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Sex Workers’ Lives

Smiles For Sale

In her debut novel, Zhang Lijia offers a glimpse into the everyday lives and struggles of sex workers neglected and patronized by society

By NewsChina Updated Jun.1

Prostitution, the oldest profession in the world as the saying goes, went into retreat on the Chinese mainland shortly after the Communists took power 1949. Over the past 20 years, however, China’s underground sex industry has begun to revive despite the authorities’ continuous campaigns to “sweep away yellow” (“yellow” in Chinese refers to all things blue) particularly in its affluent coastal areas. 

Prostitution in China enjoys a unique existence as it is both illegal and remarkably ubiquitous due to the country’s relaxed social control, growing wealth and the massive influx of migrant workers to cities, many of them young girls. The lives of sex workers in contemporary Chinese society are virtually unknown to the outside world. 

As a factory-worker-turned-writer, Zhang Lijia’s debut novel Lotus portrays at the spit-and-sawdust level the lives of “working girls,” millions of whom are estimated to have joined the trade either reluctantly or readily since China’s society has opened up. The novel was inspired by the deathbed confession of the author’s grandmother who revealed that she had been sold into a brothel in her youth. 

Lotus, the novel’s 20-something eponymous main character, seeking better job prospects, makes her way from an impoverished village in the hinterland province of Sichuan to Shenzhen, a coastal mega city that forms the border with Hong Kong and is known as China’s City of Sins. Tempted by seeing the palm trees, buildings clad in shining mirrors soaring into the sky, colorful neon signs dazzling to the eye, and large ships docking on blue water in a busy harbor on a neighbor’s television set, she ventures to the city like “a newborn calf that isn’t afraid of tigers” and lands her first job at a factory with her cousin.  

After a fire, however, her cousin dies. Frustrated and not having enough money left over to send any home, Lotus eventually ends up working at a massage parlor and selling her body to support herself and her brother who is studying hard in the hope of getting into college. As is the case with many prostitutes who work at the lower end of the trade, earning enough to be able to send money home is a key reason for entering the trade, and issues of filial piety are found throughout the novel, such as Lotus being greatly relieved to be able to wire money back to her hometown, pretending to have earned it through more decent work. 

Another character in the novel, Bing, is a middle-aged divorced photojournalist who films sex workers, mainly Lotus and her friends, before pocketing a national photo prize. The character is based on a real photographer who spent a long time documenting the lives of prostitutes in Hainan. Through his contact with Lotus, Bing begins to take a fancy to this charming, modest but ambitious girl.  

The male protagonist swings chaotically between his work and love at a time when cohabitation with a prostitute would mean the end of his official career. On the other hand, Lotus is also torn between the sins of the profession and the lure of money. Lotus, a strong believer in Buddha, eventually leaves Bing to pursue her new fate as a rural teacher. According to the author, she didn’t want a cliched ending of a “hero rescuing a fallen girl.”  

Lotus, purely fictional, is a rounded and believable character thanks to the author’s contact with working girls, particularly after her acquaintance with a prostitute-turned-NGO-founder dedicated to helping female sex workers. It took 12 years, on and off, for Zhang to complete the novel after interviewing more than 100 sex workers in cities across the country including Shenzhen, Dongguan, Beijing and Tianjin.  

As a former factory worker herself, the author is deeply concerned with the country’s social issues including migration, income gap, corruption and gender inequality that were flung to the fore with the country’s economic growth, which the author said have contributed to increasing prostitution. In a sense it is the author’s personal voice as a long-time champion of women’s rights coming through when Bing states “prostitution is a window through which to see the changes in China.” 

Set over a period spanning from the 1980s to the new millennium, the novel gives a detailed and vivid account of a range of social problems in contemporary China including the lack of proper education for the offspring of migrant workers, collusion between corrupt government officials and businessmen, how sex workers are hired to lubricate commercial negotiations, as well as the continuous harassment and unchecked despotism of police officers when dealing with prostitutes.  
In an interview with NewsChina, Zhang discussed the creation of the novel, social and economic factors that contributed to the booming sex industry in China, and debated the legitimacy of prostitution. 

