Raw am­bi­tion in Deng’s China

Cather­ine Ar­mitage

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

THREE things dis­tin­guish this book in the crowded genre of Chi­nese scar lit­er­a­ture. First, it deals with a fas­ci­nat­ing yet lit­tle ex­plored pe­riod of China’s re­cent past: 1980 to 1989, the in­ter­lude of in­tense re­form and mind­bog­gling change be­tween the down­fall of the Gang of Four and Tianan­men Square. Sec­ond, the scars and hurts are less than sear­ing, per­haps be­cause the worst was over dur­ing the pe­riod Zhang de­scribes or be­cause she does not seek to ex­cite our sym­pa­thy. Third, it deals un­usu­ally frankly ( for the genre) with sex, in par­tic­u­lar the au­thor’s early ex­pe­ri­ences, how­ever fum­bling or ul­ti­mately de­grad­ing.

Zhang Li­jia is a suc­cess­ful jour­nal­ist and au­thor. In 1980, when the book starts, she was just a 16- year- old wannabe school­girl in Nan­jing with big dreams of at­tend­ing uni­ver­sity. So­cial­ism is Great is the story of her strug­gle to ful­fil that am­bi­tion against a suc­ces­sion of set­backs and ob­sta­cles. In case you hadn’t guessed, the ti­tle is ironic. It’s the mad and mad­den­ing Com­mu­nist Party bu­reau­cracy ob­sessed with keep­ing peo­ple in their place that usu­ally stands in her way, but the real cul­prit, we are left in no doubt from the ear­li­est pages, is her mother.

At the age of 43, Zhang’s mother forces her daugh­ter to give up school so she can re­tire from her haz­ardous job in a rocket fac­tory on the acid pick­ling line. The fac­tory is a mil­i­tary fa­cil­ity se­cretly pro­duc­ing mis­siles that can make it all the way to the US.

The daugh­ter is spared the stink­ing dan­gers of the acid pick­ling line but this scarcely

So­cial­ism is Great By Zhang Li­jia Uni­ver­sity of West­ern Aus­tralia Press, 400pp, $ 24.95

mit­i­gates her hor­ror at her fate, for which, it is clear, she has never for­given her mother. Zhang be­comes a re­sent­ful mis­fit or, as she de­scribes it, a frog trapped in the fac­tory well.

A para­ble at­trib­uted to the fourth cen­tury BC Chi­nese philoso­pher Zhuangzi was seem­ingly writ­ten for her: A frog jump­ing freely about his shal­low well sees that the crabs, in­sects and tad­poles are no bet­ter off than he is and is per­fectly con­tent with his life un­til a tur­tle comes to visit. The tur­tle de­scribes to him the great­ness of the huge sea, which doesn’t rise in floods and doesn’t fall in droughts. ‘‘ Upon hear­ing this, the frog is truly sur­prised. It then feels dis­ap­pointed and lost for a long time.’’

China in the 1980s was a na­tion full of frogs. As Deng Xiaop­ing’s re­form and open­ing poli­cies pro­pelled the na­tion out of al­most com­plete post- war iso­la­tion, many cit­i­zens were shocked to learn that, con­trary to Com­mu­nist Party pro­pa­ganda, liv­ing stan­dards in their sup­pos­edly par­a­disi­a­cal mother­land were in fact vastly in­fe­rior to those in the West. As one of Zhang’s older, wiser boyfriends re­marks, it was ‘‘ a con­fus­ing time, since so much in­for­ma­tion had sud­denly gushed in from out­side, con­tra­dict­ing what we had learned’’.

Zhang is la­belled a ‘‘ fake for­eign devil’’ for her ef­forts to learn English be­fore it be­came fash­ion­able; she is re­peat­edly de­nied the op­por­tu­nity for fur­ther study and ad­vance­ment be­cause the fac­tory’s po­lit­i­cal di­rec­tor Wang dis­ap­proves of her dar­ing style of dress ( though it prob­a­bly doesn’t help that she is caught read­ing Jane Eyre dur­ing his ex­cru­ci­at­ing po­lit­i­cal lec­tures). As the po­lit­i­cal winds shift, Zhang’s life takes the tragi­comic twists and turns fa­mil­iar to read­ers of com­mu­nist- era mem­oirs. But this one has a di­vert­ing sub­plot in her sex­ual awak­en­ing through a suc­ces­sion of un­suit­able boyfriends.

It is high- risk be­hav­iour in the op­pres­sive so­cial at­mos­phere of the times, when the redarm­banded granny de­tec­tives pa­trolled the neigh­bour­hood and be­ing caught with your pants down could re­sult in be­ing sent off to a labour camp. The deed is couched in the lan­guage of al­lu­sion (‘‘ As the flame turned white- hot, we ex­ploded to­gether. Beau­ti­ful sparks shot into the air’’), yet the sub­se­quent pain of re­jec­tion and loss are real enough.

Some read­ers may wince at Zhang’s overly flow­ery and some­times clunky turns of phrase, un­til they re­mem­ber that she’s writ­ing in a lan­guage learned furtively in her spare time through sheer force of will, and that lib­eral use of colour­ful al­le­gory is typ­i­cal of much Chi­nese speech and writ­ing.

There is real tragedy here. When she was seven, Zhang’s mother was taken away and tor­tured for sev­eral months; her fa­ther was de­moted and shipped off per­ma­nently to a dead- end job in the coun­try­side af­ter tak­ing at face value Mao Ze­dong’s in­vi­ta­tion to crit­i­cise the party dur­ing the treach­er­ous One Hun­dred Flow­ers move­ment.

The writer skates over th­ese dark episodes as if they are in­ci­den­tal, when clearly they are cen­tral to her fate. In her sin­gle- minded determination to bet­ter her­self, she spares lit­tle em­pa­thy for those who seem to stand in her way, in­clud­ing her mother and fa­ther.

On the spec­trum from dull and wor­thy through to light en­ter­tain­ment, this book sits at the en­ter­tain­ment end. It’s read­able and funny, but it has a cold heart. Without the ex­otic ab­sur­dist Com­mu­nist Party back­drop, Zhang is just an­other teenage girl strug­gling to hold on to her dreams as she con­fronts the harsh re­al­i­ties of the con­fus­ing adult world. Cather­ine Ar­mitage is a for­mer China cor­re­spon­dent for The Aus­tralian.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.