Zhang Lijia at the BBC

Author Zhang Lijia of Lotus: A Novel on prostitution in China discusses Buddhism, freedom and fun as part of the background for her book with Radii China“Without the inhibition of writing in my mother tongue, I can take an adventure in my adopted language” .


Like the lead character Lotus, my grandma was a Buddhist prostitute. I found it fascinating that [a] high percentage [of] working girls have faiths of some sort. I believe religion plays a role of ritualized cleansing, something to make themselves feel cleaner and better. It is driven by survival. Religion plays a different role in Bing’s life. He starts to take an interest in religion as he is going through his first existential crisis. In other words, he is looking for the meaning of life. [They have] different levels of needs.

How does the concept of freedom influence your writing, especially in contemporary China?

Art/literature and freedom are synonymous. I think one of the many reasons that the Chinese literary scene is not as vibrant as it should be is due to censorship, as well as writers’ self-censorship. I suffered from this censorship. Some twenty years ago, upon the invitation of a Chinese publisher, I wrote a book about the Western image of Chairman Mao while I was living in the UK. But the book failed to pass censorship. So I made the decision to write in English, so that I can freely express myself. By writing in English, I also gained unexpected literary freedom: without the inhibition of writing in my mother tongue, I can take an adventure in my adopted language. Besides, writing is the space where a writer can feel most free.

In your book, you show that a lot of these women actually chose to go into the profession where I think a lot of us think sex workers are “raped, dumped by husbands, or tricked by human traffickers.” The other available professions to these migrant workers, like working in a factory or a restaurant, are grueling and low-paid. Why did you decide to show that a lot of these women actually chose to get into sex work as opposed to the traditional narrative that it’s more forced on vulnerable women?

My extensive research shows that the vast majority of sex workers enter the trade on their free will, but are often obliged by some unfortunate circumstances: having been abandoned by their husbands, having lost their jobs; having some family members seriously ill; or falling for the wrong men. Yes, there’s the temptation of money. Generally, to turn tricks is one of the few or only option they have. I hope the stories I described reflected the reality. By the way, for upper-class prostitutes, it is often a question of lifestyle choice.

More in RadiiChina.

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