Monday, 29 May 2017

Going High - International Women's Day 2017

With many thanks to Tallulah Self for making this great film 
of our IWD event in Norwich City Centre.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Lijia Zhang on her novel Lotus: part 3 – Chinese Society

Below is Part Three of zhendegender ‘s interview with Lijia Zhang about her first novel Lotus  which centres on a young migrant woman eager to escape her life as a prostitute in China.

What does your novel convey about greater Chinese society, or about societies in general?

Every society has prostitution. There is a saying in China: once you have food and clothing you start thinking about sex.

Society has become hedonistic after Mao’s regime of sexual purity and sexual repression. China has become materialistic, restless. Other reasons for the growing sex industry include growing wealth, relaxed social control and the resulting growth in individual personal freedom. Plus of course, China’s population is increasingly mobile. Young migrant workers often can’t bring their wives with them or establish a relationship.

Prostitutes are real people, and I wanted to expose that. They are not always sexually appealing, but they know all the tricks of how to flirt and attract men. The oldest sex worker I met was a woman in her middle 60s. Another middle-aged sex worker had a grown-up daughter who was married. Some women really get stuck in the trade and cannot get out. Like any job, there are drawbacks. But their lives are not totally bleak either.

When she becomes a prostitute, Lotus has no idea about sexual health. Her clients pay more for sex without a condom, and one man even washes out an expensive “Golden Gun – Never Flops” condom for later use. What are the pervasive attitudes and challenges to sex education?

The legislation states sexual education should be taught in schools, but it is not compulsory and it is not enforced. It is not on the government’s list of priorities. There aren’t calls from the public for sexual education but there are non-governmental organisations providing information on a wide range of things, from HIV/Aids clinics to promoting openness about sexuality.

Many prostitutes are not educated about sexual health. Their bosses often tell them that it is ok not to use a condom, because they get more money that way. They will say, “it looks clean” and agree to sex without a condom. Many men will refuse to wear a condom.

One NGO promoting sexual health suggested prostitutes start using femidoms, because then the women themselves could have control of the contraception and they don't have to rely on the clients wearing a condom. But the prostitutes said they cannot use femidoms, because they are too big – in a raid, they will often swallow the condoms they have on their person, because condoms (used or unused) will be used as hard evidence by the police. But femidoms were too big to swallow so they would not carry them or use them.

The detail about Family Treasure washing out the condom for later use is true. I heard lots of stories like that. That brand, ‘Golden Gun – Never Flops’, is a real brand of condoms, you know!

Migrants tend to live on the outskirts of cities where they can find cheap temporary housing. They seem to occupy a liminal space between urban and rural life, where they find it hard to integrate. Lotus’s status as a migrant seems to compound her existing problems. How do migration issues compound women’s problems in China?

The Hukou system prevents migrant workers getting really good jobs. The Hukou is effectively China’s apartheid system. It is partly because of the Hukou that migrant workers and urban residents live such separate lives. In the novel, Lotus tries to become a salesperson, she even buys the clothing for it. But she cannot because she doesn't have the correct residence papers.

How does the legal position of sex workers reflect patterns of class-based oppression in China?

Most women come to prostitution through personal choice. There is very little trafficking, there are very few women who are sold into prostitution, there are not many pimps. However, there are some cases where the pimp is the woman’s husband or brother.

Prostitution is illegal. The government does not really know how to tackle the problem so the police do big raids and crackdowns. The police arrest as many women as they can. The police will use any evidence they can to prove the women are prostitutes. Condoms – used or unused – are considered hard evidence.

Crackdowns are a big problem. The police will beat up the women and force them to confess. If the woman goes unconscious, they will force her to drink water mixed with wasabi so they wake up. A woman I know was sprayed with a high-pressure hose with cold water, and then they put the air conditioning on. When she vomited, they made her eat her own vomit.

If they can prove that a woman is a prostitute, they will repatriate her, take her back home. Repatriation means that the woman will be sent back to her hometown in shame, and her family will have to pay the fine. That means everyone will find out the truth. They will do anything to avoid this. I know a woman who slept with the policeman but still had to pay the fine before they would let her go. They would rather borrow money to pay the fines, lose all their savings and go bankrupt, than be sent home in shame.

Note: Hukou is a national identification system which determines where citizens are allowed to live, and is used to control the movement of people between urban and rural areas. Access to schooling, healthcare, employment, and owning property all depend on where the individual’s Hukou is registered.


