Excerpted from Consumers and Individuals in China: Standing Out, Fitting In, Michael B. Griffiths, London, Routledge, 2012. From chapter six, titled “Morality”, pages 107 -110.
The essentially organic nature of the proximity law means that some of the worst “sins” you can commit in a climate governed by this kind of morality are those of a sexual nature. In most Western expressions of morality, sex is a prime measure of good character alongside lying, thieving, and so on. Both the Bible and the Koran feature two types of sex, the legitimate and the illegitimate: the illegitimate is so because it is seen as socially harmful and a “sin” against God; if you transgress and have illegitimate sex, you betray both your intimate in-group and your faith. Adultery remains far from acceptable in most Western contexts today, and the lines of judgment can be drawn very sharply in people’s private moral judgments in large parts of Europe and the U.S. But in certain Western geographies and cultures, particularly those stoked by liberal-leaning popular media, if you are “unhappy in love” then almost everything becomes permissible; even sympathy for the adulterer becomes almost acceptable since it is recognized that the individual has “moral” obligations to themselves too. This is not at all the case for the majority of people in Anshan, however, where adultery is less about “sinning” in the first place, but about upsetting the almost civil gradations between the intimate and the public spheres: an almost bodily matter, much more situational than categorical, but nevertheless subject to strict prophylactic control. What might pass as “innocent” flirting between elsewhere already attached individuals in the West will likely reap the harshest of moral judgments from a certain Chinese perspective, and popular, State-sponsored media seek to reinforce faithful moral stereotypes wherever possible.
Some unmarried rural migrant women in the hotpot restaurant where I washed up dishes would not be interviewed on a one-on-one basis, stating that “Chinese cultural tradition” prevented them from speaking alone with a man to whom they were not married. Young, urban registered men in approximately parallel jobs explained this to me as a function of these women’s’ backwardness, rurality and lack of education, intending that I document their own “modern” distinction. Almost needless to say, some married men in Anshan were not particularly willing to let me speak with their wives, yet this was also notably more the case for people of low status and education. On the other hand, wherever I have found that inter-sexual relations can be broached in China, most often I have been led through an elaborate, morally-fringed “mating dance” where I have been expected to resolve all the contradictions for the female by making promises of commitment, marriage, future children, and so on, before the female, let alone her family, will consent. A merely philosophical approach to the question of whether partners will necessarily remain together will find me foul of the charge of “lacking a sense of responsibility” (meiyou zerengan), the catch-all sin (cf. McMillan 2006).
Commitment is therefore the sexiest form of social currency in China, again a factor of the proximity law impacting on action. Outside a local university, a sports car has zhongcheng in large Chinese characters inscribed upon its side, meaning “loyal”, or “devotion”, signifying a meaning quite at odds with the implicit lack of devotion and the promise of a ride with a quite possibly illegitimate lover that the same car might signify in the contemporary West! But despite the reversal of signifiers, the signified is nonetheless just as self-promoting in the China context. Indeed, in exactly this ever-so morally-laced way, hairdresser Zhan makes advances to my wife whilst cutting her hair (my wife reports). He says he still likes the friends he’s had since childhood; “they are very true” (zhencheng), and “friends who can help each other, because when you want to start on your feet in society you need some friends”. Apparently (again, I am told), Zhan’s friends like him for two reasons: one, because he is “humorous”, and two, because he is “really committed” to his girlfriend (dui ganqing zhuanyi). Is Zhan interested in other girls? “Of course not”, comes the reply. And moreover, he wagers that if his friends think that he’s really good to his girlfriend then he “must be a really good person to trust”!
Thus, in spite of all this chastity and piety on the surface of public discourse in Anshan, the proximity boundary is being transgressed in actual practice. The huge letters daubed on the walls of my residential compound read: “Community is at the centre of my heart” (shequ zai wo xinzhong), and “I contribute to the community” (wo wei shequ gongxian). But immediately below these are smaller signs advertising the services of “private-detectives” to spy on spouses suspected of adulterous liaisons. Divorced wives of all social ranks tell stories of husbands who have “turned bad” (xuehuaile), “ran off to the South to earn money”, and left them and their children penniless. The category baoernai is widely used to label those secret second wives who provide sexual favours whenever their wealthy patron happens to visit in return for their keep. The second wife knows that she is just the secondary wife and so she is judged a little “bitch/whore” (biaozi). Similarly, “playboy” (huahua gongzi) is used to indicate men who indulge in “play” (wanr), which is understood as the opposite of “responsibility” (zeren) since it involves what people in the West might quite permissibly call “casual sex” (Farrer 2002).
