The Chinese Motivational Speaker: Zhang LiJia & Her Story

Zhang Lijia , our beloved Chinese motivational speaker, presented at TEDxMongkok her new speech, The Story of Toad and Frog – Lijia’s personal story of how she broke free from the many bondages of the more traditional society in the 80’s:

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The Story of Toad and Frog

By Zhang Lijia

When I first started to teach myself English – that was many, many, years ago, when I was still a rocket factory girl, some of my colleagues laughed at my effort, calling me a ‘a toad who dreams to eat swan’s meat.’ They told me: “You are a little factory worker. Why would you want learn English for?” They had fixed idea what a factory worker could or couldn’t do.

Luckily, I didn’t listen to my colleagues.

I wanted to learn English because I saw it as a possible tool to get myself out of the factory. When I was 16, my mother dragged me out of school and put to work. That was 1980 – now you smart people can quickly work out how old I am precisely.

Becoming a worker was the likely fate for me. I grew up in the factory’s residential compound in Nanjing. But somehow, I had grand plan for myself: I had wanted to go to university and then become a writer and journalist.  I’ve had this dream ever since my teachers read my writings as good examples at the class. But our family was very poor. Now I enjoy telling my children the story of eating cicadas. To satisfy our craving for meat – luxury at that time, my brother and I used to go out on hot summer days to catch cicadas from tree tops and roast them over a small bonfire and then munch them up.

Eating cicadas? The insect? Yes. Roasted cicadas actually are rather tasty and crunchy and they certainly provided us with plenty of protein. I dare you to try if you have not!!

There’s also a serious message about the cicada story. The Chinese has a reputation for loving weird food. Well, you have to understand that the Chinese cuisine is very much a famine cuisine: we had to learn how to make good use of every part of an animal body.

It’s a common mistake – to believe that in your own culture, the way you do things is normal. If you want to understand China, you have to think out the box and look beyond what they eat.

Now back to my story. Fishing cicadas was fun but working for a rocket factory wasn’t, no matter how fascinating it might sound. Among other products, my factory produced inter-continental missiles that were capable reaching North America. I have to confess here that I was no rocket scientist and I didn’t know any top nuclear secrets. The job I was assigned to was to test pressure gauges, simple and repetitive. China today is a lot freer. Back then, working for a regimental military factory, we had to endure so much control: no lipsticks, no high heel shoes, certainly no fish-net tights. No dating within three years of entering the factory. Nothing was personal.  During my ten years at the factory, I never got a promotion because my bosses thought I wore a perm, while in fact I am one of the few Chinese who got naturally curly hair. In those days, only those with bourgeois tendency would wear a perm. I didn’t have the correct ideology therefore didn’t deserve a promotion.

It’s been so interesting for me to watch as China has developed in recent times. While tightly gripping to power, the authorities have also slowly granted people more personal freedom. People now can choose where to live and how to live their lives. You can curl your hair, dye your hair or shave off your hair. That’s your choice. There’s still control and a cage but the cage has grown so big that most people don’t feel its limit.

Back when I was growing up in the shadow of the rockets, things were very different.

The factory provided the workers with lots of thing: housing, dining halls, bathhouses, schools, hospitals and cinemas. I went to the factory’s kindergarten and then the school ran by the factory. Later on as a worker, the factory was my whole life. My memoir was originally called Frog in a Well. That’s a famous story by our ancient philosopher Zhuangzi about this frog being trapped in the bottom of the well that can not see the great world beyond the patch of the sky. For ten years, I felt I was like a frog, being trapped in the bottom of the factory well.

So as an escape route, I decided to teach myself English, hoping to land a job with one of foreign companies that were setting up shops in Nanjing. Learning English was a far more challenging task in those days. To start with, I borrowed a radio from my cousin to follow a program called New Concept English. Every night at 7:30, I would turn on the radio and glued my ears to it, which cracked open a new world in front of me. So obsessed in learning the language, I often found myself talking English to myself or riding my bicycle in the dark streets of Nanjing, sing the Carpenters Songs to myself. “Sing, sing a song…” I was told that singing English songs was an effective way to learn the language. Why the Carpenters? Because it was one of the first western albums that went on sale in China and at the time, for us, it represented the high culture from the west.

It was at this point that some of my colleagues started to call me a “toad who dreams to eat swan’ meat”. In many cultures, people don’t particularly like those who think or behalf differently, especially in China where there’s strong tendency towards conformity. Our
traditional wisdom urged people not to be different as suggested by many of our sayings: “A bird flies out first gets shot first.” “A nail sticks out gets hammered down.” “A pig getting fat should be afraid.” Individualism and the sense of self have never been a strong part of Chinese culture. I think the Chinese Communists went even further in destroying the sense of self. We were told to love Chairman Mao and devote ourselves to the Party and follow a prescribed path.

By the time that I gained the grand title of toad, I just didn’t care what the others thought about me as the concept of individualism had taken roots in me. What I was learning wasn’t just ABCs but the whole cultural package. Slowly I dared to be different: I started to wear shorts skirts and, at one point, I had a pair of strangest glasses I could find in Nanjing. Without my parents knowing, I had boyfriends. I was always conscious that I was a little factory worker, so I always went for better educated men, who each showed me one or two things.

