Category Archives: Interview

May Thant on gender roles in sex and marriage in contemporary Burma (interview: part 2)

Social taboos restrict essential elements of healthcare. Sex education, contraception, and abortion are not available from official institutions like schools and hospitals. Most families are unable to discuss such things, assuming such knowledge is unnecessary until learnt within a marriage. Young people must teach themselves about sex, turning to simple pamphlets for education and unofficial clinics for healthcare. Misconceptions about contraception and diseases prevail, and young women lie to doctors about medical issues resulting from botched back-street abortions. This is sex and marriage in contemporary Burma (Myanmar) from May Thant’s perspective.

Is sex education available before marriage? 

Yes. Not at school but outside, from medical centres. Some girls don’t know about sex exactly, and some girls read a lot and they know about it. These girls find the information in books we have about it in our language [Burmese], published by medical centres. We can buy them easily, at the bookshop. But most Myanmar girls are too shy to talk about sex.

Do parents talk about sex with their daughters or sons?

Here that would be very strange. That’s like an open type of relationship between parents and their children. But most Myanmar children don’t talk about this with their parents. They would never ask them about it. The thing is [there is no need to learn about sex before marriage because] we will know after we are married.

Is there pressure to get married?

Here, people usually get married under thirty. Some girls over thirty don’t get married, they just live with their parents and they don’t get married. There are women who never get married, who never know about sex, never have children.

They will live with their parents or family until old age.

In other countries, you can live alone when you are over 18. But here, we cannot live alone before we are married. After we are married, it is okay if we live by ourselves. But if we never get married, we have to live with our parents.

It is the same for boys and girls. Right now, I live with my aunt. My parents are in my hometown. If I didn’t have any family in Yangon I would have to live in a hostel, or rent an apartment with friends. Many people rent an apartment with friends, but only if there is no family to stay with.

Rural woman and child in Shan State, Burma (Myanmar), August 2015 © ZhendeGender

What kind of relationships do people have before marriage? 

Right now, the cities have many [young] couples, and many couples have sex before they are married. We are facing a problem because young adults don’t know how to use condoms, so they don’t use [protection] and the girls get pregnant. They [usually] don’t want to have children before they are married.

For example, in our society, if I got pregnant [or had] children before I got married, then I would get shame. How can I say it? I would get shame, and my parents wouldn’t call me their daughter. I would be cut off from everyone, everything, and it could affect my job too. Maybe I would get fired from my job. But most of the girls [in this situation] don’t want to have the baby, so they have an abortion.

Is it easy to get an abortion?

Yes, very easy. You don’t have to go to the hospital for it. In most of the hospitals here, they don’t perform abortions. At the hospital you have to register and things like that. But there are some places you don’t have to register and it is easy to have an abortion. Some [of these] places are not safe for your health.

The places are not like clinics. It is just… how can I say? Just a house, just a nurse doing abortions for money. [They go to] a nurse’s house, with a nurse who is not working anymore – like a retired nurse, or the nurse’s daughter [who] the nurse is teaching how to make an abortion. Something like this. They don’t always know what they’re doing.

But girls get an abortion from [these places] outside, and if it is not good for their health, like there is too much bleeding, and they go to the hospital. The doctors will scold them and ask: “why did you do this?” but they don’t perform abortions [at the hospital].

The patient won’t tell the doctor she had an abortion. The patient will just say, “I have this problem.”

Do women tell anyone if they have an abortion? 

They don’t find out. She doesn’t tell anyone. It can be very dangerous. But mostly, her mother will know. [Young women] are scared of their father, and they talk about everything with their mother. Most girls talk to their mother every day; they talk about everything together. Some mothers help their daughters to have an abortion because it affects your reputation [if people find out about the pregnancy or abortion] and the mother worries that the daughter could be poor if it affects her reputation.

Women can talk about an abortion with their mother, but they won’t talk about sex.

Yes. [laughter]

When do married couples usually have children? 

They don’t have to. [Usually] they don’t want children for one or two years after marriage. After two years, they start to have babies. Some marriages [happen] to have a baby. For example, if a girl had sex with her boyfriend and got pregnant, then her house[hold] know she got pregnant, and they talk to her boyfriend’s house[hold] or mother, like this. They get married so they [can] have the baby after the marriage. About thirty to forty percent of marriages start like this in our country.

[May laughs when I explain the phrase ‘shotgun wedding’.]

Is contraception available for couples who don’t want to have a baby?

Condoms and pills are easy to buy and easy to get. But I think some boys don’t like to use condoms, and some girls won’t take the pills after sex, because they forget or they don’t want to.

Traditionally, the wife’s role is to make the husband’s life easy. Is that true?

