Women belong in all places where decisions are being made… It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg (b. 1933) is an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.
Ginsburg was appointed by President Clinton, took the oath of office on 10th August 1993, and is still serving today.
Ginsburg was the second woman ever to be made a Supreme Court justice in the US, after Sandra Day O’Connor, who served from 1981 until her retirement in 2006. Only four female justices have been appointed to the US Supreme Court. The third and fourth are Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, who are also still serving.
Words and Women is a regular feature that spotlights short quotations from influential women activists, artists, and authors.
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.
They refuse to use femidoms because they are too big to swallow. In a raid, sex workers will swallow any condoms they have on their person, because condoms (used or unused) will be used as hard evidence by the police.
I spoke with Lijia Zhang in December 2016, just weeks before the publication of her long-awaited first novel, Lotus. In part one of this interview, we discussed 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.
In in part two of this interview, we talked about how women are faring in China’s sexual revolution, Chinese attitudes toward contraception and reproductive health, and the lengths some women go to in the fight against the patriarchy.
Here, in part three, we discuss China’s turn towards hedonism since Mao’s era of sexual purity, how sex workers approach reproductive health, and how migration and class-based oppression create problems for already disadvantaged women.
Lotus provides a close look at the southern city of Shenzhen. What does your novel convey about greater Chinese society?
Every society has prostitution. There is a saying in China: 饱暖思淫欲 温饱而思淫欲 [bǎo nuǎn sī yínyù wēnbǎo ér sī yínyù]. It means once you have food and clothing you start thinking about sex.
Society has become hedonistic after Mao’s regime of sexual purity and sexual repression. China has become materialistic, restless. Other reasons for the growing sex industry include growing wealth, relaxed social control and the resulting growth in individual personal freedom. Plus of course, China’s population is increasingly mobile. Young migrant workers often can’t bring their wives with them or establish a relationship.
Prostitutes are real people, and I wanted to expose that. They are not always sexually appealing, but they know all the tricks of how to flirt and attract men. The oldest sex worker I met was a woman in her middle 60s. Another middle-aged sex worker had a grown-up daughter who was married. Some women really get stuck in the trade and cannot get out. Like any job, there are drawbacks. But their lives are not totally bleak either.
The Hukou system is effectively China’s apartheid system. The Hukou prevents migrant workers getting really good jobs. It is because of the Hukou that migrant workers and urban residents live such separate lives.
When she becomes a prostitute, Lotus has no idea about sexual health. Her clients pay more for sex without a condom, and one man even washes out an expensive “Golden Gun – Never Flops” condom for later use.What are the pervasive attitudes and challenges to sex education?
The legislation states sexual education should be taught in schools, but it is not compulsory and it is not enforced. It is not on the government’s list of priorities. There aren’t calls from the public for sexual education but there are non-governmental organisations providing information on a wide range of things, from HIV/Aids clinics to promoting openness about sexuality.
Many prostitutes are not educated about sexual health. Their bosses often tell them that it is ok not to use a condom, because they get more money that way. They will say, “it looks clean” and agree to sex without a condom. Many men will refuse to wear a condom.
One NGO promoting sexual health suggested prostitutes start using femidoms, because then the women themselves could have control of the contraception and they don’t have to rely on the clients wearing a condom. But the prostitutes said they cannot use femidoms, because they are too big – in a raid, they will often swallow the condoms they have on their person, because condoms (used or unused) will be used as hard evidence by the police. But femidoms were too big to swallow so they would not carry them or use them.
The detail about Family Treasure washing out the condom for later use is true. I heard lots of stories like that. That brand, ‘Golden Gun – Never Flops’, is a real brand of condoms, you know!
Migrants tend to live on the outskirts of cities where they can find cheap temporary housing, occupying a liminal space between urban and rural, where they find it hard to integrate. Lotus’s status as a migrant seems to compound her existing problems. How do migration issues compound women’s problems in China?
The Hukou system prevents migrant workers getting really good jobs. The Hukou is effectively China’s apartheid system. It is partly because of the Hukou that migrant workers and urban residents live such separate lives. In the novel, Lotus tries to become a salesperson, she even buys the clothing for it. But she cannot because she doesn’t have the correct residence papers.
