Next year author Zhang Lijia will publish her novel Lotus, on sex workers in southern China, inspired by her grandmother. Caijing interviews her about this inspiration and about how sex changed in China.
Your first novel, Lotus, which will be published by Henry Holt and Co. next year, revolves around the story of a sex worker in southern China. Where did you find the inspiration for it?
Before she died, I discovered that my grandmother was a sex worker. She was an orphan and was sold into a brothel. She met my grandfather, a married small-time grain dealer, on the job, and then became his concubine. I was curious about how she coped, what her life was like.
Then, when I was in Shenzhen for work, I went to a small saloon to get a haircut. The women there just giggled and said the only person who knew how to cut hair was not around. When I looked at the saloon floor there were no hair shavings. I just stared at those girls in their low-cut dresses for a few minutes before I realized the shop was just a front for a brothel.
My grandma’s story had planted the initial seed of curiosity in my mind. I interviewed several sex workers while in Shenzhen. I also worked as a volunteer for a non-governmental organization distributing condoms among sex workers in northern China. Many small details in the book are real. Prostitution is just a window to see the tensions and the changes happening now. You can pack in so many important issues like migration, women’s position in society, the gap between cities and rural areas, etc. It’s just a literary device.
What were the challenges you faced when researching your novel?
The biggest challenge was that the lives of sex workers were so far removed from mine. One of my friends said, “Try and work as a prostitute, you can satisfy your sexual needs, and you can make some money, and do your research.” All the sex workers I have met sent money to their families. They knew what they were doing is wrong so they argue, “Look I’m helping my family, you cannot say I’m a bad person.” I really had lots of fun researching the book. They talk a lot about breasts. One woman’s implants had gone sideways, they really compare their breasts!
Have attitudes toward sex and sex education changed?
It has changed dramatically. I spoke with Li Yinhe, a famous sexologist, recently. She conducted a survey in 1989 and 85 percent of the respondents said they had no sexual experience before marriage. Now, by the time people get married, very few will have had no sexual experience.
While sex before marriage has become commonplace, there’s not enough sex education, especially among the rural population. When a couple gets married, they’ll be given condoms. Village officials will demonstrate how to use them by putting the condom on the thumb. But, the woman still gets pregnant and they say, “Oh, how did that happen?”
Sex education is supposed to be part of the curriculum but it is not taught in many schools. There’s this explosion – the divorce rate is increasing, the number of abortions and cases of STDs have gone up rapidly – but sex education is lacking.
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