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My Cousinxml:namespace prefix = o />

              Zhang Lijia


My cousin died in Nanjing shortly before his 56th birthday this September, killed by multiple myeloma, a rare and nasty form of blood cancer.

       He was a good honest man.  “Why?  Don’t people say ‘a good person stays well?’” My mother kept quoting the popular Chinese saying.  “He was so young and so healthy.”  My mother, who probably felt closer to him than to her own son, couldn’t comprehend or accept what had happened.  Nor could his wife, daughter or his siblings.

       It happened all too quickly.  In the end of May, he first complained about the pain on his arms and then shoulders.  Since he was a driver, everyone presumed it was the driver’s usual problem of tense shoulders.  One hospital suggested massage.  But the pain intensified.  By middle June, he was hospitalized.  Tests suggested something serious, possibly spinal cord cancer.  He was then sent to Long March Hospital in Shanghai, specialized in bone-related diseases.  A famous doctor did operate on him and my cousin did put on a brave fight.  Still he lost: the survival rate of such cancer was extremely low, at least presently in China.  The fact that the tumor grew high up on the spine didn’t help his case either.


      My cousin was called Ji Weiping – maintaining peace, born in 1954, shortly after the Korean War.  When he was three, his mother, my father’s sister, brought him from Jinan, in Shandong province, to live with his grandmother in Nanjing.  Grandma Zhang - as we used to call her, to differentiate from our own loving grandma Nai, demanded each of her two daughters lend her a child, to keep her company supposedly, but also to make sure that her children would send her monthly payment.  Described in my memoir as Granny Long Tits, Grandma Zhang, was a big spender and a fierce woman.  Towards the end of the month when money had run out, they sometimes had to rely on neighbor’s charity.  His mother, battling with her mental illness, didn’t pay him with much attention, either. 

       Weiping nevertheless turned out to be a sweet and well-behaved child.  He was very handsome, too, with broad shoulders and a pair of large, bright eyes.  He wasn’t good with his study and his illiterate grandma, needless to say, couldn’t help.  But he was smart in his own way.  In spring time, I sometimes followed him and others to the city wall to fly kites, made from rice paper and fine bamboo, and stuck together with sticky rice.  His was often the best.  He even taught himself carpentry and made furniture for his wedding.

       Since he was the only relative our family had in Nanjing, mother heavily relied on him, especially since my father worked outside Nanjing.  He was often called to help out with handy works at home.

Weiping never held great ambitions.  All his working life, he served contently as a driver, a good, reliable one who never had an accident.  All he really wanted was a happy family.  His first wife was a girl from the neighborhood.  They have a smart and lovely daughter named Candy.  However, after a long affair with a married business man, she dumped him, leaving him devastated.

       Hanging out too with driven and ego-filled men, I personally find my cousin – a kind-hearted, simple and honest working man - a breath of fresh air.  In today’s increasingly materialistic, money-driven, success-driven world, few would probably regard Weiping a hero and his kindness could be taken as a sign of weakness or stupidity.  Indeed, some would describe him as ‘dai’ a Nanjing slang, referring to someone a little silly or square since Weiping refused to cut corners or insisted in putting other people’s interest before his own.  In front of his death bed, Chen Zhihua, his colleague and best friend, told a story to illustrate his ‘dai’.  One winter night years ago, Chen caught him emptying a chamber pot - a job most men regarding beneath them – for his terminally ill mother-in-law, while his wife was out playing mahjong and screwing that businessman.  Outraged, Chen disclosed the open-secret.  Weiping was probably aware of the affair.  He put up with it for years because he wanted to give his daughter the warmth of a family he didn’t enjoy as a child.

       In 2003, having stayed single for seven years, he was introduced to an attractive and successful civil engineer named Chen Suqiu from Jinan.  She fell for his kind and caring nature.  They got married one year later but commuted between Jinan and Nanjing.  As the love between them grew, one year ago, she retired early to be with him in Nanjing.  They renovated their flat and bought new furniture.  Weiping was enjoying the time of his life when the tragedy stroke.  Upon hearing the severity of his illness, Chen burst into tears and said: “The heaven above just can’t bear to see us so happily together.”

