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Everything you wanted to know about sex in China, but were afraid to ask

When I heard that Richard Burger, of The Peking Duck, had written a book about sex in China, I expected it to be a somewhat scandalous introduction to the topic (he had told me that it wasn’t meant for China experts). However, I found Behind the Red Door: Sex in China to be an incredibly thorough exploration of sex and sexuality in China. He covers almost every aspect– dating, marriage, prostitution, concubines, homosexuality, pornography, sex shops – and each in a way that considers the past and present and avoids easy answers.

The only gripe I had with the book was when Burger chastised the missionaries of the past for bringing their close minded western views on homosexuality.

He highlights a passage from a Jesuit writing in 1610:

“That which shows the misery of these people is that no less than the natural lusts they practice unnatural ones that reverse the order of things: and this is neither forbidden by law or thought to be illicit, or even a cause of shame. It is spoken of in public and practiced everywhere, without there being anyone to prevent it…”

Richard uses this to prove his broader point that homosexuality is condemned in the West based on religious views, but in China was practiced freely until missionaries interfered saying, “Chinese passing by on the street would most likely have viewed the male prostitutes as providing entertainment that harmed no one.” However Richard writes just a few pages later to say that of the male prostitutes “the most prized were those between 12 and 14 years of age,” and that, “unlike concubines who were often treated as family members, catamites (male prostitutes) were often discarded like an old shoe, and many became beggars who took on the most menial jobs and died in poverty.”

So perhaps the monk was shocked not only by the homosexuality, but also the society’s complicit acceptance of child prostitution. However, his coverage of the modern day struggle within Chinese society over the issue of homosexuality seems to be spot on, and is worth the price of the book on its own.

He also seems to struggle with how to best present the seeming contradiction that Victorian attitudes toward sex ended China’s sexual freedom, but that it is now western openness that has contributed to China’s sexual re-liberalization. Richard though does bring this point out toward the end of the book.

With that out of the way, I would like to say that I very much enjoyed this book, and found scores of new information about attitudes towards sex in ancient China, as well as several interesting anecdotes about more current events. I was also very pleased to find that Richard’s book avoided the ChinaSMACK approach to some of the topics, meaning that he relied more on personal conversations and news accounts than translated comments from Chinese message boards (although not entirely).

I feel that this gives a much more accurate view of what’s really going on than simply focusing on the most outrageous events. Furthermore, Richard’s style, which has been honed over his years of blogging, reads very well, despite the amount of information crammed into every page.

Dinosaurs and indoor pools – the lighter side of childhood in China

A few weeks ago I witnessed something that warmed the cockles of my typically icy heart.

In China, when one pictures a middle school student, they picture a small child diligently studying behind a great wall of books. Outside of the classroom they are spotted in their uniforms around 5pm being brought back from school for several more hours of homework. These few minutes on the bus in Nanjing were almost always filled with a few rounds of Fruit Ninja or Angry Birds on their smart phones. In rural China, the students were boarded, and so had no chance of furtive gaming between school and study.

In my two years at the hospital, I sat through dozens of chats between co-workers that focused on their children’s progress in school, but I never heard them discuss other aspects of their children’s lives with each other. Questions from them about life in America also focused on the scholarly instead of  the fun. This reinforces the stereotype that Asians are more studious than their American counterparts. For me this was confirmed a few weeks ago when I visited the Stanford campus and saw a handful of Chinese tour groups wandering the campus with their toddlers in tow (you can’t plan too far ahead).

For expats living in China, the conversation turns toward a concern over whether or not Chinese children ever actually get to enjoy their childhood. After all when a friend asked his students to recount their happiest memory, he was met with tales of passing tests, dog bites, and child abuse.

So when I saw two boys, about 12 years old, roaring and running about like dinosaurs, I couldn’t have been happier. It was wonderful to see them lost in their own world, completely ignoring the stares of working folks headed home.

It’s important to remember that even after years in China, there are large parts of people’s lives you have simply missed. So much happens within the home or behind the walls of their apartment compound and if you live in the wrong neighborhood you may miss it all.

It reminded me of a story one of my college students told me. He said that one night in the dormitory, when it was too hot to sleep, his roommates and him decided the only way to cool down was to go for a swim. The problem was they couldn’t leave their room. So they came up with a way of converting their tiny bathroom into a pool. All it took were a few towels stuffed into the squat toilet and under the door and their shower turned on full blast for about thirty minutes. Somehow all eight of them fit in there, and splashed away in their “pool.” The student, and his classmates hearing of it for the first time, giggled through the entire story, even though they had nearly destroyed their dorm room.

With what feels like an unending stream of depressing news about China’s human rights, food safety, and environment, it is easier to forget that more often than not it is a place of loving families and enduring friendships.

