Interviews / March 2017 (Issue 35)

The Women Who Navigate the Underside of Modern China: An Interview with Zhang Lijia, Author of Lotus

by Karen Ma

Karen Ma and Lijia Zhang

Lijia Zhang, a Chinese rocket-factory worker turned journalist, burst onto the English-language book scene with her 2008 memoir, Socialism is Great: A Worker's Memoir of the New China. This coming-of-age book describes what it was like growing up in a blue-collar family during 1980s China, and what ultimately inspired the author to learn English and become a writer. In January 2017, Zhang published her second book in English, this time a fictional work titled Lotus: A Novel. The book revolves around Lotus, a young prostitute working in the thriving southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, and Bing, an older photojournalist obsessed with documenting Lotus in his journalistic work. Zhang, a Nanjing native based in Beijing, recently sat down with Karen Ma.


Karen Ma: The crux of the plot of your latest book (Lotus) is about the struggle of a young woman working as a prostitute in a big city. Where did the inspiration come from?

Lijia Zhang: It came from my grandmother. My grandmother was orphaned at six before being adopted by her aunt. At the age of fourteen, the aunt's husband sold her to a brothel. My mother told me this secret at my grandmother's deathbed, and in the twenty years since I'd heard this story, I'd often wondered how Na, a devout Buddhist, endured life inside a brothel.

It was at that moment that the seed for my novel, Lotus, was planted. I decided through the lives of women in the sex trade that I could explore China's growing inequality between men and women, the urban and rural divide, as well as the tug of war between modernity and tradition in China.

When Chinese Communists assumed power in 1949, they shut down all the brothels. In the 80s and 90s, however, relaxed social control and growing wealth led to a spectacular resurgence in the sex trade, especially in the more developed coastal areas. Since then, it has become one of the fastest growing industries in China, staffed by some ten million girls.


KM: What about the subsequent crackdowns on corruption and red light districts by the Chinese government? What's happening in the industry now?

LZ: Yes, there's been a tightening up since President Xi Jinping took over, but prostitution is not a top priority. Sure, there have been crackdowns and anti-corruption campaigns. But each time, when the storm blows over, things return to normal. Besides, the crackdowns will not work because of demand and local economic interests. After each crackdown, business suffers.


KM: Your novel Lotus is told through alternating voices, namely the heroine Lotus and the photographer character Bing. Given that the story is mainly about Lotus, why did you feel it necessary to include Bing's point of view?

LZ: I actually tried to write the book entirely from Lotus' point of view. But I found it very limiting because she is an uneducated migrant worker with a limited horizon. I couldn't possibly allow her to talk about the broad issues of urban-rural divide or the commercialisation of education, or to offer comments on some important historical moments such as (the crackdowns) in 1989. That's why I decided to have the character Bing, who's more educated, articulate the bigger picture of China's modernisation process.

I find it a little easier to write about Lotus, though, because as a woman, it's easier for me to understand the female mentality. Bing is modelled in part on the now-deceased photojournalist Zhao Tielin, who won numerous prizes documenting the lives of the poor and the marginalised, including sex workers. The bigger challenge for me has been to make both characters well-rounded and believable human beings with conflicted emotions. Bing, for example, is a character out to satisfy his ego as a hero, whereas Lotus is a character that wants respect.


KM: It took you twelve years to write the novel. Is this because of the way you write or does it have something to do with how you researched your book?

LZ: It definitely has something to do with the research, which took me six visits over ten years—between 2003 and 2013—to various cities. When I started out, I interviewed sex workers in Shenzhen and Dongguan (a neighbouring city to Shenzhen), as well as Beijing and other cities. I tried to make friends with these women, but it proved to be very challenging. Their lives are so transient, as they change from one massage parlor to the next, from one city to another. They change their mobile numbers, or they simply vanish.

My breakthrough came when I managed to find work as a volunteer for a non-governmental organisation that is dedicated to helping female sex workers in a northern city. The main task of these volunteers is to distribute condoms to sex workers operating at massage parlors and hair salons—all of which are fronts for brothels—in the outskirts of Tianjin.


