According to Confucius, silk was first reeled by Princess Xiling Shi in 2640 BCE. She was sitting under a mulberry tree in the Imperial Palace when a cocoon fell into her tea. The warm water caused its long filaments to loosen, and fishing it from her cup, she found the delicate thread to be endless. Enamoured by its beauty, she ordered her servants to spin the substance into yarn – and so began a sericulture monopoly that would last for the next three thousand years. The Silk Road opened during the Han dynasty, in 130 BCE; a few hundred years later, under the Tang dynasty silk became an important emblem of class; during the Qing dynasty, in the 1600s, the imperial silk factories were established, with funding from the treasury and oversight by the Imperial Industry Department. The ‘Four Silk Capitals’ were all located along China’s east coast, just inland from Shanghai: Suzhou, Hangzhou, Shengze Town and Huzhou.

Today, Huzhou produces the bulk of China’s children’s garments. In Zhili, some 18,000 privately owned factories are operated by 300,000 migrant workers from all over Anhui province. Production is seasonal: work is from February until June, then restarting in July for another four months. Most of the workers are in their early twenties. Between 2014 and 2019, the Chinese filmmaker Wang Bing filmed over 2,600 hours of footage in and around these factories, concentrating on the lives of the workers he encountered there. Youth (Spring) is the first instalment in a trilogy; the film, almost four hours long, screened in competition at the Cannes Film Festival this year, along with Kaouther Ben Hania’s Four Daughters the first documentary to do so since 2008.

Followers of Bing’s work may find it curious that Youth inaugurates a new project, given that it returns to subject matter treated in Bitter Money (2017). The films are nevertheless quite distinct, despite both adhering to Wang’s typically intimate, unobtrusive style. Working with a small team – at most three camera operators in separate locations – and filmed using digital cameras, all modified with photographic, autofocusing lenses, Wang’s filmmaking follows a simple credo: ‘the film image is a recording of the reality of human existence in a given historical, socio-economic and political context, but at the same time it contains emotions, beauty, something more abstract that is perhaps Art’. His great talent is improvisation, the capacity to achieve this on the fly. Bitter Money documents the economic migration of its subjects, beginning in their home villages, following their journeys by bus and train to Huzhou, and then peering into the factories. It represented a kind of arrival or establishing shot. Youth, with its intense focus on life inside them, is more like a close-up.

Wang’s penchant for finding ‘beauty’ in human existence is tested by such surroundings. But in its stead, something else emerges, something more affective. He is forced to settle for flatter framing – typically, a worker at their station, shot medium-wide, cramped, colourless – and these images persist for much of the four hours. When – about halfway through – Wang cuts outside to a muddy puddle dimpled with light rain, I could hear the audience gasp: fresh air, at last. The film is broken into twenty-minute segments, each designated simply by cutting to a new often visually indistinguishable factory, with new characters introduced by subtitles providing their name, age and hometown. Wang had originally planned for forty-minute segments, but relented, feeling this would be too taxing on the viewer.

One marked difference from Wang’s debut nine-hour opus Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2002) is that here, as in Bitter Money, the workers we encounter are often women. Their suffering is revealed to be worse than that of their male counterparts. In Bitter Money, a young woman is physically and emotionally abused by her husband, who beats her and then kicks her out onto the street. ‘That bitch isn’t human’, he snarls. She had apparently neglected the housework, then dared to ask for money to visit their son. An early scene in Youth sees the parents of another young woman negotiating with her bosses. She needs an abortion but hasn’t yet finished her ‘pile’. The two parties come to the mutual understanding that her name will remain unsullied if she has the abortion quickly and returns to work the next day.

West of the Tracks followed the decline of Shenyang’s industrial Tiexi district, once the booming heart of China’s planned economy. In the 1950s it became one of the USSR’s ‘156 Projects’ – industrial equipment acquired during the war was poured into China’s North-East. Before the Reform Era sealed its fate, Tiexi was home to nearly one million industrial workers. Wang’s film is emblematic of this old world even as it was passing into history: men and molten iron, monstrous machines, trains, cranes and hardhats. In the words of Lü Xunyu, its subject is ‘the dusk of an entire social world, together with all the hopes and ideals that created it’. Youth provides a view of what replaced it. Economic reforms meant that the state no longer had a monopoly on Huzhou’s labour. Zhili exploded under this new model: anyone with the money could rent a space, buy the tools and materials, hire workers and begin production – sometimes all in the same day. Without involvement from the state or banks, trading is based entirely on trust and reputation. An owner might pay suppliers for materials only once the garments are sold; workers are paid at the end of the season, on a per-garment basis, though the price of each is kept secret until the final few weeks.