Men are taught that women are for sex and cooking and children. Women think they cannot find money for their family, and they obey their husband like a king for finding money to support the family.

Men always want to be higher than their wives or their children. But women are more intelligent than men or boys. Women always treat their husband like a king, and men are proud to be themselves.

For example, my grandmother treated my grandfather like a king. For breakfast, she will ask what time he wants it, and she will make sure it is ready for him when he wants. At lunchtime, it will be ready for him when he asked for it. It is the same for many other things. They make sure everything is ready for the man.

Now, some educated women don’t think like this. They can do anything like a man and it is the same for them as a woman.

Some men will not allow their wives to use contraception because they believe contraceptives have dangerous side effects.

Yes. In our country we don’t have enough knowledge about sex. Here we’re a cultural country. Many religious people don’t know about [contraception]. Some educated people will give them knowledge of sex, but they won’t accept it. They say, “it’s a very personal problem and you don’t need to talk about it in public.” Even now, it is like this.

But times are changing. In a big town like Yangon, Mandalay, and places like this, most teenagers have enough knowledge of sex and they can accept [education]. But in a small place they don’t have enough knowledge of sex. There they look down on people who have HIV and AIDS, and [doctors] will not treat these patients. They don’t have enough knowledge of the disease to know it can be contracted by other’s blood. Most people think it is only about sex, so they look down upon it.

Read on:

May Thant on Facebook trolls, gender inequality and Burma’s first woman President (interview: part 1)

May Thant works as a receptionist at a popular backpacker’s hostel in downtown Yangon, Myanmar (Burma). She spoke to me in February 2016.

May Thant on Facebook trolls, gender inequality and Burma’s first woman President (interview: part 1)

May Thant works as a receptionist at a popular backpacker’s hostel in downtown Yangon, Myanmar (Burma). She spoke to me in February 2016.

Can you start by telling me about your background?

I come from a very small town, near Yangon. After our matriculation exams, we have to go to other places if we want to continue our education. Our education system meant my options were really bad. I got good grades so I decided to come to Yangon, and attend a university here. I graduated from the Yangon Foreign Languages University, specialising in Chinese. But now I’ve forgotten almost all of my Chinese words [laughter].

Crowds on the streets surrounding Yangon University, Myanmar, Feb 2016 © ZhendeGender

After I graduated, I worked in a small company selling medicine for two years. I think this work didn’t improve my ability or my skills. I thought, ‘I can’t improve myself,’ during this time, so I changed my career and I came here.

[May gets up and welcomes a new visitor to the hostel.]

I’m always busy! This work is my family business. My Uncle shares the company with my boss, so I work at the family business. I really enjoy it here – I am really happy and feel successful here. I’ve been working here one year. In that year I’ve had many experiences from guests and I think I can improve my English skills here.

[The telephone rings. May answers in English and switches to Burmese.]

Do you think you will stay in this job a long time? What are your aims for the future?

Yes, a long time. I enjoy my job, for now. I’m planning to attend some more classes, like tourism, business management. I’ve already attended some classes and got a diploma. I think I will stay here for two or three years.

When I was a child, I really wanted to be an engineer. But when I finished school I didn’t want to be an Engineer. Back then I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I really didn’t know. But since working here I know; I want to be a tour guide, and I want to be a traveller.

There are many different racial groups in Myanmar. What does it mean to you to be Burmese?

It means my parents are Burmese and now I am Burmese. My grandparents are Burmese too, and my parents, and me. If my father was Shan, and my mother Burmese, I would be half blood. It doesn’t change my life to be Burmese… I’ve never thought about that before.

Most women don’t travel alone in Myanmar. How do you feel about that?

I feel many things about that. In Myanmar, women don’t travel alone, they travel with their family, and friends. They fear they are not safe to travel alone, so they don’t travel alone.

If I had the time, and enough money, I would travel alone. Because in traveling alone I wouldn’t need to discuss my plans with others; it is much freer. But here, most girls don’t travel alone. At least one or two other people go with them.

I’ve never travelled alone, but I would like to. I don’t worry about bad things happening. But I’d try to go to big towns, not small towns. Because here the men… [laughter]. Here I don’t feel safe to go to places like small villages or small towns. It’s a little bit more dangerous.

Do you feel safe in Yangon?

I feel safe in Yangon. But sometimes, at night, if I walk to my house, sometimes the taxi drivers will stop and talk to me: “Hey, girl, where are you going? What are you doing?” and I feel unsafe. But I walk quicker until I meet with other people, and I feel safe. I think that kind of thing happens everywhere.

Have you ever been threatened?

