After the first raving reviews of Zhang Lijia’s book Lotus: A Novel on prostitution in China, interviewers dive into her research and how her novel relates to real people. At ChinaReadings Mike Cormack takes a look at (among others) the photographer Zhao Tienlin.
Can you tell us the story of how you researched the novel?
I interviewed many sex workers in Shenzhen, Dongguan, Beihai, Beijing and Tianjin. When you don’t know them well, they don’t always tell you the whole story. I tried to make friends with them, but it was hard to maintain a friendship with them, as their lives were often transient as they moved from one city to another, from one parlour to another, they changed their mobile or they simply vanished. What really helped me to gain insight was my experience of working for a NGO for female sex workers in a northern city in China. Lotus is a purely work of fiction (not another memoir based on personal experience) but many details, Lotus’s first handjob, for example, are real, and learned from the girls I befriended.
The character Binbing is based on the real photographer Zhao Tielin, who photographed sex workers in Hainan. Did you meet Zhao in person?
Yes, I indeed met him, quite a few times. But I never really had in-depth conversations with him, which would have allow me to find out the deeper reasons why he would live among the working girls and photographed them obsessively, beyond the grand reason of giving a voice to people with no voice. I was hoping to do so after I got to know him better. But he fell ill and passed away. I did read all of his books.
The photographer character Hu Binbing in Lotus is inspired by Zhao. What’s Hu’s motivation? I hinted – perhaps too subtly – that photographing prostitutes serves Hu as a tool to achieve success, to prove to his ex-wife that she’s wrong about him, as well as to feed his own sexual fantasies.
Are you looking for more articles on Zhang Lijia? Do check out this list.