The following is an excerpt from Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, a new book by Richard Burger, author of the highly popular Peking Duck blog, one of the earliest English-language China blogs on the Internet. Formerly an editor for the Chinese newspaper The Global Times and a correspondent for the Fairchild News Syndicate, Burger is a corporate communications specialist who played a key role in promoting the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In his first book, published by Earnshaw Books (and available on Amazon), Burger covers everything from prostitution and premarital sex to homosexuality and Daoist sex manuals.
Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, by Richard Burger
Every year, thousands of Chinese women pay for an operation to restore their hymens shortly before their wedding so that husbands can see blood on the sheets on their honeymoon night. Brides-to-be who cannot afford the 4,400 yuan operation (about $700) can walk into one of China’s 200,000 sex shops or go online to buy a cheap artificial hymen that seeps artificial blood when punctured. Although the percentage of Chinese women who engage in premarital sex has skyrocketed in urban areas from 15 percent in 1990 to more than 50 percent in 2010, conservative attitudes toward sex, even in big cities like Shanghai, remain largely intact. To most Chinese people, virginity matters, and husbands look forward to their wedding night when they can deflower their young virgin brides. For some husbands, the absence of blood on the sheets can be grounds for divorce.
It has become a tired cliché that China is a “land of contradictions,” but it is only a cliché because there is so much truth to it. China has cities that sparkle with new wealth and villages that struggle with dire poverty; it is encouraging reforms while often turning a blind eye to corruption; it is allowing new freedom of expression while tightening control of its Internet. The contradictions related to sex in contemporary China are just as dramatic. Opposing forces always appear to be pulling at each other. Looking at a Chinese newspaper one day you might get the impression China is as sexually liberated as Sweden, and the next you might think China is actively engaged in sexual repression.
In 2009, authorities launched a 15-day crackdown on the huge prostitution business in the southern China manufacturing hub of Dongguan. Hundreds of arrested prostitutes were marched down the street tied to a leash, their photographs broadcasted throughout the country. Others sat on the sidewalk, their heads in their hands, weeping. The raids were major national news. And yet, any man in China seeking sex-for-sale can probably find it within walking distance, be it at a karaoke bar, barber shop or massage parlor. Most of the brothels busted in “strike hard” campaigns as in Dongguan are back in business a few weeks or even days later, though they may have changed their address.
There are now gay bars in most of China’s first and second-tier cities, and usually a bathhouse or two as well. In 2009 a gay male couple held a symbolic wedding a few blocks from Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and a photograph of the two men in a passionate embrace was splashed across the front page of China’s largest newspapers, all mouthpieces of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Other gay and lesbian marriages across the country followed, and were covered positively. But until relatively recently gay bars and establishments were frequently shut down with no notice. In 2009 police raided a popular “gay park” in Beijing and detained eighty men. A similar park in Guangzhou was raided three times the next year and a hundred men were also arrested. Bathhouses are frequently shut down during major national events such as the annual National People’s Congress or the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.
Weddings in China are nearly as sacred and revered an event today as they were in ancient times. While many of the rituals, such as being carried to the wedding ceremony in a sedan chair, have been updated, vestiges of traditions that date back two-thousand years remain intact, including the selection of an auspicious wedding date by a feng shui master and the bountiful all-night wedding feast with foods selected for their association with good luck. For most Chinese, even homosexuals, the very idea of not marrying is incomprehensible; a child’s primary obligation to their family is the provision of offspring within wedlock. But at the same time, divorce rates have soared in China since the 1990s, with infidelity being the most common reason for separation. Hundreds of thousands of wealthy Chinese men keep “second wives” (ernais), a throwback to the practice of concubinage, and millions of married Chinese men of all social strata pay for sex on a regular basis.
For most of the past 100 years, talking about sex in public in China has been taboo. Still, in 2004 a healthcare website distributed postcards that were displayed in bars and restaurants across the country telling men and women there was no problem with masturbation. The Chinese expression for autoeroticism is “shooting planes,” and the front of the postcard features a large anti-aircraft gun pointing at a plane in the sky. Directly above, the text reads: “If you shoot planes too often, will your barrel get blocked?” Flip to the other side, and it says, “Of course not; both men and women can masturbate. It is normal and does no harm.” Are the Chinese hyper-shy about sex or surprisingly liberal? As the expression goes: It’s complicated.
Also read: Sex in China: Q&A with author Richard Burger on Danwei.com
Get a copy of the book here.