KM: What about the shift from a journalistic writing style to writing fiction? Lotus is your debut novel. Has it been a challenge making the leap?

LZ: Yes. I found it particularly challenging to write believable characters. Pacing and maintaining suspense are some of the other challenges. I started by pouring out a lot of information up front, and it took me a while to figure out how to let readers learn about the backstories bit by bit.


KM: What are some of the most surprising facts in your research about China's sex industry?

LZ: That prostitution in China is largely a free choice, where women are free to enter and free to leave. And, yes, economic pressure and poverty or personal tragedies are main motiving forces, but there's no organised crime or human trafficking on a major scale.[i]

Similarly, what Chinese sex workers fear the most is not violence from clients or coerced drug use like we see in the West, but violence from the police once in custody.

Also, entering into the sex trade in many ways appears to have empowered some of these women from very poor families. Almost all the prostitutes I have met help their families. It's out of a strong sense of filial piety and familial dedication, but it also makes them feel good about themselves. They know prostitution is wrong, so they argue, "Look, I'm helping my family. You cannot say I'm a bad person." And because they have money, they improve their position in the family, which gives them a lot of satisfaction. One sex worker told me her favourite food is "toast on jam." She had begun to experiment with things once she started work in a big city. In the village, you'd never have heard about such things.

Another thing that surprised me is that in recent years China has seen an increase in the number of Chinese men fifty years of age or older contracting HIV and sexual transmitted diseases through prostitution. I guess the older men who grew up during the 1950s and 1960s, when social control was very strict and the sex industry was non-existent, now feel like they want to make up for lost time. As you know, in China, a good wife is not supposed to know how to have sex. So it's up to the concubines or the sex workers to fill in the gap.


KM: In the novel, I found Lotus' strong belief in Buddhism fascinating. In your research, did you find many working girls were very religious?

LZ: Yes, many sex workers are very religious. One woman I interviewed told me about a dream, which I borrowed for the novel. She dreamt that she died—in fact, at one point she was obsessed with the idea of death, and often thought she was going to die. So she wrote down her bank details for her mother, in case she died and no one knew where to find the money she had in various banks. In this dream, she was dead. Her whole family—parents, sisters and daughter—came to say goodbye in front of her tomb. They laid down a bunch of white flowers. From death, she watched them, as if in a film. On closer examination, she saw the flowers were made of toilet paper.

It seems to me a high percentage of working girls have some kind of religious belief, either Buddhism or Christianity. I believe it is their way of cleansing themselves, but also because they feel the deities won't judge them.


KM: Would you say your strong interest in writing about characters/people on the fringe has something to do with your own background?

LZ: Yes, absolutely. Because of my poor family, I've always taken an interest in the "little people"—xiao ren wu, those who struggle at the bottom of society. Artists tend to be attracted to those living on the fringe. Also I believe how these people are treated is the true measure of a society.


KM: You're a bilingual journalist, and you've published two books in English. Have you ever considered writing a book in Chinese?

LZ: No, because I had a very bad experience early on trying to write in Chinese. In 1992, I was invited to write about the Western image of Mao Zedong. The book was never published because it didn't pass censorship. It was then that I made up my mind that I would only write in English, so I can express myself freely.


KM: What writing/research are you working on next?

LZ: I'm currently researching a non-fiction book about the left-behind children—a serious problem in China. I don't imagine it'll be a quick and easy project. I really want to get to know the people I profile. Getting to know them, earning their trust and having them open up to me will take a great deal of time and energy. Also I want it to be a well-crafted book. And that takes time as well!


Lijia Zhang, Lotus: A Novel, Henry Holt & Co, 2017, 384 pgs.


[i] Both Human Rights Watch and China's Global Times seem to back up Zhang's claim. Some of the factors for entering into the sex trade cited by the Global Times include poverty, the fading of the rural economy, seeing peers prospering in big cities and the desire to relocate to a larger centre to seek a better life, even though expectations and reality often don't match.


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