Sex workers in China: between market economy and filial piety – Zhang Lijia

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Zhang Lijia

Twelve year it took author Zhang Lijia of Lotus: A Novel to write her book on prostitution in China. She sits down with Josh Chin of the Wall Street Journal to discuss how women are caught between the country’s market economy and filial piety.

The Wall Street Journal:

The book took 12 years to complete, which suggests you’ve been thinking about this topic for a while. How has it affected your view of sex in China?

I think the market economy has undermined gender equality because women have shouldered most of the burden as China made the transition from the planned economy. In factories, women are the first to go. In the factory I worked for, all women above 45 years of age were laid off. One year I saw a woman I’d worked with selling newspapers in the street. Without government intervention, women have fewer choices.

In the novel, Lotus talks a lot about helping her brother go to college and dreams about one day returning to her village as the triumphant filial daughter. Is it common that women in China turn to sex work to help relatives?

Almost all the women I know provide financial help to their families. Of course, there’s the filial piety thing. But it also makes them feel less guilty, and gives them more power within the family. One woman told me her brother ended up in jail for some reason, so she worked as a prostitute to finance his wife and children. When the brother got out, he wanted to take his daughter out of school, but the woman said, ‘No, I pay for her. She stays in school.’ So, for some there’s empowerment.

A lot of people might assume sex workers are cynical about relationships, and yet there’s a love story at the heart of your novel. Is that a literary device, or does it have a basis in reality?

What’s interesting is that a lot of the women kept boyfriends. Of course, we all long for love, but they were more passionate about it, because they were dealing in this fake intimacy every day and were really longing for genuine affection.

More in the Wall Street Journal.

Zhang Lijia is a speaker at the China Speakers Bureau. Do you need her at your meeting or conference? Do get in touch or fill in our speakers’ request form.

Are you looking for more experts on cultural change at the China Speakers Bureau? Do check out this list.