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Book review: Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and Youth in Modern China

‘Little Emperors and Material Girls’ provides a fascinating overview of the topic but ultimately fails to excite

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and Youth in Modern China, by Jemimah Steinfeld

China has always been seen in the West as exotic, and though this view subsided after 1949, it seems from this new book to be making something of a comeback. “Prepare to see China in a whole new light,” proclaims the publisher’s blurb. The author introduces, we’re told, characters that range from “a man training students in the arts of love to the women who work the red-light districts.” However, Little Emperors and Material Girls, though in many ways a commendable publication, is somewhat different from what’s suggested by this promotional material.

To begin with, the number of people interviewed is limited. The book is divided into chapters on such topics as the role of the Internet, Chinese wedding ceremonies, the status of women, China’s new young Christians, and so on. Much space is devoted to an overview of each particular situation. The number of interviewees ranges from two to five in each chapter, in varying levels of depth.

I well remember an article published in Hong Kong on the territory’s gays, back when homosexual acts were still illegal there. It simply consisted of interviews set out as monologues, with no background information. I found that format compulsively readable, and very vivid. If this new book had presented the voices of hundreds of Chinese young people describing their sex lives, without much additional comment, I would have found it more alluring than what we have here.

That said, this book does have real virtues. The author lived and worked as a journalist in Beijing for eight years, and has been actively involved in some of the scenes she describes. She met one of her interviewees, a TV actor called Sying, “handsome by both Western and Chinese standards,” at a Beijing club, as a result of which they had a “fling.” She clearly knows what she’s talking about.

Publication Notes

Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and Youth in Modern China

By Jemimah Steinfeld

230 pages



Sying is interviewed in the context of a discussion of the advantages of being a Communist Party member. Others talk about the importance of guanxi (關係),the perceived significance of blood groups, doctored online self-portraits, “leftover women” and “bare branches” (unmarried older women and men respectively), KTV girls, “second wives” (ernai, 二奶), “phoenix men” and “peacock girls” (newly rich males and rich and attractive women), and many more relatively well-worn topics.

The desire to provide background to the interviews is understandable, limited in scope though some of these are. But, paradoxically, I would have preferred this book to be more sensational. There’s a big difference between explaining such things as traditional Chinese marriage or the history of attitudes to homosexuality in China, and the presentation of personal experience and life-histories. One is generalized and public, the other unique and private. The author clearly hopes she’s offering a balance between the two, but I would have liked more of the detail. There are already plenty of books about life in contemporary China, after all.

But there are fascinating snippets of information on offer. I had no idea the British royal family are rumored to be all of the comparatively rare O Negative blood group (the author is too, and was as a result jokingly referred to as being a spy for the UK royals). I also didn’t know that in China couples still require their boss’s permission to have a child, or that the country is estimated to manufacture 80 percent of the world’s sex toys, and that there are now 2,000 shops in Beijing alone selling them.

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