Identity, Breast Implants, and Wanting More from Life: Lijia Zhang on her Debut Novel Lotus (interview: part I)

Inspired by her grandmother’s deathbed confession of being sold to a brothel, Lijia Zhang injects her cutting social criticism into her first novel, Lotus. The book delves deep into the sex industry in contemporary Shenzhen, following a young migrant woman, Lotus, who is eager to escape her life as a prostitute. A strong believer in fate, Lotus struggles against the pressures of modern city life without the requisite papers, trying desperately to raise funds for her younger brother’s university fees and maintain appearances of success for the family she left behind in the village.



Prostitutes are real people and I wanted to expose that. Most women come to prostitution through personal choice. Like any job, there are drawbacks. But their lives are not totally bleak either.



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Author Lijia Zhang

Zhang initially rose to prominence with the story of her rebellious journey from disillusioned rocket factory girl to international journalist. Her 2008 memoir Socialism is Great! A Worker’s Memoir of the New China documents her escape from a mind-numbing job testing pressure gauges at a Nanjing munitions factory into the world of English Literature.

Lotus’s story begins more ignominiously. Starting in a brothel thinly veiled as a massage parlor, she finds herself toiling to create community around her through prayer, teaching local kids and befriending her colleagues. All the while she must placate her strict boss and navigate the demands of several lovers. Intrigued by her fierce independence and beauty, Bing, a photographer mockingly nicknamed ‘the monk’ for his somewhat convenient celibacy, rescues Lotus from the local police who threaten to repatriate her to the village. Their relationship starts to turn her life around, but she is not sure he is enough to satisfy her.

Through Zhang’s storytelling, real women’s lives bubble forth in a vivid perspective previously too stark to be explored. Having spent several months as a volunteer distributing condoms to sex workers, Zhang has observed China’s grittiest quarters first hand. By literally delving into the world of southern China’s sex industry, Zhang finds a literary value from and for China’s modern day prostitution complex.

Lotus reveals the current tensions surrounding change in today’s China, allowing the reader a nuanced insight into the migrant population, women’s rights, and the chasm between urban and rural populations in contemporary China.

The author holds a mirror to the inner-workings of a young woman who wants badly to free both her mind and her body. Zhang provides the reader a glimpse at the changes Lotus must undergo in order to make peace with herself and the vastness of life around her.

Zhang is one of the few mainland Chinese writers to write in English, and the novel is peppered with the flavours of China. The strength of Zhang’s connection to her heritage comes through in every phrase. This novel is not a translation, but the unfolding of this quintessentially Chinese story draws out the very essence of China itself. Her translation of Chinese sexual euphemisms masterfully carries both the poetry and the ergonomics of the carnal act.

Zhang’s telling of Lotus fleshes out the gritty truths of prostitution, it’s effects and utility in modern Chinese society. Although Zhang admits that she still wants to expose the true lives of Chinese sex workers in her non-fiction writing, there’s something about this novel no op-ed could match. Zhang’s style is utterly her own.


I spoke with Lijia Zhang in December 2016, just weeks before the publication of her long-awaited first novel. In part 1, she tells me her personal reasons for telling this unparalleled story, how she learned to relate to Chinese sex workers, and how her own struggle for self-improvement informed her character, Lotus.


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Lijia Zhang at her Beijing home, January 2016 © Cas Sutherland

 Why did you feel that you had to tell this story about contemporary China?

I tried to find out about grandmother’s life after her deathbed confession of being a concubine, but my mother knew very little about her life. So I have always been curious about these women. Then on a trip to Shenzhen I went to a hairdresser near my hotel and asked for a haircut. There were several women there but they said they did not know how to cut hair. I looked at the floor. There wasn’t any hair on the floor. I realised these women were prostitutes.

Prostitution is an interesting window to see social changes and it touches upon some serious social issues, such as migration and women’s rights.

Why write a novel, not a non-fiction book, about prostitution in China?

I wanted to become a journalist, and I did. I wanted to have a story published in the New York Times, and I did. I had always wanted to write a novel. So I thought I would try my hand.

