Tag Archives: China

Ovaries: Putting Reproductive Health on the Line at Work

I never imagined I’d have to talk to my boss about my ovaries, but that’s just what happened when I came up against a blockade in the insurance system.

I was going through a harrowing few weeks of stress and pain that culminated on my twenty-sixth birthday. My periods had been getting more and more painful for a while, and I got a recurring dull pain at other times in the month, but I self-medicated and continued to ignore it. It took a pain in my abdomen so sharp that a full night of drinking couldn’t take the edge off before I knew I could no longer stand it.

It still took me two weeks to see a doctor.

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“Champ” from Mostly It’s Just Uncomfortable © Zoe Buckman | image from zoebuckman

Should I making this public knowledge?” I cross-examine myself. It’s literally a sensitive issue.

I’ve vowed to myself that my body is my public, political sphere as well as my private, personal sphere. It’s my mannequin on which to display my beliefs, my vehicle in the fight for gender rights, my pathway to strength and to weakness. I’m not afraid to bare the truth to the world.

What doesn’t help is feeling that the system is pitted against me because I speak a different language, because I am a foreigner, and because I am a woman.

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image from pinterest

In September, I’d asked a friend to help me get an appointment at a Chinese hospital where I knew they’d accept my insurance. She had to call for me, because I couldn’t speak enough Chinese to get through the phone system. She was the only friend I felt comfortable asking this of. We discussed dates. She called. We tried and tried to get an appointment. But there were just too many people to get through the system. I kept waiting, trying to ride out the pain.

By the last week of December, I was desperate. I couldn’t wait for the Chinese system to find space for me, and opted for an appointment at an international clinic.

It was New Years Eve when my boyfriend and I finally went to the clinic. I felt frail and scared and lucky to have him there with me. It was a Thursday, so I’d had to teach an 8am class that morning but had the rest of the day free, tomorrow would be a holiday followed by a weekend. I’d done the legwork to ensure a few days’ rest incase something drastic had to be done about whatever was going on inside of me. I was terrified that what I felt was an ectopic pregnancy – an embryo growing outside of my womb, either in the fallopian tube or just floating around between my organs – caused in part by my IUD.

The place was almost empty – a privilege I paid for – and there wasn’t much of a wait before a nurse weighed me, tested my blood pressure, and showed me through to the doctor’s office. I was glad my preference for a female gynaecologist had been heard; she made me feel so much more comfortable. She was gentle but feisty, professional yet funny. I realised I would have been fine if I were on my own. I was in safe hands.

The initial examination didn’t uncover anything but good health, which worried rather than placated me. I insisted that there was something wrong. I had never experienced pain so bad. So she gave me an ultrasound, showing me where my IUD was, and what my ovaries looked like. Then she found it.

It wasn’t an ectopic pregnancy, thank fuck. It was something far more common and much simpler to treat. I had a cyst on my right ovary that was 5 centimetres in diameter (which is pretty huge). She prescribed me three month’s worth of the combined Pill (oestrogen and progesterone) and told me to come back in three months to make sure the cyst had gone.

I left feeling positive about everything but the price. It had cost me 4000 RMB, which is a little under £500 (or $600 US), and about 70% of my monthly salary at the time.

Harking from the UK, I am not used to forking out for my reproductive health. A country where the National Health Service is managing to cling to high-expenditure existence after almost 70 years, women get most forms of protection on the house. My only saving grace was that my job provides insurance. All I had to do was provide our International Cooperation Office with the invoice.

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Uterus Necklace | image from etsy

My Chinese colleague at the ICO took a few minutes to process the number she saw in front of her. She told me she didn’t think the insurance could cover this cost, that she’d need me to get further paperwork from the clinic, and asked why I hadn’t just gone to a “normal hospital”?

Communication across a language barrier, however minimal, doesn’t help when trying to explain that it felt like an emergency, that I’d tried getting appointments in other places, that I worried about having a male doctor, that I couldn’t explain my pain in Chinese.