       In mid-July, while in Shanghai for a lecture, I visited him at Long March Hospital, with my two daughters May and Kirsty and the largest bouquet I could find.  He lay stiffly on the bed, no longer able to move his legs.  He had lost a little bit of weight, but still a fine-looking man in his prime.  His head had just been shaved, in preparing for the next day’s operation to remove the tumor in his spine, which compressed the nerves and led to the paralysis of his legs and caused unbearable pain, which no painkiller could cure.  The operation was a gamble: at best, it could only prolong his life and he could easily die from such a major operation.  And it cost 20,000 yuan.  To save his life and to spare his suffering, his family was willing to spend any amount of money and to take the gamble.  He was surrounded by his wife, daughter, brother and sister, who had rushed down to Shanghai from Jinan.

       To cheer him up, I asked my Euro-Asian girls to sing him songs.  He listened carefully to the sweet singing, his right hand moving to beat time and his face looking peaceful as if being momentarily relieved from the pain.  When they finished singing, he said in English with strong Nanjing accent: “Thank you very much,” which made everyone laugh.  That turned out to be one of the few light moments he enjoyed in the last months of his life.

       It was so hard to imagine that he had actually walked to the ward himself only a week earlier.  To save money, the family took the public transport to the hospital.  In the metro, his daughter Candy accidentally dropped the pigeon soup she had cooked for him.  Although in great pain, he immediately squatted down to wipe the pigeon soup off the train because he worried people might tread on the soup and fall over.  He always thought about others, even then.

       Weiping survived the operation but the cancer had spread.  He was transferred back to Nanjing where my well-connected sister found him the best hospital and best doctor.  He endured chemotherapy and more operations.  But the nasty cancer continued to disable more parts of his body and made it harder and harder for him to breath.  His family, relatives, friends and colleagues took turns to take meticulous care of him, often on duty at night.  If he didn’t feel well-loved as a child, he must have felt so in his last days.  To me, that was the ultimate success.

       I wish him rest well in heaven.






Today, for my talk show, I interviewed Rowan Simons, the author of an interesting book entitled Bamboo Goalposts with the subtitle: one man’s quest to teach the People’s Republic of China to love football. China has become a sporting superpower.  At 2008’s Olympics, the country won more gold medals than anyone else.  xml:namespace prefix = o />

  But the world’s most populous nation doesn’t seem to know how to play a small ball - football, or soccer – as the Americans would say, even though China boasts a massive sports infrastructure, a massive viewship and of course, a super massive talent pool – there are 1.3 billion people to choose from.  This year, China has failed, once again, to qualify for the World Cup.  Simons lays the blame on the government – its interference and its top-down system in selecting the elite without a solid grassroots to support that.  He is fighting to introduce the football culture to the country.




would be sex worker day - today I was interviewed by BBC's World Today, commenting on the arrest of an activist who called for the legalization of prostitution and today the sex worker day.



I am heading to Brazil for the book tour in the end of August.  Hugely excited about it!

A GAROTA DA FÁBRICA DE MÍSSEISxml:namespace prefix = o />xml:namespace prefix = o />




Desde criança, Lijia Zhang criou o hábito de manter um diário. “Escrever sempre foi uma maneira de compreender a vida”, define a autora de A garota da fábrica de mísseis – memórias de uma operária da Nova China, que chega às livrarias com o selo Reler Editora. O lançamento será em setembro, com a presença da escritora, que também é jornalista e visita o Brasil pela primeira vez.  


Publicado em vários países e festejado pela crítica, o livro não foi publicado na China. Na obra, Lijia narra sua busca pela liberdade política e familiar, no momento exato em que a China abre suas portas para o capitalismo. “Meus amigos e eu éramos muito jovens para perceber que o tédio poderia ser algo prazeroso, se comparado ao terrorismo político que nossos pais sofreram”, diz a autora que tinha apenas dois anos quando a Grande Revolução Cultural Proletária estourou na China, em 1966.


