Zhang Lijia

The leading Chinese magazine Caixin interviews author Zhang Lijia about her book Lotus: A Novel about prostitution in China. “Prostitutes are real people, and I wanted to expose that. Like any job, there are drawbacks. But their lives are not totally bleak either.”


Zhang: Every society has prostitution. There is a saying in China: “Bao nuan si yinyu wenbao er si yinyu” — which means once you have food and clothing, you start thinking about sex. I have always been curious about the women who fill this social need.

Chinese society has become hedonistic after Mao’s regime of sexual purity and sexual repression. China has become materialistic, restless. Other reasons for the growing sex industry include growing wealth, relaxed social control and the resulting growth in individual personal freedom. Plus, of course, China’s population is increasingly mobile. Young migrant workers often can’t bring their wives with them or establish a relationship. Imagine a young migrant laborer on a construction site who works long hours and barely leaves the site, where he probably lives too. How could a man like this possibly provide a home for his family in the city, or maintain a relationship outside the workplace?

I met many women like the characters in the novel. I met women like Xia. They are old but still in the trade. They are not always sexually appealing, but they know all the tricks of how to flirt and attract men. So everyone finds clients in some way. The oldest sex worker I met was a woman in her mid-60s. Another middle-aged sex worker had a grown-up daughter who was married. Some women really get stuck in the trade and cannot get out.

The women have to stick together, but there is jealousy there too. They will comment on appearances: “She is so flat-chested, how does she get clients?”

Prostitutes are real people, and I wanted to expose that. Like any job, there are drawbacks. But their lives are not totally bleak either.

When she becomes a prostitute, Lotus has no idea about sexual health. Her clients pay more for sex without a condom, and one man even washes out an expensive condom for later use. What are the pervasive attitudes toward sex education, and what is being done to challenge them?

Legislation says sex education should be part of the curriculum in schools, but it is not compulsory and it is not enforced. It is not on the government’s list of priorities. There aren’t calls from the public for sexual education, but there are non-governmental organizations providing information on a wide range of things, from HIV/AIDS clinics to promoting openness about sexuality.

Many prostitutes are not educated about sexual health. Their bosses often tell them that it is OK not to use a condom because they get more money that way. They will say “It looks clean” (referring to the man’s penis) and make them agree to sex without a condom. Many men will refuse to wear a condom.

One NGO promoting sexual health suggested prostitutes start using “femidoms” (female condoms) because then the women themselves could have control of the contraception and they don’t have to rely on their clients wearing a condom. But the prostitutes said they cannot use femidoms because they are too big. In a raid, they will often swallow the condoms they have on their person because condoms (used or unused) will be used as hard evidence by police. But femidoms were too big to swallow so they would not carry them or use them.

The details about Family Treasure (a character in the book) washing out the condom for later use are true. I heard lots of stories like that. That brand “Golden Gun — Never Flops” is a real brand of condoms, you know!

More in Caixin

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