Lotus, a sex-worker drifting in a Chinese city
Kan Chaoqun; July 2017-08-09
There is a mysterious building in a small alley near my house. It has plate-glass windows and doors, and at night, between the half-drawn curtains you can see pink light and the black stockings of the girls who sit by the door. When people pass they glance at the building but then walk on, looking at their phones. The door is kept locked all morning and it is only at noon that the owner lazily opens the door so that the working day can begin.
There is no sign outside the house, but the whole neighbourhood knows what the girls do for a living. The Beijing aunties will not say the word ‘chickens’ (aka prostitutes) aloud, but mutter it in whispers behind their hands. Because of this enigmatic building, its owner and the girls who work there, I decided to read Zhang Lijia’s English language novel ‘Lotus’, and having done so I now find the sex workers who live like shadows near my home very touching.
‘Lotus’ is set early in the millennium and she is a ’20 clients per day’ sex worker in a so- called massage parlour; her family is poor – her mother has died and her father is a heavy drinker. After friends from her home in rural Sichuan went to work in Shenzhen, Lotus thought that though it would be hard, she would have a better life in the big city. She found that working in a big city factory for a poorly educated rural girl who didn’t understand technology was very cruel. Lotus couldn’t see any future for herself working in a factory, so she chose to sell her young body in a ‘shampoo and massage shop’ to get money. Whilst working there she met a young man called Hu who is a photographer. Hu is working on a photographic series on the lives of sex workers. Whilst shooting photographs, Hu and Lotus fall for eachthe r other. Lotus decides to give up working in the massage parlour and she and Hu plan their future together. Hu’s series wins a major photo award and he gains a degree of minor celebrity, as a result he has an opportunity to develop his career in Beijing.
These two people, because of their respective knowledge, background and lives find that the distance between them cannot be bridged.
‘Lotus’ is Zhang Lijia’s debut novel. It took her 12 years to write, from the original conception to its final publication in the United States this year. Her autobiographical book ‘Socialism is Great’ was published in 2009, and was widely praised. ‘Socialism is Great’ tells of the author’s eight years labouring in a factory in Nanjing, and of her gradual political and sexual awakening.
From the 1990s until 2000 Zhang Lijia engaged in media work. Visiting Shenzhen to do an interview she went into a village hairdresser’s to get a haircut, but the girls working there said they didn’t actually do haircutting, and she realised during the conversation that calling it a hairdresser’s was just a pretext, they provided sexual services. Inspired by these girls Zhang Lijia decided to write a novel about them.
In this challenging novel, Zhang Lijia’s characters are based on a great deal of research and many interviews. She also read the relevant academic works, and established contact with Shenzhen, Dongguan and Beijing sex workers by volunteering to work with an STD (sexually transmitted diseases) prevention program being run by an NGO, this helped her to better understand the lives of these young women.
Zhang Lijia’s heroine’s image is very clear. Lotus’s heart is full of contradictions. She is a conservative girl who had good results at school but because of family poverty she was forced to drop out. This is something that continues to make her sad. As a result of her regret about not going to college, Lotus is determined that her brother will be able to go, and in order to send money to him she feels she has had to work as she has done.
Every day Lotus worships the Guanying Bodhisattava and prays for her own sins to be forgiven. She cannot envisage a better future for herself, but thinks the best plan would be to find a good customer and become his mistress. When Hu enters her life she begins to see another possibility for the future.
Photographer Hu is a young man schooled in art and literature, but the ‘June 4th’ campaign awoke a burst of idealism, to marry, have children, even to start a company…but he was unable to achieve the standard of life his wife wanted. After they divorced he found the courage to pick up his camera again, and gave himself a chance to dream. When he met Lotus he was deeply touched by the truth of the saying “A lotus flower grows beautiful and unsoiled above the mud from which it came’’ and so he decides to marry her.
However, in the face of reality these two are on shaky ground. When the magazine which employs Hu offers him an olive branch, he accepts the opportunity. Hu has not only a literary dream, but secretly wants the approbation of those who were his fellow students at Tsinghua; he hopes to get more resources so that his ex-wife will not look down at him, and he wants to be able provide the tuition fees for his young daughter to study abroad.
The author has shown that society, family ties and a person’s own background are also a part of love and appreciation. Can a person’s past be unimportant?
The fact that Lotus was working in the sex industry will be something that Hu will not be able to forget despite her desire to live a normal life. Does he really love her enough to marry her? Hu tells Lotus to go to the hospital and have an STD check which shocks her.
The results take a week to arrive and Lotus feels like a prisoner awaiting a trial… she begins to doubt whether Hu really loves her unconditionally.
Watching Hu and his friends talking about literature and social issues, Lotus “felt she could never really fit into his life”.
Hu has also begun to doubt, and to calculate the gains and losses. She is not accustomed to ‘bee beating butterfly’ he thinks; can she really be loyal to him? But despite that, she has played a positive role in his career, and the plan for his next book – she will help him”.
