Huge changes in mainland's sexual attitudes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 September, 2012, 3:48pm

Behind the Red Door: Sex in China

by Richard Burger

Earnshaw Books

China Behind the Red Door: Sex in China by Richard Burger Earnshaw Books 3.5 stars Kit Gillet

Kit Gillet

Richard Burger suggests a sexual reawakening has long been under way on the mainland, with a rapidly altering sexual landscape filled with unmarried sexual partners, flourishing sex shops, mistresses and an increasingly wifeless generation of young men.

Burger, a former contributor to The Baltimore Sun and one of the first people to start blogging about China back in 2002, tackles the topic of its sexual past and present with relish, running the gauntlet through real-life tales of hymen restoration surgery, concubine villages and outspoken sex bloggers, while also touching on more serious topics such as the issues of sex education in schools, acceptance of homosexuality, and the use and effects of prostitution on society over the years (there are an estimated six million sex workers on the mainland today).

"Ancient China was in many ways one of the most sexually open societies the world has ever seen," Burger writes.

For more than 2,000 years Taoist sex manuals have taught that both men and women need to enjoy sex to the fullest in order to properly exchange their yin and yang energies; ancient Chinese erotic poetry still survives which would shock most readers today with its vivid imagery; while during the Tang dynasty (AD618-907) homosexuality was open and largely accepted (as long as you fulfilled your filial duty to have sons).

These periods of sexual freedom have been interspersed with times of sexual repression when rulers banned erotic arts, persecuted homosexuality and created a climate where sexual desires were considered sinful.

According to Burger, China has only recently emerged from one of the more repressive sexual ages in its history.

From the earliest days of the People's Republic sex was treated as a matter of doing one's reproductive duty for the state, with sexual desire looked down upon as a selfish and bourgeois indulgence. This reached its peak in the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, where men and women would dress in androgynous clothing and those caught having sex out of wedlock, producing pornography or engaging in homosexual relations would be punished harshly.

Since then, however, China has been trying to experiment with its sexual urges, sometimes tentatively, sometimes with vigour. Sex education began in a few pilot schools in Shanghai in the early 1980s, although it did take until last year for the first set of primary school textbooks to be approved and published. Around 60 per cent of urban Chinese today engage in sex before marriage (up from 15 per cent in 1989), while Gay Pride events have been held in larger cities and overall acceptance of homosexuality, which until 1997 was considered a mental illness, has been slowly improving.

Despite this, Burger contends that the Chinese are still trying to "balance their new sexual liberties with old traditions and customs they are reluctant to abandon".

But freedom is creating new problems: divorce rates have gone through the roof, the main cause being infidelity. In addition, as of 2011, 800,000 people have Aids, and one in six men have had chlamydia (one in 10 women).

It may not be a swinging '60s-style sexual revolution, but sex is increasingly on the minds of the Chinese, and Burger has had an impressive stab at painting a vivid picture of the changing landscape, both the good and the bad.