Category Archives: Gender

Burma Voices Project: Women of Burma

During two trips to Burma (Myanmar) in the past year, I initially felt surprised to experience widespread enthusiasm to speak openly to me, outsider as I am. The openness I was so frequently greeted with amazed me. Locals felt completely at ease about discussing the politics of their threatened totalitarian regime in my presence.

The people’s unfaltering hope and excitement were palpable as I commenced my initial trip in August 2015, arriving just six weeks after the announcement of a national election to be held on November 8th. I found myself in the midst of nation-wide political campaigns, which began just days before my visa expired. I returned in January 2016 and was in Yangon the week the new Hluttaw (national assembly) convened for the first time. Since February, newly elected President Htin Kyaw has taken office and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been granted the position of State Counsellor, the position “above” the President she had outlined during election speeches last autumn. Considering this is the first time a woman has held a position of significant power, the previous military regime having controlled the nation for over 60 years, Burma is bound for major change.

With a powerful female figurehead now at the country’s helm, it is high time for the women of Burma to come to the fore. Their unique voices can finally be heard by the international community and their previously untold stories can be deservedly shared with the world.

Thus, I am proud to announce the launch of a series of interviews with women of Burma. Numerous encounters on my travels around Burma kindled this project into existence over several months, with several individual and group interviews occurring in early 2016. However, the initial idea was sparked by two very different women, whose names I never learned and whose uninhibited conversation seemed to offer as much to them as to me.

All interviews were conducted in person, with the participants’ full consent for publication. However, the first two encounters took me by surprise. Given the spirit of the conversation, I believe they demand publishing despite explicit consent not being given. I feel it only right to honour the two women whose words became instrumental to this project. These women made it clear they wanted their voices to be heard by anybody in the international community they could reach.

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Woman selling fruit at a roadside market at night, Tanintharyi Region

Women travellers, Thanbyuzayat

31st August 2015

After a 5am motorcycle lift from the beach resort at Setse to the small town Thanbyuzayat, I learned that my bus was an hour later than anticipated. Disappointed, I found myself spending an hour consuming a Burmese breakfast of warmed but still near raw egg and strong Burma tea. I watched the daily procession of monks file through the streets collecting their breakfasts from neighbourhood women with buckets of rice. I would soon board the bus for a 13-hour ride from Thanbyuzayat to Yangon via Mawlamyine. My two weeks of solo travel in Burma were coming to an end.

Women don’t go anywhere alone.

I travelled alone. As in most places, I was warned against travelling alone. Of course, I know that travelling solo anywhere is potentially dangerous. I had travelled abroad alone before. I was aware of the possible dangers, and I felt well prepared to take care of myself. But this warning had a different origin. In Burma the primary concern was not safety but adhering to socio-cultural norms. While I was happy to follow other social rules I’d read about, Lonely Planet’s advice against solo women travellers went unheeded.

I was sitting alone on the bus somewhere between Mawlamyine and Yangon, minding my own business, when the woman sitting next to me switched with the woman in the seat in front of her. She offered me fruits I didn’t recognise and began to chat amiably, taking me under her wing, as many other women had, for the duration of the journey.

“My husband asks, ‘will you be okay, going alone?’, I’m forty-two, I have two children, I can look after myself!”

The two women were travelling together with a third who was sitting directly in front of me, but only one was confident about her English speaking ability. She was a Church minister and Sunday School teacher from Mon State, going to Yangon to visit a man from her local parish who was in hospital in the city.

It was she who brought up the problematic social expectations I had been sensed during every journey for two weeks previous. She openly voiced her opinions: Women don’t go anywhere alone. Their parents stop them. Husbands and boyfriends are just like extra parents – they worry, they want to check that you are safe. “My husband asks, ‘will you be okay, going alone?’, I’m forty-two, I have two children, I can look after myself!”

Despite clearly feeling the bounds of these gender norms, she maintained a positive view on her culture, insisting that the strong sense of Burma-wide community outweighs a feeling of restriction:

“People don’t earn very much, we don’t have money to travel, but people look out for each other, and help one another wherever they go. We are not rich in money, but we are rich in kindness.”

