One sunny but frigid Saturday in early January, I crossed Beijing and headed to an area I’d never been to before. As I drew close to the top of the subway escalator, feeling the cold seeping into my shell of hoarded underground warmth, I phoned Chinese writer and author, Lijia Zhang, asking for directions to her home. Not long afterward, she guided me through a narrow redbrick alleyway and led me to her home.
Once indoors, this vivacious and brightly dressed woman in her early fifties plied me with green tea and fruit, sat down across from me at a large glass dining table and began to chat. Despite suffering from jetlag (she says it is getting worse with age) after a business trip to London and holiday to Ethiopia with her two teenage daughters (17 and 19), she spoke spiritedly.
We talked for an hour an a half, pausing only for Zhang to grab another layer of clothing, while reminding me that she’s from southern China and still unused to the cold of Beijing’s bitter winters. We agreed that traveling outside of China is the only way to stay sane during the icy months, realising a mutual interest in Burma (Myanmar).
Throughout our meeting, this author whose first book has been published in 7 languages, and first novel, Lotus, will be released next year, seemed just as curious about me as I was about her. She gave me some hints about writing in China, tips on getting my work seen by a wider audience, and even slipped in a little love life advice! And did she drop a little hint about her third book?
Zhang burst onto the global literary scene in 2008 with the memoir of her rebellious journey from life as a disillusioned factory worker to becoming a writer and journalist in English. Her first book Socialism is Great! A Workers Memoir of the New China describes how she dreamt of escaping the stultifying routine of factory life, while reading Jane Eyre hidden within the folds of The People’s Daily and studying English in the local dump.
Zhang’s plans to attend college were quashed when her mother dragged her out of school at 16 and forced her to work in a factory producing intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads in her hometown, the southeastern city of Nanjing. Zhang says there has always been a rebellious streak in her: she chose to teach herself English as a way out of her claustrophobic surroundings, spearheaded a walk-out in support of the Tiananmen Square demonstrators in 1989, and still describes her dress-sense as reyan, conspicuous or showy.
One of the few mainland writers writing in English, Zhang describes herself as being a cultural bridge between China and the world. She now writes regular op-eds for publications including the New York Times, the Guardian and The Observer and is a regular guest on media outlets such as the BBC, CNN and NPR.
How did your aspirations to get away from factory life in the 1980s differ from the national China dream at that time?
I have never been asked this question before. In some ways you can see the similarity. Like me, China was the frog in the well, because of its’ isolation. But in China’s case, it was a self-imposed isolation from the world. China had just gingerly opened its doors in the late 1970s, and, like myself, was very curious about the outside world. I knew the world was large and I was not happy to be trapped in my small world.
Does the new China dream being peddled around look like a farce?
The China dream, the way I read it, is basically China’s rejuvenation. It wouldn’t have worked in the 1980s, because at that time China was just establishing itself. Now China’s position in the world is increasing and the nationalist sentiment is growing, so the new China Dream has tapped into that.
It sounds like you defied expectations in any way you could.
Chinese people have this really strong tendency towards conformity. I still remember that my sister, when we were at school – our whole class too – nobody would be the first to change from long sleeves to short sleeves, it’s really silly. Certainly that’s a very suffocating environment.
Have you continued to defy the China norm, or has that changed?
Well I think China definitely has grown far more individualistic. I guess that tendency started in the eighties and in some ways climaxed in the democratic movement. When I was in the factory, you couldn’t express yourself in any way. Now young people can do as they like. You can shave your head! I hang out with a lot of feminists like Li Maizi – that will probably be my next book – she constantly changes her hairstyle and things. The new generation are very different.
Do you know where your coworkers from the factory ended up?
I have one close friend – the book is dedicated to her, Zhou Fang – but she was different, she was educated, she was sent to work after graduation. I keep in touch with her, because she is still one of my best friends. She’s now a senior manager with 3M. She lives in Minnesota.
A year after my marriage collapsed I met one of the women from my work group. I was going through the worst time in my life, and I saw my former colleague sitting on the roadside selling newspapers. A few years before that, all women aged over 45 were sacked. In all state downsizing, women are always first to go. She retired early and the pension was very little. Just to make a living she was sitting on the roadside selling newspaper.
I saw another guy, Ma, the guy who kept spitting [in the book]. It was really terrifying, just to see him. He’d had a stroke and had already become an old man. He still lived in the same village.
Writing in English
Does writing in English hold particular advantages over writing in Chinese?
I am one of very few Chinese people who write in English. I certainly get noticed because I am one of the few people who live in China. There are a few people writing in English, like Yiyun Li, Ha Jin, but they live abroad. So I am in an unusual position.
Recently I had an interview with BBC TV about the 1.3 million unregistered people to be allowed a Hukou. BBC called me because they needed somebody who can understand Chinese society but can also communicate with people outside, speaking English.
Last year I was invited to attend an academic conference. I was introduced as one of the only Chinese living in China writing for international publications. So that’s the reason I was invited to attend the conference; I was flattered.
I also got a fellowship from the US State department. I have no idea how!
Does writing in English help you to think in different ways?
