Named one of the best books of 2017 by NPR's Book Concierge
Inspired by the secret life of the author’s grandmother, Lotus follows a young woman torn between past traditions and modern desiresas she carves out a life for herself in China’s “City of Sins”
“Standing outside the Moonflower Massage Parlor with three other girls, Lotus flashed her red smile at every passing man. She leaned against the glass front of the parlor, one leg bent like a crane's. Luring in the clients with sweet and oily words consumed a surprising amount of energy"
Reserved, at times defiant, Lotus is different from the other streetwalkers. Her striking eyes glow under Shenzhen’s neon lights, capturing the attention of Funny Eye, Family Treasure, and a slew of other demanding clients determined to make Lotus their property. Choosing between wealthy, powerful, and dangerous men is no easy feat, but it is a surprising offer from Binbing, a soft-spoken and humble photojournalist, that presents the biggest challenge. Is Lotus willing to fall in love? Is she capable of it?
Inspired by the deathbed revelation that the author’s grandmother had been sold to a brothel in her youth,Lotus offers compelling insight into China’s bustling underground world and reveals the surprising strength found in those confronted with impossible choices. Written with compassion and vivid prose, and packed with characters you won’t soon forget, Lijia Zhang's Lotus examines what it means to be an individual in a society that praises restraint in and obedience from its women.
|Publisher:||Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||6.40(w) x 8.70(h) x 1.40(d)|
About the Author
Lijia Zhang, a former rocket factory worker, is a writer based in Beijing. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times and Newsweek, and she has been interviewed on CNN, NPR, and the BBC. Her book “Socialism Is Great!”: A Worker’s Memoir of the New China has been published in eight countries. She earned a master’s degree from Goldsmiths, University of London, and a fellowship in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Lotus is her first novel.
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By Lijia Zhang
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2017 Lijia Zhang
All rights reserved.
In Nature, There Are Unexpected Storms, and in Life Unpredictable Vicissitudes
The shout rang out across the peaceful embankment.
Sitting on a wooden bench, Lotus stared at the grayish-yellow sea. There were no ships in sight. The tickling hands of the wind made ripples on the water, and clouds floated in a slate-blue sky like massive cotton flowers. In the vast space between the heavens and the waves, seagulls circled around freely, squealing in glee. Closer to the shore, white egrets and colorfully feathered ducks played among the rocks.
"Wei, you!" the shout thundered again.
Startled, she looked up into the broad face of a young policeman. His narrowed eyes glared at her.
Lotus looked around. A young couple, both in suits, were leaning against the seawall at the edge of the promenade, also gazing out to the sea, their heads touching, arms crossed behind their backs. Nearby, a grandma was chasing a little boy who toddled away from her, giggling, his bare bottom wiggling in his split pants. An old man was walking his birds, carrying them in a bamboo cage.
"Me?" Lotus asked.
"Yes, you!" he barked. "Show me your Three Documents."
She glanced up at the policeman. The shining badge on his hat gleamed officiously.
"Don't pretend you didn't hear me. Show me your documents: ID card, resident's permit, and work permit."
Lotus saw stars, as if his words had clubbed her. Biting her lower lip, she searched in her fake leather bag and fished out her resident permit, which she had obtained by sleeping with the district security officer. As for her ID card, knowing its importance, she never carried it with her, in case she lost it.
The policeman snatched the resident permit from her hand. "How about the other documents?"
"I, er ..." she began, aware of the drumming of her heart. Fingering the jade beads of her bracelet, she took a quick calming breath. "I left them at home."
"Where is your home?"
After a moment's hesitation, she replied: "One hundred ten East Station Road."
The policeman let out a laugh, loud and dry like a wild duck quacking. "East Station Road, indeed! Come off it. Besides, no decent girl would dress up like this in the morning."
Lotus looked down at her sleeveless black fishnet top and short skirt. This morning, she had simply thrown a cardigan over last night's outfit. She buttoned it up.
"What are you doing here? Offering a massage?" he asked with an arch smile.
"Nothing," she said resentfully. "I'm just resting."
He grabbed her wrist. "Come on," he snapped. "Don't sit here like a Buddha."
Lotus instinctively held on to the bench but the officer's iron claw pulled her up. He dragged her toward a pickup truck parked farther up on the embankment.
A crowd started to gather, obviously enjoying the spectacle. Lotus could make out the young lovers, the toddler, his grandmother, and the old man holding his birdcage. Their stares pierced her flesh. She hated them for watching her, and she wished for a crack in the ground she could disappear into.
Out of the corner of her eye, Lotus saw an older policeman, standing by the truck.
"Now, now, silly girl," he chided in a hoarse smoker's voice. "This is no place to hustle. Our provincial governor is coming here for the millennium gala this afternoon. Didn't you know?"
