Few human activities remain as ripe for study today as they did at the dawn of Chinese culture 5,000 or so years ago. But sex is one of them, and it’s the focus of a new book that peeks into the bedrooms and brothels of the world’s most populous nation.
Released last month, “Behind the Red Door: Sex in China” (Earnshaw Books) examines how a culture born in concepts of yin-yang balance has fared against powerful forces like Mao Zedong and the Internet. Like many things in China, finds first-time author Richard Burger, sex is somehow different than in the West.
Mr. Burger, 58 years old and now based in Phoenix, is best known in China for his decade-old blog Peking Duck. Though he originally intended for it to serve as an online travelogue, Beijing’s heavy-handed reaction to the 2003 SARS outbreak energized him to focus Peking Duck on the country’s political and social structure.
It’s a big job to survey sex in China, where aspects of ancient culture (Confucian doctrine, silk curtains, concubines) echo in modern society (Communist censorship, online dating, divorce detectives). “No society has swung more dramatically from extreme sexual openness to prudish orthodoxy and then to the sexually ambiguous atmosphere we see at present,” writes Mr. Burger.
In probing dating, marriage, homosexuality and promiscuity, Mr. Burger tracks down sexologists and prostitutes for their input. But “Behind the Red Door” isn’t voyeuristic. Instead it draws on fabled sources like “Dream of the Red Chamber” and news coverage of notable junctures, like Beijing’s first sex shop in 1993, a confessional blog launched by a woman known as Muzimei in 2003 and the 2010 closure of Chongqing’s Hilton during a crackdown by Bo Xilai (who last month was expelled from the Communist Party in part because of “improper sexual relations” with multiple women).
Sex and deception emerge as a running theme in the book, whether it’s $300 hymen reconstructions to fake virginity, the large percentage of gay men marrying women to save face, or the seven tiers of prostitution — from ernai (“second wife”) toxiagongpeng (“down the work shack”).
Mr. Burger spoke with the Journal about the Chinese sexual revolution and how the country is dealing with it. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.
The Wall Street Journal: Why did you write this book?
Mr. Burger: This was totally different from anything I’d done in the past. I’ve been an observer and always been fascinated, for instance, with the phenomenon of prostitution in China, about gays in China, the sexual rituals that I saw that were very different from in the West.
If you look for books on the subject that offer us a survey from sex in ancient China to today, you’ll find there’s almost only the academic literature available, white papers, textbooks, so I thought this was a real opportunity to fill that gap.
How does China’s sexual revolution differ from the West’s?
The sexual revolution in the West was part of a much broader revolution for all sorts of personal freedoms. It became an atmosphere of “do your own thing” and “to rebel is good.” In China, the sexual revolution, it’s on the government’s terms to a large extent. You can only go so far. It’s not so much personal freedom, individual freedom, than a relaxation of the taboos about sex that have ruled China from the time of Mao and even earlier.
How does the government influence sex culture?
A good example of this is the telephone hotlines that I mention in the introduction. These phone lines for sexual counsel, they started in the mid-, late-1990s, and you would think, “OK, here are people calling in about sex and talking about their love lives.” And you might see this as liberating. But in fact, all of the counselors were government cadres, and the shows were sponsored by the government…it was all about strengthening the family.
Is dishonesty an important facet of the story?
It is, and it has to be, because China’s in a tug-of-war against traditional Chinese values such as the wife being a virgin on her wedding night, a traditional Chinese belief. It’s a tug-of-war between that and Western-style sexual openness.
Women are more frequently having sex with men who are demanding sex, but when it comes time to get married, they still have to prove that they’re a virgin. They have to lie. They have to go to outrageous lengths, such as having a hymenoplasty operation.
How actively is pornography censored online?
I equate what they are trying to do on the Internet in terms of pornography as a game of whack-a-mole. They are always announcing these big stings. A couple of years ago the government announced they had shut down 60,000 porn sites and arrested 5,000 of the operators. One of them was even sentenced to life in prison.
What did you find about sex education?
In the early 1980s, sex education became mandatory for the first time. It had to be taught in the high schools. Most teachers are so squeamish that they either zip through it — these are biology teachers usually — they just hurry through it, or they skip it altogether.
What they do teach, when they do teach it, is about anatomy and biology. There’s nothing about sexual morality. It’s just taught as how reproduction works.
China remains, for all the advances, very uptight about sex. And most Chinese parents, I would say, don’t teach their kids about sex at all. And some will even tell them that they found them under a rock or on the street somewhere. It’s such a sticky subject.
One chapter is called “Shifting Landscape.” What’s shifting?
I start it off with the well-known story of Muzimei in 2003 writing her tell-all blog where she names names and described what they did in graphic terms. She was the first to gain attention who wrote about about sex, just for the sake of sex, and the joys of personal satisfaction with no strings attached. In fact, the government soon shut it down. But she had left an indelible mark.
She generated a new conversation about the role of women…that a woman shouldn’t feel guilty about having sex and that she should savor it.
We’re seeing a decided shift toward sexual liberation, but I think it’s going to be a long hard slog before we see anything comparable to what we saw in the West, simply because, as we’ve said, traditional Chinese beliefs and values are playing a tug-of-war.
Why does China have so many sex shops?
The sex shops aren’t about lewdness or about pornography. They’re about health.
The thinking is just like the hotlines that a sexually satisfied population, a more contented population adds to the nation’s harmony. If you don’t have a sexually satisfied population, they’re more likely to question authority.