Lotus by Lijia Zhang
Lijia Zhang is a journalist, public speaker and former rocket factory worker from China. She has also authored the critically acclaimed memoir, Socialism is Great, 2011. Lotus is her Chinese bestseller, 2017 and it was picked as the best book by NPR as well as getting acclaim from BBC and CNN.
Inspired by her grandmother who survived as a Flower girl (prostitute) in the 1930s, Zhang tells the moving and eye opening stories of prostitutes in China. The story of Lotus and other working girls at Moon Flower Massage Parlor is set in Shenzhen, a coastal city South of China, that in the 70s, 80s and 90s, embodied the once called Sick Man of Asia’s spring to become the world’s leading economic powerhouse. Zhang presents a complex story of a young woman who grapples to reconcile with her decisions in The Capital of Sin during an economically harsh time.
Lotus, a girl of about 24 flees her rural home in Mulberry Gully after her mother is killed by cancer. She follows Hua to work at a shoe factory to support her young brother Shadan to achieve University Education. Notably, their father is a worthless drunk.
The tragic death of her cousin Little Red at the shoe factory as a result of a fire, the rough working conditions and the peanut pay, force Lotus to jump ship. Being a school dropout, like many other rural urban migrant girls, her only sure bet is prostitution. Furthermore, a successful prostitute can earn twenty times more than a factory worker.
She decided that she wouldn’t use her name, Xiangzhu, anymore. From now on, on, she would simply be known as Lotus. The Lotus grows out of the mud yet remains pure and unstained.
Zhang paints the vivid picture of the life of a Ji by carefully drafting the relationships of joy, strife, sadness and hope as shared by Lotus, Xia, Mimi and Little Jade at Moon Flower Massage Parlor.
When the book starts, Lotus has just been arrested together with other Jis by the authorities from Zhangmotou detention center. Flower girls constantly suffer harassment from the police who are very motivated to Sweep away the Yellow a phrase for prostitution and pornography in China.
Every time Lotus gets arrested, Bing, a photographer of decent moral standing always comes to her rescue. A significant character in this text, Bing shoots to fame due to his attempts to give working girls a voice. He immerses himself into the working girl’s life and utilizes the chance to document them in magazines. Notably, China, a nation of around 2 Billion people, has approximately 10 Million prostitutes.
I’d like my pictures to give you working girls a human face to show you as ordinary women
Zhang has weaved a complex character in Bing. He is a philanthropist of sorts, devoted to making Lotus’ life better, yet even with his University education, he is not successful personally. He is divorced by his wife Mei, a teacher of English, who views him as meichuxi. In an even more complex twist, his philanthropy is tainted by an underlying intimate desire for his main photography subject, Lotus, as well as another secret affair with another high end prostitute called Pearl.
Interestingly, business deals in China are mostly done over dinner tables and since prostitutes are an essential part of the business landscape, they are often hired to entertain men, to grease deals, and to bribe whoever needs to be bribed. At the parlor, however, Zhang documents the disturbing life of a flower girl. A client will, for instance, come seeking their flutes to be played (Oral sex). These kinds of shifty jobs, though economically rewarding, leave lotus feeling physically dirty, emotionally wasted and spiritually empty. Lotus finds ways to obtain consolation and healing.
A cracked jar doesn’t mind being smashed again.
She saw Buddhism as a vehicle to serve her need to cleanse herself
Bing is an instrumental lover and friend of Lotus. He takes her under his wing and offers whatever support she needs. He encourages her to practice her passion of teaching children. She even gets pregnant for him. At this point, we all root for them to be an item. However, ultimately, she decides to detach and chat her independent way.
This read has many merits. First, Zhang is a self-taught English user. We would expect her to write well in Mandarin but surprisingly she weaves such a compelling story in a foreign language, even though it takes her 12 years.
Secondly, Zhang wins my approval mostly because she engages such a taboo issue in a candid and well thought manner. She intertwines it successfully with related issues such as economic strife, governance, spirituality, history, culture and traditions.
Then, if there is an aspect that has won this piece the acclaim it enjoys, it has to be Zhang’s use of cultural wisdom. She borrows from China’s wealth of sayings and proverbs in brilliant version. We cannot take it lightly that Zhang marries such ancient sayings with such a modern urban text successfully (Literature is news that remains news-Ezra Pound).Her chapters have titles such as ‘Where water flows, a channel is formed’ and ‘You can’t wrap fire in a paper’
On the flip side, I was disappointed that such a current book lacks a completely global touch. China has spread its arms all over the world, and it’s a key investor in Africa for example. Therefore, I expected Zhang to at least not just dwell on Asia and the West.
This is for all of you feminists, it’s as intimate and as brutal as you would like. Lotus is also a worthy read for African readers. It gives you a closer glimpse of our latest economic partner (China)
(As reviewed by Murimi Kinyua)
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co, 2017
Murimi Kinyua is a Writer, Teacher of Literature and English and Contributor with Mehara Lit. He holds a Bachelor of Education Arts Degree from Egerton University, Kenya. He has a passion for reading and writing, and takes keen interest in serious Philosophical Literature. He also loves sports and hopes to travel the horizons of the world one day. He is currently based in Nakuru and Embu, Kenya.