"China's opening up!" a Beijing friend said to me not so long ago. "Come and see! We're not as closed as we were before!" In the end I didn't go. But I wondered, was this really true? And if it was, what exactly did it mean?
The whole idea of China "opening up" has a long history. Japan was successfully pressured to "open up" by the West in the 19th century, and more recently China has been subjected to similar treatment. In this context, "opening up" meant opening markets to foreign goods. But my Beijing acquaintance used the phrase in a different sense. To him it meant a general willingness to be receptive to foreign ideas, possibly even including a more open flow of information. China was "opening up" and wasn't turning its back on the outside world in the way that was customary not so long ago.
James Farrer's Opening Up is mostly about Shanghai's nightclub culture, and the author clearly means the phrase in yet another sense -- the opening up of China to Western sexual lifestyles. In fact its subtitle -- "Youth Sex Culture and Market Reform in Shanghai" -- shows an intention to combine the trade and the lifestyle meanings. It even suggests that if you have the one, the other will follow, though which comes first isn't clear. Do more Boots cosmetics lead to an uninhibited sex life, or is it the other way round? Either way it's probably good for business. "Spend" was a Victorian term for "experience orgasm." So the West's moral for China, it would seem, could be seen as being one of "Spend, spend, spend" -- in both senses of the word.
Farrer begins his book by recounting a memory of teaching in a language school in Taipei in 1989. Against the background of the student activism in China, one of his coworkers tells him a story of a wild affair he had with a young woman working at his Beijing hotel. Were such things really possible in China, Farrer mused, comparing the China he imagined with the lively Taipei he knew even in those days.
Four years later he was himself living on the mainland, researching Shanghai nightclubs and the youth culture generally. He tells how he fell in love with a Chinese girl and three years later they were married.
Today he is an assistant professor of sociology at Tokyo's Sophia University, and this book is essentially a sociological look at Shanghai's sexual world. Many readers wondered after the publication of Wei Hui's Shanghai Baby if the city really boasted the sophisticated lifestyle and affluence so casually presented, even taken for granted, in that novel. This survey is a far more reliable guide to the truth of the matter than any work of fiction.
Openness about erotic matters -- one night stands, acceptance of premarital sex by women, and so on -- is clearly increasing on the evidence the book presents. But the percentage of the population involved in the clubbing culture it largely focuses on is, of course, in reality very small. Gays and lesbians are sometimes perceived, in Taipei and in Western cities, as having led the way in sexual honesty, even though in Taiwan they frequently see themselves as being unable to be completely "open." It is strange, therefore, that this large urban minority receives little coverage in Farrer's book. Perhaps he simply didn't know where to look. Opening Up is basically a work of scholarship, but because it contains extensive interview material with young Shanghainese about their sex lives it makes intriguing reading. And the University of Chicago Press is clearly anxious to market it as a book of general interest.