With a title like that, who could resist? The Shanghai Daily report in question discusses the recent controversy surrounding noted professor Li Yinhe (李银河) of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). The article is an opinion piece written by Jiang Yunsheng and says that while he/she respects Li’s research on sexuality …
I think some of her opinions on marriage and sex are ill-timed. In fact, the following viewpoints issued a challenge to the present marriage system.
She thinks that one doesn’t need to show his or her affection to only one person, or even to the same sex; one night stands are but a personal choice and it shouldn’t be morally reprimanded if both participants are unmarried and, she suggests that the government should issue licenses to Chinese prostitutes.
Our interest piqued, we decided to search for information about Professor Li. The wife of late author Wang Xiaobo, Professor Li’s research and controversial, public stances on matters of sexuality have earned her equal parts notoriety, applause and scorn. Back in 2004 she promoted the idea of legalizing sex work. Recently, Li has found herself facing a much heavier fusillade of criticism than ever before. Why? Because she openly advocates polygamy, one-night stands, homosexuality (including homosexual marriage), and even, in certain cases, incest.
The incident that upset the “sexual apple cart” was a report in the Nanjing paper 《金陵晚报》 （Jinlin Wanbao) that suggested that at a talk there, Li’s espousal of uncommon sexual practices incited anger among the audience members. Professor Li does not deny her viewpoints, but claims that the newspaper report was false — according to her, the atmosphere was of one of heated and lively debate, and people surrounded her, but not to condemn her but rathe to get her autograph and continue exchanging ideas with her.
Of course, many people are not going to care what did or didn’t happen in Nanjing or if she was being wrongly vilified by the media — what they want to know is how she, like Satan, could advocate polygamy, sodomy and incest. Li’s replies are quite interesting — she says that China’s problem is that sexual mores are, for the most part, dominated by what she terms a pre-modern sexuality, meaning China’s feudal past. What Li advocates is that there be greater sexual diversity in society — meaning that we can choose the ways that we want relate to other human beings, including what kind of sexual relations we want to have with them.
Now you’re going to get some flack for remarks like that, almost regardless of where you are. In fact, Li believes that there are but three necessary and sufficient conditions for determining if sexual relations or practices can be considered legitimate and therefore tolerated by society:
1. The sex is voluntary (consent).
2. The participants are all adults.
3. The sex occurs in a private place.
By her own admission, Li’s principles negate a lot of moral restrictions that we’re used to imposing on sexual activity. For example, if you and six or 18 of your close friends want to get together somewhere private and re-enact scenes from Eyes Wide Shut, you can do that — that shouldn’t be against the law (though in China, it is). Li’s position is a fairly classical liberal position. When she says that the individual has an inviolable right to pursue certain kinds of behavior so long as they don’t infringe on the rights of others to do, it becomes clear that her intellectual forebears are John Locke and J.S. Mill, and though her feminism and openness to “alternative” or marginalized forms of sexuality might have shocked those two Englishmen, her insistence that such rights inhere in the individual are merely elaborations of the points that these thinkers made so long ago.
In a recent interview, an interviewer asked Professor Li if she felt that her views were “ahead of her time” (不合时宜）, to which she replied (and we paraphrase ): “If I had said in 1900 that we shouldn’t bind women’s feet, I would have been ‘ahead of the times,’ and if I had said at that time that men and women could kiss before marriage I would have been ‘ahead of my time’ as well. If we wait for the appropriate time before making changes, then there is really no hope for social progress.” The interviewer asked Li why bother promoting these minority views, when mainstream society is not going to try all that kinky stuff anyway? Li replied, correctly we think, that it’s not a matter of condoning this or that behavior, but rather one of protecting our rights to choose what kind of behavior to engage in — and only such a framework can protect (sexual) minorities from the tyranny of the majority.
Li’s steadfast adherence to classic liberalism and the universality of human rights has also drawn fire from the pomo camp, who have cast doubt on Reason and the Enlightenment project. Li’s reply to that: The postmodern critique just doesn’t fly when it comes to China. Generally speaking, China’s economy is just getting into the swing of modernity, while sexual mores are, according to her, still stuck in the pre-modern phase. Now we know that she probably knows how much raunchy sex goes on Shanghai — but she seems to feel that on the whole, China’s still too conservative. She believes that a certain amount of repression is a necessary evil for civilization to occur (Freud in Civilization and its Discontents?）but that there is such a thing as too much (unnecessary) repression (Herbert Marcuse’s notion of “surplus repression?”), and Li believes that China falls into the latter category. Li hopes that Chinese society will change, but she does set the bar rather high: A recent blog post claims that mere tolerance for sexual minorities and non-mainstream sexual practices is not enough — there must also be a genuine respect for those members of society who prefer a sexuality that isn’t heteronormal. We know that this ain’t gonna happen unless the society as a whole becomes more open to alternative lifestyles and differences in general.
And is ever going to happen? The Shanghai Daily piece closes with this:
The so-called “sexual pleasure rule” is a physiological terminology, but human sexuality is governed by implied rules of behavior and the status quo — at all times and in all countries — admits of no exception whatsoever.
Without question, the form of marriage and sexual relationships will change with social development.
But one cannot be too careful in dealing with these problems, especially while the entire nation has not reached an advanced level of ideological, ethical, scientific and cultural thinking yet.
There it is, folks — the “our level isn’t high enough yet” theory, which explains why China isn’t ready for democracy either. Shanghaiist agrees with the author of this piece in saying that you can’t be too cavalier about these things — change of this sort never comes about easily. On the other hand, Li is also right in defending the function of those who are “ahead of their time,” who say things that make decent people squirm but whose ideas and values just might set off the spark of positive social change.
The problem is that the “the people are not ready, their levels are not high enough” is a convenient way for the powers that be to arrogate to themselves a paternalistic role where they get to decide who makes the choices about how both the direction and the speed of social change. This is why, though not a huge fan of Super Voice Girls, she nonetheless defended its right to exist against those who wanted it stopped and banned. And while Professor Li often confines her work to sex and sexuality, what she really advocates, in the end, is the creation of an open society, where sexuality is like freedom of speech — I may hate what you say, but I will defend your right to say it (and respect you as a human being the whole time through). And at least for us, that is an apple cart worth overturning.
Photo from popo.cn.