Elevate Difference

Red Lights: The Lives of Sex Workers in Postsocialist China

On one occasion, gangsters walked into the bar, grabbed me by the arm, and started dragging me up the stairs toward a private room intended for hostesses’ sexual encounters with clients. The women were also sometimes raped there by gangsters. I quickly realized what was going on—that I was in real danger... Whereas safety was a major issue, hygiene was another. Living in a filthy karaoke bar room without bathing facilities, I had lice in my hair and over my whole body. However, by living and working closely with hostesses in the bar, I gained their recognition and friendship.

Ethnographers always get their man (or woman... or both) even if they have to use their bodies as instruments of data collection and analysis. Ethnographers usually become participant-observers during fieldwork to facilitate rapport and to capture what people actually do as opposed merely to what they say they do, but as these snippets suggest, such can lead to squeamish feelings and harrowing experiences. Zheng participated in activities that male ethnographers could only have observed. Her analysis of sexual networking is consequently first-rate because she moves easily and persuasively from person to state, capital to labor, ideology to practice.

Red Lights is a beautifully written account of the emergence of new femininities and masculinities in post-socialist People’s Republic of China. Zheng analyzes the growth, structure, registration and functions of the karaoke bars now dotting the landscape and in which are played out the social and economic contradictions of class, heterosexuality, ethnicity and gender. In often grim detail, she shows how Communist Party bureaucrats, gangsters, and small business owners (literally) patronize young, unmarried females. In so doing, the former make money, express obeisance to their own social superiors, and get back at Mao Zedong for allegedly having sapped their masculinity during the Cultural Revolution. Women escape poverty (sort of), find boyfriends (ditto), manipulate men as best they can, and experience female solidarity. Her male informants freely express their disturbing misogyny while also confessing their sexual anxieties and class resentment. Confucianism, capitalism and communism each but differently punish women for alleged sexual promiscuity while rewarding men for theirs.

Many tens of thousands of Chinese women have migrated from economically and socially stagnating rural areas to the strip clubs and karaoke bars, back rooms, and guest houses of urban centers such as Dalian, where they “choose” forms of employment that entail grotesque subservience, daily humiliation, squalid working conditions, and social leprosy. Dalian was long ago hailed as an oasis of economic development during the period of Occupation by the Japanese military in the 1930s and 1940s. Its morally unsavory status today as a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah—but whose economic function is central to post-socialist China—reveals the social and economic contradictions of Confucianism, patriarchy, communism, Western media forms and capitalism. “In Dalian,” Zheng writes, “taxes paid by the entertainment industry are the largest source of local revenue.”

Red Lights opens with Zheng’s painful personal stories of growing up a filial daughter in a sex-negative and patriarchal Chinese household. It continues with her painful humiliation in a U.S. college classroom regarding her views of gender relations. It proceeds to detail the humiliation of Chinese women. Her extremely sorrowful Afterword, entitled “From Entertainer to Prostitute,” shows the inexorable logic of patriarchy and capitalism and gives the lie to pro-sex work activist positions that can neglect or ignore specifically gendered humiliation in sex work. Her Acknowledgments section deeply moved me in recounting the joys and pains of scholarly work. It exemplifies the beauty and honor of academic collaborations that break through barriers of geography, language, culture, theory and gender but that are nevertheless mindful of them.

Red Lights would make a fine addition to graduate-level courses in social theory and fieldwork, but could be used in upper-division courses in gender studies and ethnography, too. It is a major contribution to ethnographic explorations of gender, sexuality, and prostitution, and to Asian Studies, too, which has enabled too few participant observation-style studies of sexual networking.

Written by: Lawrence James Hammar, Ph.D., August 7th 2009