Elevate Difference

"Socialism Is Great!": A Worker's Memoir of the New China

"Socialism Is Great!": A Worker's Memoir of the New China is an account by journalist Lijia Zhang, who came of age in China during the ‘80s. Documenting her life from ages sixteen to twenty-six, Socialism Is Great! follows a revolutionary spirit through the dreary politics of factory work, her insatiable pursuits for education, and last but not least, a dramatic and taboo love life. This page-turner has a great storyline involving the democracy movement leading up to contemporary China.

Zhang’s memoir has an incredible sense of place, and without any background in Chinese history or culture, I found myself easily absorbed into the world she creates. In one respect, the dehumanizing environments and relationships she navigates hardly seem foreign. Yet she simultaneously portrays communism as a distinctly oppressive system exercising extreme control over her everyday life. Ultimately, Zhang succeeds in writing a sharp critique of communism China without catering to a capitalist readership.

The plot starts unfolding when the precocious teenager is pulled out of school by her mother and put to work in a government factory. From her family’s perspective, this is the opportunity of a lifetime, as the government has given workers a limited window of time to retire and offer relatives their enviable position. To Zhang, who excels in school and has her hopes set on becoming a journalist, it is devastating. While she has no choice but to accept the job, she does anything but resign herself to her situation. In fact, Zhang goes on to eventually lead the largest demonstration by workers in Nanjing, China during the entire democracy movement.

"Socialism Is Great!"'s strength lies in part in its genuine complexity. This is not a perfectly PC memoir: we learn about faulted characters and their relationships to one another in the midst of a dictatorship. What makes the book both gripping and empowering is that Zhang is always stretching herself to move closer towards her aspirations. Each love affair is a unique experience and life lesson, as the obstacles she faces are simply changed routes in the path to her inevitable success. That this autobiographical work is about a suppressed intellectual living through intense political turbulence makes this an important historical perspective in addition to an excellent memoir.

Written by: Kathryn Berg, September 13th 2009