Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Chinese Jane Eyre

This is writer Zhang Lijia.

She recently wrote a memoir called "Socialism is Great!" after the title of the revolutionary song she had to sing every July 1 when she worked in a missiles factory.

Today she is gregarious, speaks with an English accent and full of interesting comments about her life.

She was 16-years old in 1980, just a few years after the end of the Cultural Revolution and just when Deng Xiaoping began China's reform and opening up. Unemployment was still high at that time and there was a special provision that parents could hand down their jobs to their children.

Her mother thought she was doing Zhang a favour by giving her her tool box and telling her she would be testing gauges in this Nanjing factory.

Zhang gave a bit of insight into factory life, how women were not allowed to wear makeup, curl their hair or wear ostentatious clothes. Nothing was private, not even your sex life. Women regularly had to line up and show that they were having periods before they were given sanitary pads.

She was annoyed her mother pulled her out of school, when she had always dreamed of being a journalist and a writer. At the time she didn't know there was a difference between the two, but thought through education she could write whatever she wanted.

As a result, Zhang was bored at the factory doing repetitive work. But she decided to learn English to be a translator and began studying whatever textbooks she could get her hands on and listen to English language programs on the radio.

Then she began reading English books. And one of the first ones she read was Jane Eyre.

She immediately bonded with the character, and felt she could not be in this factory forever and needed to change her life.

This was quite revolutionary for Zhang, because as a child she was always obedient, listening to her parents and her teachers.

But little by little she changed.

She started to wear short skirts, outrageous glasses, and singing English songs -- like the Carpenters. She also started having relationships with men in the factory...

Through getting access to periodicals for cadres on foreign media and listening to the BBC, she soon realized the propaganda she was fed what was reported in the outside world was different and was determined to get out.

I haven't read the book so I don't know exactly how she got to England, but she met an Englishman in Beijing and for a time lived there as well as Uzbekistan.

For her the 1980s was a time of great change. It was the start of China's opening up, an amazing time for artists and writers who were repressed for so long and created amazing pieces of art and literature.

She and her friends had discussions about the future of China, about political reform, and should the country be democratic. She even organized workers in the democratic movement to support the students in 1989.

Compared with today, she says there are more personal freedoms, but perhaps people are now all focussed on money than the country.

While she hopes her book will be translated into Chinese, she says it will never be published here. She hopes it will be picked up in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

She says her parents wonder why she is a writer when her English is so good she could get a good job with a multinational company. "Other people whose English isn't as good as yours make more money," they complain.

But Zhang is following her childhood dream and she's determined nothing will stop her from expressing what she wants to say.

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