Beijing and Heavy Wings

Dear Reader:

I haven’t had as much time to blog as past weeks as I’m traveling a lot these two weeks – I’m not in China yet, that’s still a few weeks away.

Nonetheless, I have finished three more of my China books:

61) Heavy Wings by Zhang Jie (1981, HC),

76) The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed by Michael Meyer (2009 update to a 2008 version, HC), and

77) Beijing for Beginners: An Irishman in the People’s Republic by Gary Finnegan (2008, HC).

Heavy Wings by Zhang Jie

This is one of the books recommended to me by my student’s father – the literature professor.  Heavy Wings won the Mao Dun Prize.

It is the story of the Morning Light Auto Works and some of the people who work at or are connected to the factory.  It includes a helpful two page list of characters in the beginning with a brief reminder of who they are.

The book was very controversial when it was published shortly after Mao’s death as it brought to the surface the hypocrisy and inefficiency of the Party, the state, and state-run enterprises.  The plot is complex and I won’t try to summarize it – partly this will make it easier to avoid sorting out all the names and partly with so many equally weighted plot lines, it would be tough to do so succinctly.

I learned a lot about what was politically incorrect in this time period and how the party, government, and enterprise were all entangled at the time.  There are definitely good and bad people in the book and clearly the good people have a tough row to hoe in the face of a social system that rewards toadyism more than production and honesty.

You get a sense of what was hard about life in urban China in the late 70’s and early 80’s – it was hard to get good food, good work, good supervision, and a good apartment.  The Communist state was quite sexually repressive – I know that China censors sexual content quite heavily but this feels odd in combination with the equality ideal.  I guess I associate communist-style “equality” with a very idealistic and open world (like Scandinavia) where attitudes toward sex are quite free.  But not in China, where kissing on the street was forbidden for a long time.

However, after all the reading I’ve done about China over the decades, I’m always surprised when people are allowed to feel and express joy.  There is a scene in Heavy Wings where young people are riding their bikes back from the beach with brightly colored towels flying from their handlebars and I caught myself thinking, “was that allowed?”

There were many years in China where expressions of joy were suppressed – not that people had a lot to be happy about.  For instance, during the Cultural Revolution, especially young people (Red Guards) could have someone killed for the most minute suspicious behavior.  I get the feeling that people became very subdued, at least in their public lives.

It is interesting to be reading a history of China simultaneously with Chinese novels and outsiders’ views of Beijing.  I can see how some cultural elements got combined with Communism.  For instance, China for thousands of years had a very centralized state with a god-life figurehead (Emperors and later, Mao).  Of course, the culture has always prized the collective over the individual, and this fit well with communism.  In addition, the tendency to watch and report on people has a very long history continuing until today or at least, recently.  All of these elements are present in the novel.

Did I enjoy this book?  I learned a lot from it.  I like that.  I tend to favor books about women’s interior lives and this is very different.  It is not a fun read, but it is a very informative read.  It is VERY critical of the enterprise and government system and I’m really surprised that Zhang got away with it at that time.  I think it is more an important novel than a fun novel.

The Last Days of Old Beijing by Michael Meyer

Michael wrote this book when he was living in the rapidly disappearing Beijing hutong (historic alley way neighborhoods) and teaching English in a local elementary school.  This is an interesting book and I learned a lot about life in these neighborhoods.  He writes well and loves his neighbors and students.  I confess to skimming some of the material that focuses on preserving the hutong – that isn’t that interesting to me (not that I don’t care about it, I wish they were preserved, but I’m not too interested in the minutia of attempting to protect them from the historic preservation point of view).

As Beijing modernizes, especially in the lead-in to the 2008 Olympics, it has been tearing down these 1000 year old neighborhoods to make way for high rise apartment buildings.  Sometimes, it tears them down and reproduces a fake tourist-oriented hutong in another place.

The rationale for tearing them down (aside from the economic one of the value to local leaders of being able to show that they produced revenue through large scale building projects) is that they are decrepit and embarrassing.  Apartments frequently lack modern items, such as toilets.  However, the neighborhoods are culturally rich intermingling families with small businesses in an intimate fashion lost when a 1000 person apartment building replaces them.

I enjoyed this book a lot and learned something about Beijing hutong life from it.  Meyers is really living among neighborhood Chinese here – he isn’t avoiding this and it helps you understand how ordinary Beijingers get by and live day to day.

Beijing for Beginners: An Irishman in the People’s Republic by Gary Finnegan

This is another story of a native English speaker teaching English in China, although this time it is at the university level. Gary and “girlfriend” (we never learn her name, presumably at her request) are spending a year in Beijing to try out a new place.  At home in Ireland, Finnegan was a journalist.

This is more a story of how a young guy and his girlfriend make their way through Beijing, partying and playing soccer with expatriates and native Chinese, visiting tourist sites, and engaging with eager young Chinese who overfill their college English classes.  Gary and girlfriend mingle with Beijingers, but they spend a lot of time together and with other expats (in contrast to Meyers who almost only talks about spending time with Chinese people).

If someone were thinking of living for a year in Beijing, this would be the book to read.  It is fun, explains many of the challenges, and is quite well-written.  Gary spends a lot of time describing the challenges of getting day to day goods: food, books, etc.  However, it is very much written from the point of view of a young 20-something Irish dude out to have a good time.  While they interact with Chinese in various ways, they don’t live among them in the same way that Meyers does.

I’m happy to have three more of these done – I’m continuing with the Fairbanks China history and the very interesting Chinese Lives.  This is an excellent mix: history, oral history, novels, tales of foreigners living in Beijing.

Happy Reading!  Ruby

HC = hard copy and I number books by when they are first mentioned in my blog.


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