Ao mesmo tempo xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />xml:namespace prefix = st1 />xml:namespace prefix = st1 />xml:namespace prefix = st1 />xml:namespace prefix = st1 />xml:namespace prefix = st1 />xml:namespace prefix = st1 />xml:namespace prefix = st1 />em que Lijia narra sua vida na ditadura comunista, o leitor acompanha as mudanças comportamentais na China dos anos 1980. Existem poucos livros sobre essa década, que não foi apenas de transformações para a economia da China mas também para os habitantes do grande tigre asiático – “O mercado é inundado com memórias da Revolução Cultural, mas poucos são definidos na década de 1980. Uma época em que a China começou a se recuperar do seu passado traumático e deu início às mudanças. Com o tempo, a China se tornou o que é hoje. Eu senti que tinha uma história interessante para contar e que iluminaria essa transição”, explica a autora.  


Aos dezesseis anos, Lijia foi ‘arrancada’ da escola pela mãe para trabalhar em uma gigantesca fábrica de armamentos, de onde saíam mísseis projetados para atingir os Estados Unidos. Liming, a empresa estatal onde ela permaneceu por uma década, é um dos cenários do livro.  Determinada a não ser mais uma trabalhadora inexpressiva, Lijia, uma chinesa que nasceu com cabelos encaracolados, foi buscar sua independência vestindo roupas ocidentais, estudando inglês e se graduando em uma escola técnica. Além disso, publicou artigos no jornal interno da fábrica onde trabalhou e assim, quando os protestos aconteceram na Praça Tiananmen, em 1989, ela liderou um grupo de manifestantes diretamente da fábrica, em Nanquim. Em 1990, casou com um escocês e com ele teve duas meninas.


Atualmente Lijia reside em Pequim, colabora para o Washington Times, The Independent, Newsweek, The Observer, BBC, CNN e outros jornais, revistas e canais de TV e rádio. É co-autora (junto com o ex-marido) de uma história oral da China contemporânea para a Oxford University Press.


“Lijia Zhang é de uma franqueza desconcertante e tem uma dose precisa de humor”, destaca a jornalista Claudia Trevisan no texto de orelhas de A garota da fábrica de mísseis. As memórias de uma nova operária da nova China certamente vão agradar os leitores brasileiros.



A garota da fábrica de mísseis – memórias de uma operária da nova China, de Lijia Zhang  

Tradução: Roberto Grey

Texto de orelhas: Claudia Trevisan

416 p – R$ 49,00

Editora Reler  Telefax 21 3322-09411




Peony Pavilion xml:namespace prefix = o />

            A Romantic Experience


Last Saturday, I went to see Kunqu opera Peony Pavilion, staged in the Ming Dynasty garden in Zhujiajiao, an ancient water town one hour’s drive from Shanghai.  Peony Pavilion, the most romantic play from ancient China, tells a love story between a beautiful lady who falls in love with a scholar she dreams.  The charming garden, with a pavilion, an arched stone bridge and winding pond, provided the natural setting of the drama.  It was a visual delight to watch the actors and their reflections in the narrow pond, the only thing that divides the stage and the audience of 180 people.  Artistic director Tan Dun injected new life into this ancient play with his original music (musicians played in different corners of the garden) and very creative stage design. (the dancing lanterns, for example).  The rain that made many little dimples in the pond only increased the atmosphere.  I have to say that this was one the most romantic experiences I’ve had this year.  It also made me think that perhaps Romanticism didn’t just exist in 18th and 19th century’s Europe.




One version of this article was published in New York Times In May, 2009



China’s Growing Cagexml:namespace prefix = o />xml:namespace prefix = o />


                     The Legacy of Tiananmen


                            By Zhang Lijia



Whenever mentioning “1989”, people in the west instantly think about the protesting students in Tiananmen Square.  In fact, although starting in Beijing and led by the students there, the democratic movement was a nation-wide event, drawing together people from all walks of life.