The interviewer is from Norwich, UK and is currently based in Beijing, China, where she teaches English Literature at a state university, and writes about gender and culture in contemporary Asia. Her writing has featured in various media outlets in China and the UK. Read more at

Lijia Zhang is one of the few mainland Chinese writers to write in English. Her first book was the memoir: Socialism is Great! A Worker’s Memoir of the New China

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Lijia Zhang on her novel Lotus: part 2 – women’s rights in China

Lijia Zhang
Below is Part Two of zhendegender ‘s interview with Lijia Zhang about her first novel Lotus  which centres on a young migrant woman eager to escape her life as a prostitute in China.

What is the worst thing about the state of women’s rights in China today?

There are a lot of problems for women in China. Women still have much less power than men, and lower social standing but the wage gap is probably the worst thing. The latest official statistics suggest that the income for urban women is 67.3% of men’s income while women in the countryside make only 56% of what men make. But many women are empowered by being able to earn money. There was one sex worker I met who bought a flat for herself and her mother to live in, in a city near her village. I think moving to the city is the best possible outcome that villagers hope for.

Lotus questions how to equate sexual pleasure with social norms, because she’s been told good women shouldn’t enjoy sex yet she tries hard to please clients. How are attitudes towards women’s sexuality changing?

I met a woman who was very empowered by earning money, and by her relative liberation since becoming a sex worker. People don’t get into the trade for sexual pleasure, but some women do find sexual pleasure with clients, which they hadn’t experienced with their husbands.

China is going through a sexual revolution. Studies show that a much higher number of people are having sex before marriage than previously. In sociologist Li Yinhe’s 1989 study, 85% of people claimed they had no sexual experience before marriage. Among the 15% who did have sexual experience, some of them were already engaged, which means by Chinese standards that they are already a couple. (According to The Report on the Health of Chinese People's Sex Life, jointly released by Media Survey Lab and Insight China magazine, 71.4% of people were sexually active before marriage in 2012.)

There are more prostitutes, more pornography, more young people having sex before marriage, a higher rate of divorce, and now people have many different sexual partners. If her husband cannot satisfy her, a woman can divorce him. These women will not stand for second best, because they don’t have to any more.

Another woman I met felt very conflicted about one client. An older colleague told her to think this way, just imagine: “The clients give us sexual pleasure and money, we use them for a service – not them using us.” She called clients dogs. She joked that a perfect job would be something that would give her both sexual pleasure and money. But she also craves respect.

Having a mistress is a very common way for a man to show his money and status. This started with the Emperor and noblemen, who would have many concubines. Maoist reforms in the 50s changed that, even though Mao himself was doing all sorts of things with young women behind closed doors, disobeying his own rules. For some time prostitution was very uncommon in China but the rates are high again. Now, men have mistresses to prove they have a lot of money and a high status. Ernais are just glorified prostitutes. The relationship between a man and his Ernai is primarily about money and economic status, not love.

Lotus accompanies her friend Mimi to an abortion clinic. It’s quite an emotive scene, but abortions are very common in China with about 16 million abortions are performed annually. Is abortion viewed as a social or political problem in China?

Abortion is quite a normal thing in China. I’ve had an abortion, my sister has had several abortions, and my mother had abortions. There is no social stigma because Chinese women don’t carry the same emotional or religious baggage about abortion as people in the west. It is not considered a danger to society. It is just a common form of birth control, and people rely on access to abortion. Women don't get counseling after abortions like in the UK. Most people don’t think a foetus is a human being, so it is not a problem.

It is very easy to get an abortion, but it is not always safe. There are many hospitals and clinics that women can go to. There are adverts in the back seats of cabs: “quick and easy treatment at such and such a clinic.” Some women go to get very cheap backstreet abortions, and it can be very dangerous. They go to places without proper licenses and get a razor treatment or something like that and it is very harmful.

Most women don’t know about other types of contraception. The information is not really available. So they just use abortions as contraception. I think this is changing, if slowly, and more women are learning about other ways to prevent pregnancy.

Did you hear stories about women fighting back against patriarchy while you were researching the novel?

I know a woman who was with a client who wanted a blow job. He had not given her enough money, so she said no. He told her “stop pretending you are a noblewoman, you are a common prostitute,” but she still refused to take less money. He said, “fuck your mother”, and she replied, “leave my mother out of it.” Again, he said “fuck your mother”, so she picked up a heavy glass ashtray and she hit him in the face with it. She lost her job for that, and she lost a few thousand kuai on the deposit she had paid the massage parlour she worked at as a guarantee she would not run away. But a friend helped her get a job at a higher-class establishment instead.

