It was not until her grandmother lay dying that Lijia Zhang learned the truth. Weeping at her bedside, Zhang’s mother revealed how the woman who had raised her had been orphaned as a child. How she had been adopted by her aunt. Then, the revelation that shattered everything Zhang thought she had known about her family. How, when she was a young woman, her grandmother had been sold into a brothel. For years, she had worked as a ji, or prostitute, before catching the eye of a man who would make her his concubine. That man would become Zhang’s grandfather.
Speaking to Southeast Asia Globe 20 years later, Zhang described her reaction as one of stunned disbelief.
“I began to see prostitution everywhere,” she said. “A few months after that revelation, I went to Shenzhen for a reporting trip, and I innocently went to a place not far from our hotel and said I wanted a haircut. And the girls were just giggling and said: ‘We don’t know how to cut hair.’ And I noticed there were no hair shavings on the ground. That’s when it clicked.”
Such glimpses of China’s underbelly drove Zhang – who will be speaking at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali this month – to spend 12 years delving into the murky world of massage parlours, karaoke joints and hair salons that barely try to conceal the grim reality of the country’s fast-growing sex work industry. Zhang interviewed dozens of women who had been thrust into the flesh trade by the pressures of modern China.
“Almost all of them had some really desperate story to tell,” she said. “Women who had been abandoned by their husbands, some women who had run away from an abusive husband… The safety net is very thin.”
It was not until Zhang began volunteering for an NGO in Tianjin, distributing condoms to the city’s working girls, that she was able to gain some idea of the sheer scale of the industry.
There are lots of reasons why prostitution has become such a fast-growing industry – relaxed social control, growing wealth, a mobile population, but also the market, and I think right now it is the growing gender inequality driving most of the women into the flesh trade”
“I did some interviews and started writing [about] their lives, but it was not enough in the beginning, which was why I went back and did more research and worked at an NGO, really got to know them better,” she said. “I knew a lot of the stories, but how did it really feel? I wanted to… get the nitty-gritty details of the prostitutes’ lives. Their life is so far removed from my own middle-class, comfortable urban existence.”
In her debut novel, Zhang follows the life of Lotus, a Sichuan migrant who finds work at a massage parlour in Shenzhen. From its opening pages, Zhang’s novel deftly traces the paradoxical half-life of fear and faith, love and lust of the sex workers who shadow China’s relentless industrialisation.
It soon became clear to Zhang that despite the international acclaim that had met the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, the nation’s transition to a market-based economy had reopened deep divisions within Chinese society.
“China is in an awkward place,” she said. “There are lots of reasons why prostitution has become such a fast-growing industry – relaxed social control, growing wealth, a mobile population, but also the market, and I think right now it is the growing gender inequality driving most of the women into the flesh trade. In China, these women suffer from cold-hearted capitalism, but without any benefit of socialism.”
Zhang pointed to figures released by the UN in 2015 that reveal a growing income gap between men and women in post-Mao China. The report found that between 1990 and 2010, average urban income for women as a percentage of that of men had dropped from 77.5% to 67.3%. For women outside the major cities, the figure was as low as 56%.
“When China shifted from the planned economy to the market economy, women shouldered too much of the burden and cost,” Zhang said. “When the state-owned enterprises laid off workers, women were always the first to be let off. And it is much harder for middle-aged women to find re-employment.”
Zhang also pointed to a resurgence in pre-Maoist values that ascribed strict limits to the role – and value – of women in Chinese society.
“I think some of the old attitudes towards women, which place women as inferior to men, resurfaced,” she said. “At workplaces, Mao-style gender equality has been replaced by open sexism… Sometimes they refuse to hire women of a child-bearing age or sack them after they become pregnant.”
It is a struggle for survival that Zhang knows well. Thrust onto a munitions factory floor at the age of 16, she spent ten years assembling rocket parts before she was able to pursue a path more suited to her talents.
To look at the true colour of a society is not to look at how rich people are treated, but how the authorities treat the most vulnerable people”
“I hated my life, and it was a long journey,” she said. “I taught myself English in the hopes of getting a job as an interpreter – that was my escape route. And it gave me a tool – in Chinese we call that tiě fàn wân, my rice bowl. And I was very lucky that I was born in the right time – China opened up, introduced [market-oriented] economic policy and more opportunities.”
After meeting the man who would become her husband at the Forbidden City, Zhang travelled to the UK to study journalism and began work on a Chinese-language account of Western perceptions of Chairman Mao. Although the work never made it past China’s censors, the project honed her taste for writing. She returned to China, working with foreign reporters before embarking on her own career as a freelance journalist.
Despite her success, Zhang said that those ten years on an assembly line had given her a lasting sense of the desperation that drives the lives of those born without the privilege of wealth or education.
“I think because I’m from the bottom of society I’m more sympathetic to the little people’s lives – and how they fight to improve their lives,” she said. “To look at the true colour of a society is not to look at how rich people are treated, but how the authorities treat the most vulnerable people. And artists, creative people, are always interested in those on the margin anyway.”
Lijia Zhang is among the authors who will be speaking at this month’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. For more information, visit ubudwritersfestival.com . Southeast Asia Globe readers can save 20% on 4-Day and 1-Day Main Program Passes by entering the code MPSA17 at checkout. The Ubud Writers and Readers Festival will run from 25–29 October.