Originally published on Rue89 18/02/2010.
“Socialism is geat” … a Chinese song! A song sung in companies on July 1st, the anniversary of the foundation of the Chinese Communist Party, is also the title of the autobiography of Zhang Lijia, a worker in a missile factory in 1980-1990, later on a journalist.
With a sister, nowdays a senior civil servant,and a brother at the time rather difficult, Lijia is the daughter of a worker, a real communist, in the Liming factory. This plant, the largest in Nanjing (10,000 workers) manufactured intercontinental ballistic missiles with a few years later, a unique diversification in casting a gigantic statue of Buddha in bronze!
The father, prosecuted as a “rightist” in the 50s, has been rehabilitated, but works in a neighboring province because he has no permit for Nanjing.
Lijia has very good results at school, but her mother forced her to interrupt her schooling to keep the job at the plant, allowing her to retire (very) early and start a small business. This policy of “alternative employment” was introduced, until 1980, to fight against youth unemployment in towns after the return of the generation “sent to the countryside” during the Cultural Revolution.-
Good results at the recruitment exams of the plant opened the possibility of a job, without much pressure, of testing the measuring devices of the factory. The underemployment is such that one of her colleagues copies the People’s Daily newspaper to look busy.
The book is a fascinating opening into the life a state company in the 1980s, when China opens its economy to capitalist methods. Many descriptions not found elsewhere on the constraints, monitoring, rivalries, the necessary conformism but also the training opportunities. Lijia, despite her poor political record, learned English and followed the University of the plant.
Neither a novel nor an essay:
This type of balance between novel and essay seems to be favored by American publishers and creative writing courses. In an excellent book, that we have reviewed, Leslie Chang did not limit her book to the life of factory workers today in Dongguan, near Guangzhou, but also told us about finding her family roots in China.
Lijia hides nothing about her romantic adventures and the sexual attitudes of the time. It is certainly interesting, but it is an area where testimonies are numerous.
It is clearly a book intended for the Western market, written directly in English and first published by an American publisher. We are told that the censorship would not allow its publication in China. It is possible, even if the book is not a political essay.
There is no doubt that censorship would not accept some comments and especially the description of the support demonstrations for students in Tiananmen Square in May 1989, that she organized in the factory.
After living three years in England with a Scottish husband, she became a journalist and in 2004 followed a Master in Creative Writing at the University of London and later on at the well known University of Iowa, USA. She currently lives in Beijing with her two daughters.
The book reads very nicely, although you can sometimes find a bit heavy the “cultural” information ” supplied to the Western reader. All this is very well written with a good sense of humor.
During the presentation of her book in the well known Parisian bookstore “Phoenix,” we could appreciate her direct style and especially her enthousiasm that are the hallmarks of her memoirs.
It is not certain that her next book, which deals with prostitution in China, will develop the same optimism !
► Lijia Zhang, “Socialism is great”, translated from English by Jean-François Cheix. Bourin Editeur, 2009, 450 pages, 22 €.
In English : Atlas, 2008, 320 pages.