Book Review – “Socialism is Great!” by Lijia Zhang
I fear this is going to be a short review. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy reading “Socialism is Great!”, or that I’d hesitate in recommending it, but just that I’m not sure I’ve got much of interest to say here. What we have is a memoir of a Chinese woman called Lijia Zhang (or Zhang Lijia, more properly), who was born during the Cultural Revolution of the mid-sixties. For those not in the know, the Cultural Revolution was nothing like the bohemian unrest in countries such as the U.S. and France at similar times: it was an extended period of anarchy and murderous madness in which Mao (who had been pushed out of power) sought to wrestle back control using civil disobedience among his followers. Lynchings, murder, the like. Millions dead. Not a happy time to have been born, but Zhang’s tale is illuminating in that it explains how life in Nanjing began to improve over the following decades.
From humble circumstances, in which she lived in a small apartment with her mother, grandmother, younger brother and occasionally her father, young Lijia tried, often unsuccessfully, to improve her circumstances. In China at that time this meant trying to get into university, which was no mean feat. Unfortunately for her, at book’s opening (with Lijia sixteen or so), her mother plans to have Lijia take over her own job in a rocket-making factory. If Lijia Zhang has any ‘claim to fame’ at all, it is in that she was employed in a plant that built nuclear missiles intended to reach America. But so were thousands of others. So Zhang’s account is not particularly unique, but it does provide a ‘slice of life’ account of Nanjing in the seventies and eighties.
Lijia struggles on, attending TV University (in which students watch their lecturers, you guessed it, on TV) and mournfully returning to her plant, which seems to have achieved the pinnacle in inefficiency (very little work gets done, it seems). As Lijia gets older she is drawn into a series of sexual relationships with various men, none of which prove to be very satisfactory. Eventually she falls pregnant, but manages to secure an abortion. This is interesting, as it shows the shocking and degrading treatment of women’s sexuality in China through the decades in question. China has an extremely long history of poor treatment of women, over at least 5000 years, and Zhang’s account corroborates much of this history. This is a gruelling read at times.
Toward the end of the book, Lijia becomes involved in some of the student activism associated with the Tiananmen uprising of 1989 and beforehand. This is where I felt the book inadequate, as it did not really provide much detail in this direction. Yes, Lijia did coordinate a march of workers at her plant, but that’s really about it. And the book ends rather abruptly, with her being fingerprinted by the police for her role in these demonstrations. Despite her life experience, Zhang does not appear to have much to say about the ills of Chinese ‘Socialism’ (I use the term loosely), nor of the student movement of the time. Here I sensed a sharp contrast between her account and the work of my favourite Chinese writer, Ma Jian, whose account of the Tiananmen uprising and massacre is given exhaustive treatment in Beijing Coma and to a lesser extent in Red Dust.
So “Socialism is Great!”, despite its apparently ironic title, isn’t really a political book. It is in fact a personal memoir about a woman of no particular importance to the scheme of things. In this I found it slightly baffling, but interesting nonetheless. Where this book excels, to my way of thinking, is in its description of the particular details of Nanjing life in the seventies and eighties. There is a wealth of small, trivial detail here, but I guess I am saying that I was looking for a bigger picture or thesis which did not prove to be forthcoming.
Not such a brief review after all! You can expect to see reviews of Disch’s The Wall of America and Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things in the next week or so.
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