Sun Heng, China’s Woody Guthrie, sings for a new generation of migrants.
Foster Stockwell and
October 3 marked the 45th anniversary of the death of the legendary folk musician and activist Woody Guthrie. Guthrie suffered from Huntington’s disease, and spent the last years of his life out of public view. In this country, the Guthrie’s politics were almost buried in history. His most famous song, “This Land Is Your Land,” has been honored by politicians and school teachers – but only after the most pointed verses were removed. But now, at the centenary of his birth, Guthrie’s radical legacy is receiving more notice through concerts, radio specials, and new biographies.
There are many in China who know of Woody Guthrie and his contributions to the American left, even though most of them have never heard his music. Although many Chinese know something of Guthrie, it seems that no one on this side of the ocean has ever heard of the Chinese folksinger Sun Heng, who like Guthrie is a champion of the plight of the Chinese migrants; a singer who in his own country has been called “the Chinese Woody Guthrie.” At construction sites and in factories all over China Sun has been singing for free to a massive fan base composed of poor migrant workers. They sing his songs, cheer him on, and, when they can afford it, buy his CDs and cassettes.
In an email interview for this article, Sun Heng said that he respects Guthrie very much “because Guthrie provided music for the grassroots people.” He said that like Guthrie he plays for the working class, and that music should always be for the general public. “However Guthrie’s music is American folk music, while I play modern Chinese music,” he said.
Sun is championing the lives of China’s migrant workers, much as Woody Guthrie sang about the plight of American migrants in the 1930s and 40s. But the number of migrants from rural China to its cities would have been unimaginable in Guthrie’s day. In her recent book Eating Bitterness: Stories from the Front Lines of China’s Great Urban Migration, journalist Michelle Dammon Loyalka notes: “At any given time, over 200 million such people leave their families and farms behind and flock to China’s urban centers, where they provide a profusion of cheap labor that helps fuel the country’s massive city-building process as well as its staggering economic growth….these migrants are involved in every aspect of China’s own domestic life.”
Sun was born in 1975 in a remote mountain village in Shaanxi province in northern China, where as a child he sang folk songs about the nearby Yellow River. Sun later moved with his parents to the city of Kaifeng in Henan Province, one of China's poorest regions. He was able to work his way through teachers’ training school by helping his mother sell produce from the family plot. His political consciousness was quickly elevated when some government officials came to collect vending fees. Because his mother couldn't pay, they confiscated her cabbages for their own tables. “They were eating the people's vegetables,” he remembered angrily in a 2002 Time International interview, “I thought, in the future I want to change this unfairness.”
After his graduation, Sun became a music teacher at one of the local middle schools, a job he liked at first but which soon became repetitive and tedious in China’s rigid system of education. Then in 1998, much to the distress of his parents, he left Kaifeng and took to the rails to go north to Beijing, the capital of economically booming China and a beacon for millions of migrant workers from less developed provinces. Sun was 23 years old; the same age at which Woody Guthrie left his family after the Great Dust Storm to head west to California.
At first Sun hoped his guitar might provide him with an income, but like any other migrant to the big city he had many hardships. He carried heavy loads, drove pedicabs, did some busking, and sang in some small night clubs. Sometimes he had to live on 1.5 Yuan a day, or about 19 cents. But he also became enthralled with western rock-and-roll music and saw it as a way of changing society.
Sun told German interviewers Max Jorge Hinderer and Matthijs de Bruijne in 2010, “I learned from foreign singers like Woody Guthrie and Billy Bragg; I found that they used music to speak about social problems to the public. I admired them a lot.” It was a similar exposure to the singing traditions of the Industrial Workers of the World that shaped Guthrie’s musical style.
Spending his time walking, singing, and observing, Sun realized that he had more of a chance of being shouted at by the police than applauded by an audience. He then left Beijing to see other cities. On a visit to Tianjin, he played his guitar for a group of construction workers for whom his music particularly resonated. Their faces lit up as they smiled broadly at the lyrics in his songs. These songs had tunes resembling those they knew from their home villages, but the lyrics described their miserable condition as rural workers in an urban environment. Like the young Guthrie, Sun’s experiences as a migrant worker had given him the material for songs that would soon reach millions of other migrant workers, whom he considered to be his brothers. In April 2002, Sun formed The Art Troupe of Young Migrant Workers to perform political music for migrant workers. They are currently touring to celebrate their tenth anniversary.
