Raw ambition in Deng’s China
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.