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"Socialism Is Great!": A Worker's Memoir of the New Chinaby Lijia Zhang
Reading Group Guide
1. What are the major insights “Socialism Is Great!” offers about life in China in the period leading up to the Tiananmen Square protests? What are the values and social norms that seem to have most influence over the Chinese people during this time?
2. What is the appeal of memoirs that explore the struggle for personal freedom against institutional oppression? Why are such stories so inspiring? What makes “Socialism Is Great!” an important addition to this genre?
3. In what ways does Zhang's personal life embody the larger cultural and political changes that are occurring in China? What does seeing history through this intensely personal lens reveal that a more objective historical perspective cannot?
4. What special challenges does Lijia face as a woman in Chinese society? How are her ambitions regarded by her mother and by the men with whom she is romantically involved? What roles are available to her?
5. After her desire to learn English is revealed, Lijia is regarded as “a toad that dreams of swan meat” [p. 195]. What is the meaning of this idiomatic expression? What other sayings and proverbs appear in the novel? What do they suggest about the role of folk wisdom in judging human behavior in China?
6. How does learning English change Lijia's perspective on herself and her possibilities? In what sense is learning English literally a life-changing experience for her?
7. What effect does reading have on Zhang? Why does she respond so powerfully to Jane Eyre?
8. “I wondered,” Zhang writes, “if there was an innate Chinese tendency toward conformity that made it easier for us to accept a dictatorial state-the People's Democratic Dictatorship, as our political system was formally called-or did dictatorship itself instill our complacency?” [p. 195-196]. Does “Socialism Is Great!” suggest an answer to this question?
9. During their tearful, final lunch, Red Rock and Lijia observe a blindfolded donkey grinding soy beans. When Lijia asks why it's blindfolded, Red Rock replies that “it will refuse to move forward if it knows he is only going in circles” [p. 133]. In what ways is this a metaphor for the constricted lives of Lijia and other Chinese workers? In what ways does the ruling Communist party try to “blindfold” its citizens?
10. What are the key moments in Zhang's disillusionment with Communist China's “Glorious Cause”? What experiences whet her desire for freedom?
11. What aspects of Zhang's own character and temperament lead her to rebel against the strictures of the Communist Party? In what ways is Zhang typical of Chinese youth of her generation? In what ways is she unusual?
12. Liang's brother, the film director, tells Zhang that, “The worst impact of the Cultural Revolution was that it destroyed Chinese People's integrity and honesty” [p. 316]. Why would Mao's Cultural Revolution have this effect? What instances of this lack of integrity and honesty appear in the book?
13. How do Zhang's romantic relationships with men both limit and expand her possibilities? On balance, are these relationships more helpful or harmful to her?
14. Why does Zhang end her story-which reaches a climax with the dramatic protest she organized and her subsequent police interrogation-by saying: “I handed Policeman Zhou his notebook back, held my head up, and my back straight and erect. Just like my mother”? [p. 357]. Why does she signal this solidarity with her mother, even though she has spent much of her early life rebelling against her mother's limited vision of what is possible for her?
15. How does “Socialism Is Great!” which ends in 1989, illuminate what is happening in China today?
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