The car stops at a downtown Jaipur crossing and Lijia Zhang asks her co-passengers, “How does one behave with them?” Her object of curiosity is a beggar asking for alms from the other side of the rolled-up window. Suggestions come from all sides. (‘Ignore.’ ‘Give as you want.’) Then someone asks her, “Do you have beggars in Beijing?” She looks bemused and answers, “No. Not in Beijing.” And you detect a faint sense of pride in her reply.
Lijia is that rare thing: a writer-journalist who has been critical of Chinese government policies while at the same time making sure that she’s considered a patriotic Chinese. “I am not a dissident,” she says emphatically sitting in a guest house in South Delhi a few hours before the Indian launch of her book, Socialism is Great! But as her ‘Worker’s Memoir of the New China’ amply shows, her writing questions some of the fundamental ideas of a post-Cultural Revolution China under Deng Xiaoping. Spanning between 1979 when China u-turned from Mao’s trajectory and 1989 with the Tiananmen Square massacre — where Lijia attended as a factory leader, her book is one of the first windows to the China that went on to become the economic juggernaut that it is today.
Socialism is Great!, however, has not been published in her home country. “The International Herald Tribune had carried the The New York Times review of the book. I got a copy of the paper to find that the review had been cut out by the censors. There was just a gaping hole where the review was supposed to be. I had to look it up on the internet later.”
Lijia’s story of growing up and attaining adulthood in the city of Nanjing in the 80s is also written as a mirror image of China growing up and coming out to face the world. “It was my political and sexual awakening that I describe.” says the once-upon-a-time girl whose allegiance to Maoist dogma was as blind as any teenager growing up and out of the Great Helmsman’s shadow.
But what makes Socialism is Great! a true delight is that it is a personal tale, riddled with laughs, coyness, retelling mistakes and laced with a wit that seems such a long way away from memoirs and historical novels like Jung Chang’s Wild Swans and Adeline Yen Mah’s Fallen Leaves. For one, Lijia’s memoir is centred around a working class family and not, as the
writer says, “from a privileged background”.
Lijia’s “journey of the frog out of the well” — working as a teenager in one of China’s biggest missile factories (“they were designed to reach North America”) — took her to England where she turned to journalism and married her ex-husband. Did writing in English feel different or difficult? “Writing in another language was actually quite liberating. Describing sex or erotic moments is very difficult to write in Chinese. By writing in English I lost much of my inhibitions,” says Lijia with a laugh.
I tell her how the writer Amitav Ghosh once mentioned in the context of India’s role in fuelling the 19th century Opium Wars between China and Britain that the Chinese, unlike Indians, never forget their history. How do today’s Chinese remember the Cultural Revolution and the rule of Mao Zedong? “What? The Chinese are not good at remembering their history at all. They can be great at being in denial about the ‘uncomfortable past’,” she says.
“We don’t even have one museum that tells us what happened during the Cultural Revolution. Youngsters now put Mao as No. 1 on the most admired Chinese list. He’s seen as the person who shaped modern China, who stood up to the world. But they don’t know anything beyond that about him.”
As an ex-factory worker, what does she think of the economic miracle of the New China? “It’s great. There is more prosperity all around, even though poverty does exist in the provinces. But it’s wonderful.” Then the mother of two thoughtfully adds, “I just hope my girls don’t take all this for granted. I keep telling them...” and her voice wistfully trails off.