She looked back at the invoice and tried to tell me it was the wrong colour for the university’s insurance provider to accept it. I didn’t have to go to the one they’d recommended, but this international clinic was not registered as a hospital and therefore wouldn’t be covered. Additionally, the amount I’d paid exceeded the maximum insurance payment for the year by double. She might be able to get me 2000 RMB, but there was no guarantee.

She mentioned that next time, I should go to a Chinese hospital, that she would recommend a doctor, and that gynaecologists in China are all female.

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“Heavy flow” metal cast tampons © Zoe Buckman | image from zoebuckman

Two months later, when I’d returned from a vacation feeling stronger and healthier than ever, if haunted by the Pill that I was eager to finish taking as soon as possible, my direct boss called asking me to come over. He needed to talk to me and he couldn’t explain over the phone.

I sat down in a low chair opposite him in his book-strewn apartment, wondering what on earth this could possibly be about. He explained he’d had a long, winding conversation with our female colleague at the ICO (the only female colleague I had any regular contact with, for I was the only woman among the international teachers at the time). He thought it better if he explain the inner workings of the insurance system to me himself, to save time. I believe that was a genuine concern, since our colleague’s English tended to falter when the subject matter got tough. Still, it did not seem fair that my medical issue had been discussed without my knowledge, nor did I want my older male boss involved in this issue.

He essentially repeated what she’d told me two months earlier (I’d gone back to collect 2000 RMB in cash, thanked her for her hard work, and we’d discussed insurance), thinking he was doing me a favour by initiating a tense conversation about my health.

He stressed again that the insurance would not pay anything towards another appointment of any kind at an international clinic within twelve months. He didn’t want to force me into going to a Chinese doctor, if I believed this was a risk to my health, but I really must try to trust the local system. It works for everyone else here, he told me, and my last appointment had been so expensive compared with the salary.

Suddenly this conversation became a way to assess my ability to assimilate with Chinese culture, and being affected by a “woman’s problem” wasn’t helping the case. My boss did not seem to think me capable of making informed decisions about my own health and my own money. Never before had I felt my womanness was an obstacle in this job, despite having only male colleagues and no-one to ask for help. Perhaps he was worried how this health issue could affect my ability to do my job.

I had not foreseen ever talking to my boss about my ovaries, but there I was explaining the pain and the cyst and the stress and the small likelihood that I would need surgery if it didn’t deflate. And there he was, suddenly compassionate.

I didn’t think I was biased against the system. I would go to a Chinese hospital for a problem with my eyes or my kidneys, but this was different. The mainstream system hadn’t worked for me. I had found a (woman) doctor I trusted and liked, at a clinic that provides the full range of healthcare options I expect as a westerner, and that doctor had my medical records so was best equipped to carry out the check-up later.

I did look into other options, but I ultimately decided to go back to the place I knew and trusted. The place where I knew I could communicate, where they knew my medical history, and where I felt comfortable going alone. That second appointment cost me close to 8000RMB – almost £950 (or $1,200 US). But that’s a story for another time.

 

Read on

Mostly It’s Just Uncomfortable is feminist artist Zoe Buckman’s response to the attack on Planned Parenthood in the United States. Check out this and other work on her website.

 

China’s International Women’s Day in Pictures

A quick rundown of how International Women’s Day looked from the perspective of women in China – in pictures.

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Chinese news outlet Global Times provided a timely reminder of International Men’s Day | image from: twitter 

Global Times, a daily newspaper owned and published by the state-affiliated People’s Daily, decided International Women’s Day (known as Women’s Day in China), was an appropriate time to remind readers of International Men’s Day. Apparently, Global Times thought Men’s Day seemed a more effective “time to celebrate our achievements and fight against discrimination” than Women’s Day. Here’s looking forward to November 19th to see how they do so.

