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

Tue, Jun 04, 2013 - Page 12

Why do governments so often try to control the sex-lives of their citizens? Moreover, why is this strategy always in the direction of puritanism? And what is puritanism anyway?

These are some of the questions raised by Behind the Red Door: Sex in China. It tells a tale of fluctuating attitudes in past eras, with a wide permissiveness largely prevailing. So long as a son married and fathered heirs, more or less anything was permitted to him. It’s true that women didn’t share the same freedom, but this was probably rooted in a fear of male progeny who were not the husband’s being born within the family, and their inheriting property. This aside, however, the picture is one of a general tolerance of at least male pleasure.

Admittedly there were times when an officially-promoted puritanism moved in, as with the advent of a Neo-Confucian movement in the Yuan Dynasty, partly reversed in the late Ming, only to reassert itself in the Qing. But in a country with a history as long as China’s it’s hardly surprising that there were contrary forces at work, and a good deal of flux one way and the other. Even so, when you consider Europe, the situation was generally speaking extraordinarily different.

The crux of the matter is that China never possessed a religion, or even a philosophy, that demonized sex as such. Instead, there were beliefs in yin and yang, and their complementary natures, in qi, the life-essence, and so on. These were understood to have various consequences, sometimes leading to a belief in the benefits of intercourse, sometimes to an emphasis on moderation. But what was never present, until relatively modern times, was a belief-system such as was evident in the Western religions that considered sex as inherently sinful, with the state reinforcing the imagined divine edicts with extra deterrents of its own — often horrific ones, such as burning people alive.

These beliefs arrived with the colonial powers. As China began to decline, especially in the 19th century, there emerged a frantic scramble to understand and emulate the technologies that made these foreigners so inexplicably strong. And along with these technologies, their religious and ethical assumptions began to take hold as well, including the belief that had caused so much misery over the centuries in the West that a natural urge such as the desire to make love was of itself evil, and only to be tolerated, in as limited a form as possible — marriage and the missionary position — in order to ensure the continuation of the species.

Behind the Red Door is an outstandingly fine survey, equally thorough in its analysis of historical and contemporary phenomena. Nothing, it seems, is left unexamined — prostitutes are interviewed and couples questioned about their pre-marital sex. The problems of gender imbalance (more males than females), the censorship of Web sites and TV programs, the burgeoning of sex shops and their role as implicit advice centers, the puritanism of the Mao era and the subsequent liberalization, the proliferation of cosmetic surgery, with increased sexual attractiveness as the clear aim – all are covered in intelligent and sympathetic detail.

On homosexuality, the general drift is that things are improving, but that there are vast regional variations, especially between town and country. Gay activity was decriminalized in 1997 and homosexuality removed from the list of mental illnesses four years later. The expectation of marriage remains the most burdensome imposition on Chinese gays, Burger says, surely rightly, with an estimated 80 percent to 90 percent of the country’s estimated 30 to 40 million gays eventually getting married. The tragedy for their wives is made clear.

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.