Twenty years on, I remember vividly every detail of that day when I organized a demonstration among the workers from my Nanjing factory in support of the movement.  It was Sunday, May 28, a week before the crackdown in Beijing.


The death of Hu Yaobang had triggered the spontaneous democratic movement.  The popular former Communist Party secretary-general was ousted, in part for his sympathetic view towards students’ protests.  When the government rejected their request for his rehabilitation, Beijing students marched towards Tiananmen, demanding greater freedom and democracy.  Like a match thrown onto kindling, students from all over the country took to the streets.  They were soon joined by ordinary citizens who were disgusted by wide spread corruption, rising inflation and lack of personal freedom.


By then I had been working for the factory, a missile producer, for nine years in Nanjing, my hometown.  The factory was a mini-Communist state, housing us in identical block buildings, feeding us at dining halls, indoctrinating us at meeting rooms and controlling our lives with strict rules: no lipsticks; no high heel shoes or flare trousers; no dating for the first three years at the factory.  Every month, all women had to go to the hygiene room to show blood, virtually, to the so-called ‘period police’ to prove that we were not pregnant.


To escape, I decided to teach myself English in the hope of getting a job as an interpreter outside the factory with one of the foreign companies.  What I learnt, of course, wasn’t just the ABCs but the whole cultural package.  I dared to be different: wearing short skirts and having boyfriends.  After I mastered enough English I became obsessed in listening to the BBC, which broadcast news very different from our propaganda.  I attended political-charged lectures at Nanjing University, debating if the western style democracy was the answer for China.


On that Sunday in May, after watching televised images of workers in Guangzhou  marching in the rain, I decided to organize a protest.  I telephoned all my friends at the factory, and some of them informed their friends. We got the banners and placards ready in just a few hours.


Under the wary eyes of our factory leaders, about 300 of us  set off, as if for battle, defending a noble cause. Walking at the very front, I held a red flag and felt a sense of liberation that I had never experienced before. Behind me two workers carried a cloth banner that read, “Here come the workers!” The little strips of bright red cloth tied to our arms and heads flamed in the wind.


We marched toward the  Drum Tower, Nanjing’s version of Tiananmen. On the main street, our group melted into a flow of marchers. Before us walked students from a technical school; at our tail were several dozen workers from a glass-making factory. We chanted slogans like “Long live democracy!” “Down with the repressive government!” “Anyone who dares to crack down on the democracy movement will be condemned for 10,000 years!” Onlookers cheered us on. Along the way, hundreds more workers from our factory joined in, which made ours the largest demonstrations among workers in Najing during the movement.


During that time, my ear was glued to my shortwave radio, and I learned about the crackdown at Tiananmen from foreign broadcasts. The following year, I left for England, feeling defeated and pessimistic about my country’s future.  In 1993, when I returned, I was surprise by China’s booming economy.  Many commentators had predicted that the authoritarian regime would have collapsed, especially after the massacre.  It lacked political legitimacy and had an over centralized-power structure. 


Over the past twenty years, apart from short spells living abroad, I have been more or less based in Beijing.  I’ve witnessed and reported, as a freelance journalist and writer, China’s remarkable transformation: the economy has charged ahead like a steed without a reign; foreign trade and investment have expanded greatly and China, with its successful foreign policy, has become a more important player on the world stage.


One might argue that China still has no real democracy or it has not made fundamental improvements in civil or political rights.  Many topics are off-limits, such as the Communist Party’s monopoly on power.  Of course, discussion of ‘June 4 Movement’ remains a taboo.  But it doesn’t not mean the Party has not learnt some lessons from those events two decades past.


Over the years, amid overwhelming economic and social changes, it has navigated its way forward, proving to be more flexible and adaptive than ever before and very resilient.
The leaders make it clear to citizens that that it is futile to pursue political reforms.  Political debates that once buzzed at university campus in the 80s and excited me and my fellow idealistic youth are no where to be found. 


The country’s paternalistic rulers consciously channel people’s energy into making money.  The Chinese people have indeed embraced the consumer culture whole-heartedly.


