Roll over, Confucius

As the sexual floodgates open in China, the biggest taboo left is talking about sex.


Lisa Movius
December 3, 2003 1:41AM (UTC)

Even in China, sex sells.

Li Li, a 25-year-old aspiring writer from Guangzhou, probably realized as much in June when launching her weblog, "Love Letters Before Dying." Under the pen name Muzimei ("Wooden Beauty"), Li Li provided lurid details of her unusually hyperactive sex life, naming names -- some of them famous. China's titillated netizens lapped it up, and by November the blog was receiving more than 100,000 visitors a day. It was also attracting less enthusiastic attention. The state-owned press excoriated the blog as pornographic and corrupting, denouncing the author's disillusionment with love and marriage. The growing furor got Li Li fired from her magazine job, and in late November she shut down the blog.

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Since Muzimei was removed from the site, scores of imitators have taken her place. The most popular of these, a blogger calling herself Lady Cat, tells of her emotional and sexual voyage through an early marriage, hasty divorce and subsequent casual dalliances -- with a sprinkling of racy Calvin Klein ads and essays like "An orgasm a day," which discusses her discovery of masturbation and pornography. Meanwhile, "Love Letters Before Dying" came out in book form only to be banned after a few days, but it will probably enjoy the same fate as China's previously banned risqué books: translation and brisk international sales.

What upsets China's censors is not so much Li Li's promiscuity as her openness. While still in the minority, many young urban Chinese engage in casual bed hopping. Seeking guidance from "Sex and the City" and "Friends," they pick up partners in bars, nightclubs, teahouses and on the Internet, albeit rarely with the frequency that Li Li boasted of.

Expanding personal and economic freedoms, coupled with a deification of money and a heady infusion of Western pop culture, have opened China's sexual floodgates. The Communist Party and mainstream society still staunchly advocate the norm of a married couple with one child, but even marriage -- faced with a daunting array of flashy competitors -- is undergoing a process of reevaluation and redefinition in both the law and the public imagination. Government and society are increasingly willing to ignore, if not tolerate, the expansion of formerly taboo practices like premarital sex, cohabitation, homosexuality, adultery, divorce, concubinage, pornography, prostitution and beauty pageants. Pretty much the only sexual behavior still uncommon in China is talking about sex: people's behaviors are increasingly open, but their attitudes are not. Girls like Muzimei can sleep around all they want, but discussing it publicly reveals that China's current social experiment is far less controlled than people like to believe.

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The standard in China remains the Confucian ideal of "four generations under one roof." But now with later marriages and lower birthrates the reality is more likely three generations. Young people usually live with their parents until they are married. After they have their one child, either one set of parents will move in with them to provide day care, or the child will live with its grandparents on weekdays. Marriage is the main rite of passage into adulthood for Chinese, and unmarried family members usually continue to receive "hongbao" -- red envelopes containing cash given to small children and the elderly at holidays -- regardless of their age and income level.

While arranged and forced marriages were eliminated long ago and love is considered necessary, few are willing to marry against their parents' wishes, and most are very pragmatic in their choice of spouse. Women want husbands who are older and either rich or with the potential to become so, and their ability to vie for the prime candidates is based on youth, attractiveness and stability. Most women marry in their mid-20s, and men in their late 20s; remaining single for much longer attracts negative attention from one's friends and family. Marriage remains an obligation to one's parents, by continuing the family name and creating a stable home they can move into when older. Romance is found elsewhere; with most couples, after the obligatory child is born and shipped off to the grandparents, one or both partners will start having affairs.

"China has not always been so conservative," Liu Dalin, a sociology professor at Shanghai University and the owner of the Sex Culture Museum, is quick to clarify. He has cases of thousand-year-old dildos to prove it. Liu explains that up to the Tang Dynasty (618-906 A.D.), women were free, marriage was personal, and divorce was common, but society declined into the rigid traditionalism of the recent Ming and Qing eras (1368-1911). "During those periods of feudal decline, the government feared chaos and thus feared sex and didn't trust the common people."

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This attitude lasted until the 20th century, which brought the end of the dynastic system; then the Communists banned polygamy and promoted equality between the sexes. Says Liu: "Freedom of marriage was a big improvement, but it only went so far because feudal influences remained and for 30 years the Communist Party's leftist ideals did not value individual happiness, and pursuit of it was criticized. There was a saying, 'Personal matters, even the biggest, are still small; political matters, even the smallest, are still big.' Basic needs come first. When people are cold and hungry, sex is not their top priority. Only now, 20 years into modernization, are people's basic needs met, their living standards up, so they're looking for more satisfaction in love, marriage and sex."

