It’s December, 1980. A little more than four years have passed since the death of the Great Helmsman Mao Zedong and China, under Deng Xiaoping, has been trying to “bring order out of political chaos” and opening itself up to the world.
That’s when we first meet Lijia Zhang who, as a 16-year-old, is forced to abandon her ambition of going to the university and becoming a journalist (a mere flight of fancy, says her dismissive mother, who also tells us that she had earlier dreamt of becoming a pilot, a barefoot doctor and an interpreter) and forced into working as an apprentice at a state-run factory that manufactures military missiles.
Socialism is Great!: HarperCollins India, 284 pages, Rs450.
The setting of Zhang’s memoir, Socialism is Great!, is Wuding New Village, near the provincial capital of Nanjing, and in narrating her personal journey from her birth in 1964, two years before Mao launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that left millions dead, up to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Zhang also documents China’s economic and social transition.
In the confines of Liming Machinery Factory, where her routine includes monthly depositions before the “period police” that she isn’t pregnant, Zhang finds refuge in books, devouring everything from Sherlock Holmes mysteries to Chinese classics such the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Journey to the West at the factory library. She also sets out to learn English. “I turned to books not out of love for literature, but as an escape route from the Liming empire,” Zhang writes. “A large state-owned enterprise like ours functioned like a small Communist state.”
At one factory propaganda session, a political instructor catches her reading Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre hidden under a copy of The People’s Daily. When the instructor derisively questions the way she is dressed (in a bright red woollen top and black skirt, with a silk scarf around her neck, determined not to be “another faceless worker ant”), she retorts that she has the freedom to choose what to wear. That’s a mistake. “Freedom! Some rotten ideas from the West have certainly gone to your head,” says the instructor as he proceeds to tear the book into shreds. Zhang pays for her defiance—a demerit is recorded in her file and her bonus cut—but that’s a small price to pay because, as she says, “for the first time, I discovered that it was geat fun to be a rebel”. It’s a turning point in her journey of political and intellectual awakening.
Zhang’s rebellion takes her through sexual adventure—including an affair with a married man and an illegal abortion—that she describes with remarkable candour. And she chronicles China’s crumbling faith in communism: the missile factory where she works wins a bid to cast a giant bronze Buddha for installation on Hong Kong’s Lantau island, and the People’s Liberation Army diversifies into business—“You could have a raucous good time at a karaoke bar or disco run by one (army) division or another.”
Girl power: Most of Zhang’s book is set in a factory in China. Nelson Ching / Bloomberg
The book ends rather abruptly. Zhang organizes the largest demonstration by Nanjing workers in support of the student protesters at Tiananmen Square a few days before the 4 June, 1989 massacre, and is questioned by the police. She is ordered by the police to leave her fingerprint in red on a transcript of the interrogation. “I knew that the fingerprint, together with the interrogation, would lurk forever in my personal file, a persistent threat for years to come,” she writes.
Despite the frequent allusions to China’s politics and economy, Socialism is Great! works best as a personal coming-of-age account rather than as a chronicle of a nation in transition. Her descriptions are rich, sprinkled with quaint Chinese idioms (“turtle egg” and “dog fart” are two of the swear words we are introduced to).
For Zhang, now a mother of two daughters who lives in Beijing, things obviously didn’t turn out to be as dire as she may have imagined back in 1989. But we will have to wait for a sequel to find out how the next two decades treated the author and how she ultimately became a journalist who has written for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Japan Times and South China Morning Post.