"Socialism Is Great!": A Worker's Memoir of the New China

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by Lijia Zhang

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With a great charm and spirit, “Socialism Is Great!” recounts Lijia Zhang's rebellious journey from disillusioned factory worker to organizer in support of the Tiananmen Square demonstrators, to eventually become the writer and journalist she always determined to be. Her memoir is like a brilliant miniature illuminating the sweeping historical


With a great charm and spirit, “Socialism Is Great!” recounts Lijia Zhang's rebellious journey from disillusioned factory worker to organizer in support of the Tiananmen Square demonstrators, to eventually become the writer and journalist she always determined to be. Her memoir is like a brilliant miniature illuminating the sweeping historical forces at work in China after the Cultural Revolution as the country moved from one of stark repression to a vibrant, capitalist economy.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
With a New Afterword

“A sharply observant and admirably crafted memoir. . . . A truly original contribution to our understanding of modern China.”
—Jonathan D. Spence

“A literary gem. . . . Zhang deftly crafts the journey of a whole generation, desperately yearning to break away from the ropes of tradition and living to dream the impossible. It's a book to relish, a volume to cherish and mostly, a life to celebrate.”
—Da Chen, author of Colors of the Mountain

“A beautiful memoir. . . . Our current China literature is heavy with victim memoirs, but this is a true tale of aspiration: a young woman coming of age in a nation desperately trying to do the same.”
—Peter Hessler, Beijing correspondent for The New Yorker and author of River Town

“Beautiful.... A remarkable memoir.... A notable historical document and a vivid, affecting portrait of a young woman's resolve.”
—Kirkus Reviews

Library Journal

Although this work's story line and political analysis will not surprise even the novice reader on China, it's still a revealing book. Zhang (coauthor, China Remembers), an internationally published journalist living in Beijing and here writing in English, looks back on her youth in China to share discerning and acerbic vignettes of family life, shop-floor politics, sexual encounters, and Dickensian types in a Nanjing factory in the 1980s, ending with organizing demonstrations of Nanjing workers to support the 1989 Beijing protests. Her ambitions to learn English and go abroad were thwarted when her mother, being only realistic, forced Zhang to leave school and inherit her guaranteed factory position through the "replace job" system. Her mother, Zhang shows, was herself deprived of happiness by a thoughtless husband and Socialist China's social constrictions. The warmest character she presents is her grandmother, an emotional support, great cook, and source of traditional lore. Zhang's lively though painful love life, explicitly described, shows that romance survives even under authoritarianism. The reader is left wondering what happened between 1989 and the present. All libraries wanting to supplement coverage for the Beijing Olympics could well consider this volume.-Charles W. Hayford, Northwestern Univ., Evanston, IL