She had reached out to make sure that foreigners understood as much as they could of the cultures in Burma. Her words have stayed close with me ever since. They seem to encapsulate an ambiance I felt throughout my travels in Burma.

Women’s education, Yangon

1st September 2015

‘Things will only change if she wins. If they let her in, there will be changes. If not, things will be stable.’ 

Pausing at a busy junction in downtown Yangon as I waited to cross – a heavy bag on my back, obviously a tourist – an older Burmese woman muttered under her breath telling me it was safe to cross. The midday heat had begun to settle between the traffic and would not lift until the usual downpour around four. The woman moved slowly but was still close enough when we reached the curb opposite to continue the conversation. My impulse was to speed ahead but she wasn’t finished with me. I slowed my pace to match hers and listened.

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Girls at a monastery school, outside their dormitory room, Dawei

She told me: All the young people in Burma are getting a bad education at the national schools and are having to pay for extra tuition (with the same teacher) outside school time – a scheme deeply entrenched in the country’s economics. ‘They do not learn good English,’ my companion assured me. ‘Even the doctors here do not speak English; if you explain your symptoms in English they will presume you want to pay the “international price” in US Dollars, not Burmese kyat.’

The woman explained: This is all because ‘the education minister will not get out of his seat’ (either to do any work or to make way for a minister who will do the work, she went on to explain). When she grew up, the British education system was still in place – that is the reason she speaks English so well and is able to voice her opinions to me so plainly. Now only private international schools, which are prohibitive and exclusive through their expense, teach good English. ‘That’s why the Number One sends his children overseas, to western schools. Everyone knows he’s been putting money into overseas banks for years; he is ready to flee if anything goes wrong for him here.’

When this loquacious older woman shared her political views with me, I didn’t have to ask who ‘she’ was; she needn’t be named. She’s been on my mind constantly since I began seeing her photo pasted next to her father’s portrait or twinned with posters saying NATIONAL LEAGUE for DEMOCRACY above people’s houses, outside shops and in restaurants all across the country. Aung San Suu Kyi, it seemed, was all anyone could think about.

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The local NLD headquarters, marked by outdoor billboards and posters, Dawei Region

If they let her in, there will be changes. If not, things will be stable.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been the national beacon of hope since 1988, when she founded the opposition party National League for Democracy. Everyone knows her name, but she is often referred to as ‘The Lady’, or simply ‘she’. She has spent almost 15 years imprisoned in her own home since 1989, separated from her family who were based in Oxford, England and not granted visas to visit her.

It took Suu Kyi and her party 28 years to gain power in the national government. She spent those 28 years either under house arrest, showing support for her people’s protests against the army government or undertaking nation-wide campaigns to unite the many ethnic groups in Burma.

I sensed from context and her tone that when my new friend referred to things remaining ‘stable’, I was to infer that unchanging political leadership in Burma would mean only bad things for the education system already in dire need of alteration. Education was a primary concern many of my new acquaintances in-country raised with me, especially in early 2016 after NLD had begun to adopt political power. Many people have faith in the changes NLD will bring, but worry that things cannot change fast enough for today’s students. How the Burmese education system will develop, only time will tell.

What 5 Chinese women taught me in Women’s History Month

What a month this Women’s History Month has been! Living in China, it’s often easy to feel some level of disconnect from the fourth wave feminism of London or New York, but this month in Beijing has reminded me that women all over the world are fighting for the same thing: equality.

Feminism is viewed as a western concept all too often: a luxury for socially empowered, financially independent women with free time on their hands. A quaint pastime for the descendants of those women who believed that getting the vote would be the end of women’s rights issues and gender inequality, and were sadly disappointed. Of course, that’s not the reality for the majority of feminists.

Many of the issues individuals fight against are trivialised (from without and within), because of the shadow cast by the privilege of western women in comparison to women in other parts of the world. Some find it hard to fight their own corner because it appears eclipsed by the overwhelming adversity faced by women worldwide. Disconnects between western feminist strongholds and developing world feminism can often be misconstrued, to global feminism’s disadvantage.

Happily, there is a lot to be said for global sisterhood. Women of the west must support women of the east; women living in developed countries can support women of developing countries; because women living worlds apart are combatting similar issues and coming up against similar hurdles.