In November 2002, Sun and his colleagues established “The Migrant Worker’s Home,” a cultural center and performance space in Beijing that quickly grew to serve the needs of the migrant community with the addition of a legal hotline and drop-in center. After a Chinese publisher produced one of the group’s CDs, it sold 100,000 copies, giving them enough money to start a small school for the children of migrants unable to attend Chinese schools in their non-home district. With the support of university volunteers and workers the school opened in August 2005 in Pi village at a disused factory in Beijing's eastern Chaoyang district. This Tongxin (meaning ‘solidarity’) Experimental School provides schooling for over 430 children whose parents cannot afford the tuition fees or even the cost of a school uniform at a public school. The school also provides parents with night courses on subjects such as law and the use of computers, and it has opened reading rooms to increase literacy. A series of clothing resale shops followed in 2005, and finally in 2007 Sun opened the Art and Cultural Museum of the Migrant Workers, based on the principle, “If you aren’t aware of your culture it seems that you haven’t existed in history.”
The number of China’s rural migrants is equal in number to about two-thirds of the U.S. population, though with China’s more that 1.3 billion people they compose slightly less than 15 percent of that country’s population. Unlike the dust bowl migrants of Guthrie’s day, they are farmers from thousands of tiny villages who go to the cities to find work to augment their limited farm income. On any day in the city of Beijing there are millions of migrants working mostly on construction jobs as the city’s skyline rises higher and higher with each passing year, or at various menial jobs in small factories, and a variety of other tasks such as street sweeping, sharpening knives, house cleaning, and caring for children. They are underpaid because they are not residents of the city and therefore have no recourse to the legal justice structures. The urbanites disdain them as bumpkins, and most of the city governments deny them services such as subsidized medical care and public schooling for their children. Those working in construction live in quickly built dormitories near each work site. Others live in newly formed migrant communities that are crowded into tenement-like buildings or even garages. On some streets during the daytime one can find a scattering of new arrivals holding up signs seeking work.
To large crowds of eager migrants Sun Heng sings his highly popular number titled “Get Back Our Wages, Fighting in Solidarity.” This song relates a story in northwest China's Shaanxi provincial dialect about bosses that owe the workers back pay. It includes the line: “Unite your hearts and strive as one/ And get your money when the work is done.” There is no fancy light show and no big stage, but Sun is able to whip up as much excitement as any international pop singer.
One of Sun’s CDs includes a number sung by a youth chorus from the Tongxin school. It is set to the tune of “We Shall Overcome,” and starts with this verse:
We are holding hands in hands, shoulders to shoulders
We are going ahead in solidarity
Going through uncertainties and overcoming obstacles
Our ideals can come true.
This song then ends with the familiar line “We shall overcome some day.”
The title song of his 2004 CD says: “Hand in hand/ Shoulder to shoulder/ Out of the mist/ Out of hardship/ All workers are one family.” These lines are very reminiscent of Guthrie’s “Tom Joad,” written in 1940 to the tune of “John Hardy.” Like Guthrie, Sun often sets his contemporary lyrics to traditional melodies. One song, simply called “Why,” was recently posted on the musicians’ file-sharing site Soundcloud under the account name “Workers’ Band.” Set to an old Shaanxi folk melody from Sun’s youth, the critique is of today’s inequities:
The price is jumping,
Why can the wage never catch up with it!
The economy is growing,
Why is the gap between the rich and the poor widening!
Why? Why is it?
Why? Why is it?
The poor are becoming poorer and poorer,
Why are the rich becoming more and more callous?
Our material life has become better and better,
Why is our heart becoming emptier and emptier?
The lyric is simple and direct and quite reminiscent of Guthrie’s 1940s song “I’ve Got To Know”:
Why can't my two hands get a good pay job?
I can still plow, plant, I can still sow!
Why did your lawbook chase me off my good land?
I'd sure like to know, friend, I've just got to know!
What good work did you do, sir, I'd like to ask you,
To give you my money right out of my hands?
I built your big house here to hide from my people,
Why you crave to hide so, I'd love to know!
Sun’s song “Ode to the Laborer” takes its music from a well-known Korean ballad, and has the lines:
We’ve left our family and friends,
We’ve travelled an arduous path
We’ve come to live and to work,
We’ve come for dreams and to struggle
We’re not useless,
We have brains and two strong hands
We’ve used our hands to build roads,
bridges, and skyscrapers
Coming and going in the wind and rain,
We can’t stay for a moment
The sweat pours from our brows,
But we raise our heads and press on
All our fortune and rights comes from our own hard work
Work created this world, the laborer’s life is the most glorious!
From yesterday to today to the end of time,
The laborer’s life is the most glorious!
Woody Guthrie is finally getting due recognition in this centennial year of his birth – for the depth of his politics, insight and commitment. His legacy lives on, not only in the generations of folksingers he has influenced in the United States, but also in the work of a Chinese migrant musician named Sun Heng. As Sun said, “His music and his spirit inspired me so much.”
October 7, 2012
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Foster Stockwell lives in Des Moines, Washington, is a publishing consultant for Chinese publishers and authors, and the author of Westerners in China: A History of Exploration and Trade, Ancient Times through the Present.
Norman Stockwell is a freelance journalist and staff member at WORT-FM Community Radio in Madison.