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Socialism is Great!

A new book offers timely insights into China in the 1980s

"And Capitalism is Dead!"

Were you aware that China’s children know the novel Oliver Twist as ‘The Orphan in the Foggy Capital’ – such is its title when translated into Chinese. This, and a host of other interesting material, anecdote and history are all good reasons for reading the curiously titled Socialism is Great!

The book is a memoir by Zhang Lijia about China in the 1980s. Future historians will probably give more attention to this era than they erstwhile have. This was a seminal period for China: the decade after Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening programme began. While the rest of the world was listening to Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go and discovering hair gel, this was an era in which China got started on its current (and momentous) course.

The author was a frustrated worker in one of China’s state-owned enterprises, or as they are sometimes dubbed ‘iron rice bowls’. Her narrative describes her efforts to escape her mundane factory job and attain something better. She succeeds in doing so through learning English and studying for a degree at TV University. Along the way we learn much about what China was like back then.

Take, for example, this description of dining out in 1986: “Bright lights shone ruthlessly on the sweaty diners and illuminated the only thing on the greasy wall – a scroll reading ‘Serve the people with your whole heart and whole mind.’ Yet the service was such that diners cleaned their own tables and fetched their own chopsticks. Shouts rained down on each waitress who emerged from the blackened door leading to the kitchen. ‘Where is our food?’ Without even looking up, she would shout back. ‘Are you blind or what? Can’t you see I am busy?’”

Zhang’s factory is in Nanjing, which she tells readers is “the city of blossoms” – indeed as she points out, every one of China 661 cities is a city-of-something (for more on this, see WiC 1 page 11, ‘City of Bathing’). Her factory makes rockets, although her own job is far from rocket science – she tests gauges in a workshop. Her colleagues have no complaints, and spend their days slurping tea and in the case of Comrade Lan, “dozing”. But Zhang thinks there must be more to life.

Love, self-discovery and family conflict all follow. The book is written with an international readership in mind – and judging by the spelling, mostly an American one. Zhang starts out with the premise that readers will know little about China or its society and culture. It is therefore quite an educational read. She describes the origins of certain pictograms – explaining, for example, that Jia, means home, and that its character resembles a roof sheltering a pig. It is also packed with Chinese idioms; such as her grandma’s frequent references to her old age: “Half my body is already buried in the yellow earth.” Interesting insights into China’s long history abound, as do some great colloquialism, such as ‘you thirteen o’clock’, a slang term for a ‘crazy person’.

One of the book’s stranger revelations is that Zhang’s rocket factory actually built the Big Buddha in Hong Kong. As one of Zhang’s friends points out: “Isn’t it a bit funny that your factory, a producer of missiles, got this big order to build a Buddha, the symbol of non-violence?”

So does Zhang get her fairytale happy ending? Not exactly. She becomes a journalist.


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