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  • Red Lights: The Lives of Sex Workers in Postsocialist China
  • Jinghao Zhou (bio)
Tiantian Zheng . Red Lights: The Lives of Sex Workers in Postsocialist China. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009. 304 pp. $27.95, ISBN 978-0-8166-5902-9.

Tiantian Zheng adopts the neutral term "sex worker" instead of using the derogatory word "prostitute" to discuss the academic issue of gender, sex, and the [End Page 182] Chinese social system from an anthropological perspective. While the Chinese government views prostitutes as criminals and refuses to use the term "sex worker," Zheng regards Chinese sex workers as ordinary people. They are not so different from other Chinese women "who wrestle with patriarchy on a daily basis, although their fight is much more fierce and violent due to the extreme masculine environment in which they work" (p. 246). Her perspective differs with the official Chinese gender ideology.

Zheng identifies China today as a postsocialist era and puts the story of the lives of sex workers within this context. The postsocialist countries are mainly those countries that have evolved from a planned economy to a capitalist-based economy and from a socialist political system to a democratic system. These include East European countries after the former Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s. China has been experiencing a profound transformation from the Mao era to the post-Mao era, but it is debatable whether or not Communist China has already stepped into a postsocialist era. Regardless, Zheng courageously explores the relationship between sex workers and the post-Mao era by presenting the differences between the lives of sex workers in socialist China and in postsocialist China.

Zheng's "research focuses on the cultural politics of gender, sex, class, migration, and power during the political, social and cultural transformation in postsocialist China."1 Red Lights combines these research topics into one based on her two years of ethnographic fieldwork in China. During her fieldwork, Zheng lived with a group of hostesses and was "intensely involved in every aspect of their lives" (p. 30). She even "spent several months traveling with hostesses to their homes in the countryside" (p. 150) to familiarize herself with their lifestyles. Using her own background and personal experience as a woman in China and the United States, Zheng provides a fascinating story of the lives of karaoke hostesses. She tells about how sex workers feel about their jobs, how they survive in general in the post-Mao era and specifically in their dangerous work. The story is not limited to sex workers and their clients. This book is a good attempt at exploring the perplexing social phenomenon of sex workers, gangsters, small business owners, and politics in China today.

Present-day China remains a Communist regime. Communist orthodoxy is completely incompatible with prostitution. During the Mao era, nightclubs and bars were treated as emblems of bourgeois lifestyle (p. 3). Commercial sex was strictly forbidden, and people's sexual desires were suppressed. As soon as the Communist Party of China (CPC) came to power in 1949, the new government cracked down on brothels. In 1958, the Chinese government announced that prostitution had been eradicated. In 1964, the government declared that venereal diseases no longer existed in China. China is one of very few countries in the world "that has come close to a truly prohibitionist programme."2 [End Page 183]

Red Lights is set in Dalian, a large northeastern Chinese seaport city situated at the southern tip of Liaoning Peninsula with over six million people. Here the author was born and educated before moving to the United States to study. Dalian became the key administrative center in southern Manchuria after the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 (p. 35) and was a developed area and Japanese military base during the Japanse occupation of the 1930s and 1940s. The Soviet Union took over Dalian in 1945 and returned it to China in 1954. The economy of Dalian was sluggish in the Mao regime (p. 48). Two years after Mao died in 1976, China began to launch a reform movement in the southern part of China. In the post-Mao era, the most developed areas were Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Guangdong. Accordingly...


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