Sarah Mellors reviews for the LA Review of Books Zhang Lijia’s Lotus: A Novel. The novel is a telling story of how China’s society works, she says, and both main characters Lotus and Bing illustrate many issues: rural-urban divide, economic development without political liberalization, the post-Mao moral vacuum and money worshiping, and the tension between so-called traditional Chinese values and modern concerns.
LA Review of Books:
Within the hierarchy of Chinese prostitutes, Lotus is close to the bottom, working in a massage parlor that also offers erotic services. For most sex workers, the best they can hope for is a permanent position as an ernai (literally, second tit), a mistress whose housing and daily expenses are covered long term by a wealthy male patron. Though ernai rarely become wives, they can enjoy otherwise unattainable degrees of financial security and live in luxury.
Yet, when multiple businessmen demand that Lotus become their ernai, she declines their offers. Instead, she falls for Bing, a photographer educated at Tsinghua University (one of China’s top schools) who is 16 years her senior, and who left his job in business to pursue a passion project of documenting the lives of Shenzhen’s sex workers. Through interactions among Lotus, Bing, and other characters, the book chronicles the changes in China since the period of reform and opening up that Deng Xiaoping initiated in 1978. Zhang’s lens zooms in and out, balancing Lotus and Bing’s personal lives with critiques of the sociopolitical climate as a whole. Lotus and Bing’s continual search for meaning and a sense of self beyond the quest for money mirrors the crisis of an entire generation of Chinese. Bing, highly educated and significantly older than Lotus, is representative of the generation of idealistic intellectuals who peacefully protested against government authoritarianism in 1989. Lotus, a generation younger, encounters a similar existential crisis but from the perspective of a poor migrant worker seeking to reconcile the hedonism of the city with her conservative rural upbringing and Buddhist faith.
As in the LGBTQ novel Beijing Comrades, which I reviewed for this publication a year ago, readers of Lotus will encounter a vast array of topics related to modern China, including the growing rural-urban divide, economic development without political liberalization, the post-Mao moral vacuum and money worshiping, and the tension between so-called traditional Chinese values and modern concerns. These themes are effortlessly integrated into Lotus’s coming-of-age story. Against this backdrop, Zhang emphasizes the fortitude of her protagonist as much as Lotus’s vulnerability and suffering. The book highlights the ways in which sex work can lead to upward mobility for young women as well as abuse and social stigma. Well researched and deftly written, Lotus is at times cutting and raw, at other points delicate and poetic.
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