But western feminism doesn’t write the rules for global feminist movements.

Just because they don’t get to vote for their government, or don’t have the economic stability you do, or don’t have access to the resources you take for granted, doesn’t mean those women don’t fight for their rights just like you. In fact, you might be surprised at how far they have gone to get rights women around the world deserve.

Here are five Chinese women who have inspired me this month, and the overriding messages they’re sending, as they each make their contributions towards changing China for future women.

Defiance: Xiao Tie

Thirty-year-old bisexual LGBT activist Xiao Tie is the director of Beijing’s LGBT Center and one of Beijing’s most prominent young figureheads. Her campaigns for LGBT rights have gained international attention, most notably those protesting ‘gay conversion’ treatment, that is still a widespread problem in China.

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Xiao Tie (image via)

Xiao Tie’s demeanour is bright and her humour infectious, but it’s clear she’s struggled with gaining authority and respect in her work. Even in her industry, Xiao Tie feels the pressure of gender bias on her appearance. She has recently changed her hairstyle to look more ‘feminine’ and ‘serious’, so she will actually be treated as the director of the centre she founded. Xiao Tie humorously admits that she’s been told she suffers resting bitch face, but that it is somehow appropriate: two other organisations she works with are Beijing Bitch and Slut International.

Xiao Tie was due to speak at a Women’s Day panel event on Saturday 12th March, as part of Beijing’s annual Literary Festival, discussing women’s rights around the world. That morning, she got a call from the police telling her not to go. She went. Xiao Tie was intercepted outside the venue, and told she would be detained if she tried to join the activities indoors.

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Two weeks later, she and her two best friends, Wei Tingting and Fan Popo, dominated the same space for a LGBT panel discussion of the tumultuous year that was 2015. They had no qualms about expressing their defiance of the authorities, despite having first hand knowledge of the consequences: Wei was one of the ‘Feminist Five’ detained for 37 days in March 2015. These three know precisely where their activism could lead, but they keep coming back for more.

Determination: Lijia Zhang

Lijia Zhang, 51, burst onto the global literary scene in 2008 with her first book, Socialism is Great! A Workers Memoir of the New China, the story of her rebellious journey from life as a disillusioned factory worker to becoming a writer and journalist in English.

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

Lijia Zhang is a role model for women across China and worldwide. At 16, Zhang’s mother dragged her out of school, sold her textbooks and forced her to take a job at a local factory producing intercontinental ballistic missiles so she could contribute to the family income. Watching her dream of studying at 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 through the factory programme. That was just the start; her determination and courage never failed.

Zhang says there has always been a rebellious streak in her: as a young woman she read Jane Eyre hidden within the folds of The People’s Daily; spearheaded a factory walk-out in support of the Tiananmen Square demonstrators in 1989; and is now a public speaker and an advocate for women’s rights in China.

Research for Zhang’s first novel, Lotus, took her to brothels in southern China and into volunteering for a non-governmental organisation in a northern Chinese city, distributing condoms to sex workers, where she became familiar with the joys and challenges of their daily lives.

Zhang discussed these issues, her experiences, and her role in Chinese feminism at her annual engagement at the Beijing Literary Festival, where she recently spoke on a panel on women’s rights in contemporary China.

Courage: Wei Tingting

Wei Tingting is a feminist, gay rights and women’s rights activist in Beijing. As project manager at the Beijing Gender Health Education Institute, Wei helped establish an AIDS Walk along the Great Wall, held annually. She’s represented Chinese women at conferences in India and South Korea, and helped collect material for a documentary film about bisexuality in China. She also staged a production of The Vagina Monologues during college in Wuhan.

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Wei Tingting (image via)

During Wei Tingting’s public appearance at the Beijing Literary Festival last weekend, she seemed utterly blasé in discussing her 37 days in a Haidian detention centre this time last year.

Having studied Anthropology, at first she thought of her detention as fieldwork: ‘oh, I’ve never been into a women’s detention centre before,’ she remembered aloud. She joked about how difficult it was to clean the toilet after having her spectacles confiscated for the duration of her imprisonment. Surprisingly, she met her girlfriend during this time behind bars. They had to keep their relationship secret, talking in hushed tones and snapping apart after every kiss. They knew they were being watched.

