The pressure to conform was profound. A doctor who was terrorized during the Cultural Revolution—exiled to the western desert, where his wife committed suicide—later said, “To survive in China you must reveal nothing to others. Or it could be used against you … That’s why I’ve come to think the deepest part of the self is best left unclear. Like mist and clouds in a Chinese landscape painting, hide the private part behind your social persona. Let your public self be like rice in a dinner: bland and inconspicuous, taking on the flavors of its surroundings while giving off no flavor of its own.”

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On paper, China remained suspicious of the individual; even after reforms were under way, the 1980 edition of the country’s authoritative dictionary, The Sea of Words</span>, definedindividualism</span> as “the heart of the Bourgeois worldview, behavior that benefits oneself at the expense of others.” And nothing was more abhorrent to the Communist Party than the language of Thatcherist free-market fundamentalism. But China was enacting some of its most basic ideas: the retreat of public services, hostility to trade unions, national and military pride.

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The language of the individual filtered out through movies and fashions and music. Jia Zhangke, a filmmaker, recalled to me that when he was growing up in Shanxi coal country in the eighties, he would ride the bus for four hours just to buy a cassette of mushy pop ballads by Deng Lijun, a Taiwanese star so popular that Lin Yifu’s military unit on Quemoy had played her music over the radio to attract defectors. Since she had the same surname as Deng Xiaoping, the soldiers on the mainland joked that they listed to Old Deng all day and Young Deng all night. “Before that, the songs we sang were ‘We Are the Heirs of Communism’ and ‘We Workers Have Power.’ It was always ‘we,’” Jia told me. “But in Deng Lijun’s song ‘The Moon Represents My Heart,’ it was about ‘me.’ My</span> heart. And of course we loved it!”

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Before she enrolled, she, like Lin Yifu, changed her given name. She became Haiyan, a reference to the small, hardy seabird in an old revolutionary poem by Maxim Gorky, “The Song of the Storm Petrel.” It was one of Lenin’s favorites. She cared nothing about the revolution, but she loved the image of a bird that turns to face the storm—“one free soul,” as Gorky put it, that “floats unharmed above the chaos.”

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Above all, Gong framed the search for love as a matter of self-reliance. Heaven, she wrote, “will never throw you a meat pie.”