Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Red China

My first in-your-face encounter with sex in China happened just a few weeks after I landed in Beijing.  And interestingly, I wasn’t even involved in this comedic episode. 

I was spending the evening at a friend’s place when at 9 o’clock some really loud banging came through one of the walls of the bachelor suite.  I listened carefully, and sure enough, there were cries from a guy and a girl. I smiled at my friend and shook my head, and we continued to watch TV.  At 10’clock, pounding sounds started to come from the apartment just above my friend’s.  I looked at him; this time he gave a laugh.  30 minutes later, sounds came from behind the wall adjacent to the toilet.  At midnight, they came from behind the kitchenette wall, the pots and pans hanging on it shaking.  And finally, to top it off, at 1 in the morning, I could hear two people making out in the corridor.  My friend woke up from his sleep and said to me, still with his eyes half closed: “Welcome to China”.

It’s true.  Whenever people discovered that I had been single throughout my 3.5 years stay in Beijing, they’d smile and say things like: “Must’ve been a whole lotta fun, huh…?”

Well, living in China was indeed a whole lotta fun.  The Olympics was fun.  Seeing pandas was fun.  Travelling to Urumqi, on the Silk Road in the western parts of the country, was also fun.  So was the icy-landscape of Harbin up north.  And many more escapades in this country of 1.3 billion people.  But, in all honesty, I never really had a chance to experience that “fun” China the others seem to refer to.

I’m not going to be a hypocrite. I’ve had my share of karaoke nights; although in all of them, I remember going home alone, in a taxi cab, trying to keep my dinner inside my stomach.  And yes, the red light salons were only a corner away from my apartment on the 4th Ring Road, yet I always preferred to cut my hair on my own. 

On the subject of sex, it didn’t take long for me to understand that China is a country of paradoxes.  A place where lewdness and cleanliness co-existed.  Where the pure and filthy lived side-by-side.  Where tradition crashes head-on with modernity.

From the Beijing nightclub scene
This, among others, is one of the arguments in Richard Burger’s book, Behind the Red Door: Sex in China.  Writing as a journalist, nonetheless making numerous references to academic and literary resources, Burger delves into the history and present day nuances of sexuality in China.  Not only that, Burger also explores other issues related to sex: marriage, family, gender, homosexuality, etc.  For me, this book is an interesting narrative on the old and new China.

Among others, Burger elaborates on the One Child Policy, and its impact on China’s demographics.  How this policy has given rise to large numbers of infanticides, predominantly of female babies.  And how it has caused a gender imbalance among the population.  In a 2010 study, it was predicted that China would experience a bride shortage by 24 million in 2020.  When that time does come, I wonder from where would the Chinese men would start to find their brides?

Going through the book, I kept on highlighting sections after another, as I was introduced to new statistics, information and twists in better understanding China.  For example, did you know that in the first three months of 2011 there were around 465,000 cases of divorce in China? That means that during that period, there were around 5,000 cases of divorce per day!  This therefore begs the question surrounding many Chinese people’s claim of their country’s traditional perspective on marriage and family lives.

As well, did you know that there are at least 7 tiers of prostitution?  Starting with the top tier, “ernai” (or the second wife) to “xiaogongpeng”, who are basically lower level prostitutes serving migrant workers in shanties that dot the country’s many urban areas.  While prostitution was very much part of day-to-day lives up until the Qing Dynasty, the advent of communism stopped this business.  Just like communism’s view on religion, prostitution was seen as opium for the masses, and therefore must be crushed.

I enjoyed the book immensely.  The narrative flowed well, in simple English.  In particular, the book gave me much information on the different aspects of life that I never got to experience first hand while living in China.  This includes dating a local girl (let alone be in familial terms with any of them) or holding a membership at a lavish karaoke bar.

Indeed, to understand the country, it is hard not to study the issue of sex (and everything else on its tangent).  Because, for many, at the most basic issue is this, and an understanding of how it is understood and approached in China would provide a better perspective of the country and its people.

China is a country at the crossroads between tradition and modernity.  The dilemma that arises form this situation can be found in many aspects of the Chinese life. 

Locals and foreigners mix in the crowd
While rhetorically remaining strict on pornography and prostitution, both could be found within a mouse-click.  While government officials constantly preach traditional family values, we only need to look around to notice that these values have actually been turned on their heads. Most Chinese youth still dream of finding the right person to marry, have kids with, and raise a family.  But most of them are taking more time to marry, preferring to just co-habit with their respective partners well into their thirties.

Some say that this is the result of foreign influences on the Chinese culture.  At least this is the line that many Chinese officials like to expound.  However, as Burger elaborates, when we look into the history of the country, many of the vices associated to the western culture had actually existed in China previously, and in a very grandiose way.  Of course, Chinese Communism attempted to cleanse the people of these supposed “bourgeois habits”.  But even then, the many communist propagandists (including Mao Zedong himself) were sexual hypocrites.  As a result, when the country was shoved into the present-day globalization, these supposed vices seem to resurface with a vengeance.

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