Lotus moved her dry lips, but no words came out. What could she say? Argue that she wasn't trying to hustle or explain that she never read the papers?
"Get into the truck. Squat there, hands on your head," the young policeman ordered as he pushed Lotus into the vehicle.
She stumbled and fell flat on the metal floor. Her tongue caught between her teeth. She tasted blood. The truck was already filled with three young women, most likely working girls, in scanty dresses, their made-up faces spoiled by tears and sweat; an old beggar in a tattered jacket with matted hair; and four oily-haired thugs. They all squatted against the sides of the truck, their hands on the backs of their heads.
Lotus picked herself up, wiping her mouth clean with one hand. A girl, her eyes as red as her body-hugging dress, moved aside to make room for her. Lotus nodded gratefully and leaned heavily against the side of the truck. Fleetingly she toyed with the idea of escaping, but thought better of it. "Please, Guanyin Buddha, bless me," she murmured. "Whatever happens, please don't send me back home! Not like this."
Several policemen were standing around behind the pickup truck. She couldn't see them, but could smell the smoke from their cigarettes and hear their conversations. The older policeman complained about his teenage son spending far too much time playing computer games. Another policeman half complained about and half praised his daughter's obsession with painting.
Lotus had the urge to turn her head to look but didn't dare. How could they stand around and talk about such mundane things while her life was being turned upside down?
Today, the first day of the millennium, ought to have been an auspicious day, she thought bitterly. She hadn't even meant to come here, but after wiring money home from the main post office, she had walked past the dense forest of skyscrapers in the city center and somehow wandered toward the sea, pulled by the faint scent of salt. The view from the embankment delighted her eyes. She found a bench and perched on it, drinking in the unusual luxury of space and quiet.
Even after three years of living in the city, Lotus had never set foot here. Trapped in her massage parlor, day in and day out, she usually forgot that Shenzhen was on the coast.
Lotus had first learned about the city and the sea from watching television at a neighbor's house back in Mulberry Gully, a village up in the mountains, more than a thousand miles north of Shenzhen. Everyone had been so excited when her neighbor Luo Yijun's family brought back a magic box called a dianshi — electric screen. The Luos' yard was packed with enthusiastic viewers craning their necks for a better view of the moving pictures on the box. The unceasing stream of visitors bothered the family so much that they locked up the dianshi after a week and only took it out for public viewing during festivals. But Luo Yijun, her classmate, would invite Lotus to watch it from time to time. Once, they saw a show about Shenzhen, the city just north of Hong Kong. How glorious it looked! Palm trees, buildings clad in shining mirrors soaring into the sky, colorful neon signs that were dazzling to the eye, and large ships docking on blue water in a busy harbor.
How stupid and naïve she was!
It was a cool January morning, yet everyone in the truck was sweating. No one dared to talk. The shadows of the palm trees cast woven patterns on the truck's metal floor. The crowds on the embankment were dispersing as lunchtime approached.
Lotus saw everything through the eyes of a detached observer. From the back of the truck she could see, on the roadside, a giant poster of Deng Xiaoping, China's top boss, who had introduced the economic reforms. The old man, one of his eyes larger than the other, waved a hand. Beneath the picture, a slogan blazed in red characters: "The policy of reform will not change for a hundred years."
The policy had allowed peasants like herself to come to the city to work and make money. Lotus hadn't needed to wire the money home today. Spring Festival was still five weeks away. As a child, she had lived for the festival, for celebrating the lunar New Year and for the family reunion dinner on New Year's Eve. It was the only day in the year when their dining table was piled with rare delicacies. After dinner, when the moon climbed over the tips of the Chinese scholar trees, she would go out into the yard to set off firecrackers with the boys while the other girls watched from a safe distance, covering their ears to muffle the noise. Holding her breath, she would light the fuse on a string of firecrackers tied to a long bamboo stick. The string would jump to life, cracking and spitting fire and noise, like a miniature dragon. She was never sure if the deafening roar would really drive away evil spirits, as her grandma claimed, but it definitely drove her all the way up to Ninth Heaven.
Usually, the western New Year wasn't such a big deal, but last night, fireworks of all sorts had decorated the Shenzhen sky for hours for the millennium celebration. Lotus's heart was suddenly suffused with a longing for home and a pang of guilt for not being with her family. But she didn't want to go home before she could win back her face in front of her family and prove that her journey into the city had been worthwhile, not the disaster it had proved to be. Her homesickness had prompted a trip to the post office this morning. The five thousand yuan she had sent home — more than her father could make from several years tilling the land — would ensure a fat New Year for them.
A voice from outside the truck interrupted her thoughts.
"Done, guys, we're done. Let's get out of here."
"Okay then," said the older policeman.
