Tue, Jun 04, 2013 - Page 12 News List

Book review: Behind The Red Door: Sex in China

Sex and politics are intertwined in a new study of Chinese sexual attitudes from imperial times to the present

By Bradley Winterton  /  contributing reporter

As for official attitudes today, the story is invariably one of an oscillation between attempts at control and lapses into relative permissiveness and toleration. This, it could be argued, has always been the way in China, but it would have to be added that whereas the norm under the emperors was a relaxed indifference to male erotic pleasure and freedom, today the reverse is true. Control is the norm, frequently attempted and not always easily resisted, whereas the relaxation of controls is a rarer phenomenon, though always remaining a possibility.

The issue of “bare branches” — men who, following the gender imbalance that’s an unintended by-product of the one-child policy, have no chance of ever marrying and having children — is taken on at some length. The author appears to see the one-child policy as misplaced, though it’s possible also to see it as the only policy anywhere to address what may soon become the world’s major problem. Gender imbalance, in addition, isn’t a result of that policy itself, but of the population’s willingness to sacrifice a daughter in the hope of having a son next time — something very different. A one-child policy left to run naturally would result in the usual near-equal balance of genders.

In an interview elsewhere, the author stresses the influence of Chinese sexologist and blogger Li Yinhe. She has advocated the decriminalization of prostitution, the freedom of gays to marry, and the freedom of everyone to enjoy all forms of sex, including orgies. None of her proposals has been adopted, he adds, though she has had a great influence on the attitudes of many educated Chinese. Burger himself has run a blog, Peking Duck, since 2003.

So what of the motives for the puritanism of governments in general? The usual explanation is that it facilitates control in other areas. But it may be, rather, that the kinds of people who rise to high office tend to be unimaginative and conventional, and that they can’t understand why everyone else shouldn’t be happy to be likewise.

This book ends on a note of qualified optimism. China has come a long way in the last 30 years, Berger argues, and increased liberalization is inevitable. But of course it’s also possible to believe that life proceeds, not by a direct ascent, but in cycles. Things may simply get worse, in other words, and this may be the best era we’re going to know for some time to come. It’s nice to know, however, that at least some people look on the bright side.

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