China Beat Archive



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December 2, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright December 2, 2008. Used by permission.


I think that no matter when I read it, I would have been impressed by Lijia Zhang’s“Socialism is Great!” A Worker’s Memoir of the New China. There is simply a lot to like about any book that is well crafted, unsparingly honest, and alternately poignant and amusing. And these adjectives all apply to Zhang’s tale.

One sign of the care the author takes is that she neatly bookends the part of her life story she gives up with a pair of very different sorts of acts of rebellion. Readers first meet the narrator as she chafes at the idea of leaving school at seventeen to take-over her mother’s job at a Nanjing missile factory—to no avail, as she has no option in the end but to accept this post and the “iron rice bowl” that comes with it. And one of the final images of Zhang we get is of her marching with other workers from her plant in a demonstration held to show support for the student-led occupation of Tiananmen Square.

In between, we learn about her early crushes. We are told about her first serious love affairs—made complicated, in part, by a China where young couples without access to private indoor spaces still met in parks, even though they could be arrested if discovered in compromising positions and unable to show a marriage license. We root for her as she struggles to gain respect from co-workers and continue her education (in English among other subjects) after her formal schooling is cut short. And we find out about the ways that her views of her mother and grandmother change over time.