How does the legal position of sex workers reflect patterns of class-based oppression in China?
Most women come to prostitution through personal choice. There is very little trafficking, there are very few women who are sold into prostitution, there are not many pimps. However, there are some cases where the pimp is the woman’s husband or brother.
Prostitution is illegal. The government does not really know how to tackle the problem so the police do big raids and crackdowns. The police arrest as many women as they can. The police will use any evidence they can to prove the women are prostitutes. Condoms – used or unused – are considered hard evidence.
Crackdowns are a big problem. The police will beat up the women and force them to confess. If the woman goes unconscious, they will force her to drink water mixed with wasabi so they wake up. A woman I know was sprayed with a high-pressure hose with cold water, and then they put the air conditioning on. When she vomited, they made her eat her own vomit.
If they can prove that a woman is a prostitute, they will repatriate her, take her back home. Repatriation means that the woman will be sent back to her hometown in shame, and her family will have to pay the fine. That means everyone will find out the truth. They will do anything to avoid this. I know a woman who slept with the policeman but still had to pay the fine before they would let her go. They would rather borrow money to pay the fines, lose all their savings and go bankrupt, than be sent home in shame.
There was a woman who worked at a high-class place in Beijing, who was killed – they don’t know exactly how but it could have been one of her regular clients or her boyfriend. When they searched her apartment, they found 200,000 yuan in cash hidden all over her home.
I was born in China. It is in China I must be reborn as a woman.
Jin Xing was the first transgender person to undergo sex reassignment surgery in China with government approval, and the first whose sex change was officially recognized by the Chinese government.
As a boy, Jin had an affinity for dancing and soon became a ballet dancer. At nine, Jin began performing in a prestigious troupe that was part of the People’s Liberation Army – ballet has long been considered a valuable propaganda tool – and serving as a soldier. By the age of 17 Jin was the number one male dancer in China, and had risen through the ranks to become a sergeant.
At the age of 19, she started set off to start from scratch as a dancer in New York. Jin, a major celebrity in China, was nobody in New York in the nineties. But that didn’t stop her. She studied modern dance with Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and Jose Limon. News of her successes in New York reached Beijing, and she was promoted to colonel even though she was not serving. Her career took her to Rome, where she learned Italian, and she toured Europe before deciding that sex reassignment was the right thing for her.
When I was six years old, I thought I should be a woman. I myself knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what was wrong or what was mistaken.
During her years in New York, Jin began to explore gender and sexuality. She considered the possibility she was homosexual. But at that time, homosexuality was still illegal in China, and considered a mental disorder. Similarly, very few Chinese people had undergone any kind of sex reassignment and none had been recognised by the state. This was a new idea to Jin, but America had opened her eyes to new things:
I discovered words — transsexual, transgender. I said, ‘OK, I belong to that small island.’ Then I started researching.
Jin underwent three surgeries in 1995, aged 28. She emerged from the last surgery, which lasted 16 hours, to tell her father: “Your son has become your daughter.” In reply, he told Jin: “Twenty years ago, I looked at you and wondered, I have a son but he looks like a girl. So 28 years later, you’ve found yourself. Congratulations.”
Since her sex change, Jin has started a dance company in Shanghai, adopted three children, married, and begun presenting her own hugely popular television talk show, The Jin Xing Show, on the basis which she had gained the nickname “Poison Tongue”. She’s often billed as the Chinese Oprah. But she is so much more than that.
With her celebrity status, Jin Xing has brought attention to LGBTQ+ issues and the difficulties faced by the LGBTQ+ community, who struggle against social stigma and legal discrimination. She is loved as a beacon of hope by young people across China.
I don’t want to change the world… I just want to be myself.
In China, the LGBTQ+ community face severe discrimination. Many LGBTQ+ people’s families and communities refuse to accept their sexuality or gender identity, and therefore find themselves in compromising situations like ‘fake’ marriages to fulfil their filial duty. Homosexuality was considered a mental disorder until 2001, and some private Chinese clinics still offer ‘electroshock’ gay conversion therapy.