As China opens up, marriage is increasingly recognized as a personal prerogative as well as a matter of social and family stability. Even the old guard of the government and the generation currently middle-aged are shifting their perspective somewhat, as illustrated by a recent law that streamlines marriage and divorce procedures and makes them more personal. Put into effect on October 1, China's 2003 Marriage Law makes the previously mandatory premarital health examination optional and removes the requirement that a couple's work units approve the marriage or divorce. Couples only need to provide identification and to sign a statement that neither is already married. The new law also removed the requirement that couples seeking divorce must first undergo a month of counseling, and it eliminated all the jurisdiction over marriage and divorce previously held by invasive neighborhood committees. The 2003 law is communist China's fourth marriage law; the first, in 1950, established freedom of marriage, monogamy and equality between spouses. A 1980 amendment formalized the one-child policy, and the 2001 law criminalized adultery and domestic violence.

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In the short period since the new law was implemented, the dire predictions of soaring divorce rates have not come to pass. Figures for October show that divorce remained steady and marriage rates rose. The number of contested divorce cases before the courts declined, since under the previous law many couples would go to court to avoid the month of counseling. Only the waiver of the health examination continues to attract concern. Even sexually active Chinese do not regularly screen for STDs, and the premarital exam is often their first test. In a much publicized case in Sichuan Province, a young woman having the exam under the old law learned she had HIV and previously would not have been granted a marriage license. Under the new law the couple could choose to wed, and did.

In addition to liberalizing the marriage law, China is beginning to loosen its one-child policy. A 2002 law extended the cases in which a couple may have a second child, including those in which both parents are only children or one parent is disabled and unable to work. Remarried couples are now allowed a child regardless of whether they have one from previous marriages. However, according to Hu Xiaoyu and Tong Chuanliang, doctors at the Shanghai Reproductive Health Center, which oversees family planning and conducts the premarital health exams, very few who can have a second child actually do. Middle-class parents spend a small fortune on private schools, tutors and high-tech gadgetry, and the expense is prohibitive. A growing number of young couples are opting to not even have one child, so both spouses can focus on their careers and maintain their hard-earned independence from their parents.

Abortion remains common in China, although the forced abortions that the American right is so fond of dithering about remain rare and illegal. What force does exist comes from family and society: Women are pressured to not give birth if they are unmarried, not economically stable, or at an important career junction.

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Abortion has no stigma beyond the implication of sexual activity. The Shanghai Reproductive Health Center found in 2001 that 43 percent of women surveyed used abortion as birth control, a figure that has dwindled due to educational campaigns.

"Abortion is much less common now than a few years ago," says Hu, "although it's hard to say exactly how much. Few women have repeat abortions now. Chinese have an aversion to the pill, just like Westerners dislike IUDs, although it's becoming more accepted. Most people, probably 72 percent, use an IUD after marriage and childbirth, while for unmarried people condoms are used by 70 to 80 percent."

While single parenthood due to divorce is up, unwed pregnancies are usually terminated, as out-of-wedlock births remain highly stigmatized. In Shanghai, a city of 17 million, there were only 40 reported cases in 2002. Until a few years ago, children of unmarried parents were legal nonentities, unable to receive the hukou, or residence registration, necessary to attend school, travel and receive social services. The China Women's Federation reports that most single mothers are either the kept mistresses of wealthy married men, or teenagers, who need parental permission for an abortion and who are often from impoverished migrant populations.

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Legal adoption is uncommon except by foreigners, and unwanted babies are more often abandoned in hospitals and public toilets or handed over to black-market baby smugglers, like one ring busted in March in Guangxi. More girls than boys are abandoned, but that old prejudice is fading, and sex-selection ultrasound has been illegal since the mid-1990s. "In Shanghai," says Hu, "people now prefer to have girls, because they feel daughters are closer to the family and face less social pressure to succeed."

Teen pregnancy, while still low by international standards, has become a growing concern for Chinese parents and educators. Tong estimates that roughly 50 percent of high school students date, and 10 to 15 percent engage in sexual activity. The majority of Chinese, he believes, become sexually active during the first or second year of college. Chinese receive their first sexual instruction in middle school starting at age 12 and are merely lectured about puberty, hygiene and morality. "I feel it's not enough, because the textbooks are lacking and unscientific, and they dare not talk about things like condoms, homosexuality or AIDS," says Liu, who just wrote a book on the subject.

A couple of more detailed textbooks have been published over the last two years but are not widely used. "The teachers are poorly chosen and poorly trained; they receive no support, and don't know how to field questions or the psychological aspects," says Liu, "and then the parents hear their kids are learning about sex, and tell them to not believe the teachers." As in America, adults are afraid that comprehensive sex education will encourage kids to have sex. Some outside resources are now available, such as You and Me, a teen sexual information Web site launched in July this year by Marie Stopes International, but they can only reach so far. The result is that most young Chinese receive most of their information on sex from friends, pop culture, the Internet, pornography, and the tried-and-true method of fumble and find out.

