I went to a party a few weeks ago where I was introduced to a woman who immediately struck me as someone who is determined – somebody with a strong will and an interesting story to tell. What amused me afterwards was how whenever I brought up her name to one of my expat friends who’ve lived here forever, they all had more or less the same reaction: a smile; not necessarily the humorous kind of smile, but one that seemed to say, “I know Lijia Zhang well and she is someone you don’t want to mess with.” Could be; within ten minutes of knowing her, I had opened my wallet and ponied up a couple hundred yuan to buy a copy of her wonderful book, Socialism is Great, copies of which she was conveniently carrying with her in a bag for on-the-spot sales opportunities.
Is Lijia Zhang tough as nails and strong willed? Damn straight she is, and it is this toughness and resolve that allowed her to pull herself up from her proverbial bootsrtaps, teaching herself to learn flawless English and rising from a situation of utter grimness to become a writer and commentator to be reckoned with.
This is a different kind of book about China. It’s not about how China is rising, or about the business opportunities here or about guanxi or an exploration of the mysterious Chinese psyche. It’s the story of how Lijia Zhang was forced by her mother at the age of 16 to work in a factory that manufactures missiles, abandoning her dreams of going to university to become a journalist. It’s about China in the 1980s, a period some of us have a hard time visualizing. I can “see” the Cultural Revolution, and I saw the students gathering in the square in the spring of 1989. What I have a harder time visualizing is the period in-between, that very painful time when people were adjusting to tectonic shifts in how they lived and worked. A time when many of the insanities of the CR persisted, such as spying on your colleagues and reporting on them, a time when the iron rice bowl was still the norm for nearly everyone, and the prevalent mindset was still one of conformity and uniformity.
The Liming Machine Factory in Nanjing becomes Lijia’s life, and it redefines the concept of bleakness.
As soon as the factory off-work horn sounded, loud broadcasts screech to life: the factory had its own propaganda studio. Breathless announcers told moving stories of model workers like Master Wang, socialist-minded and professionally proficient, who continued to operate his turning machine despite serious illness. Loudspeakers were the most widespread propaganda tool the Chinese Communists used, installed in every factory, school, village, neighborhood committee hall, and army camp – even in moving trains and aboard ships.
Everything about Liming is drab, gray, dreary and dispiriting. And insane in a manner that seems unique to Communist dictatorships. Everyone knows they are living a lie, that all the slogans plastered everywhere about hard work and the glories of socialism are utter bullshit. For all the pious sloganeering, it’s a world of treachery and cunning, of keeping your “enemies” out of power so you can hold onto your own power. Now, there’s a little of that in every organization (it’s called politics), but here it’s carried to insane extremes because just about no one is actually doing anything. It’s all about making yourself look busy, knowing you are doing nothing while mouthing off about how socialism is great. Everyone has agreed to play the same insane game. Images of the surrealism of North Korea come inevitably to mind.
And yet Lijia stands up to authority, says what is on her mind and pays the price with demerits and public humiliation. But nothing can stop her. Reading classics like Jane Eyre she forces herself to learn English, joining classes and studying with an obsessive passion. Her story is almost impossible to believe, her transition from a worker in the sulfurous and joyless Liming factory to a writer and commentator on BBC and NPR trumping just about every conceivable Cinderella story. When you hear her speak it is next to impossible to believe she taught herself English.
This is a family story and a deeply personal one. I won’t go into the details of Lijia’s uniquely dysfunctional family or the men she meets and falls in love with. Suffice it to say that she takes you right there, to their crowded house, to her lovers’ bedrooms. You can hear her mother shrieking at her loser husband and you can feel her anguish as she briefly describes the public execution of a teenage boy she went to school with. Like any good memoir, it offers an historiographic snapshot of its time, a period of almost unimaginable tumult as the Mao mentality collided with that of capitalism.
The book ends, rather mysteriously, with Lijia being arrested and fingerprinted for her “unpatriotic” behavior during the 1989 incident, during which she led a protest march outside her factory. She makes you understand just how exhilarating this brief moment was, when everyone joined together to stand up to a cruel authority and why everyone joined in, with Lijia as always leading the parade, never sheepishly following.
The book isn’t perfect. I got frustrated with the writer’s tendency to embellish nearly every scene, even of events from decades ago, with details that she hopes will make it more real. Unfortunately, this sometimes has the opposite effect, making me wonder whether she is going out of her way to create an effect. For example, she recall a conversation with a friend from more than 20 years ago; the friend complains her house is too small, and Lijia adds, “Before sitting down on her usual chair by the window, she folded up a newspaper on the table.” Now, maybe some of us remember our conversations of two decades ago (I do), but do we really remember such fine details? They abound throuighout the book – a problem I had with another book by a forceful lady, Wild Swans, where every description of what happened decades ago is accompanied by a description of what kind of leaves are blossoming on a nearby tree.
But that is a very small complaint. This book will move you, and you will find new hope in the human spirit and man’s amazing ability to continue striving even in the face of insuperable odds. You’ll feel the claustrophobic and noxious spirit of the factory where nearly no one can be trusted. An amazing little book, and an amazing woman. Let her come across as tough and indomitable. That’s exactly why she has achieved her spectacular success, by refusing to let others do her thinking for her, and for standing up to those who were trying to hold her down, from her own mother to her co-workers to the police officer who fingerprints her after her arrest in 1989.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.