Zhang Lijia’s new novel Lotus

Scantily-clad women wait inside a hair parlor with a dim pink glow in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province, December 7, 2004

NewsChina: It took 12 years for you to complete the novel. Do you think the living conditions of sex workers nowadays have improved compared to that of when you first started? 

Zhang Lijia: I don’t think the living conditions for today’s sex workers are necessarily better in every aspect. For example, police violence and harassment still pose such a threat to the lives of the working girls. But overall, I would say today’s sex workers are better off. My grandma was sold into prostitution. In those days, women were treated as a common commodity. That’s no longer the case, though occasionally you do hear stories of young girls being trafficked and sold into prostitution. It was more common in the 1990s, but after a major crackdown, it is now under control. One major change is that the working girls today usually enter the trade of their own free will, though often obliged by circumstances, and they can change from one establishment to another or wash their hands of the trade when they’re able. 
NC: What is the main reason for women to go into prostitution? And what is the main obstacle that keeps them from leaving? 

ZLJ: Generally speaking, for women working at middle or lower range establishments, who make up the majority of sex workers, they enter the trade due to poverty or unfortunate personal circumstances: being dumped by husbands; being laid-off; having a seriously sick family member; falling for the wrong man or getting pregnant. And there’s the temptation of money. Quite a few working girls in Shenzhen who I met were former factory workers. They worked long hours for little pay. Then one of their friends got a job at a massage parlor where the pay was better without toiling on the production line. 

For women working in the middle to high-end market, it’s often a lifestyle choice. Some young women (you rarely see middle-aged women here unlike in low-end places) see prostitution as a way to make quick and easy money. 

Some women do get out after they make enough money, meet a man to marry or after their children grow up. Some get stuck there because they waste money on their so-called boyfriends or lack the confidence to start a new life. Bear in mind that it’s extremely difficult for a middle-aged, uneducated and unskilled women to find re-employment. 
NC: Over the years, the authorities have launched numerous campaigns to crack down on prostitution but to no avail. Why do they think it hasn’t worked? 

ZLJ: Prostitution tarnishes the image of a socialist country. The authorities launch the crackdowns as a sort of social discipline to little effect. Why? Because there’s huge demand from the market. And because crackdowns don’t pull out the roots of the problem – gender inequality and corruption. The authorities always look at the issue through the lens of crime and social vice. It would be far more meaningful to understand the issue properly and address the roots of the problem. 
NC: For a novel on prostitution, there are not many explicit depictions of sex. How did you manage to draw the line? 

ZLJ: It’s not pornography so naturally the sex scenes are not too explicit. It’s a literary fiction dealing with serious social issues. Some juicy details can entice the readers but too much of it may ruin the sober nature of the book. Plus sex scenes are extremely difficult to do well. Let alone to cut a clear line! 
NC: What was the biggest challenge for you in completing the novel? 

ZLJ: There were a few: the language was rather journalistic in the earlier drafts; and the lives of sex workers are too far removed from my own; and I was rather inexperienced in writing fiction. 
NC: You have interviewed many sex workers and researched the industry. Why come up with a novel rather than a non-fiction work? 

ZLJ: It’s because I wanted to try my hand at fiction, which I thought was the finer form of literature. 
NC: Lotus has a deep religious undertone with Buddhism mentioned throughout. Are there any specific connotations for that? 

ZLJ: My own grandma was a Buddhist prostitute. I’ve found that there’s a high percentage of working girls who are religious or superstitious. Faith is a common resource that people turn to when dealing with traumatic experiences in life. For Lotus, her religion serves as a ritual purification and a way to deal with her inner conflicts. 
NC: Over the years there have been debates over the legality of prostitution in China. How do you see that? 

ZLJ: I think legalizing prostitution in China is not realistic – though I understand it is rational. I would strongly urge the authorities to de-criminalize it, first of all to abolish the “custody and education” system which too frequently leads to the violation of the rights of sex workers.

Zhang Lijia, a former rocket factory worker, is a writer based in Beijing. Her memoir Socialism Is Great!: A Worker’s Memoir of the New China, rolled off the presses in 2008 and has been published in several countries. Lotus is her first English novel, published by Henry Holt & Company in early 2017

Zhang Lijia