Don’t read too much into the Olympics and other practical advice from Ai Weiwei

Today, we continue our ongoing series on Ai Weiwei’s book, Time and place.

A World Without Honor

By 2006 China had already tapped Zhang Yimou to direct the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. To Ai this was completely unacceptable, and he decided to devote a rather fiery post to the injustice of this decision. It was  shortly before this that the once daring director had begun to back away from the line. As a friend who had attended film school with Zhang told me, it seemed to her that the gov’t had finally “gotten” him.

But Ai’s essay is still relevant today, especially as we sit through two more weeks of Olympics. He says, “Every competition has a winner, and the victorious side always uses its success to prove a fact.” This should be kept in mind when debating whether or not America’s “free-market” system of athletic training vs. the Chinese state-backed approach is more successful. It isn’t really something we’re going to learn from a few games of basketball or 110 meters of hurdles (interestingly, if one combines the total number of medals won this year by China and Russia and compare them to the number won by the U.S. and G.B. you find they come out exactly even).

Ai goes deeper into the nature of competitions in the Chinese context and argues that, “A world with no true goodness and no beauty is necessarily this way. In all competitions here, there are only painstakingly arranged victors, losers, and observers. The weak triumph and the superior suffer defeat, and losers defeat those who should be victors. This is already common knowledge, for the theory of evolution does not apply here.” This seems to get more to the heart of the value of competition within a market system vs. the current system in China that tends to give advantages to State companies. This point has been mentioned time and again by a friend whose private company once boomed only to be squeezed out of the market by “losers” who had been handed victory.

As soon as You’re not careful…an Encounter with Idiocy on a Sunny Day

In this blog post Ai Weiwei recounts his participation in a forum that was discussing Chinese culture in crisis. I’m not sure if he even made it to the event before he decided it would be a waste of time, but being who he is, he decided at the very least he could “contribute” to the conversation. This seems to have taken the form of swearing at one of the presenters who seemed bent on devaluing low-culture like Internet writing. The presenter, who began by bashing Yu Hua so violently that Ai believed for a moment that Yu Hua must be some kind of inanimate object, proceeded then to attack Han Han as a fleeting personality. It was at that point Ai called BS.

In a somewhat telling line Ai says, “I don’t understand why “egocentric” people can’t become masters. Does that even really matter? Isn’t everyone self indulgent?” I’ve always wondered whether Ai’s various forms of art were self-less jabs at authority or if they were the attention seeking behavior that the Global Times claims they are. Perhaps it doesn’t matter what Ai’s motivations are as much as what kind of affect his art has on those who see it. This week at a presentation a man asked me why Ai Weiwei was the only dissident that most Americans were aware of. I replied by saying that Ai was simply one of the most fun to watch. So now I’m pondering if Ai’s actions can be called “egocentric” if the result is a global awareness of the ongoing struggle to create a China ruled by law.


In this short essay Ai compares the devastation of the Tangshan Earthquake to the destructive force of the Cultural Revolution. As he says, “There are two types of disasters: visible and quantifiable natural disasters, and invisible, immeasurable psychological disasters.” He also reminds his readers that the Tangshan earthquake and the death of several Chinese leaders imbued the event with mystical interpretations. This coincidence has been mentioned time and again this year as China ramps up for leadership change.

I think Ai is absolutely right to say there are still “aftershocks” of the Cultural Revolution. One of my Chinese friends says he still shouts criticisms in his sleep, sitting upright in bed and pointing at imaginary class enemies. It also seems to have fueled the current generation of activists and dissidents. What else can possibly come of having your childhood shaped by violence and revolt?

Ai’s final paragraph contains a sentiment I’ve heard repeated often, and it does seem to be true. “The extermination of a nation’s collective memory and its ability for self-reflection is like a living organism’s rejection of its own immune system. The main difference is that this nation won’t die, it will only lose its sense of reason.”

On Friday we’ll continue this series with reflections from Hannah after reading “On The Bird’s Nest” and “The Longest Road.”

An unpopular argument – it’s not just the government

When it comes to describing China’s challenges, foreigners (myself included) tend to attack the gov’t side of the issue. While the current system does seem to reinforce a number of practices that limit people power and encourage corruption, it ignores the cultural factors that are in play. I believe the reason for this is that us “old outsiders” worry about being decried as racist.

To some extent these two factors reinforce one another. For instance, the leaders in China have never actually been required to heed the will of the people, and so there is a limited culture of challenging their rule; 0r that the rich have always been privileged in Chinese society over the commoners.

Fortunately, people like Xu Zhiyong and Murong Xuecun are attacking both ends of the problem by focusing in on the idea that a corrupt system relies on corrupt individuals. In a lengthy new essay translated by Tea Leaf Nation (link was broken for me, so here is a cached version), Murong addresses a litany of cultural issues that are holding China back and offers several solutions.