Here, the threatening is on Facebook and other [social media]. Most men don’t threaten in the outside world. It is mostly online. Most girls like posting their photos on Facebook, and some fake accounts copy their photos. People make changes using Photoshop and post them to another Facebook page. Often the pages are about naked women or something like that. Maybe the threats go further but I haven’t experienced threatening like this.

Most girls talk about this kind of threatening on Facebook. First there will be a private message, where they will discuss with each other like: ‘if you don’t give money, I will post your photos on this Facebook page.’ They threaten to post naked pictures made in Photoshop. It is blackmail. Sometimes they don’t want any money and they just post the pictures.

It is always someone they already have in their Facebook friends. Here, Facebook is very popular, and people think you can make friends very easily on Facebook. If you don’t know him or her outside, you just make friends on Facebook. Many people make friends on Facebook and never meet in real life. Facebook is very new here, maybe a year or a year and a half.

People use Facebook for online dating, too.

Yes, that is common. I really, really don’t like it. Because we don’t know about him or her exactly, it is not safe. It seems like Facebook is less safe than outside on the streets. [laughter]

What do you use Facebook for?

Yes. I use Facebook for information. Facebook is mainly used for work or political and economic information. So I use Facebook for information about our country and some facts about travelling.

Do you feel safe when you use Facebook? 

No. But I only accept friends I know in the outside world; I don’t accept others I don’t know. I use Facebook very little. I normally don’t use Facebook, I just use Instagram because I like photography.

When you speak to people face to face, do you feel comfortable to say anything you want?

Here, it depends on our culture; we can’t always talk freely. For example, if you’re older than me, if it is just you and I, I can’t speak freely to you. It depends on your age. Younger people have to give respect to older people. We can’t speak freely to anyone we want. If you are younger, I don’t need to worry. I don’t need to give so much respect to you, so I can say what I want.

Open air bookstores abound in downtown Yangon, Myanmar, Feb 2016 © ZhendeGender

There are lots of differences between men’s and women’s lives. How has your gender affected your life?

Yes sometimes I think about gender, the gap between men and women. Sometimes if I want to travel to other places but it is not safe for travelling alone, women traveling alone, but for men they can travel alone. So I want to be a man.

Here, men’s lives are different from women’s.

Men are taught that women are for sex and cooking and children. But now, some educated women don’t think like this. Those women can do anything like a man and it is the same for them as a woman.

The majority of students at Yangon University are female. But it is harder for a woman to get a good job because everyone looks down upon women. They think women can’t do some jobs, that men can make decisions, women can’t.

There are some jobs that people say: “women can’t do that,” like driving and business. Very few women are engineers. There are big companies where the general staff are all women and the managers are all men. Women do accounting, though, mostly.

Teachers, accountants, they are mostly women. Most doctors are female, because they get better grades in high school so they had the chance to attend medical university. Most girls in our country are very hard working and they get to attend the medical university. But after they graduate they don’t want to be a doctor because the government will send doctors to really rural areas and they don’t want to go there. So after they graduate they don’t work as a doctor. They only want to work in this area, around Yangon.

They will go if it is Ayarwaddy region, Bago region, like this [near Yangon]. But they don’t want to go very far away. Some girls go to other places, but most really don’t want to go to other places like Rakhine and Chin States. They fear it is not safe to go.

Aung San Suu Kyi won the election last November. What are your hopes for the future of the country?

Now, the government has changed and this government really supports education and training. Maybe children can improve their skills. Aung San Suu Kyi really supports education: she will start by changing the education system. I voted NLD [National League for Democracy] in November. She’s the first time we’ve had a woman in power. We hope she can become president; our first woman President. She is a very good role model, especially for women. Most people love her, very much.

Some people love her because she’s Aung San’s daughter. Most people love her because of what she’s done. If she were someone else, she would still be successful. In my opinion, I don’t care about who she is, because it depends on what she’s done. She has a lot of experience and we trust her, because of what she’s done. She is now over 70 and she could rest at her age. But she doesn’t rest, instead she does so much for our country. She is not going to give up.

In part 2 of my interview with May Thant, we discuss sex, taboo, marriage and gender roles. Coming later this month.

This interview was conducted as part of a larger project named Burma Voices Project: Women of Burma, which began in August 2015

Dating in China [part 2]

Humiliation by comedy in a Beijing bar. Parents say, “break up with him” because boyfriend is not Chinese. Women tell true stories of their dating experiences in China.


I met an Asian American guy on Tinder, and he said he wanted to take me to a comedy show. I agreed, even though he hadn’t answered my question about whether or not we’d have to join in. I arrived at our meeting place on time; he didn’t look up from the espresso he was sketching until I was close enough to see it over his shoulder. He wasn’t as charismatic in person as on Tinder, and he was shorter than I’d expected. He was an amateur magician with a nervous habit of shuffling cards. He appeared to have three packs of cards in different pockets.

