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Gap between migrant workers and literary classics need to be bridged

Author  :  LI WEI, XING CHEN     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2020-04-30

As a main source of manual labor, the reading of literary classics by migrant workers’ can in some sense reflect the popularity of literary classics during the process of spreading and acceptance by the group in question.

Apart from conducting questionnaires for data surveys, communication and Q&A are necessary in order to effectively discover the status quo of the focus for reading amongst migrant workers. Therefore, we conducted in-depth interviews on 63 migrant workers from Nanjing which revolved around the theme of the reading of literary classics. Aged between 16 and 65 years old, the interviewees are engaged in construction, communication infrastructure, catering, hairdressing, sales, food delivery service and many other sectors. According to the investigation, the reason why migrant workers are so estranged from literary classics is not that they lack relevant knowledge, or they do not know the importance of literary classics, or even lack time and money, but that they are influenced by a utilitarian psychology based on self-cognition.

Many migrant workers are not oblivious to literary classics. When asked about “the literary works you have read or the writers you are familiar with,” we find that many of them do not generally only know about “the Four Great Classical Novels” (Story of the Water Margin, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, The Dream of the Red Chamber), but also about Li Bai and Du Fu in ancient Chinese literature as well as Lu Xun, even Guo Moruo and Ba Jin in modern Chinese literature. But the problem is, these classical writers, to them, are merely famous figures in textbooks. Most of them do not know the value of the works or which period the writers lived in.

During the interview, the migrant workers tried their best to express all their knowledge about literary classics. When they realized the limits of their knowledge, most of them felt embarrassed or tried to explain or justify. In addition, many said that though they little about or seldom read literary classics, they hope their children can read them. When asked why, they mostly considered that reading of classics could help their children realize some utilitarian goals, for example, to have an official career in government or start businesses. They also said that reading could broaden their children’s minds and increase their knowledge.

Nevertheless, the migrant workers clearly expressed their “rejection” of literary classics. They all said that though these works “must be very good,” they were not able to understand them before and do not want to read them at present and will not read in the future either. Some of them said that now they read online literature, or practical articles about news and journalism, success theory, art of talking and so on.

It can be seen that migrant workers hold a type of subtle and complex attitude toward literary classics. On one hand, they consider that their reading can help elevate their children’s social status and broaden their horizons; on the other hand, they reveal their distance from the appreciation of the literary classics. During the interview, the migrant workers repeatedly used vocabulary such as “reality” and “actual conditions” to express the understanding of their own situations in life. To them, reading literary classics, something which may only cultivate one’s moral character, can hardly alter their living conditions. Therefore, to read certain types of professional books or books which can enhance one’s job competency seems more important.

This can be most obviously seen in the answer to the question: -"What do you think is the standard by which a book is good?", the answer being, "Useful or not". For the interviewees, whether reading literary classics can directly produce economic benefits is the most important factor. Under the standard of "usefulness", literary classics have "two sides".

As we ponder over the utilitarian pragmatism of migrant workers, we should also reflect on the reasons why these workers consider literary classics as "unrealistic" influences in their lives. Why is it difficult for literary classics which pursue universality and transcendence to enter the worlds of manual workers? Why are the aesthetic values embodied in literary classics and its reflection on human nature not completely consistent with the pursuit and yearning of migrant workers? The profound causes of these problems require us to reflect deeply.

Literary reading is not a purely spiritual activity. It is closely related with materialization and societal factors. The reading and acceptance of literary classics is not only related to individual knowledge and aesthetic taste, but also related to overall social structure and, ultimately, classification. To reflect on the value and significance of literature only within the framework of literature is not comprehensive. The popularization of knowledge, opinion and degrees of literary education, are also important. What is more crucial is to think about factors behind the self-perceptions that migrant workers have about themselves and cultural concepts of pragmatism, as well of how to bridge the gap between this large group of people and the literary classics.

To alter the situation, literary creation and study should focus on a “great-literature” concept, and reflect on the problem of an increasingly narrow readers’ group. In literature, in either elementary education or higher education, the “great-literature” concept has not been entirely accepted. Therefore, literary education should adopt more diversified forms and enable more and more people to understand that literature is an indispensable part of intellectual life, and the ability to appreciate literature is a basic living skill.


Li Wei and Xing Chen are from the School of Humanity at Nanjing Normal University.


(Edited and translated by Bai Le)

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