After my English was improved, I started making use of my skill, translating TV documentaries and pirated movies from English to Chinese. And I began to listen to the BBC and VOA which broadcast News very different from our propaganda. I grew to be political. With my friends, we talked about politics all the time, discussing what was China’s future and if the western style democracy was the answer to China. In 1989, I organized the biggest demonstration among factory workers in support of the democratic movement led by the students in Tiananmen. I believed that an individual could indeed make a difference.

So my memoir is very much my personal journey of both sexual and political awakening. Interestingly, this journey also reflects what china went through in the 80’s. It was a fascinating time sea-changes started to take place. Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms opened China’s door and gradually transformed China way beyond the economic field. Gingerly unbuttoning Mao’s straight jacket, women started to put on make-up and stylish clothes. One western journalist famously joked that after the reforms, Chinese women suddenly got breasts – before that women were clad in lumpy Mao jacket. .

So in many ways, 80 was a time when China became what it is today.

Today’s China is an interesting mixture: politically it’s an authoritarian system and economically, there’s market economy. Yet market economy isn’t complete and the long hands of government are still there, controlling all the important industries such as telecom, petrol and mining and regulating the market with its own rules.

Since my memoir is called “Socialism is Great!”, people often ask me: is China still a Socialist country? By the way, “Socialism is Great!” isn’t really my political statement but the title of a famous revolutionary song. Maybe I can share a panda story told to me by the former British deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. As a social commentator, I sometimes get invited to meet politicians. In 1974, Sir Edward Heath paid a visit to China. He had just lost the election therefore was no longer the Prime Minister. However, since he was one of the first senior western leaders who showed friendliness towards China, he was given the full state leader treatment. Chairman Mao received him several times. Before Sir Edward left, Mao asked if he had any wish. Sir Edward, who was well-impressed with Mao, said he’d love to have a panda as the goodwill from the Chinese people to the British people. Chairman Mao said no problem. A pair of panda Chia Chia and Ching Ching were presented to him and the pair lived happily for a long while in London Zoo. In 1998, when Prescott visited China, he was received by our then premier Zhu Rongji. The two pragmatic men also got along well. The premier asked Prescott before his departure if he had any wish. The deputy Prime Minister said: “Yes, I’d love to have a panda as the goodwill from the Chinese people to the British people. Zhu said: “No problem. One million US dollars!” “Why do I have to pay while Sir Edward got for free?” Our premier replied: “This is called Socialist market economy with Chinese

So you see, there isn’t a ready-made box that fits the China development model.

From the planned economy to the market economy with Chinese
characteristics, China has experienced dramatic changes in the past three decades. The same can be said about my own personal life. In the end of 1990, I finally left China for England. Once over there, a childhood dream stirred. I took a correspondent course in journalism. Back in china three years later, I started my career as an assistant for foreign journalists before becoming a journalist of my own rights, a freelance journalist writing in English for international

To be honest, I am not language-gifted. After studying English diligently for a quart of century, I still make some basic mistakes – you probably have noticed. But I enjoyed the challenge and I felt I had something different to offer – my insight into a culture that remains largely unknown in the west.

Now, based in Beijing, I mainly work as a writer. I am just re-writing my first novel about prostitution set in modern day Shenzhen. A pure work of fiction, I’d like to point out, not another memoir. For me, prostitution is a very interesting window to see the tension brought by the reforms. Besides writing, I give some lectures and a few talks. I also serve as a public speaker as well as a social commentator, often being interviewed by the world media.

All of those actually come down to one thing – the cultural bridge. That’s my self-appointed mission in life, something I feel passionate about.

China has grown too important to be ignored yet there’s plenty of ignorance and mis-understanding.I have a strong impression that many people in the west feel frighten, worried or at lease uneasy about China and its rapid rise. I remember at my book launching party in New York, the first question was fired by an elderly gentle: “Do we Americans stand a chance?” He asked me, as if China was going to take over America in a minute. In many ways, I understand why there is such concern. There is no democracy; there’s lack of transparency; the human rights records are poor; and China doesn’t exactly know how to play the soft power.

But I also believe that some of the fear about China is generated by ignorance. Some people have very fixed ideas about what China is like. In some ways, they are trapped in their own wells, not willing to be open-minded and to see what a long way China has travelled, not just in terms of economy. What I am trying to do is to help people to understand where China was coming from; what’s happening now and where it is going. Once you know China better, there’d be less fear and more empathy.

I gather some of you come from the business community. To understand a bit about the Chinese culture certainly can surely help you in your business dealings in China. For example, help you to communicate with the Chinese. Many Chinese find it difficult to say no directly as it is regarded as rude to do so. Bear in mind that Chinese culture belongs to the so-called ‘high context culture’ where you have to take into consideration the location, the particular situation, the facial expression and so on. I find that my experience of living abroad has helped me to understand my own culture because it gives me a new perspective.

That’s my story – a frog that has jumped outside the well. Now, I feel my world is so large. Every day I tell myself how lucky I am to be able to do what I’ve always wanted. It’s not easy. But in the end, fighting for something worthwhile keeps us going!

Contact us at China Speakers Agency at [email protected] or +852 3489 9246 if you would like to engage Zhang LiJia for your next event.

One thought on “The Chinese Motivational Speaker: Zhang LiJia & Her Story

  1. William Su says:

    Hi LiJia,
    I am very impressed reading your story. You have great courage and you followed your dream. I left China 15 years ago and now I settle down in Australia. I wish to be a personal development/motivational speaker one day. Thank you. Your story is so inspiring. And your English is very good. Best regards.

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