by Lijia Zhang
- China -
CLICK, CLACK, CLICK, CLACK ... When the percussive tap sounded from the corridor outside I was instantly alert. Soon, the source arrived in the doorway and walked into the workshop.
“Masters, have you all eaten?” Little Zhi, a colleague who tested electric gauges in another room along the corridor offered the common greeting in China – one which required no answer. A giant by local standards at 1.86 metres tall, his eyes were long and thin; the sparse moustache on his young face as out of place as legs painted on a snake. He settled cross-legged in a chair, one foot in the air showing off his shining leather shoes with half-moon metal plates on the soles – the source of the tapping. They were considered attractive – not everyone could afford leather footwear. As the only son of the most senior deputy director of the factory, and, perhaps more importantly, the newly found nephew of a man living in Taiwan, Zhi could afford certain luxuries.
“Aiya, Marlboro!” A smile blossomed on Master Cheng’s stern face. In his 40s, his fine black hair was scrupulously combed back, in the way of many a top Chinese leader.
“My uncle brought them in from Taiwan,” Little Zhi explained casually. Two years my senior, but still an apprentice, his imported cigarettes and his father’s lofty position granted Zhi the status to take part in the masters’ “blowing bull” and move freely between the two gauge workshops.
“Can I have one?” asked Master Lin, who rarely smoked. He sniffed its fragrance before poking the cigarette behind one ear, beside a ballpoint pen. His homemade woollen jumper stretched over his thick waist, round and solid as a millstone.
“How about me?” protested Master Li, a slight woman with a full-moon face. “I don’t smoke, but my husband does. Thank you, that’ll make his day.”
“How about you, Little Zhang?” Little Zhang was my new name at the factory, where young people were addressed as “Little”, and elders respectfully as “Master”. “Save one for your boyfriend?”
There was a glint in Zhi’s thin eyes.
“Our Little Zhang has high standards,” cut in Master Li. “No problem, entrust me as your matchmaker, I’ll guarantee to find you a perfect man.”
“An apprentice is not allowed to court,” I reminded her sheepishly, pushing up my heavy black-framed glasses. I disliked colleagues laughing at my expense. There was much I disliked but had to endure since being sentenced to the factory.The workshop, its air heavy with smoke and grease, was of similar size to my school classroom, where 50 students squeezed into four neat rows. Here, a large worktable with a plastic surface dominated the room, its wooden legs dark and shiny from countless greasy hands. Three devices for testing pressure gauges crouched on the corners of the table, where some work awaited the masters’ attention, as if they were just taking a break. Despite the warmth and bright light I did not feel at ease in the workshop, perhaps because of the black iron window frames. Unlike the wooden frames at home, these were heavy and cold, almost hostile. Prison windows, I imagined, would look the same.
My own prison was located on the upper floor of unit 23. Workers in blue canvas uniforms and their machines toiled downstairs, a metallic orchestra of noise and industry around the clock. Engineers and the sundry cadres of Communist bureaucracy worked upstairs.
Those upstairs, who laboured with their brains, were commonly known as cadres, enjoying higher social standing, better welfare benefits and a larger salary – but lower grain rations. As staff of the gauges group, we were the only ones up there who worked with our hands, which led some to mock us, with our doctor-like white coat uniform, as “neo-white-collar workers”. Little Zhi often teased that a “four eyes” such as myself ought to have a real white-collar.
“Where’s the boss?” said Little Zhi.
“Meeting, what else,” replied Master Cheng.
“Master Lin, practicing calligraphy again?” Zhi turned to Lin, who was copying lines from The People’s Daily. I threw a glance in his direction and spotted the headline: “Hold high the Socialist flag”.
By reporting only good news and preaching to China’s one-billion-strong population about how to behave, the Communist Party mouthpiece had earned its reputation for being more effective than sleeping pills. Yet Lan copied pages at a time. At least it served one purpose – Lin appeared occupied, ready for the sudden inspections our work unit leaders sometimes sprang.
“Did you go catching cats last night?” Master Li cheerfully asked Little Zhi.
“Oh, yes.” Zhi began to brag about his night-time outings to catch cats with traps in the street. In theory all cats were wild, since keeping pets was prohibited, but a few people kept them secretly at home. Zhi’s craving for cat flesh, his favourite delicacy, must have saddened many households. “Snake and cat soup is so tasty! Do you know what it’s called?: ‘The battle between a dragon and a tiger.’”
I listened tentatively, not saying a word. I was attracted to this young man, a new breed to me. On each little finger he boasted a nail fully 5 cm long. I was so impressed I insisted on measuring them. At my school teachers inspected our nails, cut to the quick.
Historically, only wealthy and educated Chinese men kept their nails long – a show of status. Men who laboured with their hands would have to cut their nails short. Zhi always gave the same explanation for his long nails: “for convenience”, by which he meant convenience when picking his nose. Nevertheless, I thought everything about him was cool, especially the long shining hair almost touching his shoulders.
I did not think him interested in me – with my glasses he teased about so often and a skinny body like an undernourished bean sprout. I doubted any man would take a fancy of me. But I was better company than his two middle-aged female colleagues in the electric gauge workshop, also under the management of Boss Lan. Boss Lan was less impressed by Zhi’s long hair. Having returned from his meeting, our softly spoken leader issued a stern warning:
“Little Zhi, don’t get yourself into trouble. Cut your hair short. The political climate is tightening.”
Little Zhi tossed his long hair and left. The percussive tapping rose then faded in the corridor. I waited perpetually for that sound, the music in my life.
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 - 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