ESSAY ... Lijia ZHANG
How Jane Eyre Changed My Life
Lijia Zhang recounts how literature gave her a life worth living
Photographs by Tan May Lee
I WAS ALWAYS A DREAMER. I was born and raised in Nanjing, on the banks of the Yangtze River in eastern China. Although I grew up in a workers’ residential compound, I had dreamt of becoming a journalist and a writer ever since my teachers read my compositions and used them as good examples in Chinese literature class. When I was 16, however, my mother dragged me out of school and put me to work at the same factory she had been slaving all her life. That was in 1980, only a few years after the nightmare of the Cultural Revolution. With unemployment rampant, there was a temporary policy to allow a child to take over a parent’s job if the parent retired. My mother decided to take advantage of this change in policy: a purely economic decision since our family was dirt poor.
Although the factory was a prestigious state-owned enterprise that produced missiles capable of reaching North America, the job I was assigned to was much less glorious—to test pressure gauges, simple but repetitive. And there were so many rules and regulations. The width of our trouser legs and the length of our hair were subject to control. And even one’s period. Every month all female workers had to queue up to show blood to the so-called ‘period police’ to prove that we were not pregnant. The factory was a microcosm of a Communist state itself, housing workers in identical blocks, feeding them in dining halls, washing them in bathhouses, and indoctrinating them at cinemas. My whole life was confined within the high security walls of our compound. For years, I felt like a frog trapped at the bottom of the well and couldn’t see the world beyond.
I sought escape and enlightenment though reading and writing, and I began to teach myself English, hoping to land a job as an interpreter outside the factory. I borrowed a radio to follow a radio programme called New Concept English. New concept indeed. I was fascinated by a language system so very different from our characters. I often caught myself talking to myself in English; while cycling in the streets, I sang English songs; and I became obsessed with reading simplified versions of classic novels in English because reading them satisfied my need to study the language and its literature. I loved Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, which I found packed with inspiration.
Some of my colleagues laughed at me: “A toad who dreams of eating swan’s meat!” “You are a little worker, why would you want to learn a foreign language for?” they asked. “You will never master it anyway.” But I didn’t care what others said about me any more as the concept of individualism took root in me. There’s never a strong sense of ‘self’ in Chinese culture. Traditionally a person was defined by his relationship with others. Confucius talked about ‘ke ji’, restraining oneself. And Mao’s Communists went even further to destroy ‘self’ and individuality. We were told to have collective spirit and devote ourselves to Chairman Mao and the Communist Party.
Never had I imagined that the study of English would lend the frog a wider perspective. Now, looking back, what I learnt, of course, wasn’t just ABCs, but the whole cultural package. In this transformation, Jane Eyre played a pivotal role.
It was one of the first books I read in English. It just struck a chord inside me. As a plain-looking girl myself, I identified with Jane Eyre. Yet underneath her unremarkable visage, there’s so much passion and spirit. I totally understood her wish to be independent and to see and interact with a bigger world. And she is a rebel, too. If she conforms to the social convention of Victorian England, she would have remained a little governess and would never have found her happiness. Jane Eyre became my role model, inspiring me to greater heights.
So why should I obey my rules and regulations? I started to rebel and dared to be different. I dared to wear short skirts, to pursue love and even sex. And slowly I began to question what I had been indoctrinated in. In 1989, I organised the biggest demonstrations among workers in Nanjing in support of the students’ democratic movement in Tiananmen Square.
In 1990, I left China for England to pursue a long-buried childhood dream of studying journalism. Upon returning to China, I started my career as a news assistant to foreign correspondents, but I grew frustrated with the job because I didn’t have the final say when our views differed. I gave it up to become a freelance journalist, writing in English for various international publications. It has not been easy, but I enjoy the challenge. Writing books somehow seemed a natural progression from that.
Jane Eyre’s spirit of breaking boundaries has never left me. Charlotte Brontë from 19th-century England would never have imagined the power she had over a little factory girl in China more than a century later.
Lijia Zhang was born and raised in Nanjing, China. Her articles have appeared in many international publications, including South China Morning Post, Far Eastern Economic Review, Japan Times, The Independent, Washington Times and Newsweek. She is the co-author of China Remembers and author of “Socialism Is Great!”: A Worker’s Memoir of the New China. She lives in Beijing with her two daughters.
Reproduced from the special 2008 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival issue of Quill magazine