In her book Socialism is Great! A Worker’s Memoir of the New China, factory worker-turned writer Lijia Zhang charted her journey from the assembly line to international writers’ festivals. This year, her debut novel Lotus follows the day-to-day life of a
Lijia Zhang’s debut novel digs below the surface of China’s booming sex work scene
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.
“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