China’s sexual revolution is underway, but it’s a complicated, and sometimes contradictory affair. A new book by American journalist Richard Burger — of the popular Peking Duck blog — seeks to address those changes by studying China’s sexual history over the past 5,000 years.Behind the Red Door: Sex in China will be released tomorrow, and the introduction is certainly an eye opener:
Every year, thousands of Chinese women pay for an operation to restore their hymens shortly before their wedding so that husbands can see blood on the sheets on their honeymoon night. Brides-to-be who cannot afford the 4,400 yuan operation (about $700) can walk into one of China’s 200,000 sex shops or go online to buy a cheap artificial hymen that seeps artificial blood when punctured. Although the percentage of Chinese women who engage in premarital sex has skyrocketed in urban areas from 15 per cent in 1990 to more than 50 per cent in 2010, conservative attitudes toward sex, even in big cities like Shanghai, remain largely intact. To most Chinese people, virginity matters, and husbands look forward to their wedding night when they can deflower their young virgin brides. For some husbands, the absence of blood on the sheets can be grounds for divorce.
Burger, a former writer for both the Baltimore Sun and the Global Times was one of the first people to start blogging about China in 2002. He told us he was approached by Earnshaw Books to write a book about the changing face of sex in China.
While the book was based on exhaustive research — Burger says he personally went through thousands of articles and dissertations — it’s not just a piece of academia. The point of the book is to bring China’s sexual revolution to a mainstream audience. We’ve read an advanced proof of the book and have to say its a great read. Burger was kind enough to give us a short interview about the book.
BI: What was the most surprising find of your research for the book?
RB: I think that the material on both prostitution and homosexuality totally blew me away. In the Tang Dynasty, more than a thousand years ago, for example, prostitutes were registered with the state and they were licensed so they could pay taxes. The broadmindedness throughout ancient society to sex astonished me, that prostitution was completely integrated into society.
The same goes with with homosexuality. This might have been the biggest surprise; ever since recorded history, there are records of men having intimate relationships with other men in China. They weren’t homosexuals per se, these were married heterosexual men with families. But to go out with younger men was seen as a sign of their status and privilege . It wasn’t that they were homosexuals; it was something that they did for their own entertainment and amusement. So that was something I really had no idea about — how much homosexuality permeated the culture.
BI: How did Chinese society go from such openness a thousand years ago to the incredibly restrictive sexual culture of the mid-20th century?
RB: You can trace the evolution of sexual attitudes, but there is no single clear trajectory from open to closed and now back to kind of open again. Within different dynasties, China became very conservative with the influence of neo-Confucianists, especially during the Qing dynasty — the last dynasty — when prostitution and homosexuality was outlawed. A whole new consciousness came into China as it met the west via the Opium Wars and Western ideals for example. The notion of homosexuality being a sin or extramarital affairs being a sin began to take hold.
The country became obsessed with nationalism. Sexual openness and women’s rights became a low priority.
China’s shift to conservatism really reached its peak during the Qing dynasty, before that it had gone back and forth. Some members were very liberal, but others were reactionary. They even had some of China’s great works of erotic literature destroyed. What happened next was the nationalists and then Mao took over. For a brief while, around the time of the May 4th movement in 1912, it looked like China was about to liberalize, but it never really happened. The country became obsessed with nationalism. Sexual openness and women’s rights became a low priority.
The tragedy was really under Mao. While things had been getting dark in China regarding homosexuality, under Mao it went absolutely black. He considered any discussion of sex outside of the home to be a form of Western spiritual pollution and he insisted on total faithfulness, and monogamy. All of the brothels were methodically closed, and the prostitutes were reintegrated into society doing other work. This was a very, very dramatic shift. People began to wear that gender neutral Maoist clothing. This really culminated during the cultural revolution when the slightest reference to sex was seen as spiritual pollution, as a sign that you were a class enemy. [Sexuality] was extremely controlled and girls wore their hair short, they became androgynous, and the difference between the genders sort of merged. It was a very strange time and this continued throughout the reign of Mao Zedong and until the late 1970s.
