“One-two-THREE! CONTROL! ... and relax,” Ma Jian (馬建) urges.
The 78-year-old author is addressing a few dozen men clustered around a stage in Guangzhou, southern China, but he aspires to reach a much bigger audience: “China has more than 2,000 years of sexual history and culture and skills. It has sexual experience which western countries have never known. I want to introduce its expertise to people here and people overseas and make all men happy,” he said. “I want all women to benefit. I take guys who shoot in three minutes and teach them to hang on for 30. That’s long enough.”
Until 10 years ago this evangelist was, he said, “an underground worker,” toiling in the strictest secrecy. He grew up in the sexually repressive society created by Mao Zedong (毛澤東). The chairman may have shared his own bed with numerous women, but under his rule, bodies were disguised by shapeless suits and holding hands in public was shocking.
Even in the 1980s, after liberalization had begun, a man was executed for organizing orgies. Now Ma rattles off his advice — swimming increases sexual desire; pee in short bursts, not a stream — at a convention co-hosted by family planning authorities.
More than 30,000 visitors thronged this weekend to the 10th national (Guangzhou) sex culture festival to watch pole dancers, buy 007-brand condoms and browse porn in the resolutely unerotic surroundings of an exhibition center. Couples take happy snaps with giant virility figures and unabashed shoppers fondle realistic sex dolls (though not, this year, the inflatable Barack Obamas previously on offer).
The wealthiest can even choose a 100,000 yuan (US$15,800), solid gold “pleasure object”; the kind of high-class product that appeals to shoppers usually found in Louis Vuitton or Dolce and Gabbana, explains a sales assistant.
However, the shots of “artistic nudes” are tame by western standards. And though hordes of men photograph furiously as semi-clad models strut to a disco version of the “Old Spice” theme, there is no pouting or lip-licking. These days, sexual experimentation and puritanism sit side-by-side in China.
Qiu Shuang, a lesbian activist and sex-toy saleswoman, said that repression had only kindled passions.
“Maybe we seem very conservative, but we have the biggest desires,” she said.
China has an estimated 6 million sex workers. Yet nudity is unacceptable in cinemas and there are periodic anti-porn crackdowns. Women undergo hymen restoration surgery so their husbands will believe they are virgins. Two years ago, an academic was jailed for hosting sex parties. It is no coincidence that the official denunciation of the disgraced politician Bo Xilai (薄熙來) accused him of improper sexual relationships with several women.
“People still frown on serial dating ... [but] there are 200,000 sex shops and these huge sexual expos. Are they prudish about sex or are they incredibly liberated?” asked Richard Burger, whose new book Behind the Red Door chronicles the history of sex in China.
He says that for centuries China’s leaders have swung between sexual openness and repression. In the Tang Dynasty, prostitutes were registered; the late Ming period saw explicit novels such as The Plum in the Golden Vase (金瓶梅). At times, homosexual love has been celebrated. At other times, erotic books have been burned.