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Assembly Line by Shu Ting

“Assembly Line” is written by one of the greatest modern Chinese poets, Shu Ting. Her original name is Gong Peiyu, and Shu Ting is the pen name she used in her literary career. The poem was first published in 1980 by the Shikan editorial board. After that, another translation of the poem by Carolyn Kizer was published in A Splintered Mirror: Chinese Poetry from the Democracy Movement in 1991 by Donald Finkel.

Shu Ting was one of the early members of the Misty or “Obscure” Poets, whose writing became very influential during the Cultural Revolution in China launched by Mao Zedong between 1966-1976. The period was one of social, political, and economic repression, and the Misty Poets rose in rebellion against the restrictions on artistic and literary freedom that the Cultural Revolution levied.

“Assembly Line” can also be seen in the same vein, as a response to a stifling sociopolitical movement where artists had to practice a rigid method of realistic art whose aim was purely political. In this poem, Shu Ting compares the state of individual life and being in China during the revolution to the idea of assembly-line production in a factory, incapable of having an independent identity under an oppressive socio-political climate.

  • Read the full text of “Assembly Line” below:
Assembly Line (Jan-Feb 1980)
by Shu Ting

In time's assembly line
Night presses against night.
We come off the factory night-shift
In line as we march towards home.
Over our heads in a row
The assembly line of stars
Stretches across the sky.
Beside us, little trees
Stand numb in assembly lines.

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,
Stripped of their color and shape.
It's not hard to feel for them;
We share the same tempo and rhythm.

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,
I'm unable to show concern
For my own manufactured fate.

- from A Splintered Mirror: Chinese Poetry from the Democracy Movement (1991), translated by Carolyn Kizer
Analysis of Assembly Line by Shu Ting


Summary

“Assembly Line” can be seen as a poem of resistance and protest against the increasing curb on artistic freedom that was the reality of writers and intellectuals in 1970s China. Shu Ting uses the extended metaphor of an assembly line process that most factories use. In an assembly line, unfinished products are moved from one assembler to the next, where each assembler adds some parts until the product reaches its finished state in the end. The assembly line metaphor describes a highly mechanical and brainwashed way of living people had under Communist rule in the latter half of the 20th-century.

There was no possibility of individual growth, change, or ideas. Shu Ting extends this metaphor to suggest that just like human beings, even natural elements such as “stars” and “trees” have become increasingly mechanical and monotonous. She sees all these elements as identical to each other – the sickly trees seem to stand in rows, the stars remain unchanged and monochrome, and also seem to be lined up in a row one after the other, like assemblers in a factory.

The speaker, who returns from the factory night-shift, finds everything around her to be just like the workers, mirroring their monotonous, dull existence. She concludes by evoking sympathy for her own state as well as for her fellow workers, which heightens bittersweet feelings of numbness and emptiness that engulfs her being.

Structure, Form, & Speaker

“Assembly Line” is a grievous lyric poem comprised of three stanzas of varying lines. It starts with nine lines and tapers off to fewer lines in subsequent stanzas, eight and finally six. The lines themselves are of unequal lengths. Though Shu Ting attempts to break ideas of rigid convention and structure, her speaker’s life is trapped in a monotonous scheme.

It is also important to note that Shu Ting was one of the Misty Poets who incorporated modern ideas of obscurity and ambiguity in art. Thus, this break in rigid structure can be seen as a result of the movement’s beliefs. Ting also writes this poem in free verse; therefore, it shows an absence of any patterns of rhyme or meter. This can be seen as an attempt to regain creative control and autonomy, ideas that become central to the poem. This contrast in structure and themes is quite metaphysical – Ting attempts to practice an independent, imaginative task of writing revolutionary, creative poetry while talking about the creative bondage that artists had to endure during her time.

Speaker (Point of View)

The poem is written in the first-person point of view (we), which is again quite telling of one of the central tenets of Communism of “collective oneness.” Ting uses this idea to talk ironically about the “collective suffering” rather than “unity as strength.” Everyone is shown to be repressed and put into a single box of thinking, feeling, and acting where there is no scope for individualism. The first-person pronoun “we” that Ting uses, therefore, heightens the idea of curbing individuality rather than talking about the “I,”; which is very important in the context of the poem. Only in the last stanza, she uses the pronoun “I” to highlight individual pain and suffering and rebels against the suppression of creative autonomy.

Poetic Devices & Figurative Language

In Shu Ting’s “Assembly Line,” the major poetic devices include:

Repetition

This poetic device heightens the feelings of monotony and tedium in existence, as displayed by the speaker in the poem. This can be seen in:

Night presses against night.