She laughs off the details – sharing one small room with 28 other women for over six weeks, not being able to tell the guards apart because she couldn’t see – because she knows what five young women’s 37 day imprisonment has done for the feminist scene in China. The detention of Wei Tingting, Zheng Churan, Wang Man, Wu Rongrong, and Li Tingting (known as Li Maizi) repeatedly made international news, put pressure on the Chinese government, and kick-started an unprecedented era of widespread feminist activism across China.

“I thought this incident would be the end for us young, female activists. But the reaction has started an era of magnificent, new activists. They cannot catch all of us and block us all.”

– Wei Tingting

Curiosity: Xinran

Xue Xinran, 58, gained China-wide popularity in the nineties with her radio show ‘Words on the Night Breeze’ (1989-1997), which focused on women’s issues and voices. She became known for travelling widely across China to meet her interviewees, and later began to write the stories of the women she’d met along the way. Xinran moved to London in 1997 where she worked at SOAS, became a regular contributor to the BBC and Guardian, and fought a mugger who tried to steal her laptop containing the only copy of her first manuscript. Xinran is a public speaker, advocate for women’s issues, and the founder of The Mothers’ Bridge of Love, a charity aiming to change adoptive and birth culture in China.

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Xinran talking to Laurie O’Donnell, Beijing, March 2016 © Sven Romberg

While Xinran’s life experience is fascinating in itself, the stories she retells about the women of China are unparalleled. Her first book, The Good Women of China (2002) became an international bestseller and has been translated into thirty languages. Subsequent books have told the real-life stories of one Chinese woman who went alone to Tibet in search of her missing husband and came back a devoted Buddhist, the uneasy relationship between China’s migrant workers and the cities they flock to, and the heartbreaking narratives of mothers who have lost or had to abandon their children. Her latest book focuses on the only children brought up under China’s one-child policy.

Not only has Xinran’s belligerent curiosity brought these stories to the fore, but she has given a voice to hundreds of women whose voices had previously gone unheard – given them a voice loud enough to be heard worldwide.

Sisterhood: Xiao Meili

Twenty-something Xiao Meili is a Chinese women’s rights activist whose campaigns in recent years have gained international media attention, challenged the Chinese authorities and landed some fellow campaigners in jail.

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From left to right: Li Tingting (known as Li Maizi), Xiao Meili, and Wei Tingting (image via)

Xiao Meili’s best known campaigns include her 2,000km walk from Beijing to Guangzhou to raise awareness of sexual abuse in 2014, and her protest against domestic violence in 2012 that saw Xiao and two friends wearing bloody wedding dresses in public on Valentine’s Day. She is the mastermind behind the Chinese “this is what a feminist looks like” t-shirts, which you can buy on her Taobao site (Chinese e-bay), and the 2015 contest in which women posted pictures of their hairy armpits on Sina Weibo (Chinese Twitter).

Last year, Xiao Meili was campaign leader for the incident that led to 37 days of imprisonment for those 5 young Chinese feminists, including Wei Tingting. It was just days before International Women’s Day. They simply wanted to distribute fliers about sexual harassment on public transport in Beijing and Guangzhou. On March 7th, seven campaigners were arrested, five of whom going on to be detained for 37 days. Although she organised the campaign, Xiao Meili was not detained.

Xiao Meili could have kept her head down after the arrest, but instead spoke out, posting a picture every day for the duration of her friends’ detention, drawing attention to their plight. Not for a moment did she consider abandoning her friends, no matter what the consequences. She stood by her fellow women, stood up for what she believed and showed everyone the real meaning of sisterhood.

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Xiao Meili (image via)

While all of these women, young and old, have drawn inspiration from the west or cite the western feminist movement as a source of powerful ideas, each is advocating issues specific to her position in contemporary Chinese society.

Each of these women believes in the power of the individual voice: the problems faced by every woman are specific to her community, there is no-one with a deeper understanding of her life, and if anyone is qualified to speak about combatting those issues, it is she.