This latter fact provides the film’s central tension. Once the price list is revealed, the workers in Youth come together in solidarity, organizing as best they can. Unable to strike or protest (new workers are waiting at the door), they appeal to what they perceive as shared interest with their bosses. This is due, in part, to the fact that many of these workers plan to open their own factories once they accumulate enough wealth. But when they ask for a ‘raise’, they are scolded; their only recourse is to try again, this time asking for much less. Yet Wang seemingly has faith in this new model. He has argued ‘this is a system where even the poorest can find a place. In a national economy completely controlled by the state and the banks, this type of experiment offers a glimmer of hope or, at the very least, an idea as to a possible way to move forward’.

One should note that the working conditions are horrendous, the pace of production unfathomable. Most workers can sew a pair of trousers in seconds; items like jackets take longer due to the inclusion of elastics or embroidery or patches (including Mickey Mouse). With a cigarette in their mouth and the radio blaring, workers appear to be practically throwing fabric through the machines – inseam, flip, inseam, flip, cuff, cuff, done. Onto the next pair. Repeat this from 8am to 11pm and you have one day’s work. Repeat this for 1.5 billion garments and you have Zhili’s yearly output.

Youth is scored by the sound of the machines, horrific and unrelenting. (I would estimate that their sewing machines are five times faster than my mother’s, the only one I’m familiar with, and about ten times louder.) The workers don’t seem to notice, but the audience certainly does – many viewers at Cannes found the film difficult to endure, and several walked out. One veteran critic called it a ‘durational punisher’ and the ‘toughest thing’ he’d ever seen at the festival. I managed to fall asleep at one point, which I felt put me in league with the workers, a capacity for environmental adaptation that apparently not all critics are attuned to. The elderly French woman sitting next to me managed the entire film – though, also like the workers, she required some nicotine to get through it, vaping into her armpit every few minutes. This is all to say: the film was a lot of work.

Writing of the factory-hands of England – those ‘eldest children of the industrial revolution’ – Engels wonderedhow the whole crazy fabric still hangs together’. ‘What is true of London, is true of Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds’ – today Huzhou, Dhaka, Karachi: ‘Everywhere barbarous indifference’. Youth sees the factories and slums whose conditions Engels indicted become one: concrete beehives, maybe four-stories tall, devoid of natural light, tightly packed with bunkbeds and workstations, populated by young lovers, fighters, and pot noodles. This is the ‘dormitory labour regime’ in the words of Pun Ngai and Chris Smith, which allows for fuller control over workers’ lives, extending working hours to meet the demands of the global production cycle. Intercity mobility (as well as rural exodus) is denied by the household registration system; one means of escape is marriage, a central theme in both Youth and Bitter Money, in that it allows you to relocate to the province of your partner. Marriage therefore becomes another captive institution.

This labour force closely resembles that of England’s early industry – in its newness, alienation, poor conditions, and exclusion from social safeties. Wang, however, sees something more ancient: ‘There are forms of primitive organization there that are reminiscent of ancient tribes, with social and economic interactions that can seem quite archaic’. Curious to praise such a system while simultaneously identifying its crudeness, acknowledging the extent to which it diminishes its workers. Is this progress? This newer, young workforce is certainly estranged from history. The sociologist Ching Kwan Lee has contrasted the modes of resistance found in the rustbelt northeast – where workers tried to mobilize the remnants of the ‘socialist social contract’ – with those of the new generations of migrant labour who lack any experience of ‘socialist industrialism or Maoist class politics’, and among whom there is ‘a conspicuous absence of class identity claims’. Tellingly, Mao only appears once in Youth – we glimpse his face on the money come payday.

There are no silkworms in the film (Marx: ‘If the silk-worm’s object in spinning were to prolong its existence as caterpillar, it would be a perfect example of a wage worker’), but there are crickets, which have their own mythology and lore. A symbol of wealth and prosperity, crickets have been kept as pets in China for at least a thousand years. During one scene, a worker makes mention of the ‘long bugs’ he can hear outside. ‘Crickets?’ ‘I call them long bugs.’ ‘I like their song.’ ‘Me too.’ The film – and its subjects – are buoyed by this youthful romanticism; its absence would make for something much more bitter. The capacity of the workers to endure the miseries of their condition, to find joy and love within the factory walls, is a testament to both their vigour and naiveté – what Wang calls the ‘delusions’ of youth. It may just be a fact of getting older, but I couldn’t hear the high-pitched croaking of the crickets in that scene. They were drowned out by the monstrous stridulations of the machines.

Read on: Wang Bing, ‘Filming a Land in Flux’, NLR 82.