Catalogue


"Socialism is great!" : a worker's memoir of the new China /
Lijia Zhang.
edition
1st Anchor Books ed.
imprint
New York : Anchor Books, 2009, c2008.
description
363 p., [12] p. of plates : ill., ports. ; 19 cm.
ISBN
9780307472199
format(s)
Book
Holdings
More Details
imprint
New York : Anchor Books, 2009, c2008.
isbn
9780307472199
catalogue key
6994242
A Look Inside
First Chapter
Chapter 1

Inheritance

“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 doz

Excerpted from Socialism Is Great!: A Worker's Memoir of the New China by Lijia Zhang
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New York Times Full Text Review, October 2009
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