By giving those individual voices a platform, whether in international media, documentary films, nation-wide campaigns, international conferences, novels, or safe communities, these five women bring Chinese women’s voices to the world.

So, if ever you’re in doubt of where the feminist movement is taking the world, look to China for a reminder of the myriad ways women worldwide are fighting for equality.



A version of this article appeared as What these 4 Chinese women have taught me this Women’s History Month on Aliljoy.com

Lijia Zhang on gender, China’s sexual revolution and prostitution in contemporary China (Interview: part 2)

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.

lijia-paintingYears 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.

 

Lotus

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.

Read on: Lijia Zhang on ambition, writing and her public role in contemporary China (part 1)

Excerpts of this interview were published on Caixin in February 2016. Check out my Caixin debut here: Redefining the China Dream.

 

Lijia Zhang on ambition, writing and her public role in contemporary China (Interview: part 1)

One sunny but frigid Saturday in early January, I crossed Beijing and headed to an area I’d never been to before. As I drew close to the top of the subway escalator, feeling the cold seeping into my shell of hoarded underground warmth, I phoned Chinese writer and author, Lijia Zhang, asking for directions to her home. Not long afterward, she guided me through a narrow redbrick alleyway and led me to her home.

socialism-is-great.jpgOnce indoors, this vivacious and brightly dressed woman in her early fifties plied me with green tea and fruit, sat down across from me at a large glass dining table and began to chat. Despite suffering from jetlag (she says it is getting worse with age) after a business trip to London and holiday to Ethiopia with her two teenage daughters (17 and 19), she spoke spiritedly.

We talked for an hour an a half, pausing only for Zhang to grab another layer of clothing, while reminding me that she’s from southern China and still unused to the cold of Beijing’s bitter winters. We agreed that traveling outside of China is the only way to stay sane during the icy months, realising a mutual interest in Burma (Myanmar).

Throughout our meeting, this author whose first book has been published in 7 languages, and first novel, Lotus, will be released next year, seemed just as curious about me as I was about her. She gave me some hints about writing in China, tips on getting my work seen by a wider audience, and even slipped in a little love life advice! And did she drop a little hint about her third book?


Zhang burst onto the global literary scene in 2008 with the memoir of her rebellious journey from life as a disillusioned factory worker to becoming a writer and journalist in English. Her first book Socialism is Great! A Workers Memoir of the New China describes how she dreamt of escaping the stultifying routine of factory life, while reading Jane Eyre hidden within the folds of The People’s Daily and studying English in the local dump.

Zhang’s plans to attend college were quashed when her mother dragged her out of school at 16 and forced her to work in a factory producing intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads in her hometown, the southeastern city of Nanjing. Zhang says there has always been a rebellious streak in her: she chose to teach herself English as a way out of her claustrophobic surroundings, spearheaded a walk-out in support of the Tiananmen Square demonstrators in 1989, and still describes her dress-sense as reyan, conspicuous or showy.

One of the few mainland writers writing in English, Zhang describes herself as being a cultural bridge between China and the world. She now writes regular op-eds for publications including the New York Times, the Guardian and The Observer and is a regular guest on media outlets such as the BBC, CNN and NPR.

lijia-tea

How did your aspirations to get away from factory life in the 1980s differ from the national China dream at that time?

I have never been asked this question before. In some ways you can see the similarity. Like me, China was the frog in the well, because of its’ isolation. But in China’s case, it was a self-imposed isolation from the world. China had just gingerly opened its doors in the late 1970s, and, like myself, was very curious about the outside world. I knew the world was large and I was not happy to be trapped in my small world.

Does the new China dream being peddled around look like a farce?

The China dream, the way I read it, is basically China’s rejuvenation. It wouldn’t have worked in the 1980s, because at that time China was just establishing itself. Now China’s position in the world is increasing and the nationalist sentiment is growing, so the new China Dream has tapped into that.

It sounds like you defied expectations in any way you could.

Chinese people have this really strong tendency towards conformity. I still remember that my sister, when we were at school – our whole class too – nobody would be the first to change from long sleeves to short sleeves, it’s really silly. Certainly that’s a very suffocating environment.

Have you continued to defy the China norm, or has that changed?

