A political novel emerges from China

Writers from communist and capitalist countries can share a common language in their pursuit of the beautiful, the good, and the true, says Chinese writer Zhang Jie.

Mrs. Zhang, who will make her first visit to the United States in February, is the first Chinese novelist in the 30 years since the advent of the People's Republic to tackle explicitly the theme of struggles between individuals in the central corridors of power.

The two protagonists in her most recent novel, ''Heavy Wings,'' are a deputy minister of heavy industry, who is the hero, and the minister of heavy industry, who is his principal antagonist.

The two individuals symbolize the two trends fighting each other in China today - Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping's four modernizations, and resistance to this line from bureaucrats still holding to the ultraleftism of the Cultural Revolution years.

''Heavy Wings'' is, in short, a highly political novel, exploring risky terrain for writers in a country that has undergone dramatic shifts in political line during the past 30 years.

But Mrs. Zhang is committed and not afraid of political risks.

So far, she said in a recent interview, she has received an enthusiastic response from her readers. If some day her novel draws official criticism, she is prepared to face the consequences. History, she says, will be her ultimate judge.

Chic, trim, with finely chiseled features and eyes that look straight at you, Mrs. Zhang projects both elegance and forthrightness. There is no nonsense about her speech.

She was trained as an economist and worked for many years as an official in the electric powerhouse planning section of the First Ministry of Machine-Building. Her commitment, like that of many others of her generation, the generation that reached maturity during the nation-building 1950s, is quite simply to China.

''I know China is backward and poor today,'' she says, ''but I want everyone in the world to know that the Chinese people can achieve something.''

That was her purpose in writing ''Heavy Wings,'' she says. And yet its title and ending are ambiguous. Zheng Ziyun, the deputy minister, supports Deng Xiaoping's new economic policies: rapid modernization and better management.

The title suggests how hard it is to get this concept off the ground.

Zheng's superior, Minister Tian Shoucheng, is a survivor from the days of the ''gang of four,'' rigid and inflexible in his thinking. Zheng easily wins a popularity contest with Tian in an election for delegates to the next party congress.

But when Zheng is felled by a heart attack, Minister Tian knows that the delegate's post will go to him. At the novel's end, Zheng's victory - the victory of the Dengist line - is far from assured.

''In real life,'' said Mrs. Zhang with a smile, ''you may have to wage an unending struggle to achieve the beautiful, the good, and the true. That is what tempers your character. Zheng is a lovely man precisely because of the struggle he has had to go through.''

Of course, Zheng has his faults. He cannot control his pretty and vain wife, and when his daughter Yuan Yuan contemplates marriage with a young man who spent some time in reform school for petty thievery, Zheng goes through the nagging doubts typical of any anxious parent.

Mrs. Zhang is a fairly recent arrival on the Chinese literary scene. Her first short story was published only in 1978.

While she was still in middle school, she recalls, her teacher assigned the class a theme: ''When I am 35.'' Zhang Jie wrote boldly, ''When I am 35, I shall be a writer.''

But the reality in those days was that her country needed economists. Today she does not regret the years spent studying and applying economics.

''Literature is not isolated from life,'' she says. ''Writers must study philosophy, economics, psychology, and other subjects if they want to speak with authority.''

And her years in the bureaucracy have enabled her to make flesh and blood characters of ministers and their underlings.

She is looking forward to her visit to the United States. Of present-day American writers, she has read and enjoyed Saul Bellow and Joyce Carol Oates - particularly Bellow.

America strikes her as a young country, vigorous, quick to accept new things, easy to approach, full of the spirit of adventure - ''like a child, a very lovable child.''

Whereas ''my nation is inward-looking, not open-minded, veiled, cautious, bearing burdens, like the elder son in a family, who must shoulder his responsibilities very early and be very thoughtful and prudent in dealing with others.''

China may be all these things, but if so, Zhang Jie herself is one of the more open, direct, plain-speaking representatives of her nation. There may be fireworks in her encounter with America, but one can always be certain just where she stands.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.