My grandma was a prostitute-turned-concubine; my mother a frustrated worker and victim of the political campaigns; and myself a factory-worker-turned writer, making the best out of new opportunities. These stories illustrate the changes Chinese women have gone through.
Lijia Zhang is a role model for women across China and worldwide. Zhang’s mother dragged her out of school, sold her textbooks and forced her to take a job at a factory making missiles capable of reaching North America so she could contribute to the family income. Watching her dream of studying at a university dissolve as she spent her days checking pressure gauges among a roomful of condescending older men, she may have resented her position but Zhang knuckled down to work nonetheless. Frustrated by her limited opportunities as a young woman in a male-dominated industry, she taught herself English and got a degree though the factory programme. That was just the start; her determination and courage never failed.
Years later, Zhang is an internationally renowned writer and public speaker, known in world media as an expert on China, and one of the few (“probably the only”, she says) Chinese writers writing in English actually living in China. To many of her readers and listeners, China may be a far off place. But for Zhang, it is her background, home, and her every day reality. Her presence is a vital sign: she hasn’t given up on China. She is still here, speaking, writing and fighting for what she believes China needs.
A proud women’s rights advocate, she has become an regular speaker at Beijing’s Literary Festival, held every March at The Bookworm in Sanlitun. Her most recent appearance last Saturday was tainted by the absence of fellow speaker and LGBT activist, Xiao Tie, who was turned away by Beijing police at the door. Talking about women’s education, sexual autonomy, and China’s new anti-domestic violence law with Australian historian Claire Wright and British reporter Bidisha, Zhang acknowledged that Xiao Tie’s detention demonstrates the ongoing need for a strong feminist movement in China and the imperative demand for greater women’s rights.
Zhang has two teenage daughters, who live with her in Beijing (the elder attends university in England) and have utterly different lives from her own. Zhang says she sometimes finds it hard to understand what drives her daughters, unable to assimilate her own poverty-stricken upbringing in Nanjing with their privileged cosmopolitan lifestyles, rich with opportunities she didn’t have. Nevertheless, the open-minded relationship she describes makes her seem like a pretty cool mother to have.
Part two of the interview explores themes of gender, sexual freedom, China’s sexual revolution and Zhang’s upcoming novel, Lotus, about the life of a sex worker in contemporary China [excerpts from Zhang’s first book, Socialism is Great!].
Freedom and Sexual Freedom
Do you think your opportunities are restricted by your gender?
I can say that in the factory, for women it was a lot more difficult. The higher you go the fewer women there are, which is one of the reasons that made me interested in writing about women’s and gender issues. Women’s position in society really tells a lot about what’s going on, how civilized the society is.
You wrote that your mother never explained periods, pregnancy or childbirth to you – she said that you were born from her armpit.
I guess being born from an armpit sounds more acceptable, less embarrassing, than being born from a vagina!
[excerpt] No one in my family ever mentioned the word “sex” or even implied it. When I was little I once asked my mother, “Where was I born from?” She said it wasn’t the sort of question for a child. I insisted, so she replied that I was born from her underarm, the same answer many of my friends heard from their parents. Underarm? How bizarre! There did not seem to be a hole there.
How do you think being sheltered affected your development into adulthood?
It means I wasted less time on my looks. You know, we were self-conscious about the body, but we didn’t have makeup, so we wasted less time on it. My daughter is so different! She is very beautiful and she is aware of that fact. We were just traveling in Ethiopia, a poor country, and even traveling in public on the bus she was putting on makeup, on the bus! Whenever I wanted to take a photograph, she said: “No, I don’t want a photograph. I haven’t got any make up on.”
Your early relationships with men seemed to be a catalyst for you dreams of escaping factory life in the 1980s.
That hasn’t changed. I still like a clever man. For me that’s more important than looks. I’ve always been conscious of my being uneducated, so I always find an educated man, an intelligent man, attractive.
But if anything has changed, I place a lot more emphasis on how they must be nice people. I will not go for a man who is successful and clever, but not nice. Unfortunately, a lot of successful men are not particularly nice! Their focus on themselves and self-absorption gives them the drive to go far.
What is the link between your sexual awakening and your ambition?
It was all part of the rebellion. I was willing to be different, willing to try new things, and wanting to expand my world and life experience. In many ways I think I haven’t changed that much. My situation in life has changed, but fundamentally I think I haven’t changed.
How have attitudes toward sex changed since your life in the factory?
Oh, changed dramatically. I spoke with famous sociologist Li Yinhe recently. She conducted a survey in 1989, and some 85% of people claimed they had no sexual experience before marriage. Among the 15% who did have sexual experience, some of them were already engaged, which means by Chinese standards that they are already a couple. Now very few people will have no sexual experience by the time they get married. So there’s been a huge change.
Could you give me some idea of how official attitudes and peoples’ personalattitudes toward sex compare?
One reason that a so-called sexual revolution has taken place is that the authorities have retreated from people’s personal lives, sex life included. When I first went to the factory, there was a scandal. A married man and an unmarried woman were discovered having an affair in my mother’s workshop. The couple got caught and the man was sent to a labour camp for three years. The woman was more or less ruined, I think she tried to commit suicide. So in the 1980s it was a big deal. Now it is no longer a big deal. Certainly the authorities are still urging people to stay loyal to their partners, but [infidelity] is tolerated. That is an area the government no longer try to control.
Having said that, it’s only tolerated as long as you don’t go over the top. A professor form Nanjing – in many ways a nice man, a good professor who looks after his mother – was organizing orgies. That’s not allowed. So this area is not completely left alone.