—Charles W. Hayford
Kirkus Reviews
Composed in beautiful English, this remarkable memoir by a former Chinese factory worker delineates her efforts to buck the strictures of socialism and broaden her life's experience. Western readers accustomed to self-determination will be shocked to read how little control the average Chinese person has over his or her life. In 1980, Zhang was a promising student hoping to become a journalist when her mother announced that the 16-year-old would be replacing her as a worker at the Liming Machinery Factory. Having labored at the missile factory her entire life, supporting her three children mostly on her own while her husband worked in another city, Ma was taking advantage of dingzhi, a policy put in effect after the collapse of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 that aimed to alleviate soaring unemployment by allowing children to take over their retiring parents' jobs. Zhang didn't want to be a worker, but because her father had "political problems," her chances of access to a university education or any other means of bettering her lot were slim. Forced to quit school and become a gauge reader at the detested factory, she was apprenticed to several "masters" who taught her how to wile away the empty work hours, spy on others and trick the system. Zhang effectively conveys the emotional life of her younger self as she squelched her resentment and even made friends among the other workers, while never ceasing to read voraciously and to look for an opportunity for escape. Her braininess allowed her to study mechanical engineering at the Jiangsu TV University (a "new type of college . . . designed to popularize learning"); her various love affairs enlightened her; learning English became herMarxist "tool of struggle." The democratic movement of 1989, treated somewhat hastily here, brought her both exhilaration and chastisement. A notable historical document and a vivid, affecting portrait of a young woman's resolve.
Tribune - Glyn Ford
“[Zhang] offers a fascinating glimpse into what life and love is really behind the bamboo curtain and—with her endurance, stoicism and joy—leaves me wanting more!”
“This revealing memoir will have readers rooting for Zhang as she fights her way out of an oppressive system.”
Seattle Weekly - Kate Silver
“Zhang is a clear eyed storyteller…"Socialism Is Great!" is peppered with a teenager's dark humor and bright recollections.”
Jonathan D. Spence
“A sharply observant and admirably crafted memoir. . . . A truly original contribution to our understanding of modern China.”
Wall Street Journal Asia - Malia Politzer
“A riveting tale.”
The New York Times Book Review - Joseph Kahn
“Zhang’s memoir, with its arc of resistance and personal struggle . . . written in fluent English peppered with dated Chinese idioms, begins where those older memoirs leave off. . . . She seems to suggest that in the 1980s, Chinese politics had evolved enough that they could be a quixotic diversion for a restless and headstrong girl.”
Da Chen
“A literary gem. . . . Zhang deftly crafts the journey of a whole generation, desperately yearning to break away from the ropes of tradition and living to dream the impossible. It's a book to relish, a volume to cherish and mostly, a life to celebrate.”
Pankaj Mishra
“This affecting record of individual striving and fulfillment reminds us, with humor and insight, how the growth of sensibility in unfavorable circumstances remains one of our most pleasurable literary experiences. Set against China’s breathless recent transformation, "Socialism Is Great!" offers a rare and intimate glimpse of a country and culture that are now reshaping our world.”
Peter Hessler
“A beautiful memoir. . . . Our current China literature is heavy with victim memoirs, but this is a true tale of aspiration: a young woman coming of age in a nation desperately trying to do the same.”

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


“Would you like to be a worker, if you have a chance?”

“Of course not, Ma. Why?” I answered my mother flatly, without even looking up from my homework. To be a worker? What an odd question! I was only sixteen, in my first term at senior middle school, and I –was doing well.

Across the table, Ma tugged threads into a tassel for an Islamic prayer mat, made for export. For years we had been taking in embroidery work for sorely needed extra cash. Nai, my grandma, also clutched a prayer mat to embroider, but had dozed off. She dozed off more often now. If we asked her to go to bed she would straighten up and resume her work, only to fall asleep again within minutes.

“Not even working at a first-class enterprise like Liming, a real ‘iron rice bowl’?” Ma had spent her entire working life at Liming Machinery Factory, the largest state-owned enterprise in our city, Nanjing. Under the authority of the Ministry of Aerospace Industry, our factory had nearly ten thousand employees. Its prestige derived from not only its scale but also its status as a military factory. With free services from nurseries to cremation, and countless bowls of rice in between, the life of a state employee meant cradle-to-grave security. Plus free showers and subsidized haircuts.

“Not even Liming.” Finally I raised my head to look at Ma, who was frowning in my direction. I liked to look at Ma. She was pretty—when she didn’t frown. She had lovely high cheeks, and bright, slanted eyes. Her arched eyebrows were like two new moons. Her name was fitting too: Yufang, fragrance of cloud.

Now she seemed at a loss for words. After a while, she added: “I would think twice if I were you, Little Li.” That was my pet name at home, though I hardly merited its meaning, “little beauty.”

