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Book Review: “Socialism Is Great!”: A Worker’s Memoir of the New China by Lijia Zhang

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It is the actions of the masses, not great men, that truly shape history, Leo Tolstoy argued in War and Peace. Support for that theory might be seen in Lijia Zhang's "Socialism Is Great!": A Worker's Memoir of the New China.

Zhang's book is a personal memoir, not a political one. That's why it is echoes Tolstoy's argument. Zhang was growing into adulthood during the birth pangs of new capitalism and democratization in China in the 1980s. Her life reflects and is influenced by changes that were wrought in part because of what the people were doing and wanted, not because change was dictated from on high by a post-Mao leadership.

Zhang lived in Nanjing (Nanking), located on the Yangtze River. The city's name means "Southern Capital," as it once served as a capital of the country. It is, however, some 700 miles from Beijing so it was not the center of political or social developments in the country. Yet the fact the changes were also occurring there is indicative of how activities at the local level grew and expanded until they were reflected nationally.

"Socialism Is Great!" begins in December 1980, when. as a teenager, Zhang's 43-year-old mother retires from her job at a state-owned missile production plant and she must go to work there. Her mother fears that if she doesn't retire now, dingzhi — a policy under which retirees could be succeeded in the workplace by their children — will disappear. Zhang's resentment losing any chance to go to college and her desire for a life other than as a factory worker helps drive her to further her education to the extent she can. Thus, she obtains a mechanical engineering degree through anew "TV University" program. She later learns English and becomes a translator largely through guided self-study. These pursuits reflect slowly growing change in the general population, a change where personal growth and freedoms begin to take precedence over the drab, gray and formalized structure under which the country has long operated.

These changes are reflected even in her mother. She soon goes to work as an administrator at a small free market bazaar in Nanjing. The market is not operated by the government. Rather, the rows upon rows of stalls selling almost anything is made up of "a new breed of businesspeople" who rent stall space to sell their wares on their own. As time progresses, the capitalistic sense grows more widespread. "'Revolution is not a dinner party,' our great leader Chairman Mao once warned," Zhang writes. "But today's revolution seemed to be all about dinner parties — most business deals, official or private, were concluded at a banquet table crowded with expensive items[.]"

Her comment reflects that not all the trappings of the Mao era were on the way out. In fact, the book takes it title from the lyrics of a song Zhang's TV University class performs at a celebration of the Communist Party's 62nd birthday. Zhang makes clear in other ways that this is still a society locked into an authoritarian tradition.

For example, if the temperature reached a certain point, factories and government organizations had to close. Even when that temperature had been exceeded, the government reported a lower one, leading Zhang to note that in her society, "the authorities controlled even the temperature." Likewise, while Zhang is becoming increasingly sexually active, the factory in which she works still has "period police," family planning staff who verified each female worker had their monthly period.

In 1986, occasional public protests occur, even in Nanjing. By 1989, the push for freedom and democratization gave rise to the Tiananmen Square protests. Not only did they reverberate worldwide, they were reported and had great impact in China itself. Just days before the government brutally quashed the Tiananmen Square protests, Zhang helped organize a demonstration among the workers at her factory, who marched to join a far larger crowd in a Nanjing square. Zhang gives an impassioned speech there promoting democracy.

This overt political activity appears at the end of the book and almost comes out of nowhere. In fact, when first released last year, the book concluded with her signing a confession of her involvement after being questioned by police investigators. Fortunately, the just released paperback edition adds an epilogue explaining how Zhang's life since and how she came to write the book. Although Zhang's personal growth over the course of the book indicates her broader views on democracy and freedom, the suddenness of her explicit political activism and the rather abrupt conclusion of her story leaves the reader hanging.

This is one of several flaws that undercut Zhang's memoir. Among other things, she has a tendency to use quick cuts. She will jump from a recounting on one page into totally unrelated events on the next. This is even more irksome because, in doing so, Zhang often begins with the aftermath of events and then, a few paragraphs or pages in, finally take us to the events to which we have shifted. Similarly, Zhang's extensive use of Chinese idioms can be distracting at times. Whether this is simply cultural, reflective of an the intent to reinforce the "Chineseness" of the story or merely to show what such proverbs can encapsulate in a few words, their frequency seems to render them almost a crutch. Finally, there is perhaps an overemphasis on Zhang's sexual awakening and relationships, particularly for those who are more inclined toward the political or societal aspects of the memoir. That also contributes to various instances of turgid writing, such as, "I guided his hand down to my jade gate where a misty cloud had gathered."

These blemishes demonstrate Zhang's memoir clearly is not a Tolstoyian work. But it does take us to the level where that great author believed real change occurred. As such, "Socialism Is Great!" is an eyewitness account of momentous times in China by a relatively average individual who did not realize her own life reflected and contributed to history until after the fact.

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About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.