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Women hide their faces as police raid an entertainment venue in Beijing, China suspected of offering prostitution services. In the new novel Lotus , Chinese author Zhang Lijia gives a window into the lives of these women by following the protagonist, a young woman from rural Sichuan who migrates to the coastal boomtown of Shenzhen, as she ends up servicing men in a red light massage parlor and navigating the travails of her profession and urban life.
Though the novel is fiction, Zhang drew on years of interaction with sex workers she got to know as a volunteer for an NGO that assists them with legal advice, education, and other support. In this interview with Asia Blog , Zhang discusses the real life women who inspired her novel and how the economic and gender dynamics in China have given rise to the country's massive sex industry.
Quite a few women I interviewed worked very hard on production lines in factories for very little money. Then they talked among their friends and found out about jobs in massage parlors. In the beginning, the line is often blurred — some places offer legitimate massages and also sexual services, so women will start off doing normal massages and gradually start adding on sexual services when they see how much more money they can make.
There are also quite a few older women who are divorced or left abusive husbands and cannot otherwise support themselves. When they leave the countryside for the city, very few plan to get into sex work. Almost all of the women I knew sent money back to their families — it is out filial duty. One woman I met told me her brother was sent to prison so she supported her sister-in-law and her children for years.
I'm sure they struggle to come to terms with the work, especially since most rural Chinese women grew up with a very conservative upbringing. I spoke with one woman who said in the beginning that she always used the phrase chi kui to get the short end of the bargain when talking about getting paid for sleeping with men.