ZHANG Lijia 张丽佳, Writer, Journalist and Public Commentator
“Lotus” is a work of fiction inspired by Zhang Lijia’s grandmother who, on her deathbed, confessed that she was a sex worker in her youth. Sold into prostitution at the age of 14, Zhang’s grandmother was only bought out of the business by Zhang’s grandfather to become his concubine. Upon discovering this part of her family history, Zhang Lijia’s committed to learning more about prostitution in China. Once the research began, Zhang Lijia realized China’s social problems and transformation in the past decades were all entangled with the question of sex workers. The book itself was written in English because Zhang sees herself as playing a role in bridging China with the outside world, and making the book accessible to a wider readership is one way to contribute to that mission. Moreover, prostitution can be used as a window to explore the social tensions within contemporary Chinese society.
As modernization and urbanization in China have developed, so too has the prostitution industry. Zhang’s idea to begin her book started in Shenzhen, where the growing population of businessmen led to an increased demand for sex workers. The illegality of sex work made Zhang’s research fraught with difficulties; it was difficult for Zhang to create bonds with the sex workers and have sustained relations because of their transient lives and tendency to disappear without notice.
The majority of urban sex workers are unskilled women migrating from rural areas. Many of these migrant women have had family problems, such as but not limited to failed marriages, unwanted pregnancies, and abuse. Unable to receive any social welfare, they resort to prostitution to survive, sometimes through friends already working in the business in massage parlors. Their families rarely know their real jobs. While the majority of the women enter the sex industry due to financial desperation, this is not the case for the urban upper class; for them, it is often a choice to earn a good income working in a high-end place. At the top of the prostitution pyramid are women that do it for emotional, not financial, purposes. Although many women become more assertive with the power brought by money, Lijia pointed out there are better ways to empower women than through sex work.
The slang term for sex workers in Chinese is the word “chicken”. The use of this degrading word is also a reflection of how they are seen by society. Many send money to their families in order not only to help them, but also to improve their social status in their family’s eyes. Prostitution is considered one of the six social problems in China and as a result, these women have no voice. That was the purpose of the book. These women are multidimension; their lives are hard and they long for human connection, but they are not always miserable, finding some joy in what the cities can offer and from acts of kindness from clients. “Pretty Woman” is still a fantasy and going back to find someone in the countryside is very unlikely. Due to the lack of Chinese NGOs addressing the issue and the legal invisibility of prostitutes, many women have to create close relations with their co-workers in order to receive some support.
Classism has played an important role in the development of prostitution. In the old days, men kept concubines in part to show status. Today, China’s economic growth has enabled, if not itself drive, the expansion of prostitution in urban areas. Moreover, the transition from a communist to a market economy has seen the reduction of the social safety net. The government has allowed the market to take over, but the market hasn’t filled this vacuum. As a result, with the income gap between men and women widening in China, middle-aged women in vulnerable situations have been greatly affected. In the lower middle class areas, older women are more commonly working as prostitutes.
China will not legalize prostitution while it calls itself socialist, but it may be able to decriminalize when there is consent. In any society, prostitution offers a great path to corruption, and in China, where police violence and harassment have been the greatest problems for these women, this is poignantly true. The crackdowns don’t act on the root of the problem and the government doesn’t offer help to them afterwards either.
Chinese feminism has different views on prostitution. The Communist Party introduced the first feminist movement in China soon after the revolution. As a result, it has usually been a top-down approach to gender equality. Chinese feminism, however small it may be, is becoming increasingly popular and maintains its grassroots connection.
Where are the men in this story? Male sex workers do exist, but they are far more expensive. Their clients are often rich women who find the prostitutes through agencies, not on the streets. The other, more predominant way in which men participate is by being clients. Clients are typically young men and are quite often migrants. If caught by the police, they are likely to receive insignificant punishment. The rise of STDs continues to be a problem, particularly for older men.
Zhang Lijia concluded the conversation by recalling that many of the sex workers she had met sought refuge and hope in Buddhism or Christianity. Notably, there is limited research in China on the role of spirituality in the lives of sex workers. Religion provides a ritualized purification, especially with issues regarding moral conflict. For sex workers, religion can also offer a sense of community when society has rejected or, worse yet, erased their existence.