Sunday, October 10, 2010

Coming of age in China


Lijia Zhang talks about her memoir, 'Socialism is Great!' It is about the time in the 1980's when the Communist nation was about to open up to the global economy and transform its fortunes

By Shevlin Sebastian

Chinese author Lijia Zhang spent many years as a teenager working in a missile factory at Nanjing. “When people hear that, they say, 'Wow, that must be fascinating,'” says Lijia. “I can only describe those years as mind-numbing and soul-destroying.”

There were many rules. Wearing lipstick and high heels were not allowed. “I have naturally curly hair,” she says. “I never got any promotion because my bosses felt that only those with bourgeois tendencies wore a perm.”

What galled Lijia was the lack of privacy. “Nothing was personal,” she says. “Not even one’s period. Every month, we had to show a blood-stained sanitary towel to the so-called ‘period police’ to prove that we were not pregnant.” She also had to go to cinemas to watch revolutionary films and attend political meetings.

It was in the factory that she started to write. She also began to study English. It opened her mind to the wide world outside. A few years later, she embarked on a career as a journalist. And one day, she happened to meet Peter Hessler, an American author and journalist. They became friends.

“Once, during lunch, I accidentally mentioned to Peter that I had worked in a missile factory,” says Lijia. “He looked surprised. Peter probably thought that I came from a wealthier background, and was better educated.”

Peter asked Lijia whether she could write a piece for the 'Asian Wall Street Journal', for which he contributed. She did so and the piece was published in December, 2000. “When my friends read it, they said, 'Why don’t you write a book?'” says Lijia. She did some research and discovered that there were very few books set in the 1980’s.

“Yet to me and many Chinese, the 80's was a fascinating period,” says Lijia. “China was gingerly unbuttoning Mao's strait jacket. There were so many changes, hopes, passions and dreams. It was the beginning of what China has become today.”

It took five years but eventually the book, 'Socialism is great – A worker's memoir of the New China' was published by the US-based Anchor Books. “The story is about a girl coming of age,” she says. “It details my political and sexual awakening. It is also a quest for personal and political freedom.”

Of course, the title has a sarcastic ring to it. “Yes, it’s tongue and cheek,” admits Lijia. “It is the name of a song sung by a famous revolutionary, Shi Hui Zhu Yi Hao.”

And in the ensuing extract, you can get some idea of her playful wit: “‘Revolution is not a dinner party,’ our great leader Chairman Mao once warned. But today’s revolution seemed to be all about dinner parties. Most business deals, official or private, were concluded at a banquet table crowed with expensive items – shark-fin or turtle soup, and drinks with medicinal benefits like bear-paw wine (considered generally good), snake-penis wine (a manhood enhancer) or snake-gallbladder wine (for improving eyesight).”

The book, expectedly, has not been published in China, but it has come out in Australia, India, Italy, France, Holland, Brazil and South Korea.

Asked how difficult it is to be a writer in China, Lijia says, “To be a writer is difficult anywhere in the world. But in China there is censorship. In contrast, India has such a vibrant literary and intellectual atmosphere. Last year, I attended the Jaipur Literature Festival and was so impressed by the lively debates. This is something we don’t have.”

Despite this, Lijia says that China has changed enormously. “Not many people know that the ordinary citizen now enjoys so much personal freedom,” she says. “They can choose their hair and life styles, and select where they want to live. However, there is still a cage. But for many, the cage has grown so big that many simply don’t feel the limit. Nevertheless, I don’t see any major democracy movement coming up in the near future.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

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