Many but not all universities have sexual health resources, and only a small proportion of China's vast population attends college. Before October, couples taking the premarital health exam were plopped in front of a 45-minute video about marriage, sex, pregnancy, contraception and interpersonal relations while awaiting their results, and doctors fielded their questions afterwards. For many, it represented the first explicit sex education they had received. Since the new law was implemented in October, only about 10 percent of couples go for the exam. Even then it is too little, too late. Estimates are that between 44 and 91 percent of young Chinese, varying by region, engage in premarital sex.

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Ma Xiaonian, director of the Beijing No. 402 Hospital's Sexual Medicine Department, has described China as "sexually illiterate" -- reliant on sexual myths, misunderstandings and traditional superstitions in the absence of scientific information. The Shanghai Reproductive Health Center has run a 24-hour hotline since 2000, and in 2001 released a book of answers to callers' questions. While most address practical marital and health issues, like adultery and waning interest, some inquiries -- like whether it is safe to drink water after intercourse or masturbate once a month -- revealed a cute but disconcerting naiveté.

Along with the rising frequency of premarital sex, alternatives to marriage are increasingly popular and accepted. Girls like Li Li represent the extreme end of a spectrum of educated, professional young urbanites who date, have sex and live together but hesitate to marry. China's main cities, Shanghai and Beijing, are estimated to each have more than 1 million young singles, mostly women; 50.2 percent of Beijing women earning more than 5,000 renminbi ($600) per month remain single.

Melinda Wang (not her real name), a single 30-year-old editor from Yunnan Province, explains, "More and more well-educated woman around or over 30 years stay single because their jobs are not easy and because I think most of Chinese men don't dare deal with a woman smarter then themselves. They want a weaker woman to show they are powerful and strong. Also, women can support themselves financially, and they learn happiness can come from one's girlfriends too." Claiming to be too lazy to keep looking for Mr. Right and too independent to settle, she has contemplated being a single mother, but fears the social stigma.

Melinda had her first boyfriend at age 18, first sexual encounter at age 20, and since has had "too many boyfriends to remember." She says that many of her friends cannot find "a regular sex partner, and we're already fed up with one-night stands." She lived with a boyfriend in what the Chinese call "trial marriage" on and off for seven years. In most of China, cohabitation is technically illegal, and unmarried couples are not allowed to rent hotel rooms in the interests of stemming prostitution, but like so many of China's laws the prohibitions are rarely enforced, except by corrupt police looking for bribes.

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Seventy percent of young Chinese support the idea of "trial marriage" while their parents have mixed feelings. Meanwhile, cohabitation has also become common among the widowed elderly, who find it simpler than facing down the family opposition and inheritance issues that remarriage would involve.

Desires for independence and personal fulfillment are also, after adultery, a primary cause of divorce. Researchers add that sexual dissatisfaction is also increasingly cited as a reason. Divorce rates in China are comparatively low, only 2 million cases a year, or 1.5 percent of the population, but the numbers are climbing and divorce is slowly becoming more acceptable. Some biases do remain, like the belief that divorce is universally bad for children. "Before, divorce was a very serious, very bad thing," recalls Liu. "There were many old sayings like, 'The divorced are never good people and good people never divorce' and 'A temple shouldn't be torn down.' But divorce happens for many reasons -- some people simply aren't compatible and divorce is the best option."

Many married couples, particularly young urbanites, accept a sort of permanent separation, where they live apart, date other people, and share childcare, but because of parents or children or finances do not divorce unless one party meets someone and wishes to remarry.

Despite all the changes happening, China remains prudishly reluctant to openly discuss them. Racy books like Li Li's are banned, a temporary exhibition of historical sex artifacts in Beijing was shut down for generating too much public interest, and the Shanghai government prohibits Liu's Sex Museum from advertising its location on the grounds that children might see the word "sex."

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"People don't like to say the word. It's this era's irony, and this opening up is only halfway," says Liu. "The main force in society feels that sex is dirty, that it is OK to do it but wrong to talk about it. People today are conflicted, and that can only change slowly. The government is trying to keep control, to allow more personal freedom, but very slowly. It fears having a sexual revolution like America in the 1960s, which does have its advantages, but the government feels that way is too fast, too extreme, and fears that young people will be unwilling to marry."

However, the very upheaval that the government fears is already well underway, and discouraging discussion and banning books will not make it disappear.


Lisa Movius

Lisa Movius is a freelance writer living in Shanghai.

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