One of his major arguments is that people have become numb to issues like corruption, pollution and food safety. This ambivalence results in declining morals and an “intolerably evil” government. While I think the default setting is numbness, it seems to be fading as we see in the spate of protests against factories in the last year.

Murong later brings out an infamous example from Lu Xun’s story of Ah-Q that shows how the current culture has led to despicable attacks on children and the elderly.

“When he’s beaten by the mayor, Ah Q doesn’t dare strike back, so he goes to hit Wang Hu. When he can’t hit him, he goes after Little D. When he can’t win in that match, he goes to hit Wu Ma. When he can’t match her, he goes after the children in pre-school. This is not simply a joke or fiction, and the increasing number of murdered preschool children in mainland China proves this point.”

But he does offer suggestions in the spirit of the New Citizen’s movement, that the Chinese people must change their ideas when it comes to making sacrifices for the state; especially when one considers how little officials are willing to sacrifice for those they govern. Murong says that the mantra should be, “I am a person first, and then I can be everything else. I am myself first, then I can help with society.”

In the past when I’ve discussed corruption with my co-workers there was often an initial attitude that it was the gov’t’s money to waste. But when I took this line of reasoning, the anger was often palpable. That a gov’t official’s dinner was money not being spent on their children’s education, and that their shiny cars were bought by selling the land out from underneath their parents.

Murong illustrates how backwards the culture is towards corruption by comparing a gov’t official to a janitor, who are similar on the basis that both could be seen as employees. With this he argues that it is a farce when people praise officials simply for doing their jobs. Murong writes,

“If your janitor tells you that he bought a broom for thousands of dollars, then he is embezzling from you. If he takes your money and buys a million-dollar watch, then he is nothing but corrupt. If your cleaner, in the name of cleaning the floor for you, eats in upscale restaurants, drinks expensive Maotai liquor, smokes high-end cigarettes, then you have all the right to think: Would not it be better if someone else is cleaning the floor?”

While some people have argued that these kinds of essays are overly negative, I have had a number of conversations with Chinese friends over the years that have begun with a torrent of similar complaints. For many, it’s not just one area of their lives that are being effected by the gov’t and the culture, it’s starting to feel like everything. They are sick of the scams and the gov’t’s inability to stop them, and they are looking for someone to stand with them against this unjust system.

Reform not revolution – Thoughts on the New Citizens’ Movement

Yesterday we posted Xu Zhiyong’s essay calling for a New Citizens’ Movement. Today I want to highlight a few of the aspects that make this piece especially interesting to me, and why I believe this essay lays out a realistic path for change.

Reform not Revolution

What has been made clear time and again in Global Times and Peoples Daily is that the Chinese people have little appetite for revolution, they aren’t wrong about this. After all, they got their fill of the chaos that revolution brings during Mao’s reign. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, and a successful movement is going to have to reassure the people that what they are doing is not going to turn China into Libya, Egypt or Syria. I think in this respect, the New Citizens’ Movement accomplishes this by stressing reform not revolution.

The goal of the movement is a democratically elected gov’t and a country ruled by law. Few revolutions have managed this without bloodshed, but those who have seen growing prosperity and stability. In Chinese history, revolution has been a bloody and violent affair (and this is stressed for political reasons in Chinese text books), and revolution creates a new group of winners and losers that can severely limit the success of the new system. Reform strips the Party of these lines of argument.

The New Citizens’ Movement also smartly caches its goals within China’s current laws that are enforced at the whims of the Party. By reforming law from a tool of the Party to a means of protection for the people, it appears as a more palatable choice than starting yet again from scratch.

Unity instead of Division

Several months ago I had the opportunity to do a podcast with Xu Zhiyong about rural education and migrant schools. I made a comment related to the tension between locals and migrant workers that Xu rightly countered. For China to leave this current system behind, it has to abandon the idea that for someone to win, someone else has to lose. In the podcast he pointed out that a better education for the children of migrant workers created a better workforce and a better environment for the urban residents. Furthermore he argued that the hukou system must be abolished in order to tear down these artificial divisions that have been created in Chinese society that keep people from recognize their common hopes and frustrations.

The New Citizens’ Movement successfully argues that even though China has many different problems affecting society, that there is a common solution to these – a gov’t responsible to the citizens. Whether it is the environment or forced evictions, an elected gov’t would not suppress these voices as they have tried to do in Wukan and Shifang. At the moment, China’s various activist groups are all calling for the gov’t to resolve a variety of problems, but this helps to demonstrate that even though there may be many different directions there is only one destination.