We talked over beers at a hutong bar, in an area I wasn’t very familiar with, and he kept reaching across the table to hold my hand. My reaction to this was to gesture wildly, which kept him at bay without saying ‘no’ outright. He kept fishing for compliments that I wasn’t willing to give him.

We’d been at the comedy club about ten minutes, which was just enough time for him to chug a bottle of beer, when his name was called and he walked up onto the stage. The room went silent and I realised people knew him. He was a regular, and not a popular one.

“Is anyone else here on a Tinder date?”

Deathly silence.

“If you guys pretend I’m funny, maybe I’ll get laid tonight.”

Deathly silence.

I wish I had walked out, but I was frozen to the spot. If I’d left, and even one person had noticed, I’d have got more laughs than he did for his entire set.

– United Kingdom, 26


image from: thenanfang


I’m from the most conservative family you can ever imagine. They still have a curfew for me, and I’m 25. Whenever I go back home, they give me all these rules!

There are so many things my parents don’t want me to do, but they definitely want me to marry a Chinese guy, preferably from my town. They have ten or twenty different requirements like: ‘he must be smarter than you, have a better education, his salary must be this much, and he should be from a teacher’s family or doctor’s family, he shouldn’t be too rich but shouldn’t be too poor, and it is better he is one or two years older, he cannot be younger than you’. There’s like one hundred requirements.

So when I told them that I’d been seeing a French guy, who is two years younger than me, they were so angry.

Before I went to study in the states, my mother gave me rules to follow. First: “you can’t go partying with Americans”. Second: “you can never find an American boyfriend”. Third: “you have to return to China right after graduation”. I didn’t obey any of these. Well, I didn’t find an American boyfriend, I found a French boy.

I actually lied to my parents. Even today, they still don’t know the details. I met my boyfriend in April last year and we started dating in May. Of the nine months we were together, I think we were both in Houston for less than six months. I didn’t tell my parents about him until after he moved home to Paris because I knew if they knew we were living in the same city, they would think that we were… you know. Which is not allowed because, you know, no premarital sex.

They were super angry when they found out and stopped talking to me. My dad was like “shut up, I don’t want to know,” and didn’t talk to me for three months. My mom cried and she got sick. She told me, “sometimes when I think about your boyfriend with blond hair and grey eyes it makes me think of an alien or a wolf.” I was like, “come on mom, he’s a human being, a real person just like me, like you! He’s super nice and smart and good.” My mom said, “no, but he is not Chinese.”

My parents would never even consider meeting him. My mom asked me not to tell her about him. She told me to “go break up with him,” when we made it long distance. We broke up about a month after I moved to Beijing because he was in Paris and we didn’t plan on a future together. We broke up in a peaceful way; we stayed friends. That was back in January. I didn’t tell my parents we had broken up because I knew that they’d be so happy about it, and start setting me up on dates with Chinese guys as they had done before.

I told my parents about two or three weeks ago and they were like “yes, finally!” My mom was so happy she bought me three dresses. That’s why I didn’t tell her back in January, when I was heartbroken.

– People’s Republic of China, 25


Other instalments:

Learning that an ex is married. Walking away from a Tinder date. Getting set up by your boyfriend. [part 1]

A Chinese first boyfriend who ruined dating for years. Suffering through sleep apnea on a first date. Offered money for sex with a stranger. [part 3]

Guy uses Chinese whispers to ask for a date. Remedies for dating in inauspicious circumstances. [part 4]

Date says more attractive with clothes on. Does an open relationship translate to open dates? Getting an I.O.U. for accepting a drink. [part 5]

These stories are shared by the women who experienced them in their own words. All stories took place in Beijing, China, unless otherwise stated. Identities are kept secret out of respect for the individuals in the stories.

Helen Wang on Growing up during the Cultural Revolution (interview: part 1)

Helen Wang was born in Hebei province in Northern China, in 1960. She and her parents were forced to leave their home during the Cultural Revolution. Wang is now a retired English professor and still lives near the Beijing university where she taught for fifteen years. Here she reveals the hardship of life in China during the Cultural Revolution. 

I was born in a very small town. Life was very simple. When I recall my life when I was a child, I feel I didn’t know anything much, even about China. I’d never been anywhere except my hometown, until I entered university.

What was day-to-day family life like?