After the ‘Reform and Opening Up’ in China, the rural women’s labour force flowed into the cities and were at the bottom of society. These days some of them work in the sex service industry of ‘massage’ shops, ‘foot treatment’ rooms and ‘hair cutting’ salons in Dongguan, Shenzhen and Beijing. They are invisible people in the city, and officials only notice them when an ‘anti-pornography campaign’ is the focus of media attention. The public attention to them is not healthy, full of curiosity and pop-psychology. In the media they are presented as a fluctuating body of women with no thoughts, no soul.
Perhaps some will criticize Zhang Lijia for attempting to cater to Western readers’ desire to ‘spy’ on contemporary China, but the author has not just written about a prostitute and love. There is no moral preaching in this novel – she has given the sex workers she writes about enough space to show their personalities and their ideas, as well as their pasts and their possible futures. In the massage shop where Lotus works the reader finds that her ‘sisters’ who work there have all used their bodies to make money out of frustration. Xiaoyu was sold to a place that produced pornography; Xia needed money for her son to have proper medical treatment; Mimi, who is under-age, had to do it as her family cast her out of her home and she found herself prematurely alone in society. The author’s descriptions make the reader sympathetic to this group.
At the same time, the novel touches on some profound social problems such as the lack of education for migrant children, the gap between the rich and poor and the resulting solidification of general corruption, corrupt officialdom, the neglect of women’s rights and the confusions brought about by rapid urbanization; also how China’s view of money and sexual attitudes has changed and so on.
It was Lotus’s childhood friend Hua who first took her to the city. Walking in the bustling center of Shenzhen, Hua said to her “To live a good life in big cities you need money”. The chic lives of urban young people, the bright red wine of the city all seem very different to Lotus’s life so far. More and more she feels that her life working in the factory is like being in a pool of stagnant water – she cannot see a future. Once Lotus decides to have her first experience of giving a sexual service, even though she knows that in China this would be considered a wrong step, she is determined to do it and not have regrets, as this step will be hidden behind a better future.
The details of the novel are impressive; for instance when Lotus goes back to Sichuan with Hu he sees, beside the photograph of Lotus pinned to the wall, the portrait of Mao Zedong.
“my father said that Mao Zedong was the best emperor in China” Lotus explains. Hu asks “how are you still close to this portrait these days?”
Like many people in rural areas who do not understand urban attitudes and are still immersed in the memory of the past, Lotus does not really understand his question.” However, she no longer believes in Mao Zedong because she has learnt that the world outside her village is a society far from communism. She changed her worship to the Goddess of Mercy in the hope that the afterlife will be better.
Hu says to her father “Although Mao Zedong had brought many changes to China, it was Deng Xiaoping’s ‘Reform and Opening Up’ that had changed the living standards of millions of people”.
Did the economic reforms mean to make the poor poorer and the rich richer?
The living environment of sex workers is bluntly portrayed. They are in danger not only from violent customers, but also from the police. The Police Chief is one of the regular monthly customers; often coming in plain clothes he has a dignified appearance but he refuses to pay for the services he gets. When Lotus and her ‘sisters’ are forcibly arrested and abused by the police who say they are not worthy of respect, even though many of the police themselves are clients who never pay. Of course there are police and prostitutes who develop a tacit relationship, so the police receive sexual favours and when there is an official campaign against prostitution they tip of off the sex workers.
Zhang Lijia does not depict Lotus and her co-workers as being prostitutes who have a cultural connotation to those in ancient times such as Li Xiangjun – those were women who had been forced to live in brothels. Lotus’s prostitution is not coercion, but to sell her body in exchange for the possibility of a better life in the city, she took the initiative to choose this work. Lotus has re-created herself as a result of rapes and prostitution in order to face the people she loves. The others are the same, they have to deal with their relationships between parents and loved ones, and like all women of the same age they look forward to a better life. They know, of course, that they could get labouring work in the brickyards but it is a harder more desperate life.
Lotus chose to leave the sex industry, but the reality of her choice has a price. The price is not, as for some who feel no hope, to get to the river at Duheiang and commit suicide. There is a corner of society in which these other unfortunates are numb, and comfort themselves as best they can in order to continue. Whether it be a ‘massage shop’ woman, one of the senior prostitutes at an exclusive club, or a concubine, their lives reflect their powerlessness. Once they become sex workers their potential to develop is limited and there is no way back. The owner of Lotus’s massage shop told her that “the man who meets you regularly every month will still treat you as a ‘chicken’.” Her boss had also thought about leaving the industry, but what could she do? The older she gets, the more the cost of being older rises.”
The end of the novel gives some hope. Though Lotus and Hu do not have a future together and he has made a break, she decides to open a small school for migrant children from Shenzhen’s urban and rural areas. She is hoping to use education to change the children’s futures.
What is the future of a ‘Lotus’ in real life? In recent months, Beijing has had a movement to close ‘the open wall holes”, and so the mysterious house near my home was gone. Half the ground floor windows were bricked up. The young man who opened the bar and the girl who served there stood on the street complaining of the rough decision of the city planners. The girls who worked there never made any attempt to defend their rights, and left so quietly. Every time I go past this abandoned place I want to know to where they have drifted.