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Chinese search engine Baidu’s IWD doodle | image from baidu

Chinese search engine, Baidu, went for a celebratory angle this year, promoting restaurant, cinema and shopping deals for women on their special day. The image is a distinct improvement on the controversial doodle of 2015, going for a “modern women can have it all” feel.

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Google’s dynamic International Women’s Day doodle | image from: google 

In comparison, Google’s doodle was diverse and dynamic, including representations of a variety of influential women, and stressing the importance of intergenerational relationships – every women pictured (whether or not she had children in life) was shown sharing her experiences with a young girl.

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Demonstrators in NYC showed their support for Feminist Voices © Jun Chen

Demonstrators around the world showed their support for Feminist Voices, the Chinese women’s rights organisation whose social media accounts were temporarily blocked on 20th February for criticising Donald Trump’s misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic and racist policies. The overlaid green text is a reminder that the account has been forcibly inactive for 20 days so far (the total given was 30 days).

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Feminist activist Li Maizi spoke in London this week © Li Maizi 

Chinese feminist activist, Li Maizi (or Li Tingting), spoke at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), in London this week:

Marking two years since her arrest by Chinese authorities, activist Li Maizi of China’s ‘Feminist Five’ is joined at SOAS by a panel of experts to share her activism experience, and discuss the current state and future of feminism in mainland China. Unprecedented in the UK, this is a chance to hear from one of the PRC’s leading activists and one of the most inspirational figures in global feminist and LGBTQIA+ networks.

from: zhuanlan

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Storytelling was just one of a myriad of Beijing events that recognised International Women’s Day © Cas Sutherland

Meanwhile, in Beijing, feminists, women, members of the LGBTQ community and their allies celebrated in a variety of ways, meeting in solidarity to show continued support for the cause.

 

Sexuality, Contraception and Challenging the Patriarchy: Lijia Zhang on her debut novel Lotus (Interview: part 2)

Inspired by her grandmother’s deathbed confession of being sold to a brothel, Lijia Zhang injects her cutting social criticism into her first novel, Lotus. The book delves deep into the sex industry in contemporary Shenzhen, following a young migrant woman, Lotus, who is eager to escape her life as a prostitute.

 



China is going through a sexual revolution. If her husband cannot satisfy her, a woman can divorce him. These women will not stand for second best, because they don’t have to any more.



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

Here, in part two, we talked about how women are faring in China’s sexual revolution, Chinese attitudes toward contraception and reproductive health, and the lengths some women go to in the fight against the patriarchy.

 

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Author Lijia Zhang © Li Qiang

Lotus struggles to align sexual desire and social norms. She’s learned that good women shouldn’t enjoy sex, yet earning money involves trying harder to please clients. How are attitudes towards women’s sexuality changing? 

I met a woman who was very empowered by earning money, and by her relative liberation since becoming a sex worker. People don’t get into the trade for sexual pleasure, but some women do find sexual pleasure with clients, which they hadn’t experienced with their husbands.

China is going through a sexual revolution. Studies show that a much higher number of people are having sex before marriage than previously. In sociologist Li Yinhe’s 1989 study, 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. (According to The Report on the Health of Chinese People’s Sex Life, jointly released by Media Survey Lab and Insight China magazine, 71.4% of people were sexually active before marriage in 2012.)

There are more prostitutes, more pornography, more young people having sex before marriage, a higher rate of divorce, and now people have many different sexual partners. If her husband cannot satisfy her, a woman can divorce him. These women will not stand for second best, because they don’t have to any more.

Another woman I met felt very conflicted about one of her clients. An older colleague with more experience told her to just imagine, “The clients give us sexual pleasure and money. We use them for a service – not them using us.” She called clients dogs. She joked that a perfect job would be something that would give her both sexual pleasure and money. But she also craves respect.