The authority has been crushing hard on potential threats: Falungong was outlawed and dissidents were thrown in jail.  On the other hand, it has loosening certain control and granting people more personal freedom.  We can now choose our own life styles.  Lipsticks, high heel shoes, the width of trousers, one’s period, dating and sex life all fall into a place called ‘privacy’ which didn’t really existed before.  


These improvements shouldn’t be lightly dismissed.  Personal freedoms and the emergence of urban middle class can potentially lead to democratic process as seen in other parts of Asian countries. 


However, China seems to be different.  The urban professionals and the business people have been absorbed by the Party as a new “elite” class.  The entrepreneurs are welcomed into the realm of politics; and Party members have flowed to the private sectors.  The mixture of power and business makes it hard to distinguish private from the state-owned in today hybrid economy.


Back in 1989, the educated urban elites enthusiastically took part in the democratic movement not only because they felt the economic change required political relaxation but also because they were bitter about their low salaries, their poor living conditions and lack of opportunities while the children of the high-ranking leaders made easy and vast profits.  In a TV interview, when asked what they wanted, Wu’er Kaixi, one of the leading students leaders at the Tiananmen replied, somehow flippantly: “Nike shoes. Lots of free time to take our girlfriends to a bar. The freedom to discuss an issue with someone."


Not just Nike shoes or other designers goods.  Many urban professionals are now proud owners of cars as well as their own homes.  They find themselves the beneficiaries of the government’s strategic generosity policy, enjoying higher salary and other perks.  Academics now can travel abroad freely.  And most choose to return after their study abroad.


My sworn sister, who works for Nanjing government, has an enviable life style, living in a flat she bought at a knock-down price, enjoying medical care and being driven around everywhere.  She was sympathetic to us protesters back in 1989.  But why would she want to protest against the government now?


Ever since the “May 4 Movement” in 1919, the intellectuals and students have always been the frontrunners of mass demonstrations.  In recent years, public protests have occurred all over the country like mushrooms after a spring rain, mostly by victims of land seizure or laid-off workers.  With the economic downturn, 2009 will probably see more protests.  But without the participants of intellectuals, such outburst of discontentment will unlikely grow into a national movement or cause large scale social turmoil.  The urban elites are too content with their lives to upset anything, though they’d describe them as liberal and pro-democracy when asked.


As for today’s university students, they grew up in an affluent society.  China’s growing wealth and rising position in the world have made them assertive and nationalistic.  The outburst of nationalism in the wake of ‘Tibet Unrest’ last March was just an example.  At least for the time being, if the students go out to demonstrate, it will be more likely against some foreign power rather than its own government as in the case of 1989.


There’s still a cage in China.  But for many, my fellow marchers from Nanjing included, the cage has grown so big that they can’t feel the limit.  The movement in 1989 didn’t reach its final goal – to bring democracy to China.  But I wouldn’t describe it as a total failure.  Without the effort by the hot-blooded students and all of those who participated, the rulers might not have expanded the cage.



Ms. Zhang is a Beijing-based writer and the author of “Socialism is Great!” A Worker’s Memoir of the New China, which will come out in May in paperback by Random House.




A Brief Encounter with Amish Family


On Saturday 26 Sept, we – all the writers from the International Writer’s Programme at University of Iowa - were taken to Kolona for its annual Fall Festival.  Kolona, about one hour’s drive southwest of Iowa city, is a small Amish settlement.  I’ve come cross the term ‘Amish’ from the film The Witness, starred by Harris Ford.  Amish people are known for their devout religious belief, their simple, conservative living and their refusal to adapt to the modern life.  I am not surprised that the Amish community was on the programme – that’s probably the most exotic thing about Iowa, a state in the Middle-west offering little else than cornfield.  It is probably the vast space between the cornfields that provides a fertile breeding ground for some alternative communities.

       I didn’t have high expectations, and what I saw, at the first sight, reinforced my view.  Okay, at the entrance, a guy wearing a hat, was off

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