We come off the factory night-shift.

Anaphora

The repetition of words and phrases at the beginning of consecutive lines for emphasis can be seen through the following:

perhaps just out of habit

perhaps just out of sorrow,

Personification

This is a significant literary device that Shu Ting uses to heighten the feelings of monotony by equating human life with nature. Many aspects of nature are personified in the poem. For instance, in the following lines, Shu Ting personifies the “stars” and “trees”:

The assembly line of stars

Stretches across the sky.

Beside us, little trees

Stand numb in assembly lines.

In the following lines, the “stars” are compared to weary travelers:

The stars must be exhausted

After thousands of years

Of journeys which never change.

Climax

The successive nature of events in “Assembly Line” is exemplified by the following lines, which strengthens the idea of an assembly line production system:

In time’s assembly line

Night presses against night.

We come off the factory night-shift

In line as we march towards home.

Alliteration

This poetic device can be found in the following instances:

  • Over our heads in a row”
  • “The assembly line of stars/ Stretches across the sky.”
  • “It’s not hard to feel for them;”
  • “We share the same tempo and rhythm.”

Metaphor

This is one of the essential poetic devices used in the poem. Shu Ting compares human beings to machine-made products in a factory using the assembly-line production system. This can be seen through, “In time’s assembly line/ Night presses against night./ We come off the factory night-shift/ In line as we march towards home,” and “I’m unable to show concern/ For my own manufactured fate.”

She also uses the extended metaphor of nature as identical to the “manufactured” state of living of the assemblers: “Beside us, little trees/ Stand numb in assembly lines.”

Simile

Ting’s speaker uses this device to compare her numbness or lifeless way of leading her life to that of the dull stars and immobile trees:

Yes, I’m numb to my own existence

As if, like the trees and stars

Imagery

Ting builds up a number of bleak, synaesthetic images through her poem “Assembly Line.” Some instances are as follows:

  • Visual Imagery: “Over our heads in a row/ The assembly line of stars/ Stretches across the sky.”
  • Olfactory Imagery: “The little trees are all sick,/ Choked on smog and monotony,/ Stripped of their color and shape.”
  • Auditory Imagery: “It’s not hard to feel for them;/ We share the same tempo and rhythm.”
  • Tactile Imagery: “Yes, I’m numb to my own existence”


Line-by-Line Critical Analysis & Explanation

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.

In the first stanza of “Assembly Line,” the speaker introduces the central theme of the poem, dehumanization or the conglomeration of individual identity into an engineered one. The lines establish the circular, monotonous nature of human existence, such as “In line as we march towards home” and “Night presses against night.” The people depicted as factory workers (assemblers) are described as “marching” towards home. This builds up the idea of tedium and monotony as inseparable from human life.

Lines 5-9

Over our heads in a row

The assembly line of stars

Stretches across the sky.

Beside us, little trees

Stand numb in assembly lines.

Shu Ting also builds up vivid yet dark imagery through these lines. She introduces the idea of the human condition represented by nature: “trees” and “stars.” The trees and stars, like people, are lined up one after the other and are described as “numb.” This highlights the “mechanical” world that existed during the time. Life became so mechanical, and creativity was so long gone that even nature seemed to have lost its autonomy. These elements of nature reflect the mechanical way of living during the Cultural Revolution.

Lines 10-14

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,

In the second stanza, Shu Ting continues to depict the dull reality of human existence during the time through nature. Trees and stars are personified to show how it is the humans who are tired, listless, and sick of their mundane lives. The monotony of existence is also highlighted how their journeys remain fixed. Even after thousands of years, the speaker thinks, their way of living will never change. The image of nature is presented as sickly and polluted, not refreshing or inspiring. This enhances the factory metaphor and highlights human existence as robotic and absurd: “The little trees are all sick,/ Choked on smog and monotony.”

Lines 15-17

Stripped of their color and shape.

It’s not hard to feel for them;

We share the same tempo and rhythm.

The fact that nature has lost its beauty and charm and is now transformed into an indistinguishable collective blob is symbolic of how people can only identify themselves in connection to the collective identity and not as individuals in their own right. Shu Ting says that these people feel sympathy for a now transformed, sickly nature, as they are identical to its condition. The line “We share the same tempo and rhythm” suggests this idea. By evoking sympathy for this condition of the trees and stars, she simultaneously evokes sympathy for humankind too. In her time, everyone was empty and incomplete because creativity and beauty were dead.