Well I think China definitely has grown far more individualistic. I guess that tendency started in the eighties and in some ways climaxed in the democratic movement. When I was in the factory, you couldn’t express yourself in any way. Now young people can do as they like. You can shave your head! I hang out with a lot of feminists like Li Maizi – that will probably be my next book – she constantly changes her hairstyle and things. The new generation are very different.

Do you know where your coworkers from the factory ended up?

I have one close friend – the book is dedicated to her, Zhou Fang – but she was different, she was educated, she was sent to work after graduation. I keep in touch with her, because she is still one of my best friends. She’s now a senior manager with 3M. She lives in Minnesota.

A year after my marriage collapsed I met one of the women from my work group. I was going through the worst time in my life, and I saw my former colleague sitting on the roadside selling newspapers. A few years before that, all women aged over 45 were sacked. In all state downsizing, women are always first to go. She retired early and the pension was very little. Just to make a living she was sitting on the roadside selling newspaper.

I saw another guy, Ma, the guy who kept spitting [in the book]. It was really terrifying, just to see him. He’d had a stroke and had already become an old man. He still lived in the same village.

 

Writing in English

Does writing in English hold particular advantages over writing in Chinese?

I am one of very few Chinese people who write in English. I certainly get noticed because I am one of the few people who live in China. There are a few people writing in English, like Yiyun Li, Ha Jin, but they live abroad. So I am in an unusual position.

Recently I had an interview with BBC TV about the 1.3 million unregistered people to be allowed a Hukou. BBC called me because they needed somebody who can understand Chinese society but can also communicate with people outside, speaking English.

Last year I was invited to attend an academic conference. I was introduced as one of the only Chinese living in China writing for international publications. So that’s the reason I was invited to attend the conference; I was flattered.

I also got a fellowship from the US State department. I have no idea how!

Does writing in English help you to think in different ways?

Talking about writing, I increasingly notice some of the common problems in Chinese writing – writing in Chinese by Chinese authors. Writers have trouble using different points of view. Chinese authors often use omniscient [narrators], but not very skillfully.

To give you an example, Sheng Ke Yi wrote a book called Northern Girls. The content is fascinating, but it was so poorly written, I don’t know how it got such attention! In once scene, they were having sex, and the story jumps point of view from his to her point of view. Terrible! She is regarded as an established writer but she makes common mistakes that any creative writing class will tell you to avoid. So I notice these kinds of problems now. I have a few Chinese friends who write and I often have the urge to point this out to them.

Creative writing is offered to Chinese Literature students, does this bring hope for Chinese writing?

Creative writing courses alone do not automatically produce writers. Writing is something so personal. The drive has to come from within yourself. You have to have a desire to write your story and to express yourself this way. But writing is a craft, so some things can be learned. Yes, of course I think Chinese writers will benefit from creative writing courses, but Chinese Literature overall is in a bad place. There are many reasons, and creative writing courses will not solve the fundamental problems.

Socialism is Great! was published in 2008. Why then?

Like many things, it happened accidentally. I benefitted hugely from the creative writing course [MA Creative Life Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London, 2003-4]. I had a wonderful tutor. I chose a module about non-fiction writing, life writing, and my tutor was Blake Morrison. I found him very inspiring. In his book he borrows a lot of elements from non-fiction writing, which I was very much inspired by. I had already finished the book but after the course I really had a major rewrite.

In December 2006, I was working for a literary agent and I was assigned to interview James Atlas, the publisher, who had a project publishing in China. I interviewed him and I said, ‘Oh, I actually have a book.’ He said ‘show me,’ so I showed him. He read it through on his flight back from Beijing to New York and decided to publish the book. It just happened, just like that.

Do you see the publication of Socialism is Great! as the turning point of your career?

It was. It has proved to be the turning point. I didn’t expect that a little book would have such a big impact. It was published by a small independent publisher – but they gave lots of attention to it – and then picked up by Random House, had good reviews, and it was published in different languages. I have to say I am grateful… looking back I had such a bad contract! Now, I’m able to make a living from giving public speeches and I have a lot more offers of jobs, so I can pick and choose.

Did you consider approaching a China based publisher?

