an interview with me on Times of India

Period policing was very insulting’

Sameer Arshad,TNN | Dec 1, 2014, 06.46 PM IST


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READ MORE Nanjing|Lijia Zhang|Impoverished China

'Period policing was very insulting'
Lijia Zhang


Beijing-based Lijia Zhang was pulled out of school when she was 16 to work at a factory to make ends meet in impoverished China in the 1980s. But this did not prevent her from realising her dream of becoming an author-journalist. She shares her fascinating story with Sameer Arshad about how she learnt English, circumvented control in China with its despicable manifestations like period policing:

We know China as the largest economy today. It was not the same while you were growing up. Tell us about yourself and the country you grew up in?

I was born into a poor, working class family in Nanjing (eastern China). I grew up in a compound which belonged to the factory my mother worked for. In former Soviet Union and places like China — in those days — state-owned factories had dormitories for workers. That is where I grew up. All my neighbours worked for the factory. My friends were children of factory workers. So becoming a factory worker was probably the likely fate. But I had a grand plan. I wanted to go to a university and become writer or journalist. I had this idea because my teacher used to read my writings as a good example to show to the other students. I had this dream. But when I was 16, my mother took me out of my school. I do not hold this grudge against her. I do not think she realised the benefits of education. She retired early for me to take over her job. She took another job to double our income. Those days China was very poor. As we were growing up, food was scarce. There was scarcity of everything – meat etc. Everything was rationed. We used to eat all sorts of things to satisfy our craving for meat.

English became the game changer for you to escape your wretched life. How difficult was it?

The factory was very much a mini-communist state. It provided a lot of things to the workers like dormitory. I went to school at the factory. There was a kindergarten there. My whole life was within the grey environs of the factory. I hated my life there. So I decided to teach myself English as an escape route. I studied English in the hope of getting a job with foreign companies starting shops at Nanjing. I wanted to become a journalist to get out of the factory. Learning English changed my life. I became very political. It deepened my interest in literature. After my English improved, I began to listen to the BBC which broadcasted news very differently from the (Chinese) propaganda. It was not easy to learn English. I followed radio learning program called ‘new concept English’. I became quite fascinated by the (Western) system which was very different from ours. I started talking to myself in English. The only way place I found to study at work was a rubbish dump.

How did you deal with the all-pervasive control in Communist China and what was the worst you faced?

There was so much control. Nothing was personal. Everything you wanted – dating, high heels, lipsticks – were not allowed. Even men could not grow hair beyond their earlobes. All the women workers — every month — had to go to this hygiene room to virtually show blood to this woman – we called her period police – to show we were not pregnant. It was part of the one-child policy — now called family planning. The control has been relaxed now. Period policing was very insulting. It was a way of controlling.

Tell us something about you work?

I wrote a book on western image of China while I was living in Oxford 20 years ago. I found the image fascinating – of Mao etc. But the book did not pass the censorship. Then I made the decision to write in English. They have no way to control that. I am based in Beijing but I write for international publications. Even within China, official publications like Global Times has domestic Chinese and English editions. The control over English writings is much lenient.

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