Special Issues » 2009 Book Issue

China Girls

The seasons of their discontent

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Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven
Susan Jane Gilman
Grand Central Publishing • 320 pages

Socialism is Great!
Lijia Zhang
Knopf • 384 pages

In the '80s, the People's Republic of China had begun to open itself up.

Mao was dead. The end of the Cultural Revolution was a mandated fact.

On a larger-than-ever scale, China opened up both to the unpredictable influence of foreign visitors and, even more significantly, to the unpredictable nature of personal ambitions taking root in its own soil. Chinese society took a deep breath and stepped forward to meet its untapped potential.

Both Susan Jane Gilman's Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven and Lijia Zhang's Socialism Is Great! offer — from wildly different perspectives — glimpses of China amid these early, fitful stirrings of the economic powerhouse which would in due course become one of our largest creditors. And while each author proceeds from her own social and political circumstances, they both embrace the same desire to "become heroines in their own epic stories."

Socialism Is Great! is, above all, the story of a determined young woman making her way in a fast-changing society.

Initially shunted away from her dream of attending university and becoming a journalist, 16-year-old Zhang bends to her mother's will and takes her place in a Nanjing ballistic missile factory, a position of unambiguous job security with a state-run firm and presumably the first step in a lifetime of submission. But this does little to dampen Zhang's aspirations. On her own, she takes to studying English, and reading Jane Eyre and other English literary classics on the sly.

Her tales of the factory floor, its rigidly structured workday, and family difficulties at home recall other recently published Chinese memoirs, but Zhang's voice emerges: disarmingly fresh and nuanced; cheeky, assertive, and adventurous.

While Zhang must regularly present herself to what she terms the "period police" to verify she has not "brought shame" to her co-workers or family, she hopes for romance and sexual expression, both of which, along with some heart-breaking betrayals that follow, she relates with unsparing candor. Eventually, as she finally gains entrance to the university and new paths open in her life, her romantic escapades bring her unwelcome attention from the authorities.

Even so, politics seem to play no dominant role in her thinking. Rather, her political awakening seems to track along with a series of relationships which, almost inadvertently, broaden her intellectual horizons: all just in time for the protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

At the end of the book, she finds herself organizing a demonstration and giving a speech in support of the Tiananmen pro-democracy protesters.

"We workers are supposedly the masters of the nation. But do we have a say in our government?" she asks in her speech. "Can we express our views freely?"

Subsequently, the police detain and interrogate her.

The coda to that story is not referenced here. We are left to imagine that Zhang, who is currently a journalist in Beijing and often writes for Western publications, overcame whatever repercussions resulted.

To date, this memoir, originally written in English, has not been translated into Chinese nor is it distributed for sale in China.

In Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, Sarah Jane Gilman's China in 1986 is a life-defining crucible of a different sort.

Gilman and fellow Ivy League college grad Claire Van Houten become spur-of-the-moment traveling companions over a 2 a.m. meal at IHOP. Although the pair don't know each other well, trustafarian Claire and middle-class Gilman team up for a projected year-long, a round-the-world backpacking tour, beginning in mainland China.

Further, to maximize the adventure/romance potential of their journey and to prove they are not "pampered princesses," they resolve to travel on the rock-bottom end of cheap: off the map and out of their comfort zones. No fussy hotels, just deluxe exhilaration.

Of course, as the book's title virtually guarantees, there's no shortage of seductive male attention toward the mismatched duo. And that is a welcome distraction from the open-ditch toilets, the often harrowing accommodations, and ongoing frustrations with the Chinese bureaucracy.

Under the excitement and complications of travel, the companions' ad-hoc friendship begins to show stress fractures almost immediately. Gilman can't understand Claire's whip-saw moodiness or her urgent absences when Claire disappears, she says, to write critically important "reports" or meet with clandestine "contacts."

Gilman's travel anecdotes and often lyrical observations of the exotic land around them steadily give way to the emerging narrative of Claire's troubles.

Important safety tip: stress-test traveling companions before you go half a world away from home.

Gilman's book is more than just a travel memoir. What emerges is a quirky, sometimes wistful reflection on a genuinely transformative experience.

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