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Assembly Line is a poem written by Shu Ting, a prominent Chinese modern poet. This poem appears in the poetry collection A Splintered Mirror: Chinese Poetry from the Democracy Movement which was translated by Donald Finkel in English and published in 1991. This anthology is compiled with the works of seven Chinese Misty Poets, of which Shu Ting is a part. The works were a reactionary force against the restrictions on art that were put during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and 70s. This poem shows the monotony of human life as well as the dehumanising routine that one’s existence is made up of. The poem draws parallels between the assembly line in a factory and the routine of everyday existence.
About the Author
Gong Peiyu, known by her penname Shu Ting is a famous Chinese poet. Born in 1952 in Jinjiang, Fujian, Shu Jing comes under the wing of poets known as the Misty Poets. Along with the other Misty Poets, Shu Ting emerged during the Cultural Revolution Era in China and made impactful contributions to modern Chinese literature. Her poetry often addresses themes like individualism, human experiences and the impact of societal changes on one’s existence. Her first published poem, To the Oak Tree (1978), appeared in Today, an underground journal run by the dissident poet Bei Dao. In 1980, she joined the Federation of Literary and Art Circle in Fujian after which, she became a professional writer. Some of her notable works are Mission You (1978), Two Masted Ship (1978) and Goddess Peak.
The poem consists of 23 lines which are divided into 3 stanzas, each of varying lengths. Although the poem attempts to break away from rigid conventions and move towards a more modernist form, it also portrays the monotony that it talks about, in its structure.
Lines 1- 4
In time’s assembly line Night presses against night. We come off the factory night-shift In line as we march towards home.
The poem begins with the speaker referring to the progression of time, which is termed as an “assembly line”. As time moves forward, the night presses against itself and seems to go on forever. The speaker takes on the collective voice of the people by using “We” and says that all of them leave the factory when their night shift ends. Then all the workers, including the speaker, “march” towards their home in a line.
The speaker establishes the metaphor in the first line itself. The punishing passage of time is compared to the unceasing assembly line. This metaphor aims to portray the harsh and dehumanising nature of industrial labour that is done by the speaker and the other workers. The speaker employs a collective voice “We” to depict the suffering of an entire class of people who work day in and out to earn a living. Also, the use of the word “march” gives the impression of a mechanical, robotlike crowd of people.
Over our heads in a row The assembly line of stars Stretches across the sky. Beside us, little trees Stand numb in assembly lines.
Here, the speaker introduces a new image and incorporates natural aspects. The speaker describes how over the heads of all the factory workers, the stars seem to line up in the sky in an assembly line formation. And around the workers, the trees also stand in the same way.
Here, the speaker goes on to describe their surroundings. As it is nighttime, the sky is filled with stars. The speaker and the other workers are so burdened with the tedium of industrial labour that even natural aspects such as the stars and trees appear to them as positioned in an assembly line formation. Thus, both the stars and the “numb” trees reflect the suffering of the speaker and the others.
The stars must be exhausted After thousands of years Of journeys which never change. The little trees are all sick, Choked on smog and monotony,
The speaker further goes on to say that the stars that have travelled thousands of years to shine their light on Earth are also probably exhausted since their journeys are also never-ending and unalterable. Similarly, the trees are sick since they are choked by the smog that is produced by the factories and also the monotony of their existence.
The speaker portrays a shared experience of monotony and exhaustion. Just like the industrial workers, the stars too have the same journey that they undertake every day. These paths never seem to change, for both the stars and the workers. Additionally, the trees choking up on smog is a commentary on the amount of pollutants and wastes that factories release and how they affect the natural ecosystem.
Stripped of their color and shape. It’s not hard to feel for them; We share the same tempo and rhythm.
The trees have started to lose their colour and shape. The speaker comments how it is not difficult to sympathise with the tress. This is because the workers go through the same kind of suffering.
The poet again provides us with a commentary on how industrialization negatively impacts natural life. Because of the smog and the industrial pollutants, the trees have started to lose their colour and even their shape. As the speaker draws a parallel between the working population and the trees, we see how industrialization makes all living creatures suffer.
Yes, I’m numb to my own existence As if, like the trees and stars –perhaps just out of habit –perhaps just out of sorrow,
The speaker here admits that they are numb to their own existence. It is as if, like the trees and the stars, the speaker is out of habit and also unable to feel any sorrow for themselves.
This is the first time that the speaker moves away from the collective “We” and uses the individual “I”. We see how, due to the relentless and unceasing nature of their work, the speaker is unable to interpret their individuality and emotions. They have grown numb to everything, including sorrow.
I’m unable to show concern For my own manufactured fate.
The speaker further tells how they are unable to show any concern for themselves and are numb to their existence. The speaker has lost the ability to worry about their future or existence, which they describe as “manufactured”.
These lines convey a sense of resignation and detachment that the speaker feels towards their existence. Working day in and out, the speaker has grown numb to everything. The last line wraps up the metaphor that has been used in the beginning as the speaker calls their existence “manufactured”. This is to show how their life is similar to that of an assembly line, with a pre-determined fate to keep working.