BI: Is a comparison to the 1960s sexual revolution in Western Europe and America appropriate?
RB: That comparison must be made very, very cautiously. The 1960s revolutions were all about personal freedom, doing your own thing, being able to stand up to authority and criticise it, and being defiant — and sexuality was a part of that. You began to have nudity on Broadway shows, and pornography became a big part of society as it became legalized.
In China, on the other hand, this revolution was far more controlled by the government. You could only go so far. It started with prostitution seeping in as Westerners began to come into China during the late 1970s. Finally, the government let that [control over prostitution] go completely and prostitution blossomed again. Bit by bit the Chinese became more sexually liberated, but with a much longer, slower process. As an example, homosexuality was only dropped from the list of crimes in 1997 and was only taken off the list of mental illnesses in 2001.
So it has been a very slow process,and what didn’t come with the sexual revolution in China were those demands for personal freedom and liberty that were won in the 1960s, when co-ed dorms opened and people felt fine standing up to authority . There has been no concurrent political revolution in China.
BI: Is technology playing a role?
RB: It has been astonishing. Nothing has affected the sexual revolution like the internet. You can pretty much trace when the sexual revolution gained speed and traction back to when the internet started to become popular.
Photo: Image courtesy of Danwei.com
The most prominent example of this was in 2003 when a young female blogger in Guangzhou named Muzi Mei opened a sex blog and she described in excruciating detail positions that she enjoyed and named names. In one of her very first posts she named a well known rock musician and described how they made love.Her whole point was that sex could be enjoyed strictly for the sake of sex — with no strings attached — and that it was fine to have multiple partners. This brought a new discourse into China and created, I think, a shift in the mentality of many, many women who looked at Muzi Mei as a role model. And suddenly, many women started their own versions of sex blogs — they didn’t go as far as Muzi Mei, whose site was shut down after just a few months — but women suddenly began to really get the notion that their sex life was theirs to do as they chose and I think the effects of this have not diminished.
The party itself has a long history of corrupt officials abusing women and abusing their power. One of the most interesting cases that I read about in China was in 2009, when a hostess in a karaoke bar was molested by a party official and she stabbed him to death with a fruit knife. Now normally in a case like this, she would have just been locked up and never heard of again, but the story leaked onto the internet and it became a sensation.
This wouldn’t have happened without the internet.
[The story] really ripped through the country and she became a folk hero. The people were outraged. This became a major, major news story and she was freed — she was let off the hook. This wouldn’t have happened without the internet.
Very shortly afterwards, an official from Beijing was in Shenyang and he molested a 12-year-old girl in a bathroom. When the parents approached him he screamed at them, “You have no idea who I am and the kind of power I have, do you dare to call my behaviour into question?”
He didn’t know there was a surveillance camera taping the whole thing so the whole encounter — again, [the story spread] like lightning across the internet and he was removed from the party. They couldn’t prove that he had molested the girl, but he lost all of his power. This couldn’t have happened 10 or 20 years ago and it has changed the way people behave. They’re on their guard, and it has brought a new sense of power to the Chinese netizens who realise they can make a real difference by pulling together and closing rank.
Is China’s sexual revolution part of an inevitable progress towards more sexual openness, or could it be dialed back?
China keeps trying to control things. Just last year they took off two-thirds of their primetime shows from television including dating shows, shows that were considered racy, and replaced them with news shows. There was popular dating site that went too far talking about premarital sex, so they brought in this dowdy cadre from another city to run the show to make sure it didn’t cross boundaries.
That’s the thing with China’s sexual revolution; there will always be set boundaries where it’s understood you don’t cross, you don’t cross that red line. If you do, the government will intervene. But having gone this far, I don’t think there is any turning back. The people of China have tasted sexual freedom, and they have only wanted more and more. And despite the back and forth with the government, the trend definitely seems to be in the direction of increased sexual freedom.
[This transcript was edited lightly for clarity]
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