Thankfully, there are many people speaking and acting out against such discrimination. In Beijing, the LGBTQ+ community are a strong driving force behind the feminist movement. We’re incredibly privileged to know women like Iron, who runs Beijing’s LGBT Centre, and Li Maizi who spoke in London last week. There are feminists across the country speaking out about everything from Trump to censorship, and campaigning non-stop when the two coincide.
Kick-start your understanding of China’s LGBTQ+ community with this informative video from Out China:
So, here’s to our LGBTQ+ friends in China and worldwide. May this be the beginning of a long alliance.
In the face of the proposition that feminism has become too mainstream, that feminist activism has become an empty marketing tool, Adichie responds:
This idea of feminism as a party to which only a select few people get to come: this is why so many women, particularly women of colour, feel alienated from mainstream western academic feminism. Because, don’t we want it to be mainstream? For me, feminism is a movement for which the end goal is to make itself no longer needed. I think academic feminism is interesting in that it can give a language to things, but I’m not terribly interested in debating terms. I want people’s marriages to change for the better. I want women to walk into job interviews and be treated the same way as somebody who has a penis.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a Nigerian novelist and feminist activist, who lives in the US with her husband and young daughter. Her most recent publication, Dear Ijeawele, Or A Feminist Manifesto In Fifteen Suggestions, is based on a letter she wrote to her friend, who asked Adichie for tips on how to raise her child as a feminist.
The book, which was published on 7th March 2017, focuses on teaching feminism to those we love through one’s own actions and relationships, taking Adichie’s suggestions far beyond the realms of parenthood. Dear Ijeawele is accessible to anyone anywhere, making it a truly intersectional manifesto for feminists the world over.
I never imagined I’d have to talk to my boss about my ovaries, but that’s just what happened when I came up against a blockade in the insurance system.
I was going through a harrowing few weeks of stress and pain that culminated on my twenty-sixth birthday. My periods had been getting more and more painful for a while, and I got a recurring dull pain at other times in the month, but I self-medicated and continued to ignore it. It took a pain in my abdomen so sharp that a full night of drinking couldn’t take the edge off before I knew I could no longer stand it.
It still took me two weeks to see a doctor.
“Should I making this public knowledge?” I cross-examine myself. It’s literally a sensitive issue.
I’ve vowed to myself that my body is my public, political sphere as well as my private, personal sphere. It’s my mannequin on which to display my beliefs, my vehicle in the fight for gender rights, my pathway to strength and to weakness. I’m not afraid to bare the truth to the world.
What doesn’t help is feeling that the system is pitted against me because I speak a different language, because I am a foreigner, and because I am a woman.
In September, I’d asked a friend to help me get an appointment at a Chinese hospital where I knew they’d accept my insurance. She had to call for me, because I couldn’t speak enough Chinese to get through the phone system. She was the only friend I felt comfortable asking this of. We discussed dates. She called. We tried and tried to get an appointment. But there were just too many people to get through the system. I kept waiting, trying to ride out the pain.
By the last week of December, I was desperate. I couldn’t wait for the Chinese system to find space for me, and opted for an appointment at an international clinic.
It was New Years Eve when my boyfriend and I finally went to the clinic. I felt frail and scared and lucky to have him there with me. It was a Thursday, so I’d had to teach an 8am class that morning but had the rest of the day free, tomorrow would be a holiday followed by a weekend. I’d done the legwork to ensure a few days’ rest incase something drastic had to be done about whatever was going on inside of me. I was terrified that what I felt was an ectopic pregnancy – an embryo growing outside of my womb, either in the fallopian tube or just floating around between my organs – caused in part by my IUD.
The place was almost empty – a privilege I paid for – and there wasn’t much of a wait before a nurse weighed me, tested my blood pressure, and showed me through to the doctor’s office. I was glad my preference for a female gynaecologist had been heard; she made me feel so much more comfortable. She was gentle but feisty, professional yet funny. I realised I would have been fine if I were on my own. I was in safe hands.
The initial examination didn’t uncover anything but good health, which worried rather than placated me. I insisted that there was something wrong. I had never experienced pain so bad. So she gave me an ultrasound, showing me where my IUD was, and what my ovaries looked like. Then she found it.
