Lijia Zhang is an internationally-recognised writer, journalist, and public speaker. Author of the critically-acclaimed Socialism is Great! and Lotus, Lijia is also a leading social commentator on modern China. Her work often sheds light on problems of gender discrimination and other forms of social inequality in China today. In this interview, WAGIC is delighted to speak to Lijia about her some of her work, how it reflects on the place of women in Chinese society, and what it means to be a ‘woman writer’ in China today.
Séagh: You often describe yourself as a ‘factory-girl-turned-writer, columnist, and public speaker.’ Can you tell us a little about that transition? What drew you to writing and also, what brought you to writing in English?
Lijia: I am indeed a rocket factory-worker-turned writer, an important part of who I am.
I was dragged out of school and put to work at the age of 16. Bored to death with greasing the machine parts, I decided to teach myself English, in the hopes of getting out of the factory. Looking back, learning English changed my life because it broadened my horizon. What I learnt wasn’t just the ABCs, but the whole cultural package. It also gave me my ‘rice bowl’ – I now make a living from writing in English.
I chose to write in English because of the censorship in China. In the early 1990s, while living in England, I was invited by a Chinese publisher to write a book, in Chinese of course, about the western image of Chairman Mao. I finished the book but it failed to get past censorship. Ever since then I decided to write in English so that I can be free and objective.
S: Your first book was a memoir entitled Socialism is Great, a book that delved into your experiences of going to work in a factory at the age of 16 and your subsequent sexual, intellectual and political awakening during the 1980s in China. Can you tell us a little about what made you want to share that story?
LJ: Why did I want to share my personal story? Well, because I am egocentric! Joking, or half joking. Memoirists are not those with the smallest ego.
I think it is a good story. Some readers, girls especially, I hope, may feel inspired. Generally, from my personal experience, people can learn about a particular historical period (the 80s – the most fascinating period in contemporary China) when China became what it is today. There are many earnest books about China, but few interesting and illuminating human stories, I think.
S: In 2017 you released your first work of fiction – Lotus, which tells the story of a young woman from Sichuan who works in a Shenzhen massage parlour as a sex worker, and reflects on some broader issues of rural/urban divides and the experiences of migrant workers. Can you tell us what brought you to that topic, and why you decided to focus on that particular demographic?
LJ: The book was inspired by the story of my grandma. In front of her deathbed, I learnt that Grandma had been a prostitute in her youth, which led my interest in the topic. Also, for me, someone from a journalistic background, prostitution serves as an interesting window to observe/explore social tensions. Besides, I want to give the working girls a human face: prostitutes are being demonised in China; and to give them a voice.
S: I read that you spent a lot of time with sex workers in different parts of China to write this book and also worked in an NGO that advocates for the rights of sex workers in China. What did you take away from the experience?
LJ: For many poor women, getting into the flesh trade is one of the few options they have in life. (For a small percentage of women serving the high-end of the industry, it’s a life style choice.) I am impressed with their resilience and goodness. Almost all women I met sent money home. It was out of their filial piety and something that made them feel better.
Perhaps I should explain that many reasons contributed to the rapid growth of the sex industry in China, such as the growing wealth, relaxed control, a growing hedonistic tendency, a large mobile population and unbalanced sex ration.
The deep reason is the growing gender inequality. Unfortunately women have shouldered most of the cost and burden as China shifted from the planned economy to the market economy. That drove some of the most vulnerable women to turn tricks.
S: Female characters are often at the heart of your work. Is that a conscious decision and if so, why?
LJ: Yes, it is a conscious decision. I am interested in women’s position as it tells you a lot about what’s going on in a society. I don’t like the representation of female characters in traditional Chinese literature. They are either virtuous, or more likely weak and helpless (such as Lin Daiyu) or morally loose, such as Pan Jinlian. In Lotus, you’ll see women characters are much stronger than the male ones, which reflects the reality.
S: What would you say are the opportunities and challenges of being a (female) writer in China today?
China is the seventh heaven for writers and journalists. Like any society that is going through such rapid social transformation, there’s always tension and drama – these are exactly what writers and journalists seek after.
It is difficult to be a writer anywhere in the world. In China, most writers have to deal with the extra challenge of facing censorship. Right now, the publishing and writing fields are still male-dominated. Internationally Chinese women writers are almost invisible. This is another reason that I want to keep writing.
S: One of the areas that you talk about in your public speaking is the changing role of women in Chinese society. What would you say are the main challenges facing women today?
LJ: The main challenges facing women today is the deeply rooted male chauvinism and the growing gender inequality. Market economy has placed women in an unfavourable position. But I am optimistic because women have taken the matter into their own hands, as reflected in the growing activism since 2012. It would have been much better if such activism is tolerated by the authorities.
S: What do you have planned next?
LJ: I am writing a literary non-fiction on China’s left behind children. Coming from a journalist background, I found fiction writing extremely challenging. In this non-fiction book, I plan to apply some fictional techniques I’ve learnt, such as setting the scene, good dialogue, sense of suspense and character development, which, hopefully, will make the book more engaging and literary.