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Times Past | Making Jiaotongs

English Girl Makes Jiaotongs in a Shanghai Factory

Sophia Knight, who graduated from Bristol University in 1965, went to China that year to teach English, and was posted to the Foreign Languages Institute in Shanghai. She has stayed through the Cultural Revolution and studied its development by attending meetings teachers and students, and working in a Shanghai lorry factory. ...

On 2 May l arrived to start work. The director took me to the assembly shop and introduced me to the workers there. The welcome meeting was simple and formal: ' welcome our new apprentice!' someone said. A black eyed beaming twenty-year-old girl took and held my hand in a tight grip. ' This is little Shen she's an apprentice too. If you need anything just ask her.' Next, ' Here is Master Shu who'll look after you at work.' Shu had twinkling eyes but he looked tough, and l learned he had worked in the factory for thirty years and was highly respected for his experience and expertise. He shook hands and expressed the hope that I would work with the same spirit as Norman Bethune. ...

The smaller workshop meetings study sessions involved up to ten workers. They would go through article or editorial from the People's Daily or the local Shanghai paper discussing its relevance to the situation in the factory. They spent an hour a week working out ways to improve production and another few hours studying either articles by Mao Zedong or selections from his writings. The subject matter was always linked with the international situation or with specific current events. The workers organised these meetings themselves and decided what to study. There was no supervision. Workers would take it in turn to act as chairman. People said what they wanted, the young ones being the most vocal and the atmosphere was relaxed, informal and attentive. They had been taught to respect and listen to each other.

The working day is eight hours, six days a week. There is no overtime. The worker's pay covers his basic needs end leaves him enough over for what until recently were luxuries, such as a wristwatch, a radio or a bicycle. The workers in our factory all had bright, good clothes, leather shoes, fountain pens, watches; many had bicycles, transistor radios and books. The ones I talked to about putting money in the bank seemed conscientious about saving: they said this was a concrete way of helping the State. They all had money for their personal use and never had to count the pennies before going to a cinema or a restaurant. Women are paid the same as men.

I lived in a dormitory with six women workers. We had bunk beds in a bright, clean room. Bedding was provided free and the girls paid no rent - just the fee for electricity and hot water. This we took turns to get from the taps outside. We shared a bathroom adjoining the dormitory - this was apart from the factory bathrooms where hot water runs the whole time for the use of workers coming off any of the three eight hour shifts.

The atmosphere in the dormitory was delightful - the girls were so considerate and unselfish, and relationships were easy and close. They would help each other in all sorts of ways. If anyone was ill the others would get her meals from the dining room They took it in turns to clean the place and do each other's washing or other odd jobs. The boys' dormitory was across the corridor and in the evenings we'd get together for singing and dancing; the girls were always teaching each other new songs and dances.

Lorry factory
A big batch of “Kaifang” (Liberation) brand lorries are ready to be transported to other parts of the country to support industry and agriculture. Jilin Province, 1970

One thing that takes a lot of time both during work and leisure hours is the practice of criticism sometimes on a personal level but often as a kind of group therapy, in the workshop. And apart from this there are the factory meetings where the workers are able to criticise the leaders. While I was there a 'rectification campaign' was carried out: the new leaders of our factory were young rebel workers who had done well in the cultural revolution and had a sense of responsibility but lacked experience and had made mistakes. The campaign was organised not to attack them but to ensure good leadership and to bring them and the workers into closer contact.

Nothing escaped the workers' notice for example when the factory was given tickets for the Ceylonese troupe the leaders took thirty for themselves and distributed the remaining seventy among the workers. Being six to one, the workers pointed out the selfishness of this: 'It isn't good enough to act altruistically only in big impressive things' they said ' The leader must pay attention to the details to the trivial everyday things otherwise he is neither a good comrade nor a good lead.'

I can give two examples of what happens to former leaders who have made 'serious mistakes' and been rejected as unsuitable by the workers. They were both working in our workshop one was the ex-director of another factory the other a one time cadre at ours. The former swept floors; the cadre who during the 'three difficult years' (1959-1961 ) had stolen funds and falsified accounts was like me putting engine parts together. It was considered that they had both exploited the workers end used their position for personal gain so they were now doing manual work. They were left alone most of the time, nobody was over friendly or noticeably hostile towards them. It was hoped that they would learn to identify with the workers end lose any idea of their own superiority. Even the factory leaders are expected to do a stint in the workshop two mornings a week to prevent them from becoming isolated from the workers and to guard against the development of bureaucratic methods.

Towards me as a foreigner the workers were consistently friendly and open. I think they were pleased to have a Westerner living and working with them and not expecting privileged treatment. They talked to me freely on all sorts of subjects - politics, work, marriage, family life - and they asked me all sorts of questions about life in Britain. I had an interpreter with me but even without him with the workers encouragement and friendliness and my own smattering of Chinese, the language barrier was broken down. In the workshop they often used to tease me about foreign clothes and habits but never with the slightest trace of hostility.

I often went out with my fellow workers and received countless kindnesses from them. The girls gave me presents: paper flowers they had made, pocket scissors, badges from their precious collections, fried dumplings which they went out to buy at the street stalls, a bamboo basket to hang by my bed. Workers I didn't normally meet would befriend me, take me to see their families or their mates in hospital, teach me songs and dances. They sacrificed their lunch hour to mend my bicycle and when I cut my finger on the power screwdriver they tore over to the clinic for bandages and ointment. Little things, but significant in a country which is often said to be anti-foreign and hostile to everything Western.

Whether all this is typical of a Chinese factory I cannot say. I may have been especially lucky. Shanghai workers are by tradition extremely alert and sophisticated with quick reactions and a fine sense of humour. But I believe that my experience would have been the same anywhere else in China because this healthy atmosphere of a collective where people are always ready to help each other exists all over China - as it does perhaps nowhere else in the world.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2001, reprinted from SACU News March 1968

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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