Life was very boring to me, when I think about it now, because every day we worked for food. We starved all the time. I didn’t really have a childhood because I worked all the time, even when I was a child. For example, picking up broken glasses, toothpaste, waste paper, and getting a little money in return. When I was very little we didn’t have piped water, so even getting water I started very young. I carried two buckets everyday. I don’t have much memory of playing with other kids. I think every child at that time was working. I began to sew when I was six or eight years old, because my mother sewed for every member of the family. She worked, so she’d tell me “you do this: when I come home, you have to finish.” So it almost took me the whole day to finish, so I didn’t have time to get out. Like Mo Yan’s story, [we spent] everyday looking for food. Looking for food in the trees and in the fields, when all the crops were gathered, [we took] what was left. I grew up fed on potatoes and sweet potatoes, that was the main food for me. When I was in primary school, my classmates often took me home because I starved and fainted in the classroom. I was very thin. I never grew fat in my life.

What was the community like where you grew up?

I lived in a high school. My parents were teachers so I didn’t really get far out of the school. We lived in school and I learned in school and my parents worked in school. My grandparents were real farmers. So in summer and winter vacations, I did farm work. But when I began school, [it was] already the Cultural Revolution [1966-76]. So we didn’t really learn anything. Most of the time we were having meetings about class struggle and working in the farm fields. We lived at the farmer’s home. We did military training and work in factories when we were very, very small. At that time, there was no college entrance examination, so the main thing we learned, everything we tried was to find a job.

A photo of Helen proudly displayed in her Beijing apartment.

When I was in junior high, when I was twelve or thirteen years old, I was thinking, “what should I do? There’s no reason for school, so what should I do?” So I began to learn to play musical instruments. I thought that would be good, because learning other subjects was no good. My father learned in Tianjin conservatory, so it is natural that I learned to sing, I learned to play, I learned to listen to music. But my father said, “no, this is no good for your future.” Most factories didn’t need people who could play a musical instrument. So, I began to learn to play basketball. I was in a basketball team. I was tall when I was young, but now I am just a normal person. I played for more than one year. I actually did very well because my motivation was to find a job, not to enjoy playing. So I did long distance running, I was a marathon runner. I really did very well in that small county. I was always number one when I was running the marathon. It was a very large county in Hebei province, now it is a small scale city.

I was chosen to play basketball at a higher level, at district level in Baoding, very close to Beijing. I was chosen to play basketball there and I was very happy. I thought I could probably get even higher if I played well so I really worked very hard. In Hebei province they wanted someone who could play well, so I went there too. They said: “let your parents come”, so my parents came. My mother was really very short. They said: “you have no future, you won’t grow any more.” So that was a disappointment, because I worked really hard toward finding a job and I couldn’t go any further because of my height. The other players were really tall women, they were like 180 [cm]. I was 168.

So I was thinking about doing something else, and in 1976 I graduated from high school. It was still the cultural revolution. At that time people were still having the meetings, and all of the country people were doing a lot of criticism on Deng Xiaoping. They needed people who could write Chinese characters, larger characters, on the boards, on the street. So I began to learn writing with brushes. I did that pretty well, and a factory needed such a person. I began to do this in a paper mill. They needed me because I could use a brush, but I was not a regular staff at the mill. I worked in the paper mill for two years until Deng Xiaoping started the college entrance examination.

I began to prepare for an education. But I couldn’t do the math and the science part. It would have taken me two or three years to make up for the loss during the Cultural Revolution. I said I would learn Chinese as my major, but they said I had to take the math test. I looked at English; you didn’t need the math test if you study English. But I didn’t learn any foreign language during the Cultural Revolution. At that time China was the enemy of the United States, the enemy of Russia, so I didn’t learn any foreign language. But the only way it seemed I could enter the university was by learning English. because for others I had to take the math test. So I began to learn by myself. It was a very strange English becuase I spoke English based on Chinese characters. Like, ‘cup’ I would say ‘ka – pu’. Luckily I passed the test. That was the beginning of my formal education. But before that my education, I don’t think it was called education at all. We weren’t learning anything, we were just in the countryside, in the army, in the factory. Most of the time in the army; like three or four months a year.

What was your military training like as a child?

We did very simple things, we were very young. At 12 years old, we learnt to walk very evenly, everybody doing it at the same time. It took a long time to become like this. We did how to sit, how to stand up quickly, like an army. We learned how to rescue wounded soldiers, so how to carry them and how to bandage their wounds. We did short distance fighting, with knives. Also with real guns, one time. But because we were so young, we might have made mistakes. I don’t think I could shoot well. Most of the time we did short distance fighting, with real knives.

Do you think your family life was typical of China at that time?