Lines 18-21

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,

In the last stanza of “Assembly Line,” the speaker, for the first time, uses the persona pronoun “I” to bring the reader back from the collective to her individual identity. At the same time, she talks about her inability to make sense of individualism. This stanza is full of contrasts – feeling and numbness, natural and artificial/manufactured, concern and passivity. This shows the very irony and contrast that Shu Ting tried to communicate. She wrote this radical poem that champions creative autonomy.

In contrast, her speaker is unable to make sense of her own individuality. This dichotomy is present throughout the poem. The anaphora in lines 20-21 emphasizes the cyclical, repetitive nature of human life.

Lines 22-23

I’m unable to show concern

For my own manufactured fate.

In the previous lines, the speaker talks about the sympathy that she feels for the condition that nature is reduced to, whereas, in these lines, she says that she is unconcerned of her own “manufactured” state. This enhances the contrasts that the poem “Assembly Line” works with and attempts to depict.

The last stanza heightens the feeling of numbness, meaningless human existence (echoing the theme of absurdity), listlessness, and emptiness. Shu Ting’s idea of a “manufactured fate” heightens the ideas of control and autocracy. The speaker and everyone around her are so far away from the understanding identity of one’s own that they have just become empty, hollow shells instead of human beings. Just as nature is incapable of human feelings, the speaker, too, has become an unthinking, unfeeling being like every other assembler around her.

Themes

The Blurring of Identities and Death of Creativity

The central theme in “Assembly Line” is the idea that human beings have become so indistinguishable from each other that it is impossible to muster creative, individual thought or identity. Shu Ting enhances this idea throughout the poem to signify the death of creative freedom, which will lead to the eventual death of all imagination. The picture of a factory that employs an assembly line production is extended to human beings – they have become like products in an industry, replicas of each other, inanimate, without any soul or feelings.

This mirrors the cultural and social life of China in the 1970s. The Communist Party wanted everyone to be indoctrinated into their political ideology, violently repressing any free or creative thought. The citizens of the country, therefore, were indistinguishable puppets – of identical views and beliefs. Even the literature produced needed to mirror social reality and a set political consciousness. Shu Ting was one of many who protested against this death of creative thought.

Human Condition

In “Assembly Line,” Shu Ting talks about the human condition as numb, empty, and full of ennui. This is heightened by the comparison of human life (represented by factory workers/assemblers) to products in a factory as if they are merely engineered and have no free will of their own. Each human being is, therefore, just like the other, the sameness existing not just in thought but also in every human action and appearance. It appears as if people have become like rows of immobile trees, which look the same and have no separate identity of their own:

The little trees are all sick,

Choked on smog and monotony,

Stripped of their color and shape.

The human condition has also manifested itself onto nature so that everything that the assemblers see around also appears just like them – mechanical, engineered, and identical. There is no scope for creativity or individuality.

Nature, as an Extension of the Human Condition

Shu Ting uses nature as an extended metaphor for the deplorable human condition, as well as an extension of the self. While nature is usually used as a positive, inspiring image in romantic poetry, in “Assembly Line,” nature is a replica of the monotonous human existence during the Cultural Revolution in China. It is highlighted as a sickly, dull presence in the poem.

Trees are colorless and all the same; stars are not inspiring or unique anymore. Nature seems to have lost its beauty, and the speaker cannot get inspiration from it; rather, she finds a strong resemblance to herself and several others in nature. While stars symbolize hope and guidance, in the poem, the stars seem to have lined up one after the other like factory workers rather than forming autonomous, creative patterns. This again is symbolic of the death of individual creative freedom.

Lack of Imagination

It is also important to note that the poem presents the human condition as so brain-warped that they cannot find joy or peace in it. While the speaker is using her imagination and is still able to interpret and notice nature, she seems to be saying that soon even this little imagination will dry up, as people are becoming increasingly machine-like. The ability to see things that are beautiful and natural such as stars and trees, is dying, just as individuals continue to be a part of a bigger group of identical beliefs and systems.

Historical Context

Shu Ting lived through the reign of Maoist administration and Communist rule in China and was one of the most prominent intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution between 1966-1976. During this period, Mao Zedong (Chairman of the Communist Party of China) wanted China to be rid of the remaining capitalist ideologies and rebellions. So, the Cultural Revolution came into being, where writers and artists were to produce work that strengthened Maoist ideologies and spread them to the common people. The high focus on social realism was a vital feature of this movement. Artists and intellectuals who strayed from this view and wanted to produce radical, revolutionary works were subdued by the Party.

