Zhang Lijia, author of Lotus: A Novel on prostitution in China discusses at TimeOut Shanghai her book, the growth of prostitution and how it relates to women’s lives. “When your stomach is full, you start thinking about sex.”
Is the character Lotus typical of these women’s experiences?
‘She’s not based on one person, but many of the small details are real. Of course, a prostitute’s life is not a fun life, but they are still three-dimensional women. Their lives are not complete misery either. There is a very famous book by Lao She called Yue Yar – the character Yue Yar is a prostitute – and oh my God, her life was totally, utterly miserable the whole time. The character was just not believable.
‘I spent lots of time listening to very funny anecdotes – these girls could be so much fun, and they really support each other and form strong relationships. Some of them had experienced sexual pleasure they had never had with their husbands, they received compliments and flattery they might not get elsewhere, sometimes even gifts and flowers. One woman said to me, “Flowers! Why didn’t he just give me more money!?”. One even told me that a client wanted her to dress up like she was from The Red Detachment of Women, the ballet from the 1960s [laughs].
‘I think these women were able to enjoy the power brought by money. I saw some who improved their position in the family, or with their husbands, because they were bringing in their own money. They often became more assertive. And their life is not all miserable.’
Do you think prostitution is growing in China?
‘Definitely yes. China has been repressed for quite a long time, but there is now growing wealth, a relaxing of control, and a sexual revolution. STDs are growing fastest among older men – they often feel they’ve missed out on something and want to go to prostitutes who they believe are experienced and skilful. Their wives are in their 50s or 60s, and were brought up to believe that women shouldn’t be interested in sex, so tend to be quite conservative. The men don’t have knowledge about protecting themselves either.
‘It’s also a cultural thing – after all, my grandfather took my grandmother as a concubine. It’s an old way for men to show their wealth and prestige, and this old mentality is coming back with the ernai [mistresses] among rich men. We have a saying in China: When your stomach is full, you start thinking about sex.’
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