I know another woman who ultimately wanted to get out of the trade. She made a deal with herself that she would get out if she could earn 10,000 kuai. So she earned 10,000 and she said, 20,000 and I will leave. When she reached 20,000 she said to herself, “now I have to save up to buy a home.” When she had bought her home she still did not give up the trade. Then she learned about the dangers of unprotected sex: she got very worried that she had contracted HIV because she had had unprotected sex. She realised she could have died by now. So she went for a test. Back then the results would be really slow, she had to wait several weeks. While she was waiting for the results, she made a deal with herself. She decided if she got through this without HIV, she would really quit the trade. Her results came back clean, so she quit.

Part 3 of this interview will be posted on Wednesday 24th May

The interviewer is from Norwich, UK and is currently based in Beijing, China, where she teaches English Literature at a state university, and writes about gender and culture in contemporary Asia. Her writing has featured in various media outlets in China and the UK. Read more at

Lijia Zhang is one of the few mainland Chinese writers to write in English. Her first book was the memoir: Socialism is Great! A Worker’s Memoir of the New China

Thursday, 11 May 2017

An Interview with Lijia Zhang on her debut novel Lotus.

Lijia Zhang initially rose to prominence with the story of her rebellious journey from disillusioned rocket factory girl to international journalist. Her 2008 memoir Socialism is Great! A Worker’s Memoir of the New China documents her escape from a mind-numbing job testing pressure gauges at a Nanjing munitions factory into the world of English Literature. Her debut novel Lotus, inspired by her grandmother’s deathbed confession of being sold to a brothel, delves deep into the sex industry in contemporary Shenzhen, following a young migrant woman, Lotus, who is eager to escape her life as a prostitute.

Lijia Zhang will be talking about her novel and her work at two events in London – at The Asia House on the 15th May and at China Exchange on the 18th May. She will also be talking about her work on Start The Week, BBC Radio 4, on May 15th at 9am.

Over the next week we will be posting an interview with Lijia Zhang with the kind permission of the author and the blog zhendegender . The interview took place in December 2016, just weeks before the publication of Lotus. In part 1, Lijia Zhang describes her reasons for telling this unparalleled story, how she learned to relate to Chinese sex workers, and how her own struggle for self-improvement informed her character, Lotus.


Why did you feel that you had to tell this story about contemporary China?
I tried to find out about grandmother’s life after her deathbed confession of being a concubine, but my mother knew very little about her life. So I have always been curious about these women. Then on a trip to Shenzhen I went to a hairdresser near my hotel and asked for a haircut. There were several women there but they said they did not know how to cut hair. I looked at the floor. There wasn’t any hair on the floor. I realised these women were prostitutes.
Prostitution is an interesting window to see social changes and it touches upon some serious social issues, such as migration and women’s rights.

Why write a novel, not a non-fiction book, about prostitution in China?
I wanted to become a journalist, and I did. I wanted to have a story published in the New York Times, and I did. I had always wanted to write a novel. So I thought I would try my hand.
I started Lotus when I was in my final year of my MA at Goldsmiths. The storyline has changed little, but the style changed a great deal. For example, I experimented with the point of view. I started by writing all the dialogue in pidgin English, with direct translations of Chinese, like “Toilet is where?”
I tried writing it from the perspective of Lotus, and later from the perspective of Bing, her child's father, but that meant I could not tackle social issues like women’s rights, migration, the aftermath of Tiananmen. So I decided to write it in third person, alternating between different points of view, and eventually it became Lotus.

How do your personal experiences inform the characters and events in your novel?
It took a lot of work to do all the research about these women. It took months and months of research over many years. I met so many people with so many stories.
I volunteered for an NGO dedicated to help female sex workers, where my main task was distributing condoms. On day two of my time as a volunteer, I met a really colourful character. I accompanied a staff member as she went to visit a sex worker. This woman was sitting outside, which is unusual because most women would hide inside. They wear revealing clothes but they don’t want to draw attention to themselves on the street. This woman was doing embroidery on the street – she was embroidering a church onto fabric. She took us inside, and the woman I was with commented on her breasts. I was amazed how much they talked about breasts. She spoke to prostitutes in their own language, to be on their level. She was a former prostitute and knew she had to engage them using the same language. They really trusted her.
The women inside the shop commented on her breasts in return, so she explained that she herself had had surgery. They said “I’m thinking of getting implants, can I see?” So they went into the back room and everyone looked at her breasts. The breast implants had not settled well. It was a cheap procedure, and one of her nipples went sideways. She had been told that massaging them would help so she was always massaging her chest.

