by Lijia Zhang
- China -
For ten years, I worked in a missile factory on the banks of the Yangtze River. Although I grew up in the residential compound of my mother’s factory, and all my friends were the children of workers, I dreamt of becoming a journalist. I saw myself grasping a pen to write beautiful, compelling things. Instead, at the age of 16, I was grasping a toolbox and mother’s “iron rice bowl” – a job for life in a state-owned factory.
The end of 1980 saw the dawn of reform but also roaring unemployment. To address the problem, the government introduced a temporary policy, allowing young people to take over their parents’ positions. My mother, aged only 43, having pickled machine parts in acid most of her working life, decided to take advantage and retire, worried I might never land such a good job. Chenguang Machinery Manufacture in Nanjing, with its army of 10,000 workers, was among the largest and most prestigious enterprises in China, churning out civilian as well as military supplies, including the country’s “fist product” – missiles.
From free nurseries to cremation, with countless bowls of rice in between, the life of a state employee provided cradle-to-grave security. Workers were hailed as “big brothers”, “the masters of the nation”.
Yet I would have loved to have stayed on at school and later tried my luck entering university, as I was a good student. But I was tinghua too – obedient, the most desirable quality among Chinese children. Ting means listen and hua, words. Since I was little, I had been trained to listen to the words of parents, teachers and our Communist Party.
The first six months at the factory were the hardest. I felt miserable and out of place. My job was to test pressure gauges that, fitted to pipelines or containers, indicated capacity or physical status. I would screw the gauge to be tested, along with a control gauge, to a two-pronged pressure-checking device – left connector for the control gauge, right for the gauge being tested. Since both gauges measured the same pressure, a good gauge showed the same reading as the control gauge.
Simple and repetitive, the job taxed neither body nor brain. I did not know why I had been assigned to the gauges group, where the workload was far from demanding. Most of the day, my colleagues would sit smoking, sipping tea from enamel mugs blackened by tea leaves, and “chuiniu” – bragging or “blowing bull”. “Little Zhang, what will you do for the rest of the month?” they laughed at me, when I naively worked as hard as I could.
Later, I came to realise that surplus labour and low efficiency were characteristic of state-owned enterprise. China had faithfully replicated the Soviet Union’s central planning system in building its industrial structure. Just as enterprises, good and bad, received fixed funding from the state, so all workers received a standard salary, regardless of performance. That was what was meant by the “big rice pot”. A performance-linked bonus system, once despised by Chairman Mao, had recently been reintroduced. In reality, the difference this made was marginal.
As an apprentice, my most important duty of the morning was to fill our battered metal thermos with boiled water from a tank coated with black grease in the middle of the shop floor. After that, there was little else to do. I was not allowed to read my books and could only gaze out of the window at the high security wall circling the factory compound, guarded by armed soldiers. In my boredom, I turned my attention to a boy.
Long Hair Drama is adapted from Lijia's memoir Socialism is Great! - A Worker’s Memoir of the New China, published by Atlas books in March 2008 and appearing on The WIP in four parts over the next four weeks. - Ed.
About the Author Lijia Zhang was born and raised in Nanjing, participated in the Tiananmen Square protest and ended up an international journalist. Her articles have appeared in South China Morning Post, Japan Times, the Independent (London), Washington Times, and Newsweek. She is a regular speaker on BBC Radio and NPR. She now lives in Beijing with her two daughters. Visit Lijia's website at www.lijiazhang.com