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China's Sexual Revolution

A nation's sleeping libido awakens.

Vanessa Richmond 8 Nov

Vanessa Richmond is a contributing editor on The Tyee.

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Mao waves goodbye to his revolution.

The tanks are parked. Kids are kissing in Tiananmen Square. And if a new documentary is right, it's the kissing that's leading to more personal liberty than any form of rebellion since the Cultural Revolution began.

According to China's Sexual Revolution, by Miro Cernetig and Josh Freed, Chairman Mao married sexuality with capitalism (as forms of corruption and decadence). But now Chinese youth are embracing both with a passion. At warp speed, in fact. There are probably people necking in front of his statue right now, and that's just for starters.

Here's what happened. Sixty years ago, Mao turned "couples into comrades and not lovers, and cloaked men and women in the same unisexual suits," according to the film's narrator. Makeup was forbidden, and hairstyles were dictated by the government (they were not what you would call flattering). Men and women were supposed to feel only like brothers and sisters, and were supposed to regard sex merely as reproductive labour. Instead, they were supposed to get on with more important work. Um, like making cheap plastic sex toys for the rest of the world (70 per cent of which now come from China).

Why? The communist party regarded sex as an outdated feudal custom. And as Dr. Pan Sue Ming, a scholar featured in the doc says, they considered it dangerous since the Revolution needed "a man to want to fight against someone, but sex makes you love and happy." The party even chose people's spouses. And there were propaganda films portraying people who believed in "romance" as foolish, and a source of shame to their families.

Virgin lust

The film reports that secretly, Mao's own sex life was "worthy of an emperor." He, in fact, had a lust for virgins, whom he believed kept him young. "And his sexual excesses are now legend." But he didn't want his comrades comingling.

As a result there are many Chinese people with as much sexual knowledge as I have of the Mandarin language (I know two words). In fact, a recent survey found that 20 per cent of Chinese men didn't know what the clitoris is and 50 per cent of Chinese women had never had an orgasm. Sounds super.

One male student from Beijing recently called in to Whispers, a radio sex show (which is now one of the most popular shows in the nation) with a question. He wondered if he could have made a girl pregnant or got AIDS himself from their encounter. The incident in question was one where he and a girl kissed and hugged (and that's all) while wearing winter coats.

In the past, the government would have cracked down not only on the naughty public kiss but also on the radio show, but now, realizing whole generations lack adequate sexual information and it's leading to restlessness and resentment of the government, they tolerate it. The government has even come to tolerate sex conferences, complete with sex toy sales and video demonstrations, often flooded by as many as 15,000 people; whereas they used to shut them down. And Beijing alone has 5,000 sex shops, more than New York -- all of which are allowed to dispense free sex ed and sell lingerie and sex toys -- without bother.

It seems sex ed really is needed -- the film has other anecdotes about the level of sexual information out there. One couple, recently married, went to a health information centre to ask about "marital relations." The counselors soon realized they were both virgins. The couple thought sex entailed touching legs in bed. When I spoke to him, Cernetig said when he heard these two stories, he was shocked. But he's since heard countless more.

Raunch meets Revolution

Now, I've asked a few male friends about this. All said no one specifically told them the details about the birds and the bees, but they were pretty sure that a certain part of their anatomy was meant to make contact with something else -- anything else, in fact. And the idea that leg-touching could be "it" seemed, to them, hard to buy. But as a woman, who grew up before so-called third wave feminism made pole dancing and lingerie-in-high-school the norm (have you seen Gossip Girl?), I can see that with sexual repression 100 times stronger than what I experienced, that kind of deep ignorance is not only possible but likely.

Young people in the film are aware they're under a cloak of darkness and are moving into the cities in droves in order to shed it. The phrase "Sex and the City" comes up frequently, albeit in interesting translations. There's even a word for the first city haircut a country girl gets -- and it represents a kind of metamorphosis. And on the documentary, one such country-bumpkin-transformation says she's now working as a waitress, and gets shocked when she sees men and women kissing in the restaurant -- she sticks out her tongue. But she sticks around.

Another, Xiao Feng, the editor of the Chinese equivalent of FHM is in her 30s and still not interested in getting married. "Once, I would have had a husband and love him and do everything for him. But now we can do things just for ourselves." She says this would have been unheard of even a few years ago, and her parents still aren't pleased. But she'll continue the way she is. And many other women are leaving party-arranged, loveless marriages to pursue the city life too, creating an urban divorce rate comparable to ours.

Feng, and many other "city girls" are glamorous. But most women in the doc aren't. In fact, one of the most striking things about the documentary is the images of women not subject to "beauty" obsession present elsewhere, like here.

I covered the Miss China World pageant for a magazine a few years ago, and let's just say most women in the film don't look like they just stepped off that stage. It threw me for a minute, to see women not so elaborately commercially groomed, and it was also a relief. There was a kind of innocence -- meaning un-self-consciousness -- that I definitely don't experience here. And unlike when I watch "normal" TV, I wasn't constantly measuring myself against the women in the shows. Instead, I was just drawn in to what they were saying.

It's the feminist irony. On the one hand, I wanted them to find liberation and their dreams. On the other, I wanted to warn them against looking for it in a lip gloss.

Dancing without the stars

In fact, the most charming thing about the doc is the images -- shots of ordinary people and of places like night clubs. In the last clubs I went to, in Vancouver, New York and even London, most people looked bored and jaded (maybe nightclubs have "ended" but that's another story). Not so in Beijing. The club-goers look like they've been locked away until this very minute and have just seen color, warmth, music, booze, drugs and the opposite sex for the first time. There's joy on their faces and in their uninhibited dancing. It's worth watching this film just to see the wholehearted enjoyment.

But it's not all rosy -- and unlike most docs that focus on sexy topics, this one delves into the complex sociological implications of the trends.

The one child policy was meant to curb overpopulation, and on the good side (depending on whom you ask) had the unintended consequence of liberating women to pursue other things like education and paid employment. But solving the population problem created social problems -- given the culture's strong preference for boys, there will be 30 million more men than women within the decade.

Cernetig says for him, it was the saddest part of the research. In the cities, there are whole armies of men who will never have a girlfriend or a wife. They've moved from the country to make a certain kind of life and won't ever have it. And a form of class-ism is building. Working class men in the film talk about how they know they will never get a wife because they don't own an apartment and they aren't at least 173 centimetres tall.

"There is already a rising sense of gang violence in China," he says, "and it's getting harder to control. And that's the reason. A lot of men have nothing to lose. They go to Beijing only to find they will never be a Beijinger."

And it's also given rise to a thriving, brand new sex trade, not unlike that of Thailand's bordellos -- to serve those men. Some scenes show "karaoke bars," shot with a secret camera, where a hundred women sit in a basement, waiting for a client/john to purchase their services for the evening. Cernetig says the dungeon-like grimness there is one of the things that shocked him most.

So what can we learn from watching a sped-up version of the 1960s North American revolution take place at warp speed? Cernetig says, "One is that the Chinese are more like us than you might think. And the other is that it's a very layered place and a lot of what you see about the great rise of China actually masks a lot of problems."

China's Sexual Revolution premieres tonight on CBC, repeating Nov. 10.

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