Lijia Zhang is a courageous woman who has written an extraordinary autobiography. She has bared the intimate details of a young woman's life while opening our Western eyes to what it was like to grow up in China in the recent era. The book is subtitled "A Worker's Memoir of the New China."
Zhang's book ends with events surrounding Tiananmin Square, when Zhang is being interrogated for organizing a small workers rally at her job site, a factory that manufactures missiles. It begins when she is forced to drop out of school and to go to work at the factory because her domineering mother has decided to take an offer of early retirement. She gives her daughter her job, a "rice bowl" gift that, as a dutiful Chinese offspring, the teenaged Zhang is supposed to accept in gratitude. It will mean a guarantee of the sorts of minimal blessings that her mother has enjoyed – a worker's apartment of two rooms shared by
four people with communal bathrooms, a ration of rice, and the privilege of celebrating many holidays, such as the Communist Party's Sixty-second birthday, an occasion for Zhang and her cadre to sing the eponymous paean, "Socialism is great…counterrevolutionaries were overthrown and the imperialists ran away with their tails between their legs." The book details without over-emphasizing such limitations as the lack of privacy that affects all Chinese – in the factory, women must visit a low-level nursing functionary who inspects the progress of their periods and hands out menstrual supplies based on her observations – and the simple joys of daily life – someone gets a large ration of fish and the family has an unexpected feast.
The youngster goes to work in a quiet section of the factory and serves at first as little more than a servant to the older people in her group. But Zhang's zeal for learning cannot be muted in the smelly, lumbering conservative ambience of her workplace. Times are changing in the elitist country, where only a tiny percentage of high school graduates ever make it to university. Now there is a new innovation ideally suited to the mass desperation for advancement: TV University. Zhang manages to get accepted in one class, and this opens new vistas for her.
For one thing, Zhang begins to hear serious political discourse, some of it relatively mild, expressing tentative hopes that China can adapt sufficiently to Western values to offer greater opportunity for its youth without entirely dropping its communist framework. These are tough issues for young people who grew up with extreme anti-capitalist propaganda as a given in their universe. The dissent gradually spreads as it becomes obvious that accommodation to capitalism will require more personal and universal freedoms. In the course of participating in the dialogue with her fellow students, Zhang begins to style herself as different from the masses, wearing loud flamboyant
Westernized clothing (called reyan), making herself a target. Among other things, she is obviously a target for men, with her unusual naturally curly hair and oversized glasses, her short skirts and low knee stockings. As she learns about politics, she is also being schooled in the mysteries of love
- known romantically as "clouds and rain." In almost every case, she meets with extreme disillusionment.
Both themes in Zhang's young life converge towards crisis. She finds she herself pregnant and unmarried, an unacceptable condition in a country still hidebound with strict traditional mores, and she finds that she is a natural revolutionary who can't help getting in hot water.
Socialism Is Great! cries for a sequel. The author now lives in Beijing and works as a writer and radio commentator, and we would like to know how she got from point A, where the book terminates, to point B, her current successful adjustment to life in the "new China."