Not a factory product

Lijia Zhang's most recent book is "Socialism Is Great! A Worker's Memoir of the New China" (Atlas).

Writing HAS always been a cherished dream. I was born and raised on the banks of the Yangtze River. Although I grew up in a residential compound belonging to the factory where my mother worked, I had this grand dream to become a writer ever since my teacher read my compositions. I saw myself grasping a pen to write beautiful, compelling things. Instead, in 1980 when I was just 16, I was grasping a toolbox and preparing for a lifetime job in a large state-owned military factory with 10,000 employees in Nanjing.

In the repressive routine, I felt miserable and bored to death. I was assigned to test pressure gauges. There were so many rules. Even the width of one’s trouser legs and hair lengths were subject to control -- so was one’s period. Every month female workers queued up to show blood to the “period police” to prove they weren’t pregnant. Confined within the high walls of the factory compound, I felt like a frog trapped at the bottom of a well.

I sought escape in literature, borrowing randomly from the factory’s library, which contained mostly Soviet revolutionary literature, our own “scar literature” and some Western classics. I wrote in my diary, pouring my frustrations onto the pages. I decided to teach myself English, hoping to land a job as an interpreter outside of China. I followed a radio program called “New Concept English” -- new concept indeed. I spoke English to myself; cycling in the street, I sang songs by the Carpenters. I bought novels in simplified English because they satisfied my needs to study the language and my interest in literature. I loved “Jane Eyre” and “Great Expectations,” which I found packed with inspiration.

Some colleagues laughed at me: “A toad who dreams to eat swan’s meat!” But I didn’t care what others said as the concept of individualism took root in me. Never had I imagined the effect of studying English: The walls of the well I was in were shrinking; the light of other people’s experience brightened my life. As I read more, my scribbling grew from recording daily life to writing poetry and stories.


In 1990, after a decade of slaving at the factory, I finally jumped out of the well to go to England, where I dared to study journalism. When I returned to China three years later, I eventually became a freelance journalist, writing for publications such as the Japan Times, Newsweek and the Independent. I published in domestic publications but only “safe” pieces. At Oxford, I wrote a series called “Letters From Oxford” for a Nanjing paper. However, my stories about a homosexual friend or the British Parliament system never made it into the paper -- they were deemed “too sensitive.” I have long realized that, as long as there’s censorship, I can never write for another Chinese publication.

Writing in English not only frees me politically -- both “China Remembers,” an oral history of People’s Republic of China that I coauthored with my ex-husband, and “Socialism Is Great!” will never be translated or published in mainland China -- but it also frees me from any inhibition I might have if I were writing in Chinese. For example, the sex scene in my memoir might have been less detailed. I am not sure if Chinese is the best language for expressing emotions, but I do borrow vivid idioms and sayings from Chinese to give my writing some cultural flavor.

Do I dream in English or Chinese? Many have asked me this question. That I don’t know. But I still dream a great deal.