Furthermore, the essay recognizes that a successful reformation can not exclude groups from the benefits it would create. Even though the Party would likely fall from power as a result of these reforms, the movement does not aim to make Party members into enemies. If you re-read the essay, you will notice that Xu does not attack the Party, but the problems endemic to the current political system. Power-holders are unsurprisingly reluctant to forfeit power, but allowing them a space in a new system is a step that I believe is a requirement for peaceful transition (which would look something like reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa).

Breaking the cycle

The third aspect, and one that I think is especially useful, is that the New Citizens’ Movement realizes that motivating the gov’t to reform itself is an unrealistic path, and instead encourages individuals to refuse to participate in actions that perpetuate the system. After Shifang, much was made of the riot police beating protesters. This is the kind of violence that the current system demands, but a corrupt system cannot function without corrupt individuals. This is one of the central points of the New Citizens’ Movement, that through reforming one’s self the gov’t will be reformed.

Xu Zhiyong himself is an excellent example of this principle. In his account of his detention he refused to co-operate with police who were operating outside of the law. Imagine the kind of change that would take place if gov’t officials refused bribes, judges ruled by the laws, and individuals refused opportunities to make quick, illicit profits. I think this is a far more effective approach to stem many of China’s social problems than calling for more laws that will not be enforced.


Reading Xu’s essay the first time reminded me of an argument I had had with a Chinese friend back around Christmas. My friend was making the claim that democracy was not suitable for China, and that it was a tool of the West to trip China up. After an hour or so of rather heated discussion, another Chinese friend in the room stood up and told our friend to shut-up. “When do I get a say in my country?” he pleaded, “I’m Chinese, I want democracy. Don’t I count? Don’t I deserve a say?”

While I doubt that the New Citizens’ Movement is going to sweep over China at any point soon, I find it hopeful in that it lays a clear framework for what China’s future could be. By pushing for meaningful reform, the unity of social movements and the Chinese people, and individual reform, Chinese activists are once again asserting their desire for a democratic China that is ruled by law. I find it incredibly frustrating that while Xu Zhiyong is currently under house arrest for his work with the New Citizens’ movement (and a number of other projects), the New York Times is wasting ink on a laughable op-ed calling for the establishment of a Confucian gov’t.

The rainy day guanxi fund – Understanding social obligations in China

Yesterday we explored why there is no such thing as instant guanxi, and were reminded that favors are often repaid in ways that we might not expect but have to accept. Today we’ll be looking at why your Chinese friends might feel uneasy pulling strings for you, and why foreign teachers are so wary of dinners with co-workers and bosses.

As an employee of a hospital, I occupy a prime spot in the guanxi hierarchy in that I know a few doctors in several departments. Even though my connections are very limited in number, the connections I do have can be incredibly handy when friends are sick. Yet, as they have come to see, if it can be avoided I don’t use my guanxi. It isn’t out of selfishness, but as my co-worker in an even better position pointed out, “Every time I use my connections for someone else, it costs me something.”

If I spend my favors today on someone I don’t know, I might not have any guanxi when a close friend needs special care. You can think of this as something like a rainy day guanxi fund.

I learned this through trial and error. Not so long ago a friend of a friend requested additional attention and I did my best to make use of my limited connections. To my dismay, the friend of a friend complained daily about her treatment and argued with hospital staff about her bill at the end. The bridge with that department had been burned.

While this doesn’t mean that no one would use their connections on your behalf, it does mean that you will have to try and compensate them for the social capital they spend on your behalf (the preferred method of payment seems to be tea). It’s no secret that foreigners come and go quite regularly in China, and so your friend might think twice about spending favors on a person who may not be around long enough to repay them.

This brings me to my second point – favors can be called on immediately. That is why it can be incredibly difficult to build up guanxi, your contacts won’t let it accumulate. This may seem to contradict yesterday’s point, that there is no such thing as instant guanxi, however that point refers largely to asking for favors beyond what you have put in to the relationship.

Take a very typical example, a friend invites you to a fancy dinner, only to announce at the end that they would like you to help with X. X in this case very often has something to do with English teaching or being a token foreigner at some event. Of course you can refuse the offer, but it means that you will need to find some other way to repay the social debt of the dinner they just paid for. Giving an extra lesson or attending school events are also relatively easy ways of adding to your own guanxi balance. Furthermore, the school is usually asking you to do something that your contract encourages anyway.

This has probably happened to me and my wife at least a dozen times over the past few years, and happens so often it was explicitly discussed during our China orientation program.

While it might make you uneasy accepting such invitations, keep in mind that you can use this to your advantage as well. As we saw yesterday, favors are often returned in an unexpected way, if you ask for a specific favor at the time of agreeing to another one your request will often be fulfilled.

Finally it should be remembered that in virtually every case, it takes years to build solid relationships in China because of ideas about social responsibilities. Even after 2 years at the hospital, the amount of “special attention” I can ask for is little more than setting up an appointment with a specific doctor.