Her fellow villagers call Lotus “the toad who dreams of eating swans meat”, meaning someone who dreams too big. How does your own struggle for self-improvement come through in Lotus?
Lotus wants more from her life. People often laugh at those who think or behave differently. These women send money home to their families. This is really important for them. It improves their position in the family and gives them face. They must be seen to be successful. They want to show their best side to people in the village.
My friend and I went to visit one woman’s hometown with her. On the day we travelled there, she wore very nice clothes and when we arrived in the village, she took off her trainers and changed them for a pair of leather high-heeled shoes.. On the bus there, she introduced herself, and us, to other people from her village: “hey, I am the second from the Mao family, do you remember me? This is my friend, an international writer and this is a doctor.”
It is the same for other professions, too. I met a man who was a garbage collector in the city. He usually wore very dirty clothes all the time. But when he went to his home village he wore a very smart coat, with a fur trim around the neck. He looked so smart. It is very important to appear successful to the people in the village.
They cannot really tell people the truth about their life in the city. It can be quite lonely. Telling the truth is the worst thing that they could do.

When Lotus chooses her own path for the first time, she decides to open a school instead of settling down with the father of her unborn baby. Is her choice to become a single mother a realistic one in contemporary China? What does the future look like for a woman in her position?
It is realistic. Single mothers exist and they live their lives. Many live in these villages that were once stand-alone places but have now been engulfed by the city. They are supported within that community. She may not have the correct papers for the baby but they will be ok. 
A woman like Lotus might marry the baby’s father just for the papers. Lotus is very smart and savvy. I don’t think she has decided yet. But she may not maintain the relationship with Bing, because she realised that she can’t be herself when she’s with him. He is very selfish really. He doesn’t really consider her needs. He was a more sinister character in previous versions. But Lotus has always been very strong, quite unlike the way Bing sees her.
My husband left me for a younger woman. That was horrible for me. I fell apart. But I used my break-up to understand Lotus’s struggle to deal with the crisis and to become independent.

PART 2 of this interview will be posted on the 17th May.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

A Secret Sisterhood

On the 1st June Aurum Press will be publishing a must-read book about female literary friendships. Male literary friendships are the stuff of legend; think Byron and Shelley, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. But the world’s best-loved female authors are usually portrayed as isolated eccentrics. Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney seek to dispel this myth with a wealth of hidden yet startling collaborations.
A Secret Sisterhood looks at Jane Austen’s bond with a family servant, the amateur playwright Anne Sharpe; how Charlotte Bronte was inspired by the daring feminist Mary Taylor; the transatlantic relationship between George Eliot and the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe; and the underlying erotic charge that lit the friendship of Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield – a pair too often dismissed as bitter foes.
Through letters and diaries which have never been published before, this fascinating book resurrects these hitherto forgotten stories of female friendships that were sometimes illicit, scandalous and volatile; sometimes supportive, radical or inspiring; but always, until now, tantalisingly consigned to the shadows.
A Secret Sisterhood evolved from the authors’ own friendship. Their blog, SomethingRhymed, charts female literary bonds and has been covered in the media and promoted by Margaret Atwood, Sheila Hancock and Kate Mosse, showing that the literary sisterhood is still alive today.

A Secret Sisterhood
The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontе, Eliot and Woolf
By Emily Midorikawa & Emma Claire Sweeney
Foreword by Margaret Atwood
Pub 1st June 2017 Aurum Press

Emma Claire Sweeney has lectured at City University, New York University in London, the Open University and the University of Cambridge. Her work has won Arts Council, Royal Literary Fund and Escalator Awards, and has been shortlisted for several others, including the Asham, Wasafiri and Fish. She writes for newspapers and magazines such as the Guardian, the Independent on Sunday, The Times, and Mslexia. Her debut novel Owl Song at Dawn was published by Legend Press in July 2016. The novel has been shortlisted for the BookHugger Book of the Year Award, and Emma has been named an Amazon Rising Star and a Hive Rising Writer.

Emily Midorikawa lectures at City University and at New York University’s London campus. She has taught at the University of Cambridge and the Open University, as well as writing for the Daily Telegraph, the Independent on Sunday, The Times, Aesthetica and Mslexia. Her memoir ‘The Memory Album’ appeared in Tangled Roots, an Arts Council-sponsored collection that celebrates the stories of mixed-race families. Emily is the winner of the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize 2015, and was longlisted for the Mslexia Novel Competition. She was a runner-up in the SI Leeds Literary Prize, judged by Margaret Busby, and the Yeovil Literary Prize, judged by Tracy Chevalier.