prolific and important writers—for years he was expected to be a Nobel Prize nominee—who remains largely unknown outside his home country. It’s hard to know why, but I’d venture to say it’s partially because his writing is deeply embedded in the context of Indonesian history and politics. So, a bit of background is helpful. Toer began work as a typist for the Japanese—colonists in Indonesia that he saw as slightly preferable to the previous Dutch colonists. After becoming disillusioned with them and briefly allying himself with nationalists, he became sympathetic to the communists and to the persecuted ethnic Chinese living in Indonesia—sympathies which, later on, earned him a fourteen-year prison sentence under Suharto. Throughout his career, he wrote both polemical essays and fiction in a conversational style that recalls traditional Indonesian storytelling.

His stories are often about the colonization of Indonesia and the country’s ethnic conflicts. He focuses on the lives of the lumpenproletariat and how they define themselves in relation to the city they live in. His story “My Kampung” is a rambling tale of deaths in the narrator’s neighborhood. Because the language is colloquial, the reader feels like the narrator’s confidant. The characters are all spoken of as if we know them, and yet the story is introduced to the reader as if he or she were “a tourist” who will enjoy hearing these sordid tales. Although he sometimes seems cynical, Toer pushes for solidarity across the lines of class.

Iron Moon: An Anthology of Chinese Worker Poetry translated by Eleanor Goodman

This recent anthology collects poetry by contemporary Chinese migrant laborers. Their professions vary widely, as does the poetry itself: There’s everything from didactic verse to experimental disjunction. Poets like Chi Moshu write with limpid imagery about die-casting, while the poet Alu polemically writes that “the landlords have been purged.”

Considering that these worker-poets often have very little formal education (and not a lot of time on their hands), the high quality of the work here points to one obvious conclusion: There are a lot of good poets in China. More notable, however, is that they exist outside of China’s professional system of writers, just as their jobs put them outside of the usual trajectories of professional advancement. A lot of us could learn something from these individuals about solidarity—as well as about writing.

“Ringworms” by Huang Chun-ming

Huang Chun-ming (b. 1935) began as a writer influenced by the realism of Hemingway and Faulkner and gradually adapted those influences to more recognizably Taiwanese motifs. Born during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, and growing up during the long period of martial law that followed, he is now known for his Nativist portrayals of Taiwan’s local population.

“Ringworms” is a plainspoken story about a horny husband in a poor family who all live in a shack. The family of seven share a large bed and the parents wonder how they can have sex without disturbing their children. The subject of birth control is brought up, and feelings of both pride and embarrassment make for an uncomfortable conversation between the parents as the children get ready for bed. Finally, as the adults are passive-aggressively sweet-talking each other, ringworm is discovered on the wife. Anticipated sexual scenarios fade as a decidedly unsexy discussion of anti-itch cream ensues.

Sevasadan by Munshi Premchand

It’s difficult to underestimate the influence of Premchand (1880–1936) on Indian letters and Indian reformists. Coming from humble means, with his formal education ending when he was a teenager, Premchand became a teacher for hire. This career gave him, if not money, then the time to develop his fiction and explore the world of anticolonial and reform politics, which were then being popularized by Ghandi. As part of his commitment to Ghandi’s noncooperation movement, Premchand quit his government-sponsored job, eventually moving into scriptwriting, and from there found commercial success as a fiction writer. His realist stories, in the vein of Chekhov, often document the suffering of India’s underclasses—in particular the women who were abused, ferried about, and had difficulty finding any feeling of autonomy.

Sevasadan is a humane, darkly humorous novel about the fall of a young woman from bourgeois society. After a semi-arranged marriage doesn’t work out, the protagonist, Suman, finds herself on the streets and taken in by a woman who pressures her into genteel prostitution. Depicting individuals’ struggles for dignity through new, urbane lifestyles and political organization, the novel is “proletarian” in the sense that the city where people perform labor is the site of other conflicts of identity, which are largely refracted through social status.

Shanghai by Riichi Yokomitsu

Founder and theorist of the New Sensation School of writers in Tokyo (which included Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata), Riichi Yokomitsu (1898-1947) distanced himself from Marxist writers and from avant-garde “pure literature” advocates. He stands out for developing a theory of literature that emphasized a new style of realism with little emphasis on naturalistic methods like psychological development or character-centered plots. Instead, what’s important in his work are the effects of language in describing the sights and sounds—as he says, “the surface signs of perception”—of the city. He framed much of his work in nationalistic and militaristic language, even saying that “only Japanese militarism possesses enough power to rescue the subjugated East.” His life and work are, in many respects, contradictiory.

The novel Shanghai depicts striking workers with rapid-fire language, in what reads like a study in the tension between class depiction and aesthetic means. The plot: a group of Japanese bourgeois expats live in Shanghai, and one of them, a laid-off banker, pursues a Chinese labor leader and communist. He wanders the city and witnesses its unrest, even fantasizing that he can be a martyr for greater Asian unity—fantastically benefiting both the communists as well as the Japanese imperialists.

“If You Want to Know What We Are” by Carlos Bulosan

Carlos Bulosan (c. 1913–1956) emigrated from the Philippines to the US as a teenager, arriving in Seattle in search of economic opportunities. He eventually found work in the countryside as a migrant laborer, harvesting produce. Bulosan became a labor organizer and prolific writer, documenting his working conditions as well as writing on the colonial history of the Philippines. It wasn’t until near the end of his life—when he was destitute in Seattle, suffering from a variety of health conditions—that he found a literary agent and was published in the Saturday Evening Post.

Known primarily for his fiction, the iconic poem “If You Want to Know What We Are” is a universalizing statement about the identity and goals of not only working-class Filipinos, but of all proletariats. It appeals for solidarity in its descriptions of the natural and manufactured world: “If you want to know what we are who become/ animate at the rain’s metallic ring …/ each supremacy classless, each classlessness/ nourished by unlimited splendor of comradeship.” The lyric reads like a compressed Whitman poem—a Whitman not quite rhapsodic enough to be pleased with his situation. Bulosan states that he is “multitudes the world over, millions everywhere,” but instead of positing a mystical vision of oneness, he develops an internationalist vision against imperialists and “bourgeois arrogance.” The lucid poem ends on a proletarian note: “WE ARE REVOLUTION.”

Matt Turner is a critic and translator based in New York City and Beijing. He is the translator of Lu Xun’s Weeds, and, along with Weng Haiying, Chan Chi Tak’s Hong Kong Lights. His essays can be found in Hyperallergic Weekend, Seedings, Cha, Hong Kong Review of Books, and other journals.