Not very, because my childhood was during the Cultural Revolution and my parents were teachers. Teachers had bad luck during the Cultural Revolution. If my parents were workers, it would probably have been very normal, except being very poor. Everybody was poor. But my parents, being teachers…

During the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s wife represented one party and premier Zhou stood for another party. Everybody had to take sides, but children, like me, wouldn’t. Adults had to take sides, whether you stood on this side or on the other side. My parents chose the wrong side, Zhou’s side, not Mao’s wife’s side. But my eldest sister chose the right side. My other sister wasn’t home for several years, because they hated my parents for being on this side. They argued, all the time, they really argued. I don’t think my elder sister, still, now, is very close to my parents, because of that.

My eldest sister is twelve years older than me, so when I was very little she was already a red guard. She was very lucky during the Cultural Revolution. She had almost everything.

Before I entered school, when I was about six or seven years old, one night a student came to my home [in the school] and told my father: “you have to run away, because they want to arrest you.” So that night we ran. We didn’t have anything. Took one quilt, my parents and me. We didn’t even have a bicycle, so we really had to run, on foot. We ran for the whole night, and we ran to a very remote countryside. It was s isolated from the world, nobody knew about the cultural revolution, so we stayed there for two or three years. I was late for the first year of primary school because I was there. I remember that time very well, because we starved all the time. What food could we eat? My parents didn’t work. If the farmers gave us some food, we had food. If they didn’t give us food, we didn’t have food.

I remember my mother sewed a lot of pockets into my coat. I’d put on the coat with a lot of inside-out pockets and go to the fields and take some food in the pockets and run back quickly so that they had food.

I did that very very often when it was harvest season. Everyday I went to the fields. A lot of farmers, if they saw me, they would tell the brigade leader and she would use a whip to punish me, because I am taking food from them. So I had to run away quickly. The farmers were not rich either. Everybody was poor. A lot of people starved to death. So that was life. We couldn’t take a bath. We didn’t have clothes to change, because we ran away on foot and couldn’t carry much. My mother was a math teacher so she taught me some math before I went to school. We used sticks on the floor, we didn’t have paper and pen. I even wrote a story when I returned to school, about what the landlady was like. An old woman, I remember her well because we lived with her and everyday you had nowhere to go, nothing to do. For me, I went to the fields. I ate there, got full, so the food I carried was all for my parents. I wouldn’t eat at home. Eat in the fields, and get food for my parents. This went on every other day, for three years. Later on we moved closer to school, but still we couldn’t enter school because we worried there would be a change for the worse. So, we lived closer to the school but we still lived at another person’s home. What did I do? I was about seven years old and I worked for the landlady. She sold noodles. Everyday I helped her, so she let us live there for free. My mother also helped, by growing sprouts to sell. We lived there for two years I think. Until finally, in 1973-4 we entered school. It was a kind of migrant life, but worse.

My parents didn’t have a salary for ten years and they didn’t make up for that. When we were home, they had broken open the house and nothing was left. My elder sister brought some stuff for us.

What happened to your other sister?

My other sister was ‘sent down’ to the country side. She was very young, only two years older than me. Because my grandparents were farmers, and since she had togo to the countryside, my parents decided that going to her grandparents home would be better than going to a strange place. So she lived with my grandparents. She was safe but she was a farmer at that time.

What did it mean to be a girl during the Cultural Revolution? Was there a difference between girls and boys? 

The idea at that time was: girls should be like boys. This was said by Mao. You can’t be weak, you have to be strong like girls. If you look good, then it is a symbol of bourgeois, so we looked like men. Last year I watched the exhibition from Poland. Poland was a socialist country at that time, I think it was very similar. Women at that time dressed to deliberately look bad. If you looked good, you’d be accused of being bourgeoisie. So we did the same work, we did as the boys did, heavy work. Actually we couldn’t have nice clothes. Even if we wanted to we didn’t. No girls wanted to look good. But I actually really wanted to look good. So you know what we did? We did our collars. If we all dress in blue and grey, everybody dressed in blue and grey. We had some flowers on the collar, so you can just see a little bit of this. If you really turned the collar out, people would see it, so we didn’t show it.

Also, we would plait our hair and tie it with a little bit of coloured ribbon. That was as much as we could get away with. I was the youngest. The youngest usually wears the clothes that the elder sister had. When they grew up, they give them to you. So my pants always started very long, but quickly got too short. Because I was thin, my mother just had to add to the length. I had the same pants. Every time they got too short she added more, in different colours!

I had a relative from Tianjin. My relatives were sent by the government to work in Hong Kong. So when they came back, they gave us gifts, like an automatic umbrella [mimes opening an umbrella] pah! – it was really curious. They dressed so well, and they gave me some clothes. So I put them on at home. When I went to school I put on my blue coat but at home I wore my beautiful dress.

