Book Review- Behind the Red Door: Sex in China
Sex is everywhere in China. Every city of a certain size is teeming with “adult product” shops selling sex toys and condoms, while every third barbershop, massage parlor, and karaoke hall operates as a front for prostitution. At bars throughout the country, nubile young women serve beer dressed in skimpy mini-skirts, while nightclubs feature go-go dancers gyrating wildly to pulsating, suggestive pop music. Wealthy men in China’s cities keep young women- known as er nai- as mistresses, providing them with an apartment and an allowance in exchange for sex and companionship. Male guests at hotels are offered prostitutes in semi-discreet telephone calls, and business deals often include sexual services as part of a sales pitch.
Sex is also nowhere in China. Students learn little about relationships, intimacy, and contraception in school, as the Communist Party believes that these subjects distract students from their studies. All healthy men and women are expected to marry, and remaining single past one’s late twenties typically results in intense family pressure to find a match. Gays and lesbians are not exempt from this expectation, and have often resorted to sham marriages in order to present a respectable face to their families. Chinese men retain a traditional desire to marry a virgin, and as a result Chinese women will go to great lengths to restore their hymens in order to erase their sexual histories. Open, frank public discussions about sex, once non-existent, remain taboo for much of the population.
These contradictions are unsurprising in a country like China, where life behind closed doors differs so greatly from external appearances. To be fair, China is hardly the only country where official attitudes about sex lag behind those of the general public. The United States, for instance, touts its “Puritan ethic” while producing the lion’s share of the world’s smut, filth, and garbage entertainment. Interestingly, however, Chinese attitudes toward sex do not resemble an arc bending toward more tolerance and liberalism but rather have fluctuated wildly throughout the country’s history. As Richard Burger tells us in his fine new book Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, attitudes toward homosexuality in ancient China were so tolerant that the concept of sexual orientation didn’t even exist; a man was expected to have male as well as female lovers over the course of his lifetime. In fact, Burger argues convincingly, homophobia only emerged in China with the arrival of Western Christian missionaries in the 16th century. While Europe was suffering through the Middle Ages, China enjoyed a golden age of culture and society, producing erotic art and literature that is read and admired today. Burger, who authors the popular China blog The Peking Duck*, weaves through this history nimbly, livening up his historical survey with bright, lively prose.
As the twentieth century dawned, Shanghai had such a reputation for licentiousness that it earned the nickname “The Whore of the Orient”, while concubinage remained a common practice in both rural and urban parts of the country. Yet by 1950, when Chairman Mao Zedong and the Communists consolidated control over the entire country, the Chinese government banned prostitution, closed bars and opium dens, and vowed to eliminate vestiges of China’s tawdry past. During the Cultural Revolution, men and women were discouraged from pursuing romantic relationships and regarded love as a bourgeois conceit; in photographs from this era, it can be difficult distinguishing between the sexes due to the uniformity in clothing and hairstyle. By the time Deng Xiaoping assumed power in 1978 and launched market-driven reforms, the Chinese population had as little regard for sexuality than any population in the modern world.
That, as any visit to the country instantly makes clear, has changed. Modern China is a defiantly sexual place- perhaps not on par with Brazil or France, but certainly more than your run-of-the-mill Communist state. Young Chinese people increasingly express their sexuality, have relationships with whomever they want, and find information about sex at the click of a button. Will this progress be erased by a reactionary regime eager to preserve traditional Confucian values? Perhaps. China’s young, however, are increasingly exposed to a global popular culture in which sex is entwined with freedom, individuality, and choice. Burger’s book contains many examples of heartache and tragedy, but ends on a hopeful note. In the United States, after all, only thirty-five years separated the Stonewall riots from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. We’re used to changes happening in China at warp speed, but Sex in China gives reason to believe that the remarkable advances may only just be the beginning.
*Disclosure: Richard is a friend.