Books · Politics

Book Review: ‘Lotus,’ by Lijia Zhang

One day, a photographer named Bing approaches Moon and asks her for permission to photograph the prostitutes. Bing is curious about the lives of the women, and he and Lotus slowly become friends. When Lotus gets rounded up in a “sweeping yellow campaign” by police and thrown in prison for prostitution, she calls Bing to get her out. Over time their friendship deepens, and Bing wins a prize for his photos of the prostitutes. Bing states, at one point in the novel, “Prostitution is a window through which to see the changes in this country.”

The second time Lotus is arrested, one of Bing’s photographs is used as evidence that she is a prostitute. Bing eventually gets Lotus out of prison and discovers that his feelings of friendship have turned into a desire to protect Lotus that feels like love. The two have sex, Lotus quits her job at the massage parlor, and they become an odd couple. Both Lotus and Bing question their suitability for each other. Lotus feels that she will never be as worldly or intellectual as Bing and that their relationship could be a liability to Bing’s increasingly successful career. Bing also wonders if Lotus’s past will cause problems for him socially and politically, and if she can be trusted not to return to prostitution.

Lijia Zhang (Photo: David Pattinson)

While the storyline is fairly straightforward, Zhang’s language is filled with poetry, humor, old Chinese sayings, and lots of wordplay that convey interesting details about Chinese culture from the past to the present. Each chapter name is an old statement of wisdom that applies to the chapter. For example, the chapter called “If You Stay Long Enough in the Fish Market, You’ll Soon Get Used to the Stink” is a description of daily life at the Moonflower Massage Parlor and its clientele. The chapter called “A Newborn Calf Isn’t Afraid of Tigers” is about Lotus’s trip with Bing to her village. The expression is used to describe a young person—in this case, Lotus—who is brave and not afraid of obstacles. And the chapter called “You Can’t Wrap Fire in Paper” is the chapter where Lotus’s brother discovers that she is a prostitute. The expression is used to convey the idea that when you do something very wrong, it will eventually be discovered.

The descriptions of Lotus’s life as a ji, the word for “chicken” or “prostitute,” feel authentic. Zhang has clearly done her research. The women tell each other to “calm your tits” and refer to their clients with nicknames like Funny Eye, Scarecrow, and Mr. Pinky-Dick. The reader even learns how Lotus disinfects herself between jobs. Zhang writes about sexual acts with a mixture of banality and humor. The prostitutes call a hand job “shooting down the plane”; fellatio is called “playing the flute”; and intercourse is called “hole-digging.” In contrast, real lovemaking is more poetically referred to as “a session of cloud and rain.”

Despite all of the cultural information packed in its nearly 400 pages, Lotus is an easily read love story with an optimistic ending in which Lotus finds a way to regain her independence. Zhang’s bold personality, sensitivity, and wit have enabled her to tell the story of the many rural women struggling to live as prostitutes in big cities with dignity and hope under inhuman conditions. Zhang’s novel is dedicated to her maternal grandmother, Yang Huizhen, who was a prostitute, or “flower girl,” in the 1930s. The name Lotus is considered an auspicious symbol of purity because the flower after which it is named rises out of the mud to blossom.

Note: Lijia Zhang will be at Barnes and Noble at 2289 Broadway (and West 86th Street) in New York on February 1, 2017, at 7 pm. Come and hear the outspoken writer read from her novel and answer questions about life in contemporary China. I can guarantee a lively evening with good conversation.

Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.