Of course, boys and girls – we were still conscious that we were different. So boys and girls would draw a line in the classroom at school and neither could cross the line. Girls played with girls; we played separately. But, secretly, I would hear boys say: “hey! You have big bright eyes.” But not loudly. [laughter]

Read on: part 2 of this interview coming Saturday 12th November

Gender Equality in China [Loreli Interview]

Zhende Gender whose work we first showcased last September, is a model global citizen. Dedicated to the cause of gender equality and h*#man r*ghts, [Zhende] keeps involved in activities around Beijing and greater Asia, blogging at

You are a professor here in Beijing. And you blog about feminism, mostly in a Chinese context. You interview fascinating female movers and shakers. Does this sound about right?

Yes, I am lucky to teach at a progressive Chinese university. I see roomfuls of young, mostly female, students every week, and I get to talk to them about issues that are meaningful to me, in the hopes of instilling the student with an understanding of the nuances of the world both in and outside China. I think I learn just as much from them as they do from me. It really is a two-way learning process.

I usually frame my work as blogging about gender, which includes feminism but encompasses a range of other issues too, including LGBT and women’s health issues. All of these issues interact, which is where we get intersectionality (or intersectional theory) – a contemporary feminism that examines how various cultural and social categories (such as race, gender, class, sexual orientation, etc.) intersect.

I’ve been writing about gender and women’s issues for a few years now, but only recently has my focus turned specifically to China and Asia. Living in China does not necessarily make it easy to write about China, and the women’s rights movement here is controversial and highly political. This makes it a fascinating and necessary topic to write about, but also holds potential dangers for anyone openly involved. The project is pretty new. So far I’ve published interviews with Chinese writers and activists, who are already in the public eye, but I’m planning to feature interviews with people from a wide range of backgrounds. My only problem now is getting around the language barrier.

Li Tingting (or Li Maizi), Xiao Meili, and Wei Tingting raising awareness of domestic violence.

How do you follow feminism in China, and even other parts of Asia (such as Burma)? How do you keep up-to-date?

Coming to Chinese, Burmese and other Asian feminisms as an outsider means a lot of background research was involved to build a base of knowledge. Having intelligent young Chinese students and friends is a huge source of information and inspiration. Most of my research I do simply by talking to people with similar interests – engaging with people on a topic that they enjoy is my favourite way to learn and to challenge my own ideas. I’m also part of a large group of Beijing-based Feminists, who arrange regular meetings to discuss various issues.

Attending events about related topics has been very useful too. For example the annual Bookworm Literary Festival and the regular events listed on Legation Quarter invite experts, both foreign and Chinese, to speak on contemporary Chinese issues. Many events about China will touch on gender relations in some way, whether or not the event is specifically about a related topic. If I’m curious about the way gender relates to the topic, I will ask. I’m one of those people who sit at the front and always ask questions!

If you were to look back on this time in history 50 years, what would you say is happening with females in China right now?

From my perspective, now is a time of major change. Feminism has gained serious momentum in the past 5 or 6 years, and a specifically Chinese feminism is emerging. Women’s rights issues are more widely regarded as important; issues surrounding women’s health are being taken more seriously and sex education is making progress in schools. LGBT rights have moved forward with the announcement that gay conversion treatment is illegal, and the first hearing given to a gay couple demanding their relationship be recognised as under marriage.

That said, progression continually comes face to face with deep-set traditional values that seem to have little grounding in contemporary life yet hold an established place in Chinese culture. Sex-selective abortion continues in its prevalence (13 mil. per year, 60% are unmarried women) and insubstantial (4 months) maternity leave is forcing women to leave their jobs. A large wage gap prevails in a majority of jobs and women’s education is stigmatized (Female PhD students are viewed as a third gender). Gender equality will continue to be a problematic issue with such a huge gender imbalance in China.

What are the latest major achievements and deeper challenges to feminism in China at the moment?

One of the latest achievements to gender equality in China is the domestic violence law, which came in at the end of 2015. It basically means that the police are obliged to intervene when they get reports of domestic violence, where previously the authorities were instructed not to interfere in peoples’ private lives.

Another ongoing controversial issue is the arrest and detention of the Feminist Five in March 2015. The day before International Women’s Day last year, seven campaigners were arrested for planning to distribute fliers about sexual harassment on public transport in Beijing and Guangzhou. Five of them – Wei Tingting, Zheng Churan, Wang Man, Wu Rongrong, and Li Tingting (known as Li Maizi) – were detained for 37 days. They quickly became a vanguard for women in China.