Having a mistress (Ernai, or second wife) is a very common way for a man to show his money and status. This started with the Emperor and noblemen, who would have many concubines. Maoist reforms in the 50s changed that, even though Mao himself was doing all sorts of things with young women behind closed doors, disobeying his own rules. For some time prostitution was very uncommon in China but the rates are high again. Now, men have mistresses to prove they have a lot of money and a high status. Ernais are just glorified prostitutes. The relationship between a man and his Ernai is primarily about money and economic status, not love.



Abortion is not considered a danger to society. It is just a common form of birth control, and people rely on access to abortion. Most people don’t think a foetus is a human being, so it is not a problem.



Lotus accompanies her friend Mimi to an abortion clinic, where she listens to her friend’s screams from the waiting room after Mimi’s boyfriend disappears. Although this is an emotive scene, abortions are very common in China with about 16 million abortions are performed annually. Is abortion viewed as a social or political problem in China?

Abortion is quite a normal thing in China. I’ve had an abortion, my sister has had several abortions, and my mother had abortions. There is no social stigma because Chinese women don’t carry the same emotional or religious baggage about abortion as people in the West. It is not considered a danger to society. It is just a common form of birth control, and people rely on access to abortion. Women don’t get counseling after abortions like in the UK. Most people don’t think a foetus is a human being, so it is not a problem.

It is very easy to get an abortion, but it is not always safe. There are many hospitals and clinics that women can go to. There are adverts in the back seats of cabs: “quick and easy treatment at such and such a clinic.” Some women go to get very cheap backstreet abortions, and it can be very dangerous. They go to places without proper licenses and get a razor treatment or something like that and it is very harmful.

Most women don’t know about other types of contraception. The information is not really available. So they just use abortions as contraception. I think this is changing, if slowly, and more women are learning about other ways to prevent pregnancy.

What is the worst thing about the state of women’s rights in China today?

There are a lot of problems for women in China. Women still have much less power than men, and lower social standing but the wage gap is probably the worst thing. The latest official statistics suggest that the income for urban women is 67.3% of men’s income while women in the countryside make only 56% of what men make. But many women are empowered by being able to earn money. There was one sex worker I met who bought a flat for herself and her mother to live in, in a city near her village. I think moving to the city is the best possible outcome that villagers hope for.

Did you hear stories about women fighting back against patriarchy while you were researching the novel?

I know a woman who was with a client who wanted a blow job. He had not given her enough money, so she said no. He told her “stop pretending you are a noblewoman, you are a common prostitute,” but she still refused to take less money. He said, “fuck your mother”, and she replied, “leave my mother out of it.” Again, he said “fuck your mother”, so she picked up a heavy glass ashtray and she hit him in the face with it. She lost her job for that, and she lost a few thousand kuai on the deposit she had paid the massage parlour she worked at as a guarantee she would not run away. But a friend helped her get a job at a higher-class establishment instead.

I know another woman who ultimately wanted to get out of the trade. She made a deal with herself that she would get out if she could earn 10,000 kuai. So she earned 10,000 and she said, 20,000 and I will leave. When she reached 20,000 she said to herself, “now I have to save up to buy a home.” When she had bought her home she still did not give up the trade. Then she learned about the dangers of unprotected sex: she got very worried that she had contracted HIV because she had had unprotected sex. She realised she could have died by now. So she went for a test. Back then the results would be really slow, she had to wait several weeks. While she was waiting for the results, she made a deal with herself. She decided if she got through this without HIV, she would really quit the trade. Her results came back clean, so she quit.

 

Read on

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

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

I say ‘gender equality’; you say ‘women in power!’

There are a bunch of ways to measure gender equality. While some believe that giving women the right to vote solved that problem long ago, women are still a long way from equal representation in politics. Why’s equal representation important? Women politicians are far more likely to hold women’s best interests at heart.



Without women’s participation in decision-making, women’s needs will never be fully respected.