It wasn’t an ectopic pregnancy, thank fuck. It was something far more common and much simpler to treat. I had a cyst on my right ovary that was 5 centimetres in diameter (which is pretty huge). She prescribed me three month’s worth of the combined Pill (oestrogen and progesterone) and told me to come back in three months to make sure the cyst had gone.
I left feeling positive about everything but the price. It had cost me 4000 RMB, which is a little under £500 (or $600 US), and about 70% of my monthly salary at the time.
Harking from the UK, I am not used to forking out for my reproductive health. A country where the National Health Service is managing to cling to high-expenditure existence after almost 70 years, women get most forms of protection on the house. My only saving grace was that my job provides insurance. All I had to do was provide our International Cooperation Office with the invoice.
My Chinese colleague at the ICO took a few minutes to process the number she saw in front of her. She told me she didn’t think the insurance could cover this cost, that she’d need me to get further paperwork from the clinic, and asked why I hadn’t just gone to a “normal hospital”?
Communication across a language barrier, however minimal, doesn’t help when trying to explain that it felt like an emergency, that I’d tried getting appointments in other places, that I worried about having a male doctor, that I couldn’t explain my pain in Chinese.
She looked back at the invoice and tried to tell me it was the wrong colour for the university’s insurance provider to accept it. I didn’t have to go to the one they’d recommended, but this international clinic was not registered as a hospital and therefore wouldn’t be covered. Additionally, the amount I’d paid exceeded the maximum insurance payment for the year by double. She might be able to get me 2000 RMB, but there was no guarantee.
She mentioned that next time, I should go to a Chinese hospital, that she would recommend a doctor, and that gynaecologists in China are all female.
Two months later, when I’d returned from a vacation feeling stronger and healthier than ever, if haunted by the Pill that I was eager to finish taking as soon as possible, my direct boss called asking me to come over. He needed to talk to me and he couldn’t explain over the phone.
I sat down in a low chair opposite him in his book-strewn apartment, wondering what on earth this could possibly be about. He explained he’d had a long, winding conversation with our female colleague at the ICO (the only female colleague I had any regular contact with, for I was the only woman among the international teachers at the time). He thought it better if he explain the inner workings of the insurance system to me himself, to save time. I believe that was a genuine concern, since our colleague’s English tended to falter when the subject matter got tough. Still, it did not seem fair that my medical issue had been discussed without my knowledge, nor did I want my older male boss involved in this issue.
He essentially repeated what she’d told me two months earlier (I’d gone back to collect 2000 RMB in cash, thanked her for her hard work, and we’d discussed insurance), thinking he was doing me a favour by initiating a tense conversation about my health.
He stressed again that the insurance would not pay anything towards another appointment of any kind at an international clinic within twelve months. He didn’t want to force me into going to a Chinese doctor, if I believed this was a risk to my health, but I really must try to trust the local system. It works for everyone else here, he told me, and my last appointment had been so expensive compared with the salary.
Suddenly this conversation became a way to assess my ability to assimilate with Chinese culture, and being affected by a “woman’s problem” wasn’t helping the case. My boss did not seem to think me capable of making informed decisions about my own health and my own money. Never before had I felt my womanness was an obstacle in this job, despite having only male colleagues and no-one to ask for help. Perhaps he was worried how this health issue could affect my ability to do my job.
I had not foreseen ever talking to my boss about my ovaries, but there I was explaining the pain and the cyst and the stress and the small likelihood that I would need surgery if it didn’t deflate. And there he was, suddenly compassionate.
I didn’t think I was biased against the system. I would go to a Chinese hospital for a problem with my eyes or my kidneys, but this was different. The mainstream system hadn’t worked for me. I had found a (woman) doctor I trusted and liked, at a clinic that provides the full range of healthcare options I expect as a westerner, and that doctor had my medical records so was best equipped to carry out the check-up later.
I did look into other options, but I ultimately decided to go back to the place I knew and trusted. The place where I knew I could communicate, where they knew my medical history, and where I felt comfortable going alone. That second appointment cost me close to 8000RMB – almost £950 (or $1,200 US). But that’s a story for another time.
Mostly It’s Just Uncomfortable is feminist artist Zoe Buckman’s response to the attack on Planned Parenthood in the United States. Check out this and other work on her website.
