After learning of the romance of the century last week, between 24-year-old Chinese popstar Zhang Muyi and 12-year-old Canadian model Akama Miki, we reached out to Katrien Jacobs, author of People’s Pornography: Sex and Surveillance on the Chinese Internet, Associate Professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and expert on Chinese attitudes towards all things sex, to offer her opinion on China’s sweethearts.
How do you think the somewhat polarised reactions to this story in Western media and Chinese micro-blogs demonstrate differing attitudes towards ‘underage romance’ between the West and the East?
There is more sympathy in China for underage romance, or specifically for love and sexual relations between older males and younger females. It is often expected for females to fulfil a stereotype of female innocence and cuteness, which is an ideal that is easily promoted in sex industries and erotic/porn fantasies, and surely has affected actual relations as well. There seems to be also a special interest in young women who are still virgins, as they would be paid much higher within sex industries to have sex with male clients, and they are also sought after by male authorities and match-makers as there is a long-standing folk belief in the healing powers of sex of virgins. So altogether, it is no such big surprise that this underage romance is applauded by a large portion of netizens. It is partially true that they are courageous and breaking the mold of conventional Confucianism by pledging their “true love”, but they also do tap into traditional male fantasies. In the West reactions could indeed be much more negative and damaging to their careers, as for instance happened to famous rockstar like Jerry Lee Lewis who married his 13-year-old cousin and was blacklisted from the music industry for a very long time. Or there is the French rockstar/playboy Serge Gainsbourg who composed songs about underage love and also got attacked for that quite badly. I am not sure if either of them would be able to get the thumbs up from netizens in present times, because it does seems to be a standing taboo in the West.
Should China’s so-called ‘left-over women‘ be worried by this story? Are we going to start seeing 16-year-old shèngnǚ?
I don’t think that there is too much to worry about, as this case seems to be a peculiar type of media event and it all seems a bit unreal. I don’t think that they are setting a new trend. It is true that in China and even globally speaking, older men have higher chances of hooking up with younger women, but there are still many options for those “left-over women” to defy patriarchal expectations. Depending on what women want, they can pursue all kinds of sexual relations, such as relations with younger men, as that kind of age gap is also on the uprise. It seems that China is becoming much more open to non-traditional relations and sexual pleasures and fetishes in general, so perhaps it is just about time for female rockstars and women role-models to partake in this kind of sexual revolution by dating younger men, or by openly dating women.
Some have suggested that Akama Miki is ‘bearding‘ for Zhang Muyi, are attitudes towards homosexuality negative enough in China that someone would go to these lengths to cover it up?
It is true that China and its entertainment corporations can be stridently homophobic or sexist. The people who control money are largely conservative and often unwilling to consider the fact that Chinese sex lives have changed a lot already. Even here in Hong Kong we have the story of tycoon Cecil Chao who offered a bounty of 65 million USD to marry his lesbian daughter, who is actually already legally married and has denounced her father’s bid. But then other celebrities and netizens have been coming out of the closet as queers with positive results. I think that most people would agree that Zhang Myui and Akama Miki chose a rather clumsy publicity stunt, that is very likely that their relationship will fall apart again, and that as a media-savvy audiences we are not that easily fooled by their “true love.” Perhaps true love or radical love is a concept reserved for “ordinary people” or at least those who are not managed by entertainment companies.
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