It was the beginning of December 1980. Winter had come early. My hands, swelling red with chilblains, were carefully copying English words into an exercise book. How fascinating! This language system, reintroduced to schools recently, was completely different from Chinese. Our characters developed from pictographs, real pictures of actual things. Jia,  for example, means home, where a roof shelters a pig and reveals our farming roots. Hunched over a naked bulb of low wattage, just about bright enough for our tasks, three generations of Chinese women, bundled up in padded cotton jackets and trousers, sat around three sides of a table pushed against a window. The lack of heating was geographic fate: the Communist central planners permitted no central heating south of the Yangtze, the river that splits China in two. The “southern capital” Nanjing lies on the lower reaches of its southern bank, where, though temperatures never fall as low as in cities to the north, the damp cold goes straight to one’s bones. To fight the chill, we stuffed our feet in a straw basket warmed by a copper hot-water bottle. I could always tell which pair were Nai’s—the tiny, bound ones. A warm, womanly intimacy hung in the air.

There were others in my family, but they weren’t around. My father had spent his whole working life in another city. My elder sister Weijia was studying at her college in a far corner of the city. My naughty brother Xiaoshi was out playing in our village, Wuding New Village, the largest residential area for Liming employees.

Located just outside Wuding Gate, one of the thirteen city gates that once defined and guarded Nanjing, the village was still classed as rural, although the sprawling urban landscape was slowly swallowing up the green patchwork of fields that surrounded it. With few trees and little green space, there was none of the rustic beauty or tradition that the word “village” suggests. There were several thousand villagers, packed into three dozen or so concrete blocks, identical but for being either three or four stories high, depending on the year of construction.

Our flat, on the second floor of a four-story block, felt matchbox-sized, with low ceilings, one main room, and one side room. The walls of peeling yellow paint were bare but for a factory calendar and the two school certificates of merit that my sister and I earned each year without fail. Two beds took up much of the main room where we sat, but the bedding was neatly folded, for the beds also served as seats and worktables. An old wardrobe, a wedding gift from my mother’s in-laws, gave off distorted reflections in its full-length mirror. The once intricate carvings were cracked, like an old worn face. A white tablecloth, crocheted by Weijia with sewing threads, covered a coarsely made cupboard. On top sat a colorful biscuit tin, long empty, but kept for decoration. Beside it stood a “hero” clock. “The masses are the real heroes” read one of Chairman Mao’s quotations, printed on the clock face. A worker grasping a hammer, a peasant her sickle, and a soldier his gun were painted waving aloft his Little Red Book.

Looking at the painted worker, I smiled to myself. A worker? How funny I would look if I wore his canvas uniform and peaked cap.

Three weeks later, I was summoned after supper for a “little talk” in Ma’s bedroom. I knew it was serious when she shut the door. Our last closed-door session had been nearly four years earlier, when I was in my last year at primary school. My teacher had recommended I study at Nanjing Foreign Languages School, an exclusive place whose graduates all went on to university, and were later trained as diplomats or interpreters for high-ranking leaders. “Would you like to go there to study?” she had asked. I had jumped up with joy. But my happiness was premature: I failed the political censorship—my father had “political problems.” I was therefore rejected.

Ma’s room was always so dim—high wattage would use too much electricity. When I started middle school, she arranged for me to sleep with her, thinking I was too big to share a bed with my brother and Nai. While Ma, next door, made endless tassels into the night, I was scared on my own—the eight-watt fluorescent lamp flickered in the darkness like a jack-o’-lantern. To forget my fear, I began to read books. Within months the characters on the school blackboard became as blurred as crawling ants. A pair of black-framed glasses came to reside on my small nose. When Ma discovered why, she banished me back to Nai’s bed—it would have been wasteful to install a bright light just for my reading. I slept better, holding Nai’s thin legs.

Now I looked expectantly at Ma as she sat down on the bed. What could it be this time? Even in the semidarkness, I could see her “two new moons” knitting together in a frown.

“Remember I asked if you would like to be a worker?” she began, her voice husky and low. She cleared her throat.

“You are going to take over my job.”

The sentence fell like thunder from a bright blue sky.

“What?! NO!” I jumped up again, this time in protest. “Why? I’m still young!” I pleaded.

“I became a worker myself at your age, only half a year older,” she said matter-of-factly. I remembered Ma once boasting that she had been a promising student, too, but was forced to give up school because her family was too poor. 

