Lijia Zhang’s Socialism Is Great, a facetiously named memoir of the author’s life in communist China, makes readers thankful for democracy.
The book begins by describing China as becoming increasingly important to our global economy as their number of exports continues to grow in their move away from communism toward capitalism. One of Zhang’s boyfriends call communism “the hangover of feudalism,” where a small group of people controlled the masses.
Socialism Is Great is a critical analysis of the slow transformation of the Chinese government after Chairman Mao’s death, as well as an intimate account of one woman’s escape from oppression through education.
Zhang was 14 years old when her mother decided that school was futile and forced her to take over her job at a factory. Her mother thought that the family’s low status would prevent Zhang from attending a university, and therefore continuing school would be futile. Zhang protested, but finally accepted her fate.
Many Chinese in similar situations grew complacent. In the state-run factory, workers were encouraged to be the same as everyone else and not to stand out. The length of hair and width of trousers were even dictated.
Wearing flashy clothes and reading voraciously, Zhang refused to blend in. When a degree for mechanical engineering was offered to her, she jumped at the opportunity. When that was finished, she began teaching herself English.
By reading Western books, Zhang began to question the Chinese government. She rebelled, trying to better both herself and her country. Whether or not her actions are agreeable, her courage and dedication is both admirable and inspirational.
The prose is eloquent, heartfelt and engrossing. Zhang includes Chinese idioms, such as a vagina being called a “jade gate” and a slut a “fox fairy,” that make her account more engaging. To those who don’t know much about Chinese culture, it’s extremely interesting and educational.
She also sprinkles Chinese proverbs throughout the book. She explains differences between American and Chinese cultures and perceptions, definitely targeting a Western audience.
One thing that might deter readers is how Zhang uses the terms “socialism” and “communism” interchangeably while also stating that China was a “dictatorship.” These are three different types of governments, which may or may not be blended together.
Socialism Is Great lacks Zhang’s interpretation of the perceived difference of socialism and communism.
Perhaps she thinks that they’re comingled in how the Chinese government functioned during her early adulthood. Or, more likely, she doesn’t perceive any differences between them. Either way, the omission detracts from the book.
Zhang shares a common downfall with many memoirists. She doesn’t seem to know where to end her story. Socialism Is Great is longer than most recent memoirs, yet it’s interesting enough to keep readers engaged. It seems that either Zhang or her editor disagreed.
Toward the end, Zhang jumps around to different events. The once seamless book begins to feel jerky, like a rollercoaster coming to an abrupt stop and then slowly hitching toward the finish.
This book was partially written for the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square demonstration, where the police massacred thousands of peaceful protestors. Zhang, an organizer and demonstrator in the event witnessed these students and intellectuals being gunned down.
This should be a poignant final chapter so that readers can appropriately mourn the tragedy. However, it fails to be as poignant as the subject material allows because it’s told awkwardly. Instead of giving a firsthand account, she mixes the truth with the lies she’s telling the police during the aftermath. This makes it seem remote rather than emotionally powerful.
Then an epilogue quickly fast-forwards through the next few decades of Zhang’s life. Zhang currently lives in Beijing where she keeps the Western world informed of Chinese politics through journalistic articles. She has written two other books, one a novel about prostitution and the other a history of the People’s Republic of China.
Socialism Is Great is enthralling enough to recommend as long as you’re reading for the journey, not the destination.