Complicating this discursive arrangement, however, is the observation that people engaged in “illegitimate” sexual acts may also feel “legitimate” moral obligations to each other, expectations that will be set against duty to prior roles, not only as spouse but against all the other familial roles too, so that if the transgression was to come out in the open it would “shame” (chi) the whole group. We may now imagine the case of the woman who bails her male lover out of a blackmail situation incurred over gambling debts but then requests the money back from his family and chastises them for being negligent of their duty; her liaison with him binds her to help him out but since she is bound to keep her affair a secret she is doubly bound to demand the money back from his family; the act of bailing out is expected of a lover, but her denial is even more expected so she has to make a claim vis-à-vis his family. Secrecy therefore stands above all other moral obligations in China: just as the “goodness” of an action consists only in its being explicitly acknowledged by its beneficiary, if sexual indiscretions are not revealed, the notion of illegitimacy need not apply (Farrer and Sun 2003, 19).
Indeed, in a moral climate governed by “proximity altruism”, there need not necessarily be any sense of guilt apart from the fear of being found out, “shame” being manifest only in its revelation. Similarly, you don’t “confess” in Anshan because there is not the same sense in which you should be shown mercy and absolved of “sin”. Though the Christian God may forgive and forget, in China, a “face” (lian) tainted is tainted for life. The fact that extramarital sexual activity so often does not result in divorce in China is a function of the “responsibility” individuals feel to their families; especially where children are involved, not to forgive in this context would be considered selfish (Farrer 2003, 20).
If you are “found out” cheating on love in China, the results can be spectacular. When computer hackers drip-fed to the internet more than a thousand photos of “playboy” film star Edison Chen involved in sexual acts with a range of famous female Asian stars in the summer of 2007, the nation was rocked to its roots in a way that would have bemused the architects of tabloid scandals in the West. Edison was vilified for his promiscuity, hounded from his home in Hong Kong, and had to live abroad in hiding in constant fear for his life. The shame for the sexually prolific actresses involved (they were all fully aware they were being photographed) was so severe that despite multiple high-profile displays of repentance and atonement film directors refused to employ the women since the market demanded that they be thought of as “morally” pure as well as attractive, talented etc. Of greatest significance, however, was that the hackers in the “Yanzhaomen” scandal made no demands for ransom to any of the stars involved: otherwise inexplicably, as if the whole operation was a comment on the role of shame in China’s “proximity altruism” morality, the hackers didn’t want anything back.
Taking this argument to its logical conclusion, and especially if we further consider the almost physiological perspective to the proximity law, “illegitimate” sexual acts might even be thought of positively in China. In Taoist medicine, promiscuity is thought of as “nourishing”, and there is an emphasis on cultivating essential energy (jing) from multiple sexual partners. Indeed, for all the attention on self-denial and moral self-control in Chinese discourse, at bottom fulfilling your desires is recognized as healthy. Anshan’s lurid side-street massage parlors are marketed by appeal to “cultivating sexual health” (xing baojian) and “washing” (xiyu), and, the very real possibility of disease transmission aside, it is not entirely paradoxical from this perspective that the men who frequent these places are elsewhere doting husbands and fathers (Farrer 2003, 19-23). Further, there is also a sense in which sex with partners outside of your immediate network has been precisely what maintained the health of a group governed by the “proximity law” which would otherwise have had a very limited gene pool. Incest is of course the boundary turned in upon itself, which is why it is the “cardinal” sexual sin, and the hardest bend to morality’s flexible fabric, in China as elsewhere (Douglas 1966).
Proximity altruism, after all, is an essentially self-seeking morality, a highly malleable discourse where social actors justify their actions by appeal to the same referents from different positions. Anshan masseuse Jiang says that her husband knows she does massage but doesn’t know the full story: “He would be really upset if he knew; you have to understand the economic situation; my husband was laid-off from Angang; I do this for my husband and my son”. Similarly, masseuse Jun says she left both school and her boyfriend to support her family: “I do this kind of work for my younger brother’s tuition fees; of course my parents don’t know; they think all my money is from an internship with a foreign company”. In this way, provided that otherwise illegitimate actions are portrayed in accordance with the other “rules” bearing on morality, these justifications become entirely legitimate (Farrer 2003; Zheng 2008).
We might observe that even overtly unscrupulous types will appeal to the social referent of morality in order to secure a discursive edge and justify their actions, stressing the high personal risk and personal sacrifice made in order to achieve their worthy results. The gold-digger is of course “just looking for commitment”; whores, like thieves, “stick together”; sharks will stress the loans they offer as a service to the public; whereas gangs “provide employment”. Morality is unequivocally the continuously evolving product of negotiation between different actors in the situational context, distinctly perspectival and practical in nature.
Michael B Griffiths is Director of Ethnography at Ogilvy & Mather, Greater China. He is also Associate Research Fellow, White Rose East Asia Centre; and External Research Associate, Centre for International Business, University of Leeds, UK.