“But surely, Ma, you can support me to finish school, then...”

“Poverty is only part of the reason.” Then, calmly, she began to explain the rest. When the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, China was a mess, its economy on the brink of collapse. To tackle the soaring numbers of jobless, a temporary policy appeared called dingzhi, literally, “replacing job.” If parents could secure retirement, their children could take over their jobs. Several rounds of dingzhi had followed until it was strongly rumored that December 1980 was the last such opportunity. Despite excellent health at forty-three—some seventeen years away from the normal retirement age for women—Ma had decided to take advantage of the opportunity. When she first raised the issue with me, she had already applied to retire early on the grounds of poor health: she had been working for many years on the hazardous acid-pickling line. My poor reaction had not deterred her in the least, and now her application had been approved.

“I don’t want to be a worker!” I insisted, stamping a foot in disgust.

In my mind’s eye, I saw the blue canvas uniform and Ma’s coarse hands. A worker? I knew it was the likely fate for children from our village, but I had grand plans for myself.

“I want to be a journalist!”

“I told you before, don’t even dream about it,” she replied. “A journalist? Writing is a dangerous thing to do in this country. Your dad is a good example.” She frowned: the sheer mention of my father seemed to vex her. “Anyway, becoming a journalist is just one of your flights of fancy. You also wanted to be a pilot, a barefoot doctor, and an interpreter, just to name a few!”

Ma had a glib tongue, but I was far from convinced.

“I’m good at writing, my literature teacher said so.” At school, teachers often read out my compositions, and fellow students copied my prose. “Whatever happens in the future, I want to go to university first,” I added assertively.

“Getting into university is harder than climbing to heaven!” she retorted. “I know you’re a good student, but your school is very bad. Look, this year they ‘drew an egg’ again—not a single student passed the university entrance exam.”

That much was beyond dispute. My middle school, like my primary school, had been established by Liming for its employees’ children. Only later was the school’s administration transferred to the city’s education authority and children from nearby areas allowed to attend. No self-respecting teacher would choose to work at either of these remote and poorly equipped schools. After the humiliating failure of last year, the school introduced a new strategy—streaming students into classes based on their abilities, so that the most resources and attention would be spent on pupils with the greatest hope of reaching university.

But I was in the fast class, wasn’t I? As if reading my mind, Ma continued in a crisp and clear voice, with a fluency that spoke of many rehearsals in her mind. “Even if you do pass the entrance exam, your bad eyesight will probably fail you. Look at Weijia, she scored quite well but only got into a teacher-training school.”

A fair point. My sister Weijia was training as a primary school teacher at Xingzhi Secondary Normal College, not a “proper” university and hardly a place for an ambitious youth. However, poor sight (as in my sister’s case) or any other physical defect was held against you. The university entrance system, only reintroduced in 1977 after the chaotic years, demanded almost perfect physical health—a useful way to reduce the pool of candidates. China’s proper universities could accommodate fewer than 4 percent of those who took the entrance exam. In other words, only one out of six hundred Chinese children was lucky enough to experience higher education.

“But at least I can try, and if I score really high, some university will surely accept me. Can you wait for three years, Ma?” I knew someone from Weijia’s class had gotten into Beijing University, China’s Oxford, despite his bad eyesight. I didn’t need to remind Ma that university was one of few guaranteed routes to success for an ordinary family like ours.

“Wait? I can, but not dingzhi. You know government policy is like a child’s face—three changes in a day.”

I wasn’t good at arguing with Ma. To be a good child meant tinghua, “to listen to words,” a phrase that conveyed obedience, the most desirable quality for Chinese children. So I listened, obediently, to the words of my teachers at school and my mother at home.

Barely comprehending, I listened as she went on. If I failed the university exam I would end up one of those jobless youths, or get a job in a collectively owned factory, if I was really lucky. A good job with Liming? No chance!

The prestige of state-owned firms remained high. “The working class leads everything!” newspapers reminded us. “Workers are our elder brothers” and “the masters of the nation.”

