by Lijia Zhang
- China -
Since the reform and opening up, a handful of young people have begun to worship capitalism,” preached political instructor Wang Aimin, the ideologue-in-chief of our unit, spittle flying over his notes and out into the audience. His cold eyes blinked in- voluntarily, lending a sinister look that belied his given name, Aimin – Love the People.
“Unable to distinguish between fragrant flowers and poisonous weeds, these young people pick up capitalist trash like the ‘trumpet trousers’ and rotten music,” Wang spat. “We must resolutely defend the ‘four cardinal principles’ of socialism!”“
Wang shouted out the new factory rules. High-heeled shoes and bright red lips were unacceptable; trouser width must be less than 22 cm but greater than 15 cm – tight trousers also were forbidden after press reports warned they could strangle fertility; men’s hair must not pass the earlobes. The list went on. But Karl Marx had longer hair than that! I swallowed this im- possible retort and gazed at his grey locks, billowing to his shoulder in a giant wall poster behind Wang’s head. The ceiling fans threw fast-changing shadows onto Marx and the other poster boys of Communism: Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and our very own Chairman Mao. Wafting hot and humid air around the dark hall, the fan over my head was making a small disturbing noise. Imagine the chaos if it span off the ceiling and into the dozing proletariat.
My mind soon wandered with my gaze out of the meeting hall to a drizzling grey world outside. We were in the plum rain season, when the plums ripened and the rains stretched down to the lower Yangtze. The workshop buildings reached tall into the sky, from them black chimneys rising higher still, slicing the skyline like the legs of a spider dead on its back. I would sing their praise with stock phrases, these “magnificent chimneys soaring into the sky”, the symbols of socialist progress.
These endless meetings broke up the monotony of the work- shop, the government relaying political messages voiced by faithful Party servants. Political Instructor Wang, his speech “long and rot- ten as old granny’s foot-binding cloth”, was sending some to sleep; and asleep, Master Lin’s millstone body sat up straight, peaked cap hiding his closed eyes, cigarette still dangling behind an ear. Such mastery had he achieved that if he avoided snoring no one would know he was not awake. Beside me, Boss Lan groomed his fine moustache. He had no need to shave, but plucked a few hairs in idle moments. Master Li gossiped, hardly moving her lips. Little Zhi tended his long nails.
“Today is your first warning. I shall not mention anyone’s name.” Political Instructor Wang shot a disapproving glance towards Little Zhi. “You’d better go for a pee and take a good look at yourself.” Wang often mixed earthy sayings into his political hectoring. Few of the dozy audience appreciated his humour, so he finished his speech with a threat. “Sort yourself out quickly. I am not always so polite!”
After the meeting, Wang summoned Boss Lan. Upon his return, Lan called us together to discuss the spirit of the new campaign, and demand that Little Zhi cut his hair short.
“No, it’s my personal business,” Zhi replied, with a defiant toss of his rule-breaking hair.
I starred at him unblinking: where did he get his panther’s nerve to oppose the authorities? But I knew he would not win.Personal business? Privacy had no place in our society. After penetrating the factory gate, I had learnt that even one’s period was not private. Once a month every woman reported to the hygiene room to face the “period police”. If satisfied with the bloody evidence, the nurse would issue a pack of sanitary towels as part of a woman’s welfare package; failure to bleed would invite a visit from the dreaded family planning officers.
“Long hair is precisely a symptom of bourgeois liberalism. Political Instructor Wang has made that very clear,” Boss Lan said in a harsh tone.
“I remember, during the Cultural Revolution, if the Red Guards spotted any woman wearing a perm, they would shave all her hair off,” said Master Cheng, who liked to recall the past to remind colleagues of his seniority.
“But the Cultural Revolution is over,” I dared to say.
The next day, Little Zhi arrived at work wearing a green army cap, despite the heat. His hair was shorter, but still crept over the critical earlobe limit. “A wise man will not fight when the odds are obviously against him,” Master Lin said, trying folk wisdom. All around him took a turn but Zhi stubbornly guarded his hair, a brave soldier protecting a besieged city.
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