I met with Chinese writer Lijia Zhang on her visit to New York in March 2015. She had just been to a meeting with her publisher to discuss her latest book, Lotus, a novel about a young woman who moves more than 1,000 miles from her mountain village in Sichuan to the bustling city of Shenzeh in pursuit of adventure and good fortune. Just published this month, the novel is the story of a fictional young woman who is forced to resort to prostitution to survive in the big city. But it is also an accurate depiction of the struggles of millions of migrant workers in China today. Henry Holt & Co. jumped at the opportunity to publish Lotus, filled as it is with cultural details and political references that help the reader understand the complexities and contradictions that make up contemporary China.
In 2008, Zhang published her memoir, Socialism is Great!’ A Worker’s Memoir of the New China, a humorous account of her own extraordinary journey from factory worker to journalist and writer. Born into a working-class family in Nanjing, Zhang was pressured by her family into leaving school to take over her mother’s relatively good job in a government-run factory that made missiles designed to reach North Korea. Determined to learn English and become a writer, Zhang taught herself by reading books and writing. She eventually quit her factory job, to find success in the career that had been her dream. But before leaving the factory in 1989, Zhang organized the biggest demonstration among workers in Nanjing in support of the Tiananmen Square protest.
In 2003, Zhang was awarded a scholarship to attend Goldsmith’s College at the University of London. There she earned an MA in Creative and Life Writing. Zhang started writing Lotus in English while in graduate school. She was able to return to the novel and finish it in 2009, when she was awarded a fellowship by the U.S. State Department to attend the prestigious International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Lotus describes in great detail the underground sex trade, the conditions of migrant workers, police brutality, many different types of corruption, and the negative effects of various political policies on the lives of ordinary people in China. The book is so critical of Chinese politics and society that there is little chance that it will ever be translated into Chinese.
Lotus is set in 2000. Most of the novel takes place near Shenzeh in Southern China, China’s first Special Economic Zone (SEZ), an experiment in market capitalism. From late 1978, when Deng Xiaoping introduced reforms to open China up to trade with the rest of the world, millions of migrant workers were allowed to come to the cities to work and live at factories in order produce goods for export-led growth. Today Shenzhen is still the largest migrant city in China, with a population of over 10 million, 6 million of whom are migrant workers.
Lotus is the story of an intelligent and ambitious young woman who leaves her rural village looking for economic freedom in the city. After three years as a poorly paid migrant worker in a shoe factory and the death of her cousin in a factory fire, Lotus returns home with her cousin’s ashes. Determined to prove herself, Lotus returns to Shenzhen to look for a job with better working conditions.
In Shenzhen, at a hair salon where a friend works, Lotus struggles with poverty and her deep sense of morality as she refuses to perform sexual services for the salon’s clients. One night she joins her friend and a sex client for dinner and, slightly drunk and without money, slips into prostitution. Lotus decides that most of the money she earns will finance her younger brother’s education so that he can escape the life of an uneducated migrant worker. This idea helps her stoically and optimistically turn her circumstances into a dream for her brother.
When the hair salon closes down, Lotus finds work at the Moonflower Massage Parlor, a small massage parlor in the nearby village of Miaocun, on the outskirts of Shenzhen. It is run by a frightening madam named Moon. Lotus obediently does her “small” and “big” jobs, and spends her free time praying to Buddha or socializing with the other women.