No. The climax of the book was about the 1989 demonstration [in support of the Tiananmen protests], so the book was very much about jumping out of the well. By the time I organised the demonstration, mentally I was already out of there.

 

Writing in China

What challenges do you face, as a Chinese writer, writing in English, based in Beijing?

I would still consider the first one as language – it is just very difficult – especially in the beginning. Secondly, the way to present an argument: in the West, there is more focus on presenting a very balanced view, which is not stressed so much here.

Have you ever felt threatened as a result of your work?

In 2008, I wrote a piece for the Guardian called It’s time to stop criticising China. I wrote that China has come a long way since the 1980s. I got a lot of hatemail, mostly from right wing Republicans, saying “how could you possibly defend a fascist regime like China?”

Then in 2011, when Little Yueyue was run over by two vehicles in and left bleeding by 18 passersby, and the incident was caught on CCTV, I wrote a piece questioning China’s declining morals. I got so much hate-mail from Chinese people. I guessed some of them were from wumaodang (the fifty cents party), paid by the authorities to attack anybody they don’t like. But some people’s English sounded too natural; they must have been Chinese living abroad. I got lots of personal hate-mail saying I was the running dog of the west, that I don’t deserve to be Chinese, and how ugly I am.

Because it’s not face-to-face, you can say anything.

For a time, you wrote under your married name while simultaneously using your maiden name. How did that make you feel?

That was just a safety concern really; for some articles it felt safer. It didn’t bother me. I just knew it was a necessity to attract less attention. If they are nasty, they can be nastier to a Chinese national, even if you’ve got a British passport. But I am divorced, I cannot use the other one any more! And my name, Lijia Zhang, is more established now. I cannot even use Zhang Lijia any more.

 

Social Role

You once said you see yourself as being the cultural bridge between China and the world. What amount of control do you feel in how China is seen by the rest of the world?

I wrote a piece on the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 about this issue, the title was Expanding Cage. I wrote that there is still control but after 1989 the government relaxed the control, and expanding personal freedoms is part of that strategy. So, now, ordinary people feel very free.

I think that’s one of the biggest misconceptions of china. People outside China imagine that 1.3 billion people exist in a very controlled, very rigid environment here. But for lots of ordinary people, the cage has expanded so much that they don’t often feel the limit, unless you’re like visual artist Ai Wei Wei or somebody caught up with the law. Lots of ordinary Chinese people actually feel free.

You are bringing domestic China to the world.

Public speaking is a big part of that. Writing books and articles is, too.

Do you see yourself influencing foreign policy or the Chinese diaspora?

I don’t know about that! But I have been often asked to meet VIPs. Just recently I met a former Greek foreign minister, who is now in charge of the human rights issue for the European Commission. He came here to participate in dialogues with the Chinese authorities and he had one free day to meet people, so I was one of the people he met. I don’t know if I can influence foreign policy but I am happy to share what I know.

Is there something you wish people knew about you or a question you wish someone would ask?

What a nice person I am! No. No, people serve the purpose they have. They want to know certain things, so that’s fine.


 

Read on: Lijia Zhang on Gender, China’s sexual rev0lution and her new novel about prostitution in contemporary China (part 2)

Can Rape Jokes Ever be Funny?

Sexist Faux Pas at a Beijing Bar

A woman takes the Beijing subway to work every day. One day her doctor tells her she is pregnant. “That’s impossible,” she says. “I’ve only been on the subway.”

When this joke was told to a friend and me at a party, the punch line hung in the air. The young man seemed to be trying to impress us with his… wit? charm? good looks? I said:

Rape jokes aren’t funny.”

His counter was not an apology, nor admittance that the joke was problematic, nor even a recognition that some people might be offended by it. He said, “It’s not a rape joke — it’s a sex joke.”

So began a long argument that did little but make me angry and him defensive. He refused to see that this wasn’t an appropriate subject to joke about, as he refused to believe he had made a joke about rape. He did not see himself as someone who would – or could – make a rape joke, and thus the actual issue, the real perpetrator and perpetuator of crimes against humanity – the femi-Nazi, as it were – was me.