Talking about writing, I increasingly notice some of the common problems in Chinese writing – writing in Chinese by Chinese authors. Writers have trouble using different points of view. Chinese authors often use omniscient [narrators], but not very skillfully.
To give you an example, Sheng Ke Yi wrote a book called Northern Girls. The content is fascinating, but it was so poorly written, I don’t know how it got such attention! In once scene, they were having sex, and the story jumps point of view from his to her point of view. Terrible! She is regarded as an established writer but she makes common mistakes that any creative writing class will tell you to avoid. So I notice these kinds of problems now. I have a few Chinese friends who write and I often have the urge to point this out to them.
Creative writing is offered to Chinese Literature students, does this bring hope for Chinese writing?
Creative writing courses alone do not automatically produce writers. Writing is something so personal. The drive has to come from within yourself. You have to have a desire to write your story and to express yourself this way. But writing is a craft, so some things can be learned. Yes, of course I think Chinese writers will benefit from creative writing courses, but Chinese Literature overall is in a bad place. There are many reasons, and creative writing courses will not solve the fundamental problems.
Socialism is Great! was published in 2008. Why then?
Like many things, it happened accidentally. I benefitted hugely from the creative writing course [MA Creative Life Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London, 2003-4]. I had a wonderful tutor. I chose a module about non-fiction writing, life writing, and my tutor was Blake Morrison. I found him very inspiring. In his book he borrows a lot of elements from non-fiction writing, which I was very much inspired by. I had already finished the book but after the course I really had a major rewrite.
In December 2006, I was working for a literary agent and I was assigned to interview James Atlas, the publisher, who had a project publishing in China. I interviewed him and I said, ‘Oh, I actually have a book.’ He said ‘show me,’ so I showed him. He read it through on his flight back from Beijing to New York and decided to publish the book. It just happened, just like that.
Do you see the publication of Socialism is Great! as the turning point of your career?
It was. It has proved to be the turning point. I didn’t expect that a little book would have such a big impact. It was published by a small independent publisher – but they gave lots of attention to it – and then picked up by Random House, had good reviews, and it was published in different languages. I have to say I am grateful… looking back I had such a bad contract! Now, I’m able to make a living from giving public speeches and I have a lot more offers of jobs, so I can pick and choose.
Did you consider approaching a China based publisher?
No. The climax of the book was about the 1989 demonstration [in support of the Tiananmen protests], so the book was very much about jumping out of the well. By the time I organised the demonstration, mentally I was already out of there.
Writing in China
What challenges do you face, as a Chinese writer, writing in English, based in Beijing?
I would still consider the first one as language – it is just very difficult – especially in the beginning. Secondly, the way to present an argument: in the West, there is more focus on presenting a very balanced view, which is not stressed so much here.
Have you ever felt threatened as a result of your work?
In 2008, I wrote a piece for the Guardian called It’s time to stop criticising China. I wrote that China has come a long way since the 1980s. I got a lot of hatemail, mostly from right wing Republicans, saying “how could you possibly defend a fascist regime like China?”
Then in 2011, when Little Yueyue was run over by two vehicles in and left bleeding by 18 passersby, and the incident was caught on CCTV, I wrote a piece questioning China’s declining morals. I got so much hate-mail from Chinese people. I guessed some of them were from wumaodang (the fifty cents party), paid by the authorities to attack anybody they don’t like. But some people’s English sounded too natural; they must have been Chinese living abroad. I got lots of personal hate-mail saying I was the running dog of the west, that I don’t deserve to be Chinese, and how ugly I am.
Because it’s not face-to-face, you can say anything.
For a time, you wrote under your married name while simultaneously using your maiden name. How did that make you feel?
That was just a safety concern really; for some articles it felt safer. It didn’t bother me. I just knew it was a necessity to attract less attention. If they are nasty, they can be nastier to a Chinese national, even if you’ve got a British passport. But I am divorced, I cannot use the other one any more! And my name, Lijia Zhang, is more established now. I cannot even use Zhang Lijia any more.
You once said you see yourself as being the cultural bridge between China and the world. What amount of control do you feel in how China is seen by the rest of the world?
I wrote a piece on the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 about this issue, the title was Expanding Cage. I wrote that there is still control but after 1989 the government relaxed the control, and expanding personal freedoms is part of that strategy. So, now, ordinary people feel very free.
I think that’s one of the biggest misconceptions of china. People outside China imagine that 1.3 billion people exist in a very controlled, very rigid environment here. But for lots of ordinary people, the cage has expanded so much that they don’t often feel the limit, unless you’re like visual artist Ai Wei Wei or somebody caught up with the law. Lots of ordinary Chinese people actually feel free.
You are bringing domestic China to the world.
Public speaking is a big part of that. Writing books and articles is, too.
Do you see yourself influencing foreign policy or the Chinese diaspora?
I don’t know about that! But I have been often asked to meet VIPs. Just recently I met a former Greek foreign minister, who is now in charge of the human rights issue for the European Commission. He came here to participate in dialogues with the Chinese authorities and he had one free day to meet people, so I was one of the people he met. I don’t know if I can influence foreign policy but I am happy to share what I know.
Is there something you wish people knew about you or a question you wish someone would ask?
What a nice person I am! No. No, people serve the purpose they have. They want to know certain things, so that’s fine.