IN MANDARIN, the character ji, literally meaning chicken, can also stand for something else: prostitute. This same degrading association of sex workers with fowl shows up in a host of related slang terms. A red-light district can be called a “chicken coop,” for example. This vocabulary, with roots that stretch back a century or more, was supposed to have become obsolete after 1949, as there was to be no place for prostitution in the “New China” run by the Communist Party. In fact, not only has the terminology continued to be used but, as any visitor to an urban setting who knows where to look can attest, practitioners of what in the West is sometimes called “the world’s oldest profession” — ranging from well-educated, high-end escorts accompanying businessmen to dinner, to karaoke bar hostesses who perform sexual favors for a fee to literal streetwalkers — can be found in cities across the New China.

There are an estimated 10 million sex workers in China, and the imagined life of one of them is at the heart of Lotus, the debut novel by Lijia Zhang, a writer previously best known for a well-received memoir of a youth laboring in a missile factory and participating in Nanjing marches supporting the Tiananmen protests in Beijing. A work of fiction organized around a love story, Lotus often has the feel of carefully investigated reportage. As a result, while engaging to read on its own, it also complements nicely social scientific studies such as Red Lights: The Lives of Sex Workers in Postsocialist China, an award-winning 2009 University of Minnesota Press book by ethnographer Tiantian Zheng.

The eponymous Lotus is a 24-year-old woman from a farming family in Sichuan province who is forced to drop out of school to support her family after the premature death of her mother. Like millions of other young people in the late 1990s, she leaves her native village to look for work in a booming southern coastal city. In her case, this takes her to Shenzhen, a prosperous metropolis in Guangdong province just north of Hong Kong. In the 1990s and 2000s, young migrant workers flocked like miners during the American gold rush to Pearl River Delta urban centers such as Shenzhen — which ballooned from 30,000 residents in 1980 to 12 million today — drawn by economic promise. In Shenzhen and the neighboring manufacturing hub of Dongguan, Lotus labors in a shoe factory, where the hours are long, the pay rate low, and the working conditions dangerous. Her dream of earning enough money to sustain her family and send her younger brother to university seems hopelessly out of reach. Alone, poor, and lacking the skills or credentials to find a more lucrative position, Lotus finds herself drawn into the precarious world of prostitution.

Sex workers in China, the great majority of whom are female, can earn up to 20 times what they get paid in factories, while having more flexible hours and often a greater degree of personal freedom. But, as in other countries, entering this industry means coping with a long list of problems: violent clients, police raids, limited marital prospects, discrimination, and psychological damage. There are also physical tolls, such as, in the case of the typical Chinese sex worker, undergoing multiple abortions due partly to the unwillingness of male patrons to use condoms. (According to Red Lights, an estimated 56.7 percent of men who patronize sex workers in high-end hotels in China use them, compared to only 29.9 percent when frequenting bathhouses, massage parlors, and barbershops; and a mere 15 to 20 percent will put them on when having sex with streetwalkers — a group whose members are sometimes dubbed “wild chickens.”) Lotus’s experience in the novel fits in with this pattern; all that she can do in dealing with clients who demand unprotected intercourse — when unwilling to take the financial hit of simply refusing — is to charge them double her normal price, something she claims to do only if they appear “clean” to her.

Within the hierarchy of Chinese prostitutes, Lotus is close to the bottom, working in a massage parlor that also offers erotic services. For most sex workers, the best they can hope for is a permanent position as an ernai (literally, second tit), a mistress whose housing and daily expenses are covered long term by a wealthy male patron. Though ernai rarely become wives, they can enjoy otherwise unattainable degrees of financial security and live in luxury.

Yet, when multiple businessmen demand that Lotus become their ernai, she declines their offers. Instead, she falls for Bing, a photographer educated at Tsinghua University (one of China’s top schools) who is 16 years her senior, and who left his job in business to pursue a passion project of documenting the lives of Shenzhen’s sex workers. Through interactions among Lotus, Bing, and other characters, the book chronicles the changes in China since the period of reform and opening up that Deng Xiaoping initiated in 1978. Zhang’s lens zooms in and out, balancing Lotus and Bing’s personal lives with critiques of the sociopolitical climate as a whole. Lotus and Bing’s continual search for meaning and a sense of self beyond the quest for money mirrors the crisis of an entire generation of Chinese. Bing, highly educated and significantly older than Lotus, is representative of the generation of idealistic intellectuals who peacefully protested against government authoritarianism in 1989. Lotus, a generation younger, encounters a similar existential crisis but from the perspective of a poor migrant worker seeking to reconcile the hedonism of the city with her conservative rural upbringing and Buddhist faith.

As in the LGBTQ novel Beijing Comrades, which I reviewed for this publication a year ago, readers of Lotus will encounter a vast array of topics related to modern China, including the growing rural-urban divide, economic development without political liberalization, the post-Mao moral vacuum and money worshiping, and the tension between so-called traditional Chinese values and modern concerns. These themes are effortlessly integrated into Lotus’s coming-of-age story. Against this backdrop, Zhang emphasizes the fortitude of her protagonist as much as Lotus’s vulnerability and suffering. The book highlights the ways in which sex work can lead to upward mobility for young women as well as abuse and social stigma. Well researched and deftly written, Lotus is at times cutting and raw, at other points delicate and poetic.

Beginning each chapter with a relevant proverb, written in Chinese characters and translated into English, is a nice touch, adding local color and providing a connecting thread through the episodic narrative. These expressions — like “Her Beauty Outshines the Moon and Puts the Flowers to Shame” and “Heaven is High and the Emperor is Far Away” — offer insight into critical dimensions of Chinese culture while foreshadowing the plot twists ahead. These seemingly timeless proverbs remind the reader that although the book is set in the 21st century, it has ties to earlier ones. Zhang emphasizes connections between past and present in another way, too: by dedicating the novel to her grandmother, a sex worker in the “Old China” of the 1930s.

¤

Sarah Mellors is a doctoral student in Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine. She spent nearly four years in China. Find her on Twitter at @s_mellors.