How convenient that there were no other men present at our table when he sidled up to share his joke – that he didn’t run the risk of being called out by his own gender for being a creep. Had he imagined that only women would grant him a laugh? Was it painful to him that even a girl wouldn’t laugh at his joke?

Though he was seemingly oblivious to his actions, he was indeed using his gender to assert some level of dominance over we two young women. As though I had never heard such a joke before, he told me I simply did not understand the humour and began slowly to explain it in detailed language for the girl who didn’t “get” the joke.

As if to redirect his listener’s fury, he added that part of the humour lay in the stereotype that Asian men have small penises; this was the reason the woman had not noticed being penetrated and thus did not know who the baby’s father was.

While I wished to place the blame entirely on him – it would be much easier to do so as we left the party enraged, primarily due to him – I know it’s not entirely his fault.

Making friends among the lad culture in UK high schools and universities requires a flippant attitude toward both gender and sex. Many young men, like this one, feel they can be blasé about rape primarily because they do not believe themselves or their friends to be potential rapists, and imagine this fact is equally as clear to everyone else. Young women learn to laugh at jokes that undermine and humiliate them, in order to attract and compete for potential beaus.

“It’s just BANTER.”

I recently had a friend – an otherwise thoughtful, sensitive man – tell me that he felt rape was simply a sub-category of sex. He felt that “sex” as a label covered a whole range of practices that not everyone understood, approved of or agreed were acceptable behaviour. Rape, paedophilia, and sexual harassment would fall under this label. So do polyamory, naturism, and sadomasochistic relationships. It’s all “just sex”, and sometimes it happens without mutual consent. By his definition, it’s simply a matter of taste and preference; an echo of the Freudian model that rape is the result of individual sexual deviancy.

Yet the Freudian model does not account for the use of violent rape as a weapon. It is used as a part of the standard toolkit in the deployment of genocidal army tactics. Why? Because rape can have far longer-term effects than the duration of the crime.

Rape is commonly believed to be a demonstration of unequal power relations. Rape is not about sex, desire or sexual attraction, but about power: “Rape, properly understood, is more like an injury to the brain than a violent variation on sex. Rape, properly understood, is always aimed not just at the female sex organs but at the female brain.” [1] It seems pretty clear to me.

And yet ambiguity prevails. This party guest embraced the ambiguity and even felt empowered to impress it upon his audience. I wonder what that’s like, to see the ambiguity of involuntary sex as good party conversation material. Flirting material, nonetheless.

What is crystal clear to me was muddy and vague to him because he had never needed to see the threat of sexual violence from the same angle. The issue remains a zeitgeist because people – such as subscribers of British lad culture – are uncomfortable to dig in. They are socially rewarded for joking about rape rather than recognising rape for what it is.

“Only yes means yes.” 

Is it sexy to ask permission? If I ask, will she think me less of a man? What if she doesn’t actually say yes? Is she acting like she doesn’t want it to make me try harder? Am I in a position to say no?

How many people have felt confused or misled in that vital moment yet unable to ask their partner for clarification? People feel able to play around with ambiguity when it grants them a laugh to serve their ego, but humour fails to solve the issues left by vagaries and miscommunication.

Rape as a crime is defined by the FBI as follows: Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim. 

I do not believe that all rape jokes are inherently offensive. Humour can be a great source of healing; laughter is a tool that can aid recovery. Rape survivors may benefit significantly from joking about their experiences; humour allows the freedom to openly express what taboo prevents us airing. There is a degree of truth to every joke, as they say.

But with no previous rapport with his listeners, he had no idea how the joke might affect either of us. He was using ambiguity as a tool to reassert a traditional patriarchal power imbalance that falls along gender lines; his harmless anecdote about male sexual dominance was not funny because it was, however deep within its gift-wrapped box, a threat.

In the words of Naomi Wolf: “If your goal is to break a woman psychologically, it is efficient to do violence to her vagina.” [2] Short of committing the physical act itself, a sly joke among strangers may serve to slicken the way.

Originally published by Lo.Re.Li., China in September 2015

[1] Naomi Wolf, Vagina: A New Biography, 121.
[2] Ibid.

Read my Lo.Re.Li interview here or read more about Lo.Re.Li here