BY LIJIA ZHANG
NEW YORK: ANCHOR BOOKS, 2008
384 PAGES, ISBN: 978-0307472199, HARDBACK
Reviewed by Arthur Barbeau
Those interested in teaching the China of the past fifty years have a plethora of good materials available to them. There is a wealth of information on the last ten years of Mao’s life, ranging from scholarly studies, accounts of travelers, to personal memoirs. These cover the Cultural Revolution, the rise and fall of the “Gang of Four,” and the deaths of both Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong. For the past two decades, there are a number of accounts of the student movement of 1989 and its tragic dénouement. The reforms of Deng Xiaoping and the economic growth of China since then are well covered, though personal narratives are not as numerous as for the earlier period.
Yet there appears to be one striking gap. The years from the death of Mao in 1976 to the student movement in 1989 seem to have produced little narrative. These years saw the beginnings of economic reform in China under Deng and the struggle between modernizers (such as Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang, the outspoken Fang Lizhi, and the hardliners). In those years, many of the “sent-down” youths (some no longer young) returned to their cities, and many young people found themselves in the category of “waiting for work.” During this period there were experiments with new methods of higher education, the “iron rice bowl” began to crack, the family responsibility system was inaugurated in agriculture, and temporary migrant workers began flooding China’s cities despite their lack of the necessary residence permits. From groping and miniscule beginnings, a free market began on the streets. In small restaurants and tiny shops, private enterprise began to compete with state-owned enterprises. A China that closed early and was nearly dark at night became a country where city life brightened. China was a country where privacy was an almost absent commodity; the most populous country in the world often seemed like a small village.
It is this China that is chronicled in Lijia Zhang’s “Socialism Is Great!” Her personal life narrative and her desire to participate in an awakening China offers a resource for teachers seeking to close the gap and make this period in China’s history meaningful to their students. Though it focuses on her personal story as a factory worker in Nanjing, my own experiences during those years make it clear she represents the new generation in both factory and university. Almost every page triggered strong memories. There are brief, but repeated, encounters with guanxi (the personal networks), the importance of the danwei (work unit), the backdoor that was necessary to get goods or make changes, the weekly political meetings, and the importance of politics for any advancement. Despite her struggles against the system, there are some efficient and hard-working cadres. And, yes, there are honest and kind members of the Communist Party. Zhang does capture the spirit of the age.
This book can be a great resource for teachers and useful for undergraduate students, as well. At the secondary level, while it can be a godsend for teachers, it should not be used for student reading as Zhang is too open about her personal sexual experiences. I have rechecked with trusted friends of the appropriate age, and Zhang was far more active than the vast majority of her age cohort. With this one caveat, I strongly recommend Zhang’s “Socialism is Great!” to teachers of modern China at just about every level.