I started Lotus when I was in my final year of my MA at Goldsmiths. The storyline has changed little, but the style changed a great deal. For example, I experimented with the point of view. I started by writing all the dialogue in pidgin English, with direct translations of Chinese, like “Toilet is where?”

I tried writing it from the perspective of Lotus, and later from Bing’s perspective, but that meant I could not tackle social issues like women’s rights, migration the aftermath of Tiananmen. So I decided to write it in third person, alternating between different points of view, and eventually it became Lotus.

How do your personal experiences inform the characters and events in your novel?

It took a lot of work to do all the research about these women. It took months and months of research over many years. I met so many people with so many stories.

I volunteered for an NGO dedicated to help female sex workers, where my main task was distributing condoms. On day two of my time as a volunteer, I met a really colourful character. I accompanied a staff member as she went to visit a sex worker. This woman was sitting outside, which is unusual because most women would hide inside. They wear revealing clothes but they don’t want to draw attention to themselves on the street. This woman was doing embroidery on the street – she was embroidering a church onto fabric. She took us inside, and the woman I was with commented on her breasts. I was amazed how much they talked about breasts. She spoke to prostitutes in their own language, to be on their level. She was a former prostitute and knew she had to engage them using the same language. They really trusted her.

The women inside the shop commented on her breasts in return, so she explained that she herself had had surgery. They said “I’m thinking of getting implants, can I see?” So they went into the back room and everyone looked at her breasts. The breast implants had not settled well. It was a cheap procedure, and one of her nipples went sideways. She had been told that massaging them would help so she was always massaging her chest. When I got back to the NGO centre, I told the other staff what had happened. They said she was always showing people her breasts! 



My husband left me for a younger woman. That was horrible for me. I fell apart. But I used my break-up to understand Lotus’s struggle to deal with the crisis and to become independent.



Her fellow villagers call Lotus “the toad who dreams of eating swans meat”, meaning someone who dreams too big. How does your own struggle for self-improvement come through in Lotus?

Lotus wants more from her life. People often laugh at those who think or behave differently. These women send money home to their families. This is really important for them. It improves their position in the family and gives them face. They must be seen to be successful. They want to show their best side to people in the village.

My friend and I went to visit one woman’s hometown with her. On the day we travelled there, she wore very nice clothes and when we arrived in the village, she took off her trainers and changed them for a pair of leather high-heeled shoes.. On the bus there, she introduced herself, and us, to other people from her village: “hey, I am the second from the Mao family, do you remember me? This is my friend, an international writer and this is a doctor.”

It is the same for other professions, too. I met a man who was a garbage collector in the city. He usually wore very dirty clothes all the time. But when he went to his home village he wore a very smart coat, with a fur trim around the neck. He looked so smart. It is very important to appear successful to the people in the village.

They cannot really tell people the truth about their life in the city. It can be quite lonely. Telling the truth is the worst thing that they could do.

When Lotus chooses her own path for the first time, she decides to open a school instead of settling down with the father of her unborn baby. Is her choice to become a single mother a realistic one in contemporary China? What does the future look like for a woman in her position?

It is realistic. Single mothers exist and they live their lives. Many live in these villages that were once stand-alone places but have now been engulfed by the city. They are supported within that community. She may not have the correct papers for the baby but they will be ok. 

A woman like Lotus might marry the baby’s father just for the papers. Lotus is very smart and savvy. I don’t think she has decided yet. But she may not maintain the relationship with Bing, because she realised that she can’t be herself when she’s with him. He is very selfish really. He doesn’t really consider her needs. He was a more sinister character in previous versions. But Lotus has always been very strong, quite unlike the way Bing sees her.

My husband left me for a younger woman. That was horrible for me. I fell apart. But I used my break-up to understand Lotus’s struggle to deal with the crisis and to become independent.

Read on 

Sexuality, Contraception, and Challenging the Patriarchy: Lijia Zhang on her Debut Novel Lotus (Part II) ZhendeGender

Hedonism, Reproductive Health, and Fighting Repatriation: Lijia Zhang on her Debut Novel Lotus (Part III) ZhendeGender

 

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