Lotus is Lijia Zhang's first novel - she previously spent a decade working in a missile factoryB Lunn/YouTube

Lijia Zhang’s voice is soft and emotive as she reads a section of her latest novel Lotus to a group of attentive ears during her visit to Cambridge. As a freelance writer, journalist, and social commentator, Lijia uses her writing to convey new perspectives and shed light on the rapid changes China has undergone in the past decades. As Lijia discusses her work’s titular character Lotus, she also shares more about why sharing this story not only important in its own right, but to her personally.  

Lotus is a fictional story centred on the life of a brave young woman of the same name who moves from her mountain village in Sichuan to the bustling metropolis of Shenzhen in search of a new life. Eventually, Lotus must turn to prostitution to survive. The novel details the effects of the region’s illicit sex trade, police brutality, and corruption on the lives of its ordinary citizens. This is reflective of how Zhang talks of prostitution “as an interesting widow [through which] to observe social tensions brought by the reforms in recent decades, such as the rural-urban divide, the growing gender inequality and the tug of war between the tradition and the modernity.”

She was first inspired to write this story when she discovered that her grandmother had been a sex worker in her youth.

Discussing the stigmatisation of sex workers, Zhang says she wants to “humanise” their stories, “return their humanity, and inspire people to see them in a new way.”

She remains very critical of the lack of state support in China available to sex workers, given how much the country has benefited from immense economic development. “I met a woman who was a victim of domestic violence, but her family would not take her in, forcing her to become a sex worker to survive,” explains Zhang.

“It’s about giving a voice to [women] who don’t publicly have a voice”.

This comes through in Lotus, Zhang’s protagonist. Lotus undergoes a journey of love and personal growth, because “I wanted to tell the story of a survivor, not a victim”, Zhang explains. The feminist twist in the uplifting ending was something that Lijia had set out first before working out how to get there in the plot. “This book is really about a young woman’s journey in finding herself,” she adds.

Keenly aware that her own background is so different of her protagonist’s, Zhang set out to gain better insight into the sex trade by interviewing sex workers in China’s big urban cities. In doing so, she encountered many challenges.

“Their lives are very transient as they change from one city to another; they change their numbers and vanish.”

Zhang’s breakthrough came when she met a former-sex-worker turned social worker at a conference in Beijing, who runs an NGO helping female sex workers. While volunteering at this organisation, Zhang befriended some girls and learned more about their experiences.

“I wanted to tell the story of a survivor, not a victim”

“A high percentage of the girls had faiths of some sort.” In the story, Lotus is a Buddhist, just like Zhang’s own grandmother.

Zhang also notes how China’s rapid economic growth has greatly shaped the new challenges facing women. She describes how growing inequality hits female migrant-workers and those in the urban cities the hardest. “Market economy reforms benefit an urban, middle-class and educated type of women.”

For migrant workers, Zhang believes there is an expectation that they earn money for their families while remaining very conservative and abiding by traditional gender norms. However, “more women are being laid off from their jobs, increasing unemployment.” In particular, “women are seen as a burden in many ways.”

Almost all the female sex-workers Zhang had met sent their money home. “It was out of their filial piety and something that made them feel better.”

When writing Lotus, Lijia incorporated journalistic elements to provide context to Western readers who might not be familiar with the situation in China. “I tried to sprinkle the necessary information and deliver it in a less journalistic way,” she says.

Given this wider context of societal change, Zhang recognises the power of literature to reflect this transformation. “It opens up a new world for readers,” she says. But the power of words is not just conveyed through literature. Zhang talks about the spread of the #MeToo movement in China, which began towards the end of January in 2018. “The younger generation of urban women are more aware of these international norms, sparking them to speak up about their experiences of sexual abuse and harassment,” she says. Yet, Zhang is not optimistic about the changing of platforms for feminism through literature.  

“My friends who are female writers writing about these problems have faced problems with censorship,” Zhang says. In particular, she mentions the “Feminist Five”, young women who marked International Women’s Day by handing out stickers to passengers on public transport about sexual harassment. Their subsequent arrests reveal the immense political challenges facing feminism in China.

“More women are being laid off from their jobs, increasing unemployment ... women are seen as a burden in many ways.”

Perhaps, however, the hope comes from Zhang’s story of Lotus. Her fictional mirroring of the real experiences of many women brings these issues to light on an international stage.

“I want to show the crude reality of the Chinese market economy and the resilience of women struggling in the bottom of society,” Lijia adds.

Like the characters in Lotus, Zhang has experienced what life is like in a rapidly changing China, having spent a decade working at a factory that produced intercontinental missiles. Although Zhang had dreamed of becoming a journalist and writer from a young age, she was taken out of school to work at the factory at the age of sixteen. Whilst working at the factory, Zhang taught herself English. “Reading gave me escape and enlightenment, and it gave me a route to escape the tough reality [of the factory] and to broaden my horizons”, she says.

Upon completing a Master’s degree in Creative and Life Writing in London, Zhang returned to China and her dreams took flight as she began to write. She wrote a memoir about her time at the factory, titled Socialism is Great!”: A Worker’s Memoir of New China. With Lotus being Zhang’s first fictional novel, she mentions how the transition from fiction to nonfiction writing styles was “extremely challenging”.

“The freedom to create a fictional world was both exciting and intimidating.” Freedom also takes on another meaning in the context of contemporary China when it comes to censorship. A previous book she wrote in Chinese about the Western image of Chairman Mao was censored, Zhang decided to write in English in order to “freely express” herself. This helped Zhang overcome another type of censorship that was not political, but rather “a writer’s own self-censorship”, as she calls it.

“By writing in English, I gained unexpected literary freedom. By not being inhibited by my mother tongue, I can also be bold as I experiment with the language. I use different words and I structure my sentences differently, consciously and unconsciously. Of course, my experiment doesn’t always work. But I enjoy the adventure.”

Although having studied English for thirty years, Zhang says she still faces great challenges when writing in English, “I write too slowly, and I don’t understand the subtle meanings of certain words, so in that sense, I still regard myself as being a novice.”

Throughout her journey, Zhang draws upon many literary inspirations. She cites George Orwell’s four reasons for writing: egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose, as key drivers of her motivation to write. In particular, she remains drawn to Jane Eyre, “a plain-looking character full of spirit and longing”, Zhang comments. In more recent years, she mentions how reading her MA professor Blake Morrison’s memoir And When Did You Last See Your Father shaped the techniques she had used to complete her own memoir.


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Following the success of Lotus, Zhang is now turning her focus back towards non-fiction. She is working on a narrative non-fiction book about the children of migrant workers in China, also known as their ‘left-behind’ children. “There are currently 61 million children living in villages across the country without both or one parent,” she says. The book will focus on a rural community in Southwest China’s Guizhou province, to examine the human cost of China’s economic miracle. As preparation, “I am reading or re-reading outstanding literary non-fiction books on China, such as Wish Lantern by Alec Ash and Factory Girls by Leslie Chang.”

As for aspiring writers, Zhang’s words of advice is to just “read and write and live your life.”

“Just going ahead and writing is the best thing you can do,” she says with a smile.