Updating the great Chinese socialist realist novel

Lijia Zhang Lotus book cover

With the Communists fighting both the Japanese invaders and the Guomindang reactionaries in a triangular war, the 1930s-40s was a tumultuous and extraordinarily violent period in the country’s history, resulting in the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese, mostly civilians. Such an earth-shaking era was story-worthy to say the least, and revolutionary authors applied their firsthand experience of the war years to penning firey, action-packed pageturners in the tradition of socialist realism. Among the best-known of these novels were Liang Bin’s Keep the Red Flag Flying (红旗谱), Qu Bo’s Tracks in the Snowy Forest (林海雪原), Yang Mo’s The Song of Youth (青春之歌), Liu Qing’s Builders of a New Life (创业史), and Luo Guangbin and Yang Yiyan’s Red Crag (红岩), all written in the late 1950s-early 1960s (also published in English by the Foreign Languages Press in Beijing). This flowering of communist fiction dried up during the Cultural Revolution. To Jiang Qing, the wife of Mao, nothing was quite revolutionary enough to pass muster and she banned virtually everything, including the aforementioned novels.

The decades since have presented a quandary for Chinese writers. With socialism firmly established and war and devastation a thing of the past, in the absence of some new vital struggle or national emergency, it must have been, and continues to be, a tall order to revisit the authentic socialist realist novel. That is until the contemporary female writer Zhang Lijia saw what was staring at us all along and has now fashioned into an impressive new work of socialist realism, the novel Lotus (Henry Holt & Co., 2017). What momentous cause was this up-and-coming author the first to bring into urgent focus? None other than the great scourge of prostitution and sex work.

Mao succeeded in eradicating prostitution from China in the 1950s, and the country remained free of the cancer until the Opening Up after 1978. It seems you can’t have economic growth and free markets without allowing the bad in with the good. Over the past four decades the number of prostitutes has rebounded with a vengeance. Millions have become entrapped in the sex trade, forced by poverty to hand over their autonomy and dignity to the pimps and madams running the brothels, KTV venues and massage parlors lining every city and town in the country. While Chinese women generally enter sex work of their own accord (kidnapping and child slavery appear to be a greater problem in South Asia), the cycle of economic hardship tends to keep them in this occupation throughout the prime of their life.

Until the release of Lotus, few books or publications shed light on the industry on the Mainland, as no state-approved publishers would permit frank discussion of the topic, even when fictionalized. Originally, this taboo stemmed from the official claim that prostitution did not exist in China; to write about it could have gotten one in trouble for spreading false rumors. Today, sex work is officially acknowledged, but because it’s illegal, what writer wishes to implicate herself in the trade by divulging intimate knowledge about it, even from a critical perspective? Zhang surmounted this hurdle by writing in English and publishing her novel abroad.

Interestingly, as well, Zhang adapted her story to the socialist-realist format. It might be assumed the subject matter would be better suited to a straightforward investigative-reportorial style in the gritty, realist novel tradition of say, early twentieth-century American fiction (Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, etc.). After all, Zhang’s book is based on reality; she thoroughly researched the industry and interviewed sex workers in a variety of venues to create the composite massage parlor where Lotus, the book’s heroine, is employed. Unlike realism, however, socialist realism does not seek to represent a faithful picture of surface reality, such as what a photographer or news reporter might see on the scene. The problem with the so-called impartial or objective documentarian approach is that the confrontation of the abject is liable to plunge the reader into cynicism or despair. Socialist realism, by contrast, has a motivational, indeed militant, consciousness-raising purpose; it clearly demarcates the revolutionary from the reactionary and casts class struggle as optimistic, inspiring the reader and setting an example to follow.

Keep the Red Flag Flying book coverIn socialist realism, characterization is starkly delineated into good and evil prototypes, even to exaggerated effect where necessary. For example, the righteous rage felt by the peasants in Liang Bin’s Keep the Red Flag Flying, whose lands are left unprotected from flooding because evil landowners have stolen the funds intended for dyke construction, is foregrounded at every turn: “Zhu’s nostrils flared and he charged, his arms like flails. He caught Feng’s wrist. ‘Damn you, Feng! Say that again!’ His eyes nearly burst from their sockets. He was panting with rage.” To reinforce the violence of such emotions for the reader, they must be continually repeated: “Zhu Laogong’s lungs nearly burst with rage. Glaring at Big Heart, he spat out two mouthfuls of blood. Then he fell to the ground, his face the color of wax.”

Zhang Lijia similarly thrusts stage center an updated version of class conflict in China, embodied in the figure of the hapless peasants of Lotus’s village in Sichuan. Communist Party corruption is ubiquitous above all in the provinces. It’s precisely the harsh conditions of rural poverty that drive Chinese girls such as Lotus into sex work in the first place. Note again the telling visual details that serve to create a memorable visual tableau which sticks in our mind and raises our consciousness in the process:

Luo Kecheng pushed his sleeves farther up, as if ready for a fight. “In this place, ‘heaven is high and the emperor is far away.’ The local officials are all corrupt. They build grand office buildings for themselves and always have lavish banquets. Where’s the money from? From us, from our blood and sweat….agriculture tax, irrigation taxes, family planning administration fees, and ‘donations’ for a road that had never been built.” Luo Kecheng continued…the veins in his neck bulging. “When I refused to pay the extra tax earlier this year, guess what happened? The village officials sent thugs to beat me up, as if I were a criminal. Those tamade turtles!” He spat hard on the ground. His phlegm rolled into a dust dumpling.