Marijana Savic



Here’s a quick look at the top three countries for female representation in Parliament, with stats from a couple of superpowers thrown in for good measure.

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Top three countries for female representation in Parliament: Rwanda, Bolivia and Cuba, with UK, China, and USA for comparison (situation of 1st January 2017) | data from: Inter-Parliamentary Union

When you think of women’s rights, you probably don’t imagine Rwanda, Bolivia, and Cuba heading the list. But these three countries are taking equal representation seriously, and their numbers of female parliamentarians reflect that:

  1. Rwanda: Women hold 61.3% seats in the lower house and 38.5% in the upper house. Since 2003, the country has required that at least 30 percent of representatives be female.
  1. Bolivia: Women hold 53.1% of seats in the lower house and 47.2% in the upper house, following a 2009 measure requiring women to occupy at least 50 percent of elected positions.
  1. Cuba: Women hold 48.9% of seats in the single house since positive discrimination has put women in almost half the seats in the National Assembly.

Iceland, Nicaragua, Sweden, Senegal, Mexico, Finland and South Africa fill out the rest of the top 10. Here are the figures from a couple of superpowers, the UK at 47th, China at 74th, and USA at 104th, just for comparison:

  1. United Kingdom: Women parliamentarians have 30.0% of seats in the lower house and 25.8% in the upper house. The UK is currently governed by its’ second woman Prime Minister, Teresa May (whose love of eccentric shoes has confused the public for years).
  1. People’s Republic of China: 23.7% of the single house is female. That’s 699 seats of 2949 since the most recent election in 2013 (yes, those exist in local governments).
  1. United States of America: 19.1% of representatives (that’s 83 women out of 435 representatives) and 21.0% of senators are women. This reflects the outcome of the November 2016 elections, which the first female Presidential nominee of a major party in US history, Hillary Rodham Clinton, lost.
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This is no laughing matter, Teresa May | gif from: Guardian

And finally…

190. At the bottom of the list, in joint 190th place, we have: Federated States of Micronesia, Qatar, Vanuatu, and Yemen. All four boast a total of no women in power anywhere in the political system.

Read on

‘Outside In’, episode exploring women’s social position in Rwanda, Invisibilia

‘Bolivian Women are breaking down barriers to seek political power’, Guardian

‘Party and State in Cuba: Gender Equality in Political Decision Making’, pdf

‘Women in National Parliaments’, Inter-Parliamentary Union

Four women’s rights activists you need to know, unfpa

Teresa May – What lies beyond the public image?, Guardian

Protesting on International Women’s Day? History is on Your Side

International Women’s Day began as a day of women’s protest in Europe and the United States. Celebrating this socialist holiday largely died out in the US, while communists in China have been commemorating Women’s Day annually since 1922. The tables have turned this year. Women in the US are striking today, while working women in China are enjoying a half-day off work.

A highly politicised holiday this year in the US, with vast support drummed up organisers of the Women’s March on 20th January, women are demonstrating to raise awareness about economic inequality, reproductive rights, civil liberties and ending violence.

Meanwhile in China, thousands of women are taking the half-day to focus on themselves, hanging out with girlfriends and spending their money online or in major shopping malls advertising huge women’s day discounts.

There’s no question that this vast disparity stems from women’s feelings of political and economic safety on the one (Eastern) hand, and women’s desperation at the current political and economic situation on the other side of the Pacific.

While women are commemorating International Women’s Day in their own ways, it might help to remember that the history is on the side of those protesting today.

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German poster for a women’s suffrage demonstration on 8th March 1914 | image from: German History Docs

First observed in the US on February 28th, 1908, when 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay, and the right to vote. The Socialist Party of America organised a strike on the same day in 1909. Similar demonstrations marked the last Sunday of February for the following five years.

European women were also staging demonstrations throughout this same period, calling for the right to vote, economic equality and civil liberties. A consensus was reached, and International Women’s Day became truly international on March 8th 1914.

