Socialism is Great!: Growing up headstrong in 1980s China

Copyright The New York Times
‘Socialism is Great!’ A Worker’s Memoir of the New China. By Lijia Zhang. Illustrated. 357 pages. $24; £14.99. Atlas & Co.
The 1980s were a heady and befuddling time of change in China. The Communist Party never acknowledged the pain inflicted by Mao’s internecine political struggles and mass mobilizations. But after his death in 1976, it eased its grip and opened up the economy just enough that some of the urban youth could start earning enough to focus on their own desires.
Lijia Zhang is a child of the 1980s. In “Socialism Is Great!,” her coming-of-age memoir, that decade is to her what the 1960s were to American baby boomers. Zhang grew up in Nanjing at a time when her family, friends and bosses were trying to divine the new social and economic order. Her reflexively cautious mother lived a life of stultifying routine, working at a state-owned missile factory. In spite of this, Zhang developed a love of money, personal freedom, self-education and sexual adventure that seemed to spring from some gene of individualism rendered only temporarily recessive by Mao’s policies.
Autobiographical accounts by people who have endured the political crusades and intense psychological dramas of Communist China abound. The most harrowing examples to appear in English are Jung Chang’s multi-generational family history, “Wild Swans,” and Nien Cheng’s “Life and Death in Shanghai.” Both women survived relentless assaults on their families and their dignity, and fled China to tell their stories.
Zhang’s memoir, with its arc of resistance and personal struggle, at first feels familiar. But Zhang’s tale, written in fluent English peppered with dated Chinese idioms, begins where those older memoirs leave off. She devotes so much more attention to boyfriends than to politics that her relationship to politics, though crucial to the climax of the book, comes across as a flirtation.
Ambitious from a young age, Zhang grew up battling her conservative mother, who dominated their dysfunctional family. Her father, mostly absent, got into political trouble in the 1950s, and the mother blamed his reckless fondness for books and ideas. The mother struggled to support the family on her measly state salary and belittled Zhang’s aspirations of becoming a writer.
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Zhang’s plans to attend college were quashed when her mother took advantage of an early retirement program at her factory that allowed her to name her daughter as her successor. In 1980, when she was 16 and her friends were gearing up to compete in college entrance exams, Zhang became a worker at the Liming Machinery Factory.
Liming made ballistic missiles, artillery and guns. Its production was a high-level state secret. But Zhang was assigned to a minor workshop, where her colleagues took advantage of their sick leave and undermined their rivals. In her ample free time, she began reading a form of protest literature known as Misty Poetry. She also taught herself English by listening to the music of the Carpenters and devouring classic English novels. During interminable political study sessions, she read “Jane Eyre,” hiding it behind The People’s Daily.
She had her first taste of political trouble when a boss discovered her trick. Zhang seems to have modeled herself on the English governess who defied society’s conception of her proper place.
Though Zhang describes herself as ugly, she had few inhibitions when it came to men. Infatuated with a student she met while climbing a mountain, she took a train to Beijing to visit him, becoming the first person in her family to see the capital. He greeted her coolly. She woke in the night to find him and another woman squirming in the next bed.
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