"Grass Soup" is an extraordinary little book dealing with the infamous Chinese "labour camps" during the worst years of the Communist regime, when the"Grass Soup" is an extraordinary little book dealing with the infamous Chinese "labour camps" during the worst years of the Communist regime, when the horrors of Bejing rhymed with the ones of Pyongyang.
At that time, Zhang Xianliang was barely 23 years old but already labelled as a right-wing extremist and an enemy of the Chinese people. Zhang was an "intellectual", a pernicious, disgusting semi-human sub-specie created by the evil influence of the American imperialism in the socialist Chinese motherland.
And yet, due to his status of a potentially "useful intellectual" being only mildly corrupted by the Western enticements and having an undeniable skill for writing sharp tazebao and elegiac poems to the Great Helmsman, Zhang only needed to be "re-educated". A strict and extended diet of green grass and red ideology under the blue skies of China would have healed comrade Xianliang, just in case he managed to pull himself together and keep himself alive.
And Zhang Xianliang got by. Despite all odds and difficulties he survived to his re-education and, years later, wrote a book out of the dry notes he took during the long hard months he spent at the labour camp. Zhang wrote no diary. The tiredness of his body and the fear of the recoils he could have experienced has his notes being read by the authorities (as they eventually did), forced Zhang not to leave a written trace of his daily torments.
Zhang was no Primo Levi and no Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He wrote "Grass Soup" as a free man and when his own mind had cooled off, but his goal was not to reveal the horrors of the Chinese re-education scheme or show the existence of a labour camps archipelago in China, but rather to look back at himself in those days.
"What I was thinking to when I wrote down those dry monotonous notes and what lies beyond their apparent repetitiveness? And how much the impact of hunger into my stomach and brainwashing into my mind annihilated the intellectual betrayed by his brain making a self-preservation instinct driven man out of me?".
Zhang Xianliang never poses these two straight questions to himself here, but both are implicitly stressed out all through the pages of this book. The wonder of "Grass Soup" is that is a heartbraking story, the account of a small personal victory into a wider national defeat, but there is humour and even fun here. Mr Xianliang chose a style which combines miracolously well unforgettable scenes of death and human abjection with equally memorable moments of temporary peace of mind through laughters, one's fill and moral resistance.
The author spending a whole afternoon just eating kilos and kilos of melons and pissing in a grove or the vain pursuit up and down the river bank of a cow with her tempting udders full of milk, are comic highlights. But then again these "Life is Beautiful-like" moments were brought by hunger and desperation. The fact that Mr Xianliang survived to his re-education was due to his ability of not giving up in the darkest times, behaving with well-chosen impulsiveness and with the awareness that the thin line separating the saved from the drowned was partly luck but, above all, a matter of self-discipline.
There are two terms that come up to my mind while starting this review: mess and potential. For "Factory Girls" has potential but is a mess.
Don't takeThere are two terms that come up to my mind while starting this review: mess and potential. For "Factory Girls" has potential but is a mess.
Don't take me wrong, I do believe that it's better reading this book than ignoring its existence, but I suppose that whereas most readers can be satisfied with the menu offered by Leslie Chang, many of them could complain about the way this story is delivered.
Oh well, let's begin with the menu. There is an appetizer of tasty introduction followed by two main courses: the personal stories of two young female workers Min and Chongming on a bed of Dongguan-Guangdong metropolitan salad. These two stories are often and quite abruptly interrupted by a soup of Leslie Chang's personal family history: a non-requested extra served in large portions.
Let's have a look at this. Around 100 pages over 400 here are dedicated to Leslie Chang looking for her Chinese family history, seeking for those who were left behind in motherland Chinese Manchuria rather than escaping to Taiwan and then to the US when the Communists took the power. Was this family soup necessary in a book dealing with the conditions, aspirations and disillusions of Chinese migrant industrial workers in one of the most vibrant and cruel new-metropolis of South China?
In my humble opinion, there is absolutely nothing in common between the stories of Min and Chonming in Dongguan 2000-2005 and the family Chang/Zhang saga in the last century or something. And I think that any editor on Earth should have been able to notice this lack of cohesion. Perhaps Leslie Chang asked for a separate book talking about her family history to be published but having no room (and not enough interesting material) for it, she decided to include this stuff right here watering way too much the soup, but not the mouth of her readers.
Then there is the frame, the structure of the book which is pretty confusing. I confess how I lost track of whom Chang was writing about a lot of times mainly because to my Western eyes, Min and Chonming were easily mistaken into the same character or mixed up (choosing two pseudonyms would have helped, I think). Not to mention the fact that the author has this tendency of jumping forth and back in years and events without any apparent logic with the first meeting with Chonming (or it was Min?) portrayed around page 250 or something after dozens and dozens of pages spent on this girl.
Plus, there are a few parallel stories breaking the rhythm of the book like the chapter dedicated to the big shoe factory-town which - according to Chang herself in the interview published at the end of the book - was an aborted story. Oh really? It's good to know it. So why including it here? I mean we're talking about a quite brilliant chapter, but perhaps it had to be placed at the very beginning or at the very end of the book.
But I don't want to be too harsh with Leslie T. Chang. "Factory Girls" has many unforgettable moments and plenty of interesting information and lively details on the crazy crazy life of Dongguan from the way a dodgy industry-line English school work, to the hustle and bustle of the job "talent market" passing through a dive into the karaoke-brothel underground.
It's just not clear what part the author decided to play here. At some point Leslie Chang behaves like a friend of the girls she's writing about (even living with their families in the villages), while in other moments she chooses to look at them in cold blood from a reporter point of view, but then she suddenly switches into a nosey and quite critical observer.
This is what I meant when I talked about mess. All in all "Factory Girls" is a book which found the right topic but chose the wrong focus and sometimes the wrong angles to look at it. And in doing this, Leslie Chang printed out a blurry but still interesting view over several aspects of the new Chinese over competitive way of life in the heydays of its economic boom. ...more