Sex in China: Q&A with author Richard Burger
Richard Burger is the blogger behind Peking Duck, a record of his thoughts on China since 2003, when he first wrote about being in Beijing during SARS. Burger is also the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, published by Earnshaw Books this week. He answered questions from Danwei by email about his new book.
Why did you write this book and how did you research it?
About ten months ago I was approached by Earnshaw Books, which was looking for a writer to put together a book on sex in China that would be accessible to mainstream audiences. Most books on the topic tend to be academic in nature. The point of this book was to pull together the existing conversations about sex in China, synthesize them with fresh research and updated data and produce a cohesive narrative that was engaging and informative.
The publisher gave me a large amount of research,including a series of interviews conducted with pimps and prostitutes, sex shop owners, sex therapists, karaoke club owners and “sex detectives” hired by suspicious spouses. These put a human face on the story of sex in contemporary China and also provide some of the book’s most poignant material. Aside from these interviews I did a large amount of research myself — my work area at home is still stacked with copies of books on the subject, research papers, doctoral theses and newspaper articles. In addition, I conducted several of my own interviews, speaking with Chinese people via Skype, email and the old-fashioned telephone. Ethnographer Tricia Wang, for example, specializes in the field of Chinese migrant workers and their adoption of technology. She gave me a wonderful interview via Skype.
How much detail do you go into about contemporary Chinese people’s sex lives?
I think the book goes into considerable detail, though there’s always more that can be added. The chapter on dating, for example, offers a detailed look at the courtship process, pre-marital sex, the demands of many Chinese men that their wives be virgins, etc. A lengthy section on Muzimei and the Internet explores the shift in the consciousness of many Chinese women as they increasingly see sex as a means of pleasure and gratification, not just for procreation. The book also goes into great detail on the lives of prostitutes in China today, as well as the lives of gay men and lesbians.
What’s the main difference between sex in China and sex in the USA?
Despite the increase in premarital sex — sexologist Li Yinhe says about 60 percent of urban Chinese people today engage in it — a lot of the old taboos and beliefs about sex remain in place. Chinese men for the most part are unwilling to approach a woman who makes more money or has a higher education than he does. Many still want their wives to be virgins, despite the fact that so many are having premarital sex. Tens of thousands of Chinese women every year go so far as to have surgery to restore their hymens or buy artificial hymens that seep artificial blood. The gap is closing in the major cities, which are becoming ever more Westernized, but even there Chinese traditional values rub up against new attitudes fostered by China’s sexual revolution. Serial dating is still frowned upon (though that’s changing, too), parents are included in the decision to marry, and public displays of affection are far less common outside of the big cities than they are everywhere in the West. Sex education is also drastically different; in China it barely exists at all and focuses on biology with little to no discussion on the social aspects of sex or sexual morality.
Prostitution is a vast industry in China. Despite its ubiquity, it’s a business that somehow remains in the shadows. How do you tackle this subject in the book?
The chapter on the sex trade is one of the longest and most detailed in the book. First it looks at China’s long history of prostitution, from ancient times to the Mao era. It looks at how different dynasties handled sex for sale. During the Tang Dynasty, for example, prostitutes were so tolerated, they were registered with the state so taxes could be collected. Under the Manchu dynasty prostitution was outlawed but it thrived anyway. Only under Mao was prostitution eradicated, or at least made invisible.
For me, the most moving part of the book is an interview with an actual middle-aged prostitute in Shanghai who tells why she was forced to enter the sex trade and her evolution from giving hand jobs in movie theaters to a street walker to a call girl. She talks about what her life was like and how she was forced to sleep with corrupt police, her struggle to feed and educate her children, etc.
I also spend several pages describing China’s tiered system of prostitution. There are different opinions on exactly how many tiers there are because there is overlap. I focus on seven tiers, as broken down by the Shanghai police in the 1990s. These tiers start with the ernai (二奶), or second wife, up at the top — she is for all intents and purposes a concubine employed by one “customer,” almost always a wealthy businessman or official, who pays her rent and gives her a salary. Strictly speaking, an ernai is not quite a prostitute since she don’t sell her body to multiple customers. At the very bottom are the xiagongpeng, literally “down by the shack.” These are the lowest-end prostitutes who sell their wares to migrant workers at their work shacks. They receive a pitiably low payment and often will work for food. I detail the other five tiers in-between, such as dance hall girls, street walkers and massage parlor workers.
What was the pre-modern Chinese attitude to homosexuality?
If people are going to be startled by anything in the book I think it might be the section on homosexuality in imperial China. For centuries it was widely practiced, mainly by the literati and ruling classes, though there is plenty of evidence of same-sex love between ordinary Chinese, even in the countryside. As long as these men married and had children, it was acceptable for them to carry on affairs with men outside the home. Many emperors kept male lovers along with their harems of concubines. Han Dynasty scribes actually catalogued the emperors’ male lovers. Homosexuality was not an identity, it was something men simply did for entertainment, and often to display their class privilege. They were not “gay” — they were married men who carried on with men for amusement and pleasure. With the advent of the Beijing opera and the inflow of “song boys” who performed them, male same sex love soared in the late 19th century as many middle and upper-class men sought the company of these effeminate young boys, who always played the passive role and often dressed in female clothing. This didn’t come to an end completely until the early twentieth century.
When did homsexuality become a crime of hooliganism? When was this changed? How has life changed for gays and lesbians in China over the last two decades?
Early in Mao’s rule homosexuality was labeled both a psychological disorder and an act of hooliganism. Most gays at the time had no idea there were millions like them, and believed something was wrong with them. Men could only meet other men in parks and public toilets, where they risked arrest. Punishments varied in different parts of China. Some men were charged a fine, others put in jail, and often they were ostracized in their danwei, where they lived the rest of their lives in stigmatization.
It was only in 1997 that homosexuality was decriminalized and four years later it was removed from the official list of mental illnesses. Gay bars opened in the early 1990s and gays in urban areas became part of a community. The days of parks and toilets as the only option was over. Nevertheless, gays still succumb to the pressure to marry — more than 80 percent do so — and are forced to live a life of secrecy. This is tragic both for them and for their spouse, whose needs cannot be fulfilled.
What effect have sex blogger Muzi Mei and prominent sexologist Li Yinhe had on Chinese attitudes to sex and the public discussion of them?
Muzimei was a seminal force (so to speak) in China’s sexual revolution. She brought the topic of sex for the sake of sex into the public discourse and created a debate over the morality of having multiple sex partners. She became a role model to perhaps millions of women and made the topic of sex far less taboo. She also generated a lot of animosity and condemnation in the media. She helped tear down old barriers, and there has been no going back.
It’s hard to measure Li Yinhe’s influence. Most of what she advocated never came to fruition. But among the well educated she certainly expanded the dialogue about sex and often shocked the public with her bold recommendations, such as the decriminalization of prostitution, making it legal for gays to marry, freedom to engage in any kind of sex, including orgies, without fear of punishment, etc. Any examination of sex in China is inevitably loaded with references to Li. I cite her twenty times in my book.
Links and sources
Amazon: Behind the Red Door: Sex in China
Richard Burger’s blog: Peking Duck
Tricia Wang: Mapping the city, first stop: sex workers
Danwei: A brief history of Chinese porn, People’s Pornography – An interview with Katrien Jacobs
Li Yinhe – Group sex and the Cultural Revolution, a translation, Chinese sociologist Lі Уіnhe on rural problems, Muzi Mei resurfaces, Doggy style in Guangzhou