Factory Girl

An intimate account of growing up in changing China

Written by UMA MAHADEVAN DASGUPTA | Published:January 18, 2009 2:39 pm

An intimate account of growing up in changing China
Lijia Zhang’s memoir of growing up in 1980s China is the story of a struggle to shape her destiny. Born in Nanjing,Zhang is a bright 16-year-old student who is coerced by her mother to abandon her dreams of going to university and becoming a journalist. Instead,she must now take up her mother’s job of working in the city’s huge Liming factory.

While her mother and grandmother embroider prayer mats to earn additional income,Zhang has been doing well at school,hoping to be one of the less than 4 per cent of Chinese children who are admitted to the university system. But,now,faced with a future as a factory worker,she goes off glumly to the workshop every morning to check pressure gauges on equipment. Used to working hard,she looks for ways to keep her mind engaged; and luckily,when a new open-university system is announced,she is one of the few candidates selected by the factory for a course in mechanical engineering. On her return to the factory,finding that she must remain a worker instead of being promoted to the “cadre”,she begins to study English. Working hard,reading novels and even smuggling an English-Chinese dictionary into the workshop,she labours through the intricacies of the language until she herself becomes a translator and writer. When a friend introduces her to the great works of literature,she finds new inspiration: “I loved stories like Jane Eyre and Great Expectations,about little people from the bottom of the society fighting hard to improve their fate.”

At the same time,she enters into a series of relationships with men,ranging from infatuation to one-night stands. Finding herself pregnant one day,she not only has to get an abortion but also handle the “period police” at the factory. “Privacy was a luxury no Chinese expected,” she remarks wryly.

Meanwhile,around her,China grapples with change. If Zhang’s grandmother had her feet bound as a child and worked as a courtesan before marriage,Zhang’s mother now works with a “getihu”,one of the new private businesspeople. At the bookstore where Zhang buys her English novels,the “Marxist poster boys” are still on the walls,but Richard Clayderman’s tinkling piano music has replaced propaganda broadcasts. The missile-producing Liming factory wins a bid to cast a huge bronze statue of the peace-loving Buddha. In 1989,when the students come out on the streets to demand democracy,Zhang leads the largest group of workers in support of the protesting students. In her speech at Drum Tower Square,she quotes the poet Bei Dao’s poem Answer,written during the 1976 Tiananmen demonstrations in which he himself participated: “Let me tell you,world,I — do — not — believe! If a thousand challengers lie beneath your feet,Count me as number one thousand and one!” After the movement is quelled and a policeman comes to question her about her role,she realises that this is also the road that she has fashioned for herself: “I was proud of what I’d done. I handed Policeman Zhou his notebook back,held my head up,and my back straight and erect. Just like my mother.” Socialism is Great! is the intimate,intelligent and profoundly moving account of a woman’s struggle to live a free and full life.

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