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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

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

 

Beijing Dance / LDTX premiere Yang Wei’s evocative Earth / Quake

Beijing Dance / LTDX premiered Earth / Quake, a contemporary dance work by well-known traditional Chinese choreographer Yang Wei at the People’s Liberation Army Theater last week to a noticeably mixed and highly enthusiastic crowd of foreigners and locals alike. This is the first time Yang has done a modern dance piece, announced good-humoured Artistic Director Willy Tsao before the show, ‘so even if you do not like it, you can appreciate the effort that she put into this trial’. The Beijing Dance / LDTX dancers could not have disappointed their audience had they tried.

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© Yin Peng
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© Yin Peng

Watching a piece by an Army choreographer is a pretty special experience. For Yang’s very first venture into the world of contemporary dance, she created a piece that explores the depths of imagination and fantasy. Countless metal chairs and a white bathtub hung from the ceiling above the dancers – the literal suspension of day-to-day reality. Jemmy Zhang’s costumes pushed the bounds of contemporary dance costuming with oversized formal wear hanging off the dancers in swathes at odd angles – Tang Ting Ting wore a  jacket as a skirt. She climbed into it, one leg and one arm in the two sleeves, and played with the range (or restriction) of movement this allowed.

The piece ultimately centred around a romance between the dreamer (Adiya) and a veiled beauty (Gong Xing Xing), who seemed to be protected by a horde of strangely clad beastly creatures.

Gong trailed lengths of white gauzy fabric everywhere she went, looking like the dreamer’s ultimate damsel in distress. Adiya darted about, hopelessly in love and helplessly unable to make any progress with her.

This post is a combination of 100 words from a longer review and additional thoughts thereafter. The official review was published by Bachtrack on 6th November 2015. Please click here to read the full review.

Homecoming: Tao Dance Theatre’s first show at Beijing’s NCPA

Tao Dance Theatre left their Beijing audience dumbfounded last Thursday evening with a performance of weight x 3 and 2 at the NCPA. Tao Dance Theatre quickly became internationally famous, but it took a little time before they gained recognition in China. So it is a big deal for Tao to be performing in China. Plus this is their first run at Beijing’s biggest venue.

Choreographer, Tao and his wife, Duan in '2' © Wang Xiaojing
Choreographer, Tao Ye and his wife, Duan Ni in ‘2’ © Wang Xiaojing

The expertly trained, fit Tao dancers have awesome stamina and astonishing athletic control. Each displayed brilliant flow within a rigid frame of quick rhythm and footwork. Duan Ni is particularly malleable, her lithe body twisting (seemingly comfortably) into unearthly shapes. She is outright inspirational.

2 opens in stillness – Duan Ni and Tao Ye (artistic director) lie spread eagle, face down on the ice-cap white floor, which looks lit from beneath. After a few minutes of stillness, the sound of white noise fades out and the audience get restless. A few people titter in nervous laughter, unsure of what to expect.

Then begin random fits of movement, appearing entirely uncontrolled. The randomness of broken toys. Tao’s hips rise. Duan’s arm flops over her back. One foot hooks across a bent leg, pulling it straight. Duan looks jointless. They stay low and grounded, leading with their hips and core and allowing the spine, shoulders and the limbs to catch up with the impulse, a ripple effect moving through the entire skeleton. Their movement rarely seems muscular, everything is propelled from the centre and remains effortless.

The pair (who got married recently, having got engaged on stage in New York together last year) can predict one another’s movements to the split-second. This is visibly more than simply being well-rehearsed. They know in their bones exactly what the other is doing, they are intimately aware of one another at every turn.

Tao and Duan in '2' &copy: Wang Xiaojing
Tao Ye and Duan Ni in ‘2’ © Wang Xiaojing

2 is far longer than your average contemporary dance piece. Plus, with only two dancers on stage that whole time, it begs intense concentration from the audience as well as the two dancers. There is little change of lighting, nothing to look at on stage but the brightly lit floor and two bodies, which spend much of the piece in stillness. The stretches of silence, particularly during the opening, might confuse even the most familiar audience member. This audience had likely never seen anything like Tao Dance Theatre before. I worried whether they would “get” the piece, but they exploded in applause – once they were sure the piece was over that is… there were several minutes during which

This is the second time I have seen Tao Dance Theatre in the flesh. (I was lucky enough to see the company perform at Sadler’s Wells, London, in June 2014. Read my review of Tao Dance Theatre’s 4 and 5 here. That was just weeks before I moved to China. Seeing Tao’s and got me all fired up about performing arts in China, and I that was where I just so happened to meet the woman who would put me in touch with Willy Tsao, Artistic Director of four contemporary dance companies based in Hong Kong and mainland China. Read more about Tsao and his company Beijing Dance / LDTX here.

N.B. This post is a combination of 100 words from a longer review and additional thoughts thereafter. I watched the show on October 29th, and the full review was published on 31st October 2015 by Bachtrack. Please click here to read the full review.

Highs and lows: San Francisco Ballet’s ‘Caprice’ programme

On the second night of San Francisco Ballet’s second visit to Beijing, the American ballet company treated their Chinese audience to a varied programme in four parts. Tomasson’s own Caprice opened the event, followed by Christopher Wheeldon’s Rush and Hans van Manen’s Variations for Two Couples, finally closing the evening with George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations.