Lotus heard the coughing of the truck engine. The broad-faced young policeman jumped on the back of the truck with a colleague and slammed the door shut. The vehicle lurched ahead.
Lotus grabbed tightly on to the edge of the truck. She looked back as the sea grew smaller and smaller.CHAPTER 2
Where Water Flows, a Channel Is Formed
Bing's cell phone started to vibrate on his desk, as if having a seizure.
"Wei?" said Bing, half-expecting the voice of an overly keen salesman.
Lotus! She was the only person in the world who would call him laoshi. Despite his repeated protests, she always insisted on addressing him with this respectful term, which originally meant "teacher." Bing didn't even know that she had his cell number. Then he remembered that he had once pushed his name card into her hand when he tried to get permission to photograph her. "Yes, it's me. Are you all right?"
"I've been arrested!"
He shot up out of his chair. "Where are you?"
"Zhangmutou Detention Center."
Bing had heard of the place from other working girls. The mere mention of Zhangmutou turned their faces pale. "Yes, I know the place," he said, pressing the phone closer to his ear.
"Our boss is away. Could you please come as my guarantor, Hu Laoshi?" she pleaded, her voice trembling over the cracked line.
"Absolutely!" Bing understood well how the system worked. When there was no hard evidence, a guarantor, usually a well-respected professional, could help a suspect's case. Lotus might not be in such deep trouble, then. "How did you get arrested?"
Lotus explained briefly. Bing knew that to keep the floating population under control, there were routine police clampdowns on illegal migrants before major festivals. Perhaps Lotus had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or perhaps the young policeman, tempted by the girl's beauty, was simply looking for excuses to coerce a little illicit fun.
"I'll come right away!" he promised.
* * *
"Hu Binbing?" A bespectacled policeman in his mid-thirties called out Bing's name. Sitting behind his desk in the front hall of Zhangmutou Detention Center, he studied Bing's blue plastic journalist card while he chewed a toothpick, his pudgy face puffed with casual indifference.
"Yes, that's me," Bing replied, offering a pack of Grand China cigarettes, the most expensive brand he could find that morning.
The policeman took one out of the pack and placed it behind his ear for future enjoyment, then continued to gaze at the journalist card. It had been issued by the Special Economic Zone Herald, a local newspaper Bing had been stringing for, shooting the opening of another toy factory or some new high-tech product. Upon receiving Lotus's call, he had unearthed it from one of his dusty drawers. To act as her guarantor, he needed an official identity. Stating that he was a freelance photographer, which was the way he now saw himself, wouldn't have worked.
Standing in front of the policeman, Bing combed back his thick hair and shifted uncomfortably in his suit. He rarely wore one these days, but he had figured it might increase the level of respect from the police officers. Behind the policeman, two officers were questioning several suspects, young men clad in dirty vests and shorts. Farther back toward a guarded entrance, policewomen were conducting general checkups on new arrivals.
In slow motion, the policeman handed back the card to Bing. He spat out his toothpick and asked: "So, how do you know this woman Luo Xiangzhu?"
"We are neighbors," Bing said, trying to keep his composure. "She is a law-abiding citizen. Why has she been arrested, may I ask?"
The policeman didn't answer but stared at Bing, his eyes narrowing behind his glasses. A moment later, his face relaxed and he said with a weary wave of his hand: "Okay, I'll take your word for it." He pressed an intercom and shouted: "Bring in Luo Xiangzhu."
Within a few minutes, Lotus, in a black outfit, appeared through the iron entrance, trailing behind a gray-uniformed man. She walked hunched over, her arms closely folded around her chest. When she saw Bing, her pretty face, the shape of a sunflower seed, flooded with relief. She glanced at the policeman, who was now smoking his cigarette. His face had switched back into casual indifference. Turning toward Bing, Lotus clasped her hands in front of her in a gesture of gratitude and bowed deeply. "Hu Laoshi!" That was all she managed to say. Biting her lip, she was clearly embarrassed.
"Are you all right, Lotus?"
"I'm okay," she said as she pulled one side of her mouth into a smile. "Really."
There were no apparent injuries, though she looked tired and pale. Her hair was confused and her almond-shaped eyes were anxious. She looked pitiful, yet appealing as ever.
Bing forced himself to focus on the policeman. "Can we, er ..." He cleared his throat. "Excuse me, Officer: can we leave now?"
There was a long pause. Then the policeman flicked his cigarette butt into a bin and pushed the guarantor letter toward him. "Sign the paper first."
* * *
Outside, the gray day looked sickly, the thick dough of dark clouds billowing and swelling in a low sky. A west wind was buffeting the earth. Apart from several "ground rats"— motorized rickshaws, parked a safe distance away from the entrance of the detention center — there was little traffic, and few people or houses in sight.
