Lijia Zhang is a writer, social commentator and public speaker from China, with articles appearing in The Guardian and The New York Times, amongst others. Her critically acclaimed memoir Socialism is Great! A Worker’s Memoir of The New China, is about her life as a former rocket factory worker; and her debut novel Lotus, about prostitution in contemporary China, was published in 2017. Lotus was inspired by the fact that Lijia discovered only recently that her grandmother had been forced into prostitution in her youth.
Catriona Mitchell: Lijia, although you were very close to her, you found out only at the very end of your grandmother’s life – in fact, while she was on her deathbed – that she had been a prostitute in her youth. You’d had no sense of this previously…?
Lijia Zhang: No inkling at all. And my grandmother was the dearest person to me. We lived in the same household. My father lived in another city and my mother had a full time job, so my grandmother was the person there for us.
You must have been very shocked.
It was a shock. And it was an emotional time: her life was ending. She was the kindest person I knew. I remember when we were young, we didn’t have enough food to eat – we weren’t starving to death, but my brother and I used to catch cicadas to eat, just for some protein, we were that poor – and once a beggar came to our village, dressed in rags. Children were following him and throwing stones at him. My grandmother stopped them, and she gave him a pancake filled with vegetables and chives and eggs. This made a lasting impression on me. Even now I try to follow her principles: always be kind to other people.
My brother and I used to catch cicadas to eat, just for some protein; we were that poor.
What were the circumstances that had led her to working in a brothel? What age was she?
There was a famine, and her parents died. She was adopted by her aunt, who treated her like a slave. She blossomed into a beautiful young woman at 13 or 14, and her aunt’s husband sold her into a brothel. She worked there for 10 years. She didn’t have the freedom to get out. But she met my grandfather on the job. My grandfather met her and was smitten with her; and he restored her as a concubine.
It’s no surprise that this story inspired a book in you.
At first I wanted to write a fictionalized account of her life, but I didn’t have enough information. I started writing, but the early draft was just not good enough. The characters didn’t jump off the page. So I worked as a volunteer for an NGO: my main job was to distribute condoms. The women I made friends with opened up. Once they trust you, they want to talk.
Photo of Lijia Zhang by Li qiang
What kinds of women did you encounter through your research? Had most of them moved from villages into urban areas in search of work, like the protagonist in your novel, Lotus?
They are usually migrant workers, from the countryside; something has gone wrong in their life, they are uneducated, unskillful, and of course there’s the temptation of money. In the vast majority of cases, women enter the trade of their own accord, but often driven by desperate poverty or something gone wrong: domestic violence, dumped by the husband, or falling pregnant as a single mother…
How much more does prostitution pay in comparison to, say, a factory job?
It’s huge. It could be ten times more.
In the vast majority of cases, women enter the trade of their own accord, but often driven by desperate poverty or something gone wrong: domestic violence, dumped by the husband, or falling pregnant as a single mother.
The sex industry has developed rapidly in China in recent years. Why is that?
For many reasons. First, the growing wealth. We have a saying in Chinese: ‘once you have clothes to wear and your stomach is full, you start to think about sex.’ Of course in China for a long time people didn’t have enough to eat.
And also relaxed social control: before, if you had a mistress or an extra marital affair, you probably ended up in a labour camp. China for a long time was sexually repressed. Now there’s freedom. I think some of the old attitudes towards women, which had been suppressed by Mao, have made a comeback. STDs are growing fastest among older men of above 55 or 60… They’ve probably now got some money, and felt they’ve missed out on something, and they are not switched on to how to protect themselves. They belong to the generation that believes that a decent woman shouldn’t have an interest in sex.
Also, prostitution has become part of the business deal. For example I have a friend who is from Nanjing; he has a cushy job and his company does high end products, green energy, high tech stuff. According to regulations, such a company enjoys 15% of a tax deduction. But in order to get that, they have to invite tax bureau officials wining and dining. But these days wining and dining is not enough… Prostitution has become the lubricant of business. It’s very common.
But the fundamental reason is the growing income gap between men and women. Many of my friends find it hard to believe, because within their circle they meet many very capable, high achieving young women. Sure. The reform brought lots of opportunities to both men and women, especially educated urban women. But overall China has shifted from a planned economy to the market economy, and women have shouldered too much of the burden in cost.
When a company has to let off workers, women are always the first to go, and it’s so much harder for them to find jobs. Female graduates – before, they were allocated jobs. Women of child-bearing age are often refused. And sometimes when women get pregnant, they sack them. Sometimes they force them to write, ‘I promise I will not get pregnant,’ otherwise they will not get hired. UN Women did a research: women in the city earn 67.3% of what men make, and in the countryside only 56%. That has driven some of the most vulnerable women to take up prostitution.
Prostitution has become the lubricant of business.
Are there any protections in place for sex workers?
The higher class, yes. The lower class face danger. The biggest threat comes from police violence. Prostitution is illegal in China. They are usually treated by fine and detention. In reality the police arrest them and beat them up. Corruption is so common. If you don’t have money to pay, they’ll send you to labour camp for up to two years. So the police violence is the number one threat in their life.
As a prostitute you have no rights. I personally interviewed a lot of women who were beaten up until they lost consciousness (then mustard was put on their nose to wake them up), forced to have sex, pay bribes…. One woman was forced to eat her own vomit…
UN Women did a research: women in the city earn 67.3% of what men make, and in the countryside only 56%. That has driven some of the most vulnerable women to take up prostitution.
So really once a woman is in that position, owing to whatever economic circumstances have led her there, she has no protection whatsoever?
The brothel is often a massage parlour, with lots of them working there, and there is a little bit of protection. Often the women have a kind of unspoken agreement – ‘if I’m locked up, you raise money to help’. But it can be a lot of effort to track them down and raise the funds.
It’s a hard life, but they often laugh and make jokes. “Last night I got this guy with the smallest dick in the world…” Of course there is jealousy and arguments, but there is solidarity among them.
If you’ve enjoyed reading this interview, and would like to learn more about the life of a prostitute in modern China and the kinds of challenges she is subjected to, you will enjoy reading Lijia Zhang’s compelling and poignant novel, Lotus.
Inspired by the secret life of the author’s grandmother, Lotus follows a young woman from a village – torn between past traditions and modern desires―as she carves out a life for herself in China’s “City of Sins.”