Has positive change been seen in the availability of sex education?
No, there’s not enough. While sex before marriage has become commonplace, there’s not enough sex education, especially among the rural population. There’s a standard example: when a couple get married and the woman could be getting pregnant, they’ll be given condoms and someone will demonstrate by putting the condom on their thumb. So the woman will still get pregnant and they’ll say, ‘Oh, how did you do that?’ They put the condom on the thumb.
Sex education is supposed to be part of the curriculum but it is not strictly implemented. So on one hand, there’s this explosion as the divorce rate is increasing, abortion rates are rising and STDs have rocketed. But on the other hand sex education is totally lacking.
What about women’s access to contraception and healthcare?
It’s quite free. But people don’t know how to use it, because at school, there’s not enough education.
You describe going for a backstreet abortion and having to keep it secret, even from your mother. How would you feel if one of your daughters were in a similar situation?
We just talked about this when we were just on holiday and they laughed. Both of them became sexually active at quite a young age. I remember one year, I think when my older daughter was fifteen or sixteen, I wrote her a letter to tell her not to: ‘Please don’t start your sex life too young, I think once you do that it may generate emotions you find difficult to deal with, but if you have to, then use contraception for goodness sake.’ She hugged me but she hinted that by then, she’d already done it. That’s the norm. I think it’s just peer pressure in some ways. If you haven’t got a boyfriend, you’re not successful. It’s so stupid.
How do you as a family compare to other Chinese families?
Oh, we talk about this stuff. Yes, we talk about sex. But, it’s quite funny. My daughter said, ‘of course, by the time you wrote me the letter, I knew everything.’ Because they have access to the internet and pornography.
Just thinking about my daughters, they seem really immature. My elder daughter is nearly nineteen. She has no sense of money, but she is smart in so very many ways.
Do you think you were like them at their age?
No. We always had so little food; maybe they have had things come too easy for them. Whenever my mother came back home, we were always thinking about whether she had enough to eat. My father was very selfish and we never liked him very much.
I just had a conversation with my daughters, you know they are so vain. For me, more than anything else, I think they must be good, decent human beings. But they are a bit self-absorbed, a bit selfish I think. Maybe it is just a generation thing, I don’t know.
Your new book, Lotus, is about a sex worker. Why did that idea arise?
Before she died, I discovered my grandmother was a sex worker. She was an orphan and sold into a brothel. She met my grandfather on the job and then became his concubine.
How much did you learn from her about that part of her life?
Not very much, but my grandmother was a very important person to me, somebody that brought me up. You wouldn’t imagine that she was a concubine, but I am curious how she coped, and what her life was like. My grandma’s story inspired it but I didn’t know any details.
Later, one year when I was in Shenzhen for work, I was staying at a hotel and my hair was dreadful, so I went to get a haircut. The women just giggled and said there was only one person who knew how to cut hair and that person was not around. Then I saw that there were no hair shavings on the floor. So I just looked at them all, wearing very low cut dresses.
Have you unearthed anything that’s brought you moral quandaries or personal danger?
No, no personal danger. But I discovered that many people have the same fantasy. People ask me: are these prostitutes beautiful? They’re just normal women – some are ugly, some wear more makeup, they wear more revealing clothes, but they are just normal women.
Their lives are very complicated. All the prostitutes I have met help their family. It is out of obligation but it also makes them feel good. They know prostitution is wrong so they argue, ‘look I’m helping my family, you cannot say I’m a bad person.’ Also, because they have money, they improve their position in the family, who are proud of them, which gives them a lot of pleasure.
I stayed with them, those prostitutes. I was really interesting. I asked one woman, ‘what’s your favourite [food]?’ and she said, ‘toast on jam.’ She had begun to experiment with things; in the village you would never have heard of such things. I went to see her mother. I asked her what to buy for her mother, she said, ‘buy something my mother hasn’t tried.’ So this was all part of her trying new things. I bought her mother a durian.
Why does the world need to know about China’s sex workers?
Prostitution is just a device, a window to show the tensions and the changes. You can pack in so many important issues: migration, women’s position, the gap between city and rural.
What challenges did you face when researching Lotus?
Part of the biggest challenge is their life is so far removed from mine. One of my friends said: ‘try and work as a prostitute, you can satisfy your sexual needs, and you can make some money, and do your research.’ Imagine, if I had to work as a prostitute! I know I have lots of choices in life, so it’s difficult to identify with their life.
They’re just humans, they’re very complicated. I really had lots of fun. They talk a lot about breasts and some of them have implants. One woman’s implants go sideways! You know, just awful. Before they are successful [with a client] they often go to the back room – they really compare their breasts!
I went to another of the prostitutes’ home to visit her family. She had become quite successful, she had bought her family a flat and she no longer lived in the village. She went back because she was supposed to be sweeping the tomb for her stepfather and when she arrived she put on high heels. High heels! When we were walking to the mountain she was wearing high heels. To show [her change in status].
Sounds like you quite enjoyed that process.
Of course, yes. But it took me so long! I worked as a volunteer, distributing condoms. If we hadn’t met, how could we have language, what would we talk about? If they’re not in my life, it would be difficult to imagine. So many small details in the book are real.
Lijia Zhang’s novel Lotus will be available in 2017, published by Henry Holt & Co.
Excerpts of this interview were published on Caixin in February 2016. Check out my Caixin debut here: Redefining the China Dream.