Chinese rapper’s song about growing up poor goes viral

'Factory' lays bare scenes of poverty, pollution and hopelessness in his hometown.
By Sun Cheng for RFA Mandarin
2024.05.09

A Chinese rapper who sings about growing up poor and going to the big city for work has struck a chord with listeners, providing a view of the country rarely if ever seen in government propaganda that trumpets China’ economic success.

The official video for Zhang Fangzhao's song "Factory,” which garnered more than 2.5 million views on the video-sharing site Bilibili.com as of Tuesday, opens with a younger version of himself running around his village, hanging out on a waste ground with his friends.

His hometown is Jiaozuo in central China’s Henan province, a major coal-producing area notorious for pollution and lay-offs when corporate profits decline. A childish drawing of power station chimneys morphs into a shot of the singer dressed as a migrant worker in high-viz pants in a garbage dump with real-life chimneys in the background. 

"The smoke from the factories covers the stars," raps Zhang, who uses the stage name God of Henan Rap. "All the villages are getting bought out for forced consolidation -- the last holdouts stand out like nails."

"The river water was dirty even when I was a kid -- now it has brought money but also disease,” he raps. "I was lucky to get out of that place. Nobody there has stories, and nobody wants to listen to them."

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A woman rides a scooter past a steel plant in Anyang, Henan province, China, Feb. 18, 2019. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

China claims to have eliminated poverty, much of which is concentrated in rural areas, in 2021, and has tried to encourage young people to look for economic opportunity in their hometowns.

But Zhang's song – which he performed as part of iQiyi's The Rap of China 2024 talent show, where he appeared to choke up – offers a different, bleaker perspective. 

Dressed in a suit and surrounded by fellow villagers and people who look like they might be his family, he sings about being told to get out by the older people there, who have long since "accepted their fate," including his own mother.

"She sees people bad-mouthing farmers online, and blames herself for not giving me a better start," he raps. "But things aren't that simple, Mom."

‘True-to-life’

Listeners said they could relate to his song. The son of a migrant worker family from Henan who gave only the surname Chen for fear of reprisals said he could relate to the song, 

"The lyrics in this MV are quite true-to-life," said Chen, who now lives in the United States. "It really does show what life is like for Henan's farmers."

Chen said rural residents have little choice but to seek work in other cities if they are to afford "major life events" for their families, citing school fees, mortgages, cars and weddings as necessary expenses.

"If you want to support your family, you have to go out to work," Chen said. "The small amount of land you have to till at home isn't enough."

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A screenshot from the music video for ‘Factory' by the God of Henan Rap (Zhong.tv via Youtube)

Online comments reacted in particular to one line in Zhang's song: "I don't really love this place: I was just born here."

One commented in response on Bilibili.com: "It's not that I don't love [my hometown]; I'm just afraid of its poverty, and for my own future."

Another added: "When I read the lyrics, I suddenly realized that there is so much you can write about China, not just those textbook one-liners about the people of our country uniting as one, or completing the mission of industrialization."

One called Zhang "a poet of the streets."

Even the official account of Jiaozuo's local state broadcaster, Henan Jiaozuo Radio and Television, weighed in on Bilibili, saying: "This song is well sung.” But it added that much of the area around Jiaozuo had "improved significantly" since Zhang's childhood, in a comment some took to mean the station was acting to protect itself.

Channel for the marginalized

Luo Zongyu, an international student from Chongqing and now living in the eastern United States, has been listening to Chinese rap for 20 years. He said the genre in China once offered a channel for marginalized voices, but has become increasingly commercialized in recent years.

He attributed the popularity of "Factory" to the fact that Zhang filmed the video in his own hometown, and hasn't yet been subsumed by celebrity culture or sold out to the music industry.

"This rapper isn't particularly famous, and is still kind of grassroots and close to the lives of ordinary people," he said. "When he writes this music, it is so real."

Zhang's manager Li Rencheng hadn't responded to a request for an interview by the time of writing.

Mid-way through the video, the boy who played in the wreckage of a demolished building wearing an Ultraman mask rides away into the darkness – now as a youth – on a scooter replete with colored flashing LED lights.

At the end of the track, now grown and standing in a burning building, Zhang sings of remembering where he's from, and wondering if you can fight "capital."

As for the folks back home: "They have no voice or reflection," he raps. "They're just there. There. There."

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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