Most of us in our 20s or above remember where we were on 1 January 2000, when the planet welcomed the new year, decade, century and millennium. (Pedants however never tire of pointing out that the correct date should have been one year later.) Lijia Zhang’s Lotus begins with the title character facing a rather grim start to the year—on that January day, Lotus is arrested for suspicion of prostitution as she’s sitting shore side in Shenzhen, contemplating the turns of her 23 years of life. The arresting officer scoffs at her:
“… no decent girl would dress up like this in the morning.”
Lotus looked down at her sleeveless black fishnet top and short skirt. This morning, she had simply thrown a cardigan over last night’s outfit.
Off she goes to jail, with a few other working girls and a beggar, because, as another officer explains, “Our provincial governor is coming here for the millennium gala this afternoon.” This initial scene of Lotus establishes a pattern that Zhang uses repeatedly—placing the lives of her characters in the context of the China of the 1990s and into 2000, and using their personal stories as a window on those times and an opportunity to have the characters reflect on them.
Zhang uses her characters’ stories as a window on the China of the 1990s and into 2000.
Lotus’ arrest, and a number of incidents throughout the book, evoke the treatment of sex workers in modern China. Sex workers suffer in most economies—in China, the private economy has long since embraced various forms of prostitution, and bureaucrats are famous for their illicit embraces, sometimes becoming involuntary stars in web-posted images. Aggressively banned during the Mao years, prostitution is still punished by the state, with of course a focus on the working women rather than the customers, and broader society still scorns sex workers. Despite STDs being a substantial public health issue, prostitutes sometimes avoid carrying multiple condoms, because if they’re searched and the condoms found, local police jurisdictions use the condoms as proof of the prostitute’s occupation.
Zhang’s characters, usually in passing, discuss Mao’s legacy, the plight of migrant workers and especially their children, the manners of those raised in the provinces vs those raised in more urbane environments, and the so-called Great Leap Forward (1958-1962), which the Party has since further euphemized with the phrase ‘three natural disasters’:
“Have you heard about the ‘three natural disasters’?” Bing asked?
[Lotus] blinked her eyes, thinking hard, but shook her head in the end.
“Never mind. After the Great Leap Forward, there was a widespread famine in China. Millions died. In fact, it was actually more of a man-made disaster.”
Bing, the other lead character in Lotus, goes on to describe the horrors his family faced in his birth year, 1961.
And of course the Tiananmen spring and eventual massacre. Toward the end of the book, one of Zhang’s lead characters is revealed to have had a deep, personal connection to Beijing on 4 June 1989.
Zhang’s second solo work, Lotus follows the memoir Socialism is Great! (2006), which bookends the 1980s, starting when Zhang’s mother hauled her out of middle school so the daughter could take over the mother’s job at a factory, a coveted position in those days, and especially for Zhang’s impoverished family, and ending with her interrogation for her activities during the time of Tiananmen.
In a talk at the Shanghai Literary Festival in March, Zhang described the difficulty she had in getting the tone right for these historical references, knowing that she couldn’t very well have her characters say things such as “the Cultural Revolution, the disastrous period from 1966 to 1976 that …” Using the characters in a story to make observations about the wider social milieu becomes a clunky and forced device in the hands of a mediocre writer; fortunately for her work and readers, Zhang is not that.
The remainder of her talk at the festival focused on sex workers in China, a topic of substantial importance and great interest to the audience. We may hope that the publication of Lotus does for sex workers something of what Leslie Chang’s Factory Girls (2006) did for (especially female) migrant workers, though there’s a spirited debate in literary circles about the reasons for and relevance of Chinese authors writing in foreign languages, and the impact they may lose when they do so. Zhang says she wrote her first book in English in part so that her mother wouldn’t have to read about the daughter’s sexual development in the 1980s.
Zhang has elsewhere spoken about her next literary ambitions, but perhaps in another decade we’ll read a work from her which might, given her history, be set in about 2010 and therefore become a reflection on the first years of this millennium, which started with China’s accession to WTO (2001) and being granted the right to host (and lose hundreds of millions on) the 2008 Olympics, and ended with the aftereffects of the global financial crisis, combined with a domestic infrastructure build-out the likes of which the world has never seen. One could hardly ask for a broader canvas on which to paint, and Zhang has proven herself equal to the task.
John Darwin Van Fleet lives in Shanghai. His book Tales of Old Tokyo, a romp through the city’s history from 1853 to 1964, was published in 2015, while Squabbling Siblings, Japan and China from Antiquity to 2022 will be published later this year.
Zhang Lijia will be appearing at