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Tan Yuan Yuan and Luke Ingham in Tomasson’s ‘Caprice’ © Erik Tomasson

As Tomasson clearly expected, given his statement in the press release announcing this year’s China tour, the Chinese audiences were very enthusiastic for the show, being particularly excitable at every glimpse of Tan Yuan Yuan (Tan = family name), a Shanghainese ballerina who has been dancing with San Francisco Ballet for 20 years, since she was 18. Her return to the stage in China (the company first toured China in 2009) brought enthusiastic Beijingers out in hordes every night the company were in town.

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Lauren Strongin, Hansuke Yamamoto, Koto Ishihara and Joseph Walsh in Wheeldon’s ‘Rush’ © Erik Tomasson

The fun and energy of Wheeldon’s Rush reminded of playground games as seven pairs in bright, colourful costumes rushed about the stage. (“British Bulldog?” I scribbled in the dark as this theme recurred.) The male dancers lined up along one edge of the stage, the ballerinas on the other, and they ran full pelt for their partner, crashing into minute duets in the middle before they lined up in preparation once again.

I adored Hans van Manen’s Variations for Two Couples, it’s quirky playfulness really struck a chord with me. The wacky colourful costumes looked wonderful on the two couples: Wan Ting Zhao and Tiit Helimets; Sofiane Sylve with Luke Ingham. Van Manen’s choreography established an interesting dynamic between the two pairs: where Zhao and Helimets were off-kilter and humorous, Sylve and Ingham were slower and more serious. It was almost like imagining a double date in dance form, each couple competing slightly with the other, while each partner pushed to impress their significant other.

The company closed the night with George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations. I found this a pretty odd choice, placing a fairly static tutu ballet after the success of the two energetic ballets in the middle of the evening. That said, all four were neoclassical pieces, complementing one another reasonably well. (Despite it being the evening’s titular piece, I did not think much of Tomasson’s Caprice. It was a very nice piece but it did not excite me.) I am sure some audience members got more from the Balanchine and Tomasson pieces than I did – there was something for everyone in this programme.

The Beijing audience went wild for San Francisco Ballet, though I suspect many would have liked to see more of Tan Yuan Yuan – she featured only in Caprice – though I am pretty sure she was in need of some rest, having danced an entire night named in honour of her 20th Anniversary with San Francisco Ballet on 21st and with performances as Giselle on the two following nights to prepare for. I would certainly like to see more of San Francisco Ballet in the future, whether on a return trip to China, or at home in California.

N.B. This post is a combination 100 words from a longer review and additional thoughts about the October 22nd show thereafter. The review was published on 27th October 2015 by Bachtrack. Please click here to read the full review.

Highlights: San Francisco Ballet’s Giselle in Beijing

San Francisco Ballet returned to the stage of Beijing’s NCPA this October, during the company’s second visit to China, with Helgi Tomasson’s Giselle. Dancing Giselle was Tan Yuan Yuan, a Shanghainese ballerina who has now been performing with San Francisco Ballet for 20 years. Her return to the Chinese stage brought enthusiastic Beijingers out in hordes on Friday night.

Yuan Yuan Tan in Giselle
Yuan Yuan Tan in Giselle

Although Tan exuded youthful energy throughout the first act, the maturity of her dancing belied her age. She was, however, a marvellous second act Giselle. Her waif-like thinness and ethereal dancing are perfect for the haunting Wilis. Every movement had a depth of sincerity to it that added a mournful dynamic – even her expressive hands were melancholy.

These are just some highlights from a longer review, published on 26th October 2015 by Bachtrack. Please click here to read the full review.

Header image copyright Conrad Dy Liacco

Sylvie Guillem’s final show

Life in Progress

A lone dancer skuttles onto stage dragging an arm, resting momentarily where a bare tree stands centre stage. Guillem moves like a whirring gizmo, compact and full of electricity, as though she could burst any moment. Her livewire limbs rarely come to rest for long. One quiet moment finds her face down, spread-eagle on the floor, her sinewy arms appearing dislocated from their sockets as her quick hands scrabble about on the floor, as if searching for something…

Lead image: Sylvie Guillem's Life in Progress
Lead image: Sylvie Guillem’s Life in Progress

‘Life in Progress’ is the French ballerina’s final tour; Guillem will retire at the end of December 2015, after a long, diverse and highly successful career. Aged 50, she is still a breathtaking dancer. This show at Beijing’s NCPA was the very last chance for a Chinese audience to see Guillem in the flesh. Like me, they adored Guillem – it seemed as though every single person in the large auditorium was equally aware of their luck in getting tickets to this see this brilliant dancer.

The programme includes: Technê by Akram Khan, performed by Guillem; Duo by William Forsythe, performed by Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts; Here & After by Russell Maliphant, performed by Guillem and Emanuela Montanari; and finally Bye by Mats Ek, which was choreographed specifically for Guillem.

This post is a combination of 100 words from a longer review and additional information thereafter. The official review was published on 13th October 2015 by Bachtrack. Please click here to read the full review.