In London that day, during a march from Bow to Trafalgar Square in support of women’s suffrage, Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested on her way to speak in Trafalgar Square.

The women’s march in Petrograd on 8th March 1917 sparked the Russian Revolution, which lasted for 8 days. Women in St. Petersburg went on strike for “Bread and Peace” that day, demanding the end of World War I. Women’s Day was officially adopted as a holiday by Soviet Russia that year, and later made a non-working day. As a result, celebrations took place on March 8th in socialist communities and communist countries worldwide for fifty years.

Women’s Day was celebrated by communists in China from 1922. After the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, the state council proclaimed that March 8 would be an official holiday with women in China given a half-day off.

In 1975 the United Nations recognised the importance of March 8th and announced today as International Women’s Day, to be celebrated the world over.

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100,000 Iranian women gathered to protest the headscarf on 8th March 1979 | image from: NYTimes

People are taking stock, today, of how gender equality stands in a variety of arenas, from political power, to earning parity, to family leave. We’ve come a long way since the women of Europe and the US began protesting in the early 1900s, because those women changed things. Let’s hope those protesting today can harness that power and show the world what International Women’s Day is really about.

 

Read on

‘What is it with China and Women?’ Zhendegender

‘A Brief But Fascinating History of International Women’s Day’, Fortune

”A Day Without a Woman’ strike aims to raise awareness’, Aljazeera

‘Hard Times for feminists in China’, supchina

Header image from Hudson Institute

Sorry, I am not a dog

Yesterday I was locking up my bike when a policeman barked at me. He was fifty metres away. He started walking towards me, and yelled again. No words, just sounds. Then he whistled. A high piercing tone designed to scare me off. He clapped his hands three times, loudly, and shouted again, a sound equivalent to “Oi!”

WRONG! That’s not how you speak to a human. Sorry. Try again. 

He did not extend me the privilege of talking in words (wild idea, I know). Rather he made himself as big as possible and made as much noise as he could. I can only guess that he assumed this would startle me, shock me into submission, or get me to run away.

In case you hadn’t realised by now, I am a human. I am not a dog. But he treated me like a dog. Why? Because of my skin colour. This policeman took one look at me and decided that language would not have any effect.

Everyone knows foreign people cannot speak Chinese. Foreign people can only communicate in foreign languages. He gave up on communication before he even saw my face.

I turned to face him and asked him politely “where can I lock it?” He faltered, pointed and shouted incomprehensibly. He didn’t recognise his own language, coming from my lips. His preconceptions had deafened him. He continued shouting until I was out of earshot.

I was inexplicably angry. Kidding. I knew exactly why I was angry:

I am tired of being treated as a second-class citizen.

I am privileged: my nationality, my race, my class, my education, my sexuality, my physical ablity, and my earning power are all privileges. I am lucky to be where I am and to do what I do. But what I work hard to understand as my privilege is often mistranslated. Too often, people look to me as a shortcut to education, a commodity to exploit, an exile, an impostor, and an alien.

What really struck me was the familiarity of second-class treatment. Years before I moved to China I knew what it felt like. I have always known. Because I am a woman.

Like many women, I internalised my presumed inferiority at a young age, and have struggled with bringing it to bear ever since. Like many women, I have had to learn to recognise sexism and train myself to shout about it. Like many women, I have been combatting relentless sexism all my life. But this was about race, not gender.

I hadn’t trained myself for racism. I am lucky enough not to have needed to, but I think my impulse would be the same.

I was fuming. My immediate reaction was to lock my bike in a place even less convenient for them, thus causing significant anguish for three policemen in the area, revolution coursing through my veins. I pretended it wasn’t mine when they remembered how to use words long enough to ask. I was polite and I didn’t do any damage, but I refused to be reasonable. I rebelled. It gave me an overwhelming sense of empowerment.

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

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



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



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Author Lijia Zhang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read on 

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

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