Tracks in the Snowy Forest book coverAnother important technique in socialist realism is transparent correspondence between personality and physiognomy or physique. We do not want to confuse the reader with complex or ambiguously rendered characters whose appearance can’t be immediately “read.” Revolutionary male heroes must be depicted as tall, strong and handsome, with dark brows and honest, penetrating eyes; revolutionary heroines are of course beautiful, which follows from their unblemished nature. To take an example from another novel mentioned above, Qu Bo’s Tracks in the Snowy Forest, the young heroine, White Dove, is “very pretty, with cheeks as pink as roses. Deep dimples flickered in the corners of her constantly smiling mouth. Her large beautiful eyes flashed so gaily it seemed they could almost speak. White Dove wore braids which hung beside her ears, and feathery tendrils of hair played about her forehead and temples.” Likewise, a brief glance at this description of the KMT bandit Butterfly Enticer reveals her as evil physically incarnate:

An incredibly long head perched on her neck like an ear of corn. In an attempt to disguise her fantastic ugliness, she covered her enormous forehead with bangs right down to her eyebrows….The combination of dry yellow skin and the black freckles made her face even more revolting. She coated it with powder, so thickly at times that the powder flaked off when she blinked her eyes. Because her teeth had turned black from opium, she had them all crowned with gold. When she smiled, the glare was painful.

That Lotus, the heroine of Zhang’s novel, is beautiful goes without saying, though again it’s not the sophisticated glamor of the city girl but the natural innocence — her face “the shape of a sunflower seed” — of countryside feminity: “She wasn’t the showy sort who lured people into turning their heads in the street, but rather the sort that could endure scrutiny: the longer Bing looked at her, at those symmetric features as delicate as the finest embroidery, the more beautiful she seemed.”

The males patronizing Lotus are inevitably suspicious and degraded types, their nature necessarily outwardly manifest in their very appearance and manner. The client nicknamed Funny Eye, though endowed with a good physique, has a “squint eye” and a “lopsided smile.” Others are “thuggish” and violent, or merely unappealing losers, such as the businessman with “pathetically thin legs and a potbelly,” his male member also repugnant: “It was red and shining, especially its turtle head. After five minutes, which seemed like an eternity for Lotus, the client gave up. ‘You’ll get used to it,’ he said good-naturedly. He then finished the job himself.” Likewise the sordid description of the rapist who took her virginity, who “opened her legs like a pair of scissors….Moments later, the man let out a short and high-pitched groan and collapsed on top of her. He smelled of sweat, cigarettes, and grease.” In a police lockup after being arrested in a brothel raid, Lotus is forced to strip in front of an officer. She “caught sight of the bulge in his uniform pants. His face was now the color of a pig’s liver.” The paid-for sex act is invariably absurd and repellent as well, exemplified for instance by the client ironically named Family Treasure: “’Oh, my Little Heart, I spent the whole day looking forward to this.’ He pounced on her, like a hungry dog jumping on a piece of juicy meat, and planted more wet kisses on her face and neck. ‘Now tell me: am I your first for today?’ he asked.”

Red Crag book coverThe man who is to eventually rescue Lotus is a more sympathetic and attractive, if somewhat flawed figure, his credentials not wholly impeccable yet sufficient for the purpose of the narrative. Cultivating a bohemian look with a ponytail and goatee, Bing abandons the pressure-cooker world of shady business-dealing to become a freelance photographer in Shenzhen, a city with a vibrant sex trade. He is fascinated by the female nude, and lives in shabby neighborhoods to try to get in the good graces of sex workers he can persuade to photograph. Lotus at first flatly refuses, but feels indebted to him after he bails her out from the police, and she poses nude for him. If this might seem to represent a kind of prostitution, there is a key difference. At no point during his sojourn in Shenzhen’s underbelly does he ever compromise his principles and pay for sex, even massage, with any of the women he intermingles with. “A decent man with his own firm moral grounding and clear conscience,” he refuses to cross the line and exploit a woman sexually, least of all Lotus, whom he falls in love with. She gradually opens up to him. When they do finally make love, it’s untainted by any history of monetary exchange. Accordingly, Bing is portrayed as a physically attractive enough figure, and grows more so over time as he matures spiritually: “Now, in his middle age, his body had filled out and he felt more comfortable with his more sturdy, sophisticated appearance. And one day soon his ex-wife would realize how she had underestimated him.”

