Socialism is Great! (And Other Chinese Fables)

Two new books detail the brutalities of daily life in Mao’s worker’s paradise.


In Search of My Homeland: A Memoir of a Chinese Labor Camp
By Er Tai Gao
Harper Collins, $22.99, 260 pp.

“Socialism is Great!”: A Worker’s Memoir of the New China
By Lijia Zhang
Anchor, $15, 364 pp.

In a time when a White House Communications Director lists Red Chinese dictator Mao as a major influence in her life, it’s worth taking a look at the society that Mao established through mass murder and terror.

Two very different new memoirs by Chinese authors do just that. Anita Dunn, then President Obama's director of communications, last fall held up Mao as an example of individualism. In reality, under Mao’s regime, the communist government was so intent on wiping out individuality that it even demanded ideological allegiance from those it had branded enemies of the state — as it was killing them.

Even in the time of “reform” after Mao’s death, during the great “liberalization” of the 1980s, Chinese female workers were required to report their menstrual cycles and sex lives to factory apparatchiks in charge of population control. Evidently, this is Anita Dunn’s idea of how the individual can make a difference in society.

In In Search of My Homeland, his eloquent and tragic memoir, artist Er Tai Goa records that as the Chinese government worked its prisoners to death, those in Mao’s gulags were continuously tested for ideological rigor. In fact, the inmates, much like the rest of the country, monitored each other through “mutual supervision,” complete with the infamous group criticism sessions and punishments. As Goa recounts, the prisoners were required to endure all this with a state-enforced smile on their faces, a strenuous effort that added another torment to their daily agony.

While prisoners were dropping like flies in the camps, life could still be made worse by the commandant. Even whole-heartedly embracing the process of personal “reforming through labor” and taking a vocal lead in ideological discussions — and “mutual supervision” — did not spare one from arbitrary punishment.

If this seems unbelievably Orwellian, consider this: During China's Cultural Revolution in the '60s, most of the people sent to their deaths in labor camps weren't dissidents at all. In fact, most were as devoted to Mao as the people who denounced them and sent them away.

Er Tai Gao, however, did commit an ideological crime in the eyes of the regime, even though he had no political motive. As a young, naïve art teacher, Gao published an essay, “On Beauty,” in which he argued that beauty was subjective and dependent on context. Essentially, he wrote, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. To Western readers, the premise of Goa’s essay, which is included as an appendix, seems self-evident. But Lenin had held that beauty was objective and materialistic. So, in Mao's eyes, Gao's position was a crime against the Chinese State.

Gao published his essay in 1957, the time of “openness,” when Mao suckered his country’s intellectuals into expressing heresy openly so he could purge them in the Cultural Revolution. Gao was sent to the Jiabiangou “Farm” in the Gobi Desert, where the prisoners dug and filled in ditches through every kinds of brutal weather until they collapsed and died.

Goa, who survived more than two years in Jiabiangou, was released to a restrictive work environment, only to be denounced again and publically beaten; and was sent to another camp until he was released in 1962. He found a job after his release in China’s famed Mogoa Caves, a treasure trove of archeology and art, where he was able to lose himself in his work despite constant deprivation and threat.

In Search of My Homeland is a spare and beautifully written book. But it's not necessarily a hopeful one. Gao says his survival was not due to any great inner strength of his own, or the kindness of strangers, but was entirely “capricious.”

He may give himself too little credit. This book is the result of a secret diary he kept hidden on his person as he kept himself sane by writing. The discovery of the document would probably have led to his death. However foolish the risk was, readers are the beneficiaries of his foolhardy courage in providing us this extraordinary document.

“Socialism is Great!”

While not a political dissident in any sense we would recognize, Gao at least was an intellectual of some consequence who expressed an opinion that clashed with state orthodoxy. But as Lijia Zhang recounts in her extremely engaging memoir, “Socialism is Great!,” her parents were basically anonymous workers, cogs in the machine of China’s vast labor force, who endured persecution during the Cultural Revolution.

For Zhang, however, neither Cultural Revolution nor Mao himself is the primary focus. Her story begins when her mother ends the school career of young Lijia and bequeaths the budding 16-year-old scholar a mind-numbing job in a Nanjing rocket factory — presumably a life sentence.

Lijia discovers an environment where the “workers” are anything but dedicated laborers and find innumerable ways to get through the day without effort. Production is secondary to ideological purity in the late 1970s, and the plant's political instructor gathers them daily for what amounted to Communist chapel sermons:

“Wang loved to talk up the latest political movement: today, a campaign against burgeois liberalism symbolized by bell-bottoms, called ‘trumpet trousers’ in Chinese.

"'Unable to distinguish between flagrant flowers and poisonous weeds, these young people pick up capitalist trash like "trumpet trousers and rotten music,';’ Wang spat through a southern accent. "‘We must resolutely defend the “four cardinal principles" of socialism and firmly oppose bourgeois liberalism!’"

But Lijia was a free spirit to a fault -- and ambitious to boot. She first exercised rebellion by soaking up as much Western culture and literature as possible, such as secretly reading Jane Eyre and Great Expectations, and eventually through forbidden meetings with lovers (recounted in such frank detail that one hopes at least some were given pseudonyms).

While many in the West have heard of China’s one-child policy, which led to millions of cases of infanticide and forced abortions, it is rarely recounted just how thoroughly the Communist Party regulated the love life of average citizens.

China in the 1980s was a nation where married women could be forced to have an abortion at the same time a single woman could not legally obtain one. In a society nearly as sexually regulated as one under Islamic Sharia Law, an unmarried pregnant woman suffered not just social stigma but also civil sanctions—but so-called “pro-choice” and “feminist” groups on the American Left still lauded communist China’s “family planning” regime as a model for the Third World.

The limiting of offspring was not the only way in which married couples’ lives were regulated by the State. Lijia’s mother, for instance, lived as a virtual widow for most of her adult life for daring to marry a man from another city who was never given permission to permanently join her in Nanjing, giving them less than two weeks a year to be together.

In the rocket plant Lijia, and the other women are forced to submit to examinations by “the period police” in the factory hygiene office, a humiliation she recounts in chilling detail.

The book’s title comes from a hilariously stilted song the party gave the workers to boost morale. “Socialism is Great!” is filled with wry observations and a delicious sense of the ridiculous. While the totalitarian weight of the Chinese state is ever-present, Zhang tells her story with a sense of humor that is unique in dystopian memoirs.

The book ends on a serious note, however. Lijia, who organizes China’s largest pro-freedom rally outside of Tienanmen Square, is arrested for questioning even while her personal life takes a potentially disastrous and poignant turn.

In Search of My Homeland and “Socialism is Great” could not be more different books that examine the same society. Gao’s book may be more of a literary masterpiece, but Zhang’s effort fills the more needed gap in our understanding by covering a much more neglected period of Chinese political history.

Despite all the talk of progress, the more things changed, the more the underlying totalitarian nature of the Chinese Communist state has stayed the same.