sexual attitudes


sexual attitudes
The erotic has always held much ambivalence for Chinese writers and commoners alike. Sexuality was regarded as a natural, pleasurable act, while also deemed a dangerous and potentially contaminating activity. From a naturalistic point of view, sex was conceptualized as an exchange of body fluids necessary to restore health as well as reproduce. For men, an orgasm was viewed as potentially harmful in that it resulted in the loss of bodily fluids and thus a depletion of their yang energy. However, if a man could prolong an orgasm or not have one at all he would obtain valuable female energy (yin essence), while not giving up much of his own. Sexual intercourse was deemed, therefore, hazardous as the loss of too much yang essence (or semen) could result in a weakened body vulnerable to illness.
It was during the Republican period that contemporary Chinese understanding of human sexuality shifted from a cosmology based in metaphysical images of competing essences (yin and yang) to one that was anchored in an emergent, albeit often erroneous, biological discourse. This transformation has its roots in Qing intellectual history and thus was already under way prior to Western contact. The shift in thinking about human sexuality found ready currency in the production of numerous ‘how-to’ books which had an audience wanting greater clarification and eager to adopt a modern, and thus cosmopolitan, outlook on the erotic and its place in daily life. One way this was accomplished was through reading ‘childbirth manuals, gynaecological treaties, books of medical remedies, family handbooks, marriage guides, and primers on sexual hygiene’ (Dikötter 1995:14). These medical and popular texts helped shape the average urban (though not necessarily rural) Chinese understanding of male and female sexual behaviour.
Chinese intellectuals who were concerned with improving the overall quality of urban life started to map out new sexual itineraries which resulted in the orgasm becoming the symbol of marital intimacy and conjugal satisfaction. In this new urban milieu, the kiss, which was regarded in some quarters as a primary index of marital intimacy, became a lively and popular topic for debate ‘in vernacular newspapers, with some hospitals warning patients who suffered from high blood pressure or weak constitution [to refrain] from kissing’ (Dikötter 1995:48). Masturbation was considered to be a bad habit acquired by a weak mind, like addiction to cigarettes and alcohol, and would erode the memory. After the 1920s, however, there were a few authors calling for a greater tolerance towards masturbation and the need for a hygienic sexual outlet (Dikötter 1995).
Chinese society, excluding the socialist era (1949–85), has historically been more tolerant of extramarital sex for men. However, until the late 1980s, Chinese culture did not sanction the pursuit of sexual variety. From the greater part of post 1949 history, male identity, unlike that found before, was not coterminous with sexual promiscuity. Although some Chinese men fantasized about having love affairs, and some kept an active correspondence with women living in different cities, and a few daring married men had a ‘lover’, these ‘relationships’ were conducted with the utmost discretion. The cultural mores, even in the early 1980s, simply did not sanction this kind of behaviour.
The strength of this attitude can be found, paradoxically, in the results from the 1987 nation-wide sex survey, which found that in 24 to 40 per cent of all Shanghai divorce cases women listed extramarital affairs as the primary reason for seeking a divorce (Liu et al. 1997:359). The increase in extramarital sex also corresponds with increasing reports of sexual disharmony among married couples. This suggests that sexual pleasure is regarded as a fundamental aspect or right of married life (Liu et al. 1997:35). It also suggests, however, that many Chinese men are less committed to sexual monogamy than they were in the previous decade.
During the post 1949 period and through the 1980s, the idea of chastity was an ideal state applied equally to females and males. Sexual intercourse took place usually after a couple had agreed to marry. For example, 62 per cent of all married couples in the 1987 survey had their first sexual intercourse on their wedding night (Liu et al. 1997:243). Other sexual surveys also reported that male sexual satisfaction varied by social class (Liu et al. 1997). Zha Bo and Geng Wenxiu’s sex survey found that ‘most females did not experience an orgasm due primarily to the short duration [of foreplay]’ (1992:18). It is consistent with my own findings (Jankowiak 1993). It is also consistent with Kinsey’s finding that people with higher education tended to change sexual positions more often. By the late 1990s, however, this percentage was significantly lower due to the increased tolerance of premarital sex. The singleton generation (born after 1979) has fundamentally altered China’s moral code (see little emperors). Today, sexuality is no longer regarded as a tacit agreement to marry but instead is perceived to be simply a pleasurable experience that may or may not result in marriage. Sexual pleasure is regarded as a fundamental aspect of married life. It is also not unusual for men to have a mistress or a girlfriend (see bao ernai), or to visit prostitutes. And in China’s largest cities, it is easier for women to participate in extramarital affairs than at any time in its history.
A popular Chinese proverb from the Republican era asserted that women’s sexual appetite increases with age: ‘Women in their thirties are tigers and in their forties are wolves.’ If this proverb was an accurate representation of behaviour, then one explanation for women’s relative lack of interest in sexual intercourse in the socialist era may lie in the negative impact of Communist revolutionary ideology, which de-emphasized the body as a site of sensual enjoyment. As a consequence, many men as well as women were raised to regard sexual intercourse as a necessary, albeit perfunctory, activity. The return to a consumer economy appears to have stimulated a renewed appetite for physical pleasure and erotic experimentation. This is especially so among China’s singleton population, whose sexual behaviour resembles that of their American counterpart. Contemporary researchers are finding that the pursuit of sexual adventure is now commonplace. This is fuelled in part by the increase in urban prostitution, mistresses and extramarital affairs (Farrer 2002). Today, the erotic is considered natural, healthy and vital to the enjoyment of life. For example, masturbation is no longer considered harmful; rather, like all things sexual, it is now deemed a healthy activity (see sexuality and behaviour).
There has been an enormous variation in China’s attitudes towards homosexuality (see homosexuality and tongzhi culture) In Imperial China it was common for an emperor to have male and female concubines. During the Qing (1644–1911), however, this attitude was replaced with a more puritanical view that regarded extramarital sex—with women or men—as unacceptable. In this milieu, male (but not female) homosexuality was regarded as a threat to patriarchal authority (Wasserstrom and Brownell 2002). This mindset has continued throughout much of the twentieth century. By the 1990s, homosexuality was tacitly tolerated, albeit with misgivings. There are known homosexual (gay and lesbian) bars in China’s largest cities. In this and in every other way, the Chinese attitude towards the erotic is strikingly similar to that found in Western European cultures.
Dikötter, F. (1995). Sex, Culture and Modernity in China. London: Hurst.
Farrer, J. (2002). Opening Up: Youth Sex Culture and Market Reform. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Jankowiak, W. (1993). Sex, Death and Hierarchy in a Chinese City. New York: Columbia University Press.
Kinsey, A.C., Pomeroy, W.B. and Martin, C.E. (1953). Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Philadelphia: W.B.Saunders.
Liu, Dalin, Ng, Man Lun, Zhou, Li Ping and Haeberle, Erwin (1997). Sexual Behavior in Modern China. New York: Continuum.
Parish, W. (2002). ‘Open-Door Sexuality’. The University of Chicago Magazine 95:1–4.
Wasserstrom, J. and Brownell, Susan (2002). Masculinities and Femininities. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Zha, Bo and Geng, Wenxiu (1992). ‘Sexuality in Urban China’. The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs 28 (July): 1–20.
WILLIAM JANKOWIAK

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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