Nevertheless, the potential of their relationship is ultimately thwarted by a significant flaw in Bing’s character — that of vacillation. Instead of committing himself to Lotus in marriage, and thus once and for all rescuing her from her perilous profession, he leaves Shenzhen for a photography assignment in Beijing that can significantly advance his career. She is left in the lurch, and though he later returns to try to patch things up, she has moved on. The novel ends on an uncertain note, with Lotus achieving a degree of self-clarity and autonomy in her new role as an informal schoolteacher of migrant children, but at the cost of a fuller self-actualization that might have been realized with greater guidance. While no longer in the sex trade, she remains finally a solitary creature. This ambivalent ending, as opposed to a more decisive or victorious one, also constitutes the novel’s central limitation.

The Song of Youth book coverHere we might make an instructive comparison with what is generally considered to be the finest of the Chinese socialist-realist novels, Yang Mo’s The Song of Youth. The two novels have some intriguing parallels. Both chart the coming-of-age of a heroine, Lotus, and in the earlier novel, Lin Tao-ching. Both heroines are fortunate enough to encounter influential men who open their eyes, but in the case of Tao-ching it’s more complicated. She first meets — and marries — the scholarly but politically apathetic Yung-tse. He awakens her to the world of books but not to the calamitous events happening around them with Japan’s advancing occupation of China. Her instinct gets her swept up in these events anyway, and she quickly falls in love with a brave and handsome patriot, Chia-chuan, who introduces her to revolutionary literature.

Things are brought to a head in a decisive scene when her husband tries to strongarm her back into her domestic role as submissive wife:

“Tao-ching, how lovely you are! Like crab-apple blossom or a beauty waking from a dream in spring….” Yung-tse, who had slipped quietly into the room, was gazing at her graceful figure as she lay there.
Tao-ching, ignoring him, picked up a book and buried her face in it. He went up to her and took the book from her hand, pulling a face at the title, Capital.
“What problems is this great disciple of Karl Marx studying now?” he asked with a smile.
“Why must you make fun of me?” she cried, her glance resting on him for a moment with the conviction that the Yung-tse whom she had loved had turned into someone quite vulgar and loathsome….Flinging her book on the bed, Tao-ching turned her back on him contemptuously.

Tao-ching arranges to hide Chia-chuan, on the run from the police, at her home. She cannot do this, however, without Yung-tse’s knowledge. In deft socialist-realist style, the author paints a telltale visual contrast between the two men in their encounter, the calm revolutionary and the anemic and agitated reactionary: “Chia-Chun looked quietly at Yung-tse’s bony, stooping shoulders — in his agitation he had not even troubled to take off his hat and the shadow of his head on the wall was like a large black mushroom, his lanky body representing the stalk.” Tao-ching quickly divorces Yung-tse, but not before he betrays Chia-chuan to the police. He is soon arrested and killed in captivity, and tragically they are not able to consummate their love. But he is the chief inspiration that sparks her political consciousness and provides the driving force for the remainder of the narrative. And it hardly bothers the author that the bulk of the novel is devoted to the rapidly developing political events rather than a love story, for “how can love compare with our revolutionary cause?”

Builders of a New Life book coverUnlike Lotus and Bing, who are left drifting and unmoored from any political cause, Tao-ching understands she is no longer “an isolated individual” but “a fearless fighter in the vanguard to liberate her country and people.” Having joined a community of fellow activists and progressives, she is energized. This animates the narrative and suffuses the dialogue with intensity, purpose and fascination. As Shu-hsiu, a young revolutionary girl mentored by Tao-ching, announces, “‘You want to know where I’m going? You’ll never guess! The Party has agreed to my request — I’m to stop studying and go to a factory to work with the factory hands. Can you believe it? I’m going to be among workers!’ Excitement had made her almost incoherent.”

The gripping experience of reading The Song of Youth clarifies what’s missing from Zhang Lijia’s Lotus. She didn’t get the male protagonist Bing quite right, failing to imbue this halfhearted aesthete and drifter with sufficient purpose, whereas she might have developed him into a strong, motivational figure and thereby transformed the story into a more consequential novel. What the author should have done, that is, was to inject her hero and heroine with political inspiration, what needed to be done and what action to take: namely the launching of a campaign to banish the sex trade from China, starting with grassroots organizing at the local level and eventual mobilization of the masses. Then the problem of the trajectory of their relationship would have been solved. No longer the central preoccupation of the story, it would have disappeared into the background, as the focus shifted to the larger of event of women’s emancipation from prostitution.

*     *     *

More book reviews by Isham Cook:
The 1.3 billion-strong temper tantrum: Review of Arthur Meursault’s Party Members
The literature of paralysis: The China PC scene and the expat mag crowd
The ventriloquist’s dilemma: Asexual Anglo travelogues of China

Forthcoming by Isham Cook (January 2020):


4 replies »

  1. Thank you, Isham, for this survey of writing on the mainland that is of sufficient credibility for us to take a closer look. You have pointed out the worthwhile aspects of better examples of this typically agitprop genre, treating it even-handedly and with insight where many (or most) of the rest of us have dismissed it as “Commie schlock.” I’ll give Lotus a try, and some of the of the titles you mention as well. Probably with an eye to how they move forward from Camel Xiangzi, assuming that’s a useful point of departure.

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