Many, including Shu Ting, were exiled during this period due to their radical way of thinking that went against Communist ideology and strengthened democracy, individualism, and freedom. Apart from this, other types of violent happenings like executions of intellectuals and rebels by the Red Army and major economic crises also occurred during this decade. Shu Ting’s poem “Assembly Line” critiques this autocratic rule that focused on collective oneness and propagated the same ideology and subjugation of individual thought.

Literary Context

Shu Ting took up many jobs as a worker in factories in urban areas. This heightens the central theme of the assembly-line production in a factory based on her personal experience. Her involvement in the Misty Poets movement is also important. It was primarily a group of seven Chinese poets who wrote radical, “obscure” poetry that spread the ideas of democracy and free thought among the general public in the wake of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Their works were published in the literary magazine Jintian (which means “Today”), founded by Bei Dao and Mang Ke, two important Misty Poets. Many of them, including Shu Ting, was exiled to the countryside after student demonstrations in the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests. Their radical activism and thought brought them under the constant scrutiny of the Communist Party, and their literary activities were curbed.

Questions and Answers

What is the poem “Assembly Line” by Shu Ting about?

Shu Ting’s “Assembly Line” is about the death of creativity and individual identity, explored through the extended metaphor of an assembly line production in a factory. Ting talks about the mechanical, monotonous human life in which everyone is the same as everyone else, with zero individuality. She correlates this with the image of nature as an extension of this dull existence, as a mirror of the deplorable, inanimate human state.

What is the social backdrop against which “Assembly Line” is set?

The poem is set against the Cultural Revolution of China between 1966-1976, a period during which the Maoist government wanted literature and art to strengthen its monochromatic ideology and purge the country of capitalist and rebellious beliefs. Shu Ting and other Misty Poets were exiled for their radical and democratic thoughts, and many were executed too. There was violence and economic crises due to the rise of the Party that became prominent during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

What is the theme of Shu Ting’s poem “Assembly Line”?

Some themes that Shu Ting depicts in this poem are the monotony of human existence in 1970’s China at the height of Mao Zedong-led Cultural Revolution; the blurring of individual identities into a collective, highly political one; nature as an extension of the human condition; the death of creativity, and imaginative thoughts.

What does Shu Ting compare to an assembly line in her poem of the same name?

In her poem, Shu Ting compares an assembly line to a number of ideas that include but are not limited to nights pressing one against another in “time’s assembly line.” After that, Ting compares the assembly line to the row of stars over the speaker’s head and the numb “little trees” standing by the road. These are all manifestations of the assemblers referred to in Ting’s poem.

How do these comparisons contribute to the mood of the poem “Assembly Line”?

The comparisons between an assembly line to the abstract/inanimate objects of nature lead readers up to the realization that the speaker had burned out. Like her, the other workers who returned from their shift lost the spark of living. Hence, everything that they come across looks mocking or resembling their state of affairs. This sets a monotonous and hopeless mood in the poem.

With her use of imagery in “Assembly Line,” what senses does Shu Ting appeal to?

Shu Ting’s “Assembly Line” appeals to the visual sense at the very beginning. The description of the assemblers returning from the night shift and their surroundings collectively paint a lifeless picture unable to inspire the onlookers. Then, in the second stanza, Ting appeals to our internal emotions by describing the condition of personified “stars” and “little trees”; and also to our sense of hearing through the line, “We share the same tempo and rhythm,” which in return, is no “tempo” at all. Lastly, the poet conveys the sense of touch (tactile imagery) through the line, “Yes, I’m numb to my own existence.”

Explain how the imagery of “Assembly Line” might be a description of Chinese society?

In “Assembly Line” (1980), the imagery helps readers imagine the historical background against which the poem is set. This piece is set just after the Great Revolution in China, when pro-socialist ideas were swiped with a Chinese version of democratic socialism. The closed gates of trade opened to the West; Capitalism raised its shoots in pockets of SEZs, leading to the acceleration of mass production. But, did this new avenue really benefit the ordinary folks of China? What about those who toiled in an assembly line? One has to read Shu Ting’s poem to answer these questions. This poem depicts the working condition of the assemblers and how not only their energy but their soul (creative energy) burned out. They became part of big machinery, unable to think/work independently.


Similar Poems

  • Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” by James Wright — It’s about a high school football game at Shreve High stadium, during which a speaker thinks of the struggles of the working-class men around.
  • The Starry Night” by Anne Sexton — This poem explores the theme of exhaustion and depression through van Gogh’s painting.
  • To a Poor Old Woman” by William Carlos Williams — This poem is about a poor old woman from the depression times who savors the taste of rich plums.
  • Spring” by Edna St. Vincent Millay — It’s about another depressed speaker who finds the Spring less inspiring and more disturbing.


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