Breathing the brisk air with Lotus freshly liberated by his side, Bing had a sense of elation he hadn't experienced in years. In some ways, he felt he was reliving a glorious moment in his youth. He cupped his hands to light a cigarette, took a drag, and let out a long plume of smoke.
Lotus glanced up at the high-security wall laced with barbed wire and started to march toward the rickshaws without waiting for him, her hair flying in the wind.
He followed her, puffing on his cigarette.
"What did you say to them, Hu Laoshi?" she asked, in a voice breathy with appreciation. "To convince them to let me go like this?"
Bing raised his chin and said: "Maybe they didn't want to mess around with a journalist."
Slowing her pace, she said: "Thank Buddha that you came to rescue me. I wasn't sure you'd bother."
"I regard you as a friend," Bing said, pushing up his glasses. But the term was a bit of a stretch. So far, his efforts to befriend Lotus had been met with subtle resistance.
Lotus hugged herself against a gust of strong wind.
Bing tossed his cigarette. It flashed in an arc before landing on the dirt road. From his backpack, he took out a pale pink jacket. "You must be cold. I borrowed this from Mimi."
Lotus put on the jacket. It was too big. She rolled up the sleeves and fingered the floral decoration pinned to the chest — the sort of tacky girlish thing that Mimi, her friend and a fellow worker, loved.
"You are a very good man."
Her voice, regaining its usual softness, warmed his bones. "No big deal," he said.
When they reached the ground-rat stand, Lotus turned to face Bing. "I don't get you, Hu Laoshi."
"Why do you take such an interest in us mere ji?" It was the first time Bing had heard her use the term ji — "chickens," a degrading homonym for the word "prostitutes."
"I told you, I am working on a photo documentary about working girls." Bing realized as the words left his mouth that it didn't sound convincing to Lotus. There was a pregnant pause. "Well you see, ji is such a blurred and dirty word in many people's minds. I'd like my pictures to give you, all of you working girls, a human face, to show you as ordinary women."
Lotus's striking eyes held his. "Is the project very important to you?"
"Extremely important." Bing knew that it wasn't the right moment to lobby his case, but he couldn't let such an opportunity slip by. "Also, I am aiming to get the pictures published in a magazine for professional photographers, not the sort that you can buy from a common newsstand."
Bing helped her to climb into the tin box of a ground rat. "Sorry, I would have kept the taxi if I had known it wouldn't take me long at the detention center."
Excerpted from Lotus by Lijia Zhang. Copyright © 2017 Lijia Zhang. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 In Nature, There Are Unexpected Storms, and in Life Unpredictable Vicissitudes,
2 Where Water Flows, a Channel Is Formed,
3 If You Stay Long in a Fish Market, You'll Soon Get Used to the Stink,
4 As Buddha Needs Incense, So a Man Needs Self-respect,
5 Those Who Have the Same Illness Sympathize with Each Other,
6 The Lotus Root Snaps, but Its Fibers Stay Joined,
7 Choose a General from Among the Dwarfs,
8 Her Beauty Outshines the Moon and Puts the Flowers to Shame,
9 The Weak Are the Prey of the Strong,
10 The Benevolent See Benevolence and the Wise See Wisdom,
11 Standing Under the Eaves, You Have to Lower Your Head,
12 The Clouds Disperse and the Sun Starts to Shine,
13 Speeding Back Home with the Swiftness of an Arrow,
14 A Newborn Calf Isn't Afraid of Tigers,
15 A Thunderbolt from a Clear Sky,
16 Heaven Is High and the Emperor Is Far Away,
17 A Big Tree Affords Good Shade,
18 Shooting Higher and Higher Like Sesame Flowers,
19 A Stone Tossed into the Water Raises a Thousand Ripples,
20 Near to Rivers, We Recognize Fish, Near to Mountains, We Recognize the Songs of Birds,
21 A Single Slip May Become the Regret of a Lifetime,
22 No Sorrow Is Greater Than the Death of the Heart,
23 Every River Has Its Source and Every Tree Its Roots,
24 Don't Let the Opportunity Slip Away,
25 The Wind Sweeping Through the Tower Heralds a Rising Storm in the Mountain,
26 Fly in the Sky Like the Legendary Birds That Pair Off Wing to Wing,
27 You Can't Wrap Fire in Paper,
28 You Can't Catch a Fish and a Bear Paw at the Same Time,
29 Can't See the Forest for the Trees,
30 Past Experience, If Not Forgotten, Is a Guide for the Future,
31 The Cart Will Find Its Way Around the Hill When It Gets There,
32 The Tree Craves Calm, but the Wind Does Not Subside,
33 While the Mountain Remains, We Shan't Lack Firewood,
Also by Lijia Zhang,
About the Author,