“Look at this house. We are so poor,” grumbled Ma, kicking her bedside table. One of the legs slipped from its brick support. That table and a bed were the only furniture in the cramped room. “We can’t rely on your dad. He is useless, and Nai is getting old. She nearly died from the stroke. It hurts me to look at her hunched over the embroidery, like an old shrimp. After you become a worker, I can find another job, and our lives will be better.”

Irritated by my wooden expression, Ma raised her voice. “But above all, Little Li, let me tell you I’m doing you a big favor! I simply don’t understand why I have to beg you to take over my treasure.” She blew her nose. “Your mouth still smells of breast milk; you don’t know what’s good for you! You’ll go to work at the factory next week. That’s it!”

She got up and walked out, her back straight and erect. For me, her back always spoke volumes about her proud, stubborn nature. Once she had set her mind on something, a four-horse cart couldn’t hold her back.

I followed her lamely to the main room and met Nai’s concerned look. Wide-awake in her usual place, she was still clutching her embroidery.

Ma banged and clattered around the flat for a while, voicing her displeasure, and then went into her room.

“You didn’t agree?” Nai whispered.

I didn’t answer. If I’d been wearing a hat, the force of my rage would have shot it into the air. Agree? What was the difference if I agreed or not? Everything had been decided. Although it was common practice for parents to decide what was best for their children, I still felt shocked, even wronged. But how could I bring myself to say anything unkind to Nai, the dearest person in my life? After raising Ma, her only surviving child, Nai had cared for her grandchildren like a faithful servant. We called her Nai, slang for paternal grandmother: Chinese people held paternal grandmas dearer than maternal grandmas.

“Dingzhi is the best for you,” said Nai, her soft eyes focusing on me as I sat down heavily. “If you can’t go to university, no point in finishing senior middle school, right?”

My semiliterate grandma would not make such a connection herself. Ma must have fed her the lines.

Meet the Author

Lijia Zhang was born and raised in Nanjing. Her articles have appeared in many international publications, including South China Morning Post, Japan Times, the Independent (London), Washington Times, and Newsweek. She is a regular speaker on BBC Radio and NPR. She now lives in Beijing with her two daughters.


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"Socialism Is Great!": A Worker's Memoir of the New China 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
TulaneGirl More than 1 year ago
So I picked up this book because I absolutely adored it's cover - and I'm so glad that I judged this book by it's cover. It's such a delight. This isn't a victim book bashing communism. It's a coming of age story for a round peg trying to fit into a square hole. Lijia comes of age in 1980's communist China - Nanjing to be precise. Her mother, sensing the tides turning and worried about her daughter's future, gives her daughter her much coveted job in a factory to secure her future. Lijia, however, is not impressed by stability and security. She has dreams of becoming a journalist and writer. She wants to go to college and pursue her art. Her mother, a more practical woman, tries to make Lijia see that those dreams can't come true even if Lijia were to try to get into a proper university. She has no connections and poor eyesight (which apparently is a stumbling block in the quest for college). Lijia ends up working t the factory, getting into horrible clashes with her mother, and making her own way constrained by societies dictates. By the end of the book, we see Lijia paving her own way in Communist China and fighting to become the woman she knows she was meant to be. 
BrianGriffith More than 1 year ago
This is a young woman's journal of discovery, covering the first decade of her working life. It starts as she's forced to quit school and take a factory job in 1980, and ends as the police investigate her for leading a 1989 democracy march. And this kid is just beautiful. She's honest, funny, and smart, with a drive for life like a heat-seeking rocket. She's on a quest for learning, skills, cash, potential. But most of all I think it's a drive for beauty. She teaches herself English partly out of ambition, but maybe more for the love of candor and beauty in the worlds of English literature. While mastering engineering skills at the rocket factory, she gets stronger and more beautiful all the time. Her love life gets more courageous. Her openness gets stunning. --author of A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization
Anonymous More than 1 year ago