A year later, they went back to the site of their detention to have their one-year bail revoked and to collect their belongings. Three of them went back with their lawyer, but the case against them was not dropped. This means that they could be prosecuted at any time in the next four years.

These young women are not the type to balk at the threat and their detention kick-started an unprecedented era of widespread feminist activism across China. However, the on-going political opposition to the women’s movement, and the dangers associated with it, could be a major obstacle to the future of Chinese feminism.

You use this phrase ‘global feminism’ – what’s that all about?

I think it is pretty clear by now that feminism is making waves the world over. Here in China, not only is there a burgeoning curiosity to learn about the way feminism operates in the west, but China is claiming feminism as its own. While the label ‘feminist’ means a person who believes we must work toward gender equality, women and men in the UK are experiencing very different challenges to gender equality than those faced by people in China, Burma or elsewhere in the world. While labels can be useful, feminism means different things to different people. I see feminism as a tool for change – it must be applied in new ways in different contexts, and however much we support one another, we cannot fight other peoples’ battles for them.

I use the phrase global feminism because disconnects between western feminist strongholds and developing world feminism can often be misconstrued. There is no reason a western feminist ‘we’ must set the agenda for a developing world feminist ‘them’. Chinese activists are navigating the way toward gender equality using a contemporary Chinese feminism, on their own terms. Nonetheless, Chinese feminism still embodies the principles by which feminists around the world are bound together.

Super-badass activist Xiao Tie

I read on your blog that a super-badass feminist Xiao Tie may be in some sort of trouble. What gives?

She is indeed a total badass. Thirty-year-old bisexual LGBT activist Xiao Tie is the director of Beijing’s LGBT Centre 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. The authorities are aware of those facts. I don’t think she is in immediate trouble, but she has been prevented from attending events (ie. a discussion of Women’s Rights in China at The Bookworm’s Literary Festival this March) with the threat of detention. This threat could be realised at any time, so she has to monitor her every interaction, whether in public on or social media.

Xiao Tie is among a group of young activists who campaign for gender equality and LGBT rights. The ‘Feminist Five’ and their allies are prominent figures in the press (both national and international) and are thus potential targets for the authorities, wumaodang (the fifty cents party) and criticism from Chinese citizens. They are fully aware of this risk, but they are not likely to stop working towards what they believe is right for the country.

Is the Chinese word for ‘feminism’ as stigmatized in Chinese as in English? 

This is a really fascinating and complex topic that I actually covered with my students this week. There are two Chinese words for feminism, sometimes used interchangeably. Both hold somewhat different connotations as each emerged in a specific historical context.

An early translation was 女权主义 ‘nuquan zhuyi’ (women’s power or rights + ism), denoting a militant demand for women’s political rights reminiscent of the earlier women’s suffrage movements in the West and in China. It has distinct militaristic connotations.

The women’s movement later took a very different direction, and the identity of Chinese women thus came to be defined by state organisations, like the ACWF (All China Women’s Federation), exclusively in terms of an official discourse on gender. Use of the term ‘feminism’ was rejected and ‘forbidden’ within this discourse from 1949.

Feminism returned to China during the 1980s, and the new translation proposed in the 1990s was 女性主义‘nuxing zhuyi’ (femininity + ism), which emphasises gender inequality rather than women’s rights, and is seen to have a richer set of cultural and political meanings than the earlier term.

The word feminism is stigmatised in the west because it connotes previous incarnations of feminist thought that have since become less popular. Thus the need for naming developments in feminist thought in ‘waves’. Second wave feminism – the bra-burning era – is part of the reason contemporary feminism is often treated with such reticence. Fourth wave feminism (which is where we’re at now), encompasses intersectionality (or intersectional theory) and operates on the basis that feminism can and should work for every – and I mean every – individual within their own unique social context.

My students tell me that女权主义 ‘nuquan zhuyi’ holds connotations closer to second wave feminism, and女性主义‘nuxing zhuyi’ is probably closer to fourth wave feminism. It depends who you talk to, but from what I understand, ‘nuquan zhuyi’, the stronger of the two, is used much more often, whether colloquially or among writers and feminist thinkers, even though the word is not recognised by the Party.

How can we [any reader] help the situation?

First off, get informed. Learn about the nuances within gender equality movement wherever you are in the world – by reading, attending events, asking questions – and challenge your existing views by talking to people about theirs. Second, go to events and support the cause – whether it is a charity event at the LGBT center, an discussion run by Lean In Beijing, or an event that gives you the chance to talk to experts about what more you can do. Many of the organisations will take donations and are eager to find volunteers. You can even by a Chinese ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirt from Xiao Meili’s taobao page.

This interview was originally published on Loreli on 12th May 2016.

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.



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.


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)