Looking up from my book, I scanned the crowded subway car, eager for some good people-watching. But as a new group of folks clambered on, I cringed at some of the actions and attitudes I saw.
Boyfriends pushing (excuse me, “guiding”) their girlfriend onto the train, or speaking to them as if they were children. Women dressed in wildly uncomfortable clothes that align with current fashion trends. Men speaking over the women in their group, or taking no notice of them at all.
From my point of view, these sort of cultural interactions encourage frail, helpless women and domineering men. But as I watch, I try to look past the (irritating) face value of the situation, and understand what societal norm encouraged it. Other times, I mutter angrily under my breath about bullshit men and their bullshit behavior and all these bullshit societal expectations women felt they needed to live up to.
But whether it manifests as deep consideration or silent fuming, it’s always a very quiet sort of rumination on rights and equality, or lack thereof.
I’m sure some reading this would argue my response isn’t much of a response at all. That observation or contemplation aren’t enough – they won’t create change.
But despite always having strong views and clear opinions, I’ve often avoided direct action. Rarely would I self-identify as a liberal or feminist or activist (though I am all those things). Ultimately, I was simply avoided labels.
Why? I found them intimidating.
These labels seemed too rigid, too narrow, and far too easy to use as a crutch in writing your own self-definition.
I saw many paint broad strokes based on a label, and often their interpretation of that label was inaccurate from the start. Kellyanne Conway anyone? Often, it seemed:
If you’re a *insert label here*, you’re x, y, z.
If you agree with that person or their label, “x, y, z” can be encouraging, positive associations. If you don’t agree, “x, y, z” become negative, and often inaccurate, slurs.
What was my incentive to don these labels, just to have someone assume they knew me based solely on those words?
Well, now I’m not so easily intimidated.
Whether it’s age or perspective or an expat-driven need to further self-identify, I find I’m more comfortable slipping into those labels. Thanks largely to my time living abroad, I no longer feel timidity over being the realme.
Increasingly, I feel a need to go beyond identifying as what I am, by using my own personality and actions to reinforce a positive, more realistic, definition of that label. If I can present myself as a strong, capable, kind, loving, forceful woman and identify as a liberal, a feminist, etc., then perhaps people will start to correlate the two.
Within my life in China, that correlation is often on as small a level as my classroom interactions each day.
I challenge what my students think a woman should wear by donning the mismatched, often baggy or faded, clothing that I love to wear. I pair a feminine skirt with a man’s oversized flannel, because that’s my style. That way, my students see a woman they describe as beautiful deciding herself how she’ll dress and act.
I purposefully twist my hair into a frazzled, messy pile atop my head to show individuality and even a touch of eccentricity. “That looks crazy, teacher!” “Well it’s good to be a little crazy.”
Despite my being in a loving relationship, I argue every day that women don’t need a man to achieve all their dreams. Nor does finding a partner – man or woman – mean they cede their dreams.
With my brilliant little girls, I celebrate their intelligence. I tell them to dream big. Through some personal (and probably knee-jerk) response to this country’s blatant patriarchy, I go out of my way to push these girls to be forces of nature, strong enough to challenge any societal norms they’re up against.
With my clever little boys, I try to teach them equality by quieting their disrespect, and praising their teamwork.
I do my part, and spend that subway-ride home dreaming about how I hope my students will grow up to be.
So, while I may not be setting the world ablaze with radical thought or loud protest, I thrive through more close-to-home feminism. I may not be powering grassroots movements, but I’m making sure everyone around me supports equality. I may not be rallying, but I’m empowering the women in my life, looking up to them and giving them my support.
I also hope I’m teaching the men in my life how great a world it would be if they did the same. By being powerful, independent, intelligent and strong-willed, I hope to help men see the beauty of that kind of woman. I want to help them shed any fear they have of what a world equality would look like – help them see it’s not about their subordination to women, but their standing alongside women.
Wearing the labels I’m now comfortable owning, I take small steps and celebrate them. Whether it changes the world, I know it changes the world of those around me. And for now, that role is one I am more than happy to play.
Alexandra Sieh is a freelance writer currently working as a marketing director and English teacher in Beijing, China. Read more from Alexandra at Wild-Eyed and Wandering.