It all began with television, or perhaps bananas. In a remote mountain village in Sichuan Province in China, when a local family acquires a “magic box called a dianshi — electric screen,” Lotus, the novel’s eponymous main character, is invited to watch a program about Shenzhen, a city 1,000 miles to the south. “How glorious it looked! Palm trees, buildings clad in shining mirrors soaring into the sky, colorful neon signs dazzling to the eye, and large ships docking on blue water in a busy harbor.”

Lotus thinks of how the villagers who migrate get rich and send money home so their families can buy TV sets and brick houses. Her cousin, Little Red, eats a banana brought back from the city and, after first biting into it skin and all, discovers “the heavenly taste underneath.” Migrants bring respect to their families and live exciting lives, eating as many bananas as they want, while “life in a village was like a pool of stagnant water.”

So when Lotus is taken out of school by her father (no need to waste money on a daughter’s education), she and Little Red join the millions of migrants to Shenzhen — a city known as China’s “capital of sins,” although the girls don’t know this — only to find that the long hours, low pay, squalid conditions and crushing boredom of factory work create their own stagnation, offering neither excitement nor upward mobility.

After her cousin dies in a factory fire, Lotus concludes that she has only three options: “going home, poor and broken,” taking another factory job with “pathetic pay” or becoming a ji (chicken/prostitute), “making good money but with no face or dignity.” The third option seems the best available, particularly since she is committed to saving enough money to send her brother to university, education — having enough “ink in your belly” — being the only path to success for the village children.

Lijia Zhang, author of the memoir “Socialism Is Great,” was inspired to write this novel upon learning that her grandmother had been sold into a brothel in her youth. To gain insight into Lotus’ world, Zhang volunteered with a nonprofit group distributing condoms to sex workers in massage parlors and hair salons. Like the novel’s male protagonist, Bing, Zhang is concerned to “show a more human side” of the prostitutes. When Bing remarks, “For me, prostitution is a window through which to see the changes in [China],” all the “hot-button issues — migration, the income gap, corruption, sex, morals, you name it” — brought on by economic reforms, he seems to be mouthing the author’s vision of her novel.

Still, it is a novel, not a sociological treatise. Lotus and Bing, as well as the secondary characters, feel like real, rounded human beings. Zhang portrays them compassionately: At one point Bing remarks that the uneducated migrants from the provinces are “China’s unsung heroes,” whose cheap labor has made the country’s economic miracle possible, and the novel does indeed find heroism in their struggles and conflicts while telling a darn good story at the same time.

Although the narrative of a young girl from the provinces struggling to make it in the big city is a familiar one, the novel’s texture, setting and thought patterns seem specifically Chinese. While “Lotus” sometimes reads as if it were translated from Chinese (it is not), that is part of its charm, anchoring us in a world outside American experience.

 

Patricia L. Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.

Lotus
By: Lijia Zhang.
Publisher: Henry Holt, 370 pages, $28.