A people’s sexual revolution in China
Sunday, March 4, 2007
SHANGHAI: When Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue hit the newsstands last week in mainland China for the first time, with the sexy singer Beyoncé on the cover, the competition was fierce.
Readers here had already seen the February issue of For Him Magazine, which features a Chinese singer, A Duo, on its cover wearing a white V-neck leotard that reveals every other inch of her rather substantial figure.
Inside, A Duo poses like a dominatrix, clutching her breasts, wrapping her naked body in celluloid and bending, sweat-drenched, over a submissive man.
The racy For Him Magazine also offers tips on “how to do it in five minutes” (because a “sex break is the same as a coffee break”) and features stories with titles like “The Dangerous Sex Journey of QiQi.”
The images and text would hardly be shocking to North American or European readers. And the magazine’s photographs are tame compared with what appears in magazines in Japan and other parts of Asia, including the rest of China — Hong Kong and Macao.
But in mainland China, where sex is still a taboo subject and pornography is outlawed by the ruling Communist Party, the images are not only highly provocative, but also perhaps the latest sign that sex and sexuality are infiltrating the mainstream media.
And this powerful burst of sexual energy seems both a symbol of how rapidly the transformation of China is unfolding and, to some, a harbinger of the troubles ahead for a nation that will inevitably struggle to absorb its newfound freedoms. “There is a fine line between the open mind and sexual indulgence,” said Xie Xialing, a professor of sociology at Fudan University in Shanghai.
Even five years ago, mainland books and magazines were banned from showing pictures of scantily clad models or publishing content that was deemed offensive or morally corrupt. The only sexual content to be found was in sex education pamphlets or books of nude Chinese women sold as “art works” at big city airports.
Today, however, with the Chinese economy booming and the government loosening its hold on the personal lives of everyday citizens, magazines are beginning to publish soft-core pornographic photographs, sexual fantasies and even clues about where to pick up call girls.
Popular mainland Web sites are going further, posting erotic videos and creating forums for women eager to market their sex appeal and post their photographs on the Internet: images of traveling with friends, undressing at home, even striking erotic poses.
“This is a kind of grass-roots sexual revolution,” said Annie Wang, author of “The People’s Republic of Desire,” a satirical novel about the mad race to modernization.
The government announces periodic crackdowns on pornography and often censors sexual content in magazines and on the Web. But since about 2000, the censors have started to look the other way. Political activism is still a no-no in New China. Entertainment is a different matter. Even the Web site of Xinhua, the official press agency, offers slide shows of the “10 Hottest Babes of 2006” and “Rarely Seen Photos of Sexy Men.”
Many say the trend is being driven by the market, and by entrepreneurs eager to cash in on the freer lifestyles on the mainland.
“The market is the No. 1 driving force behind the boom of such magazines,” said Pan Suiming, a professor of sociology at Renmin University in Beijing. Western luxury brands entering the mainland market want to advertise in popular magazines and on Web sites that draw consumers. And on the mainland right now, pictures of sex kittens draw.
For Him Magazine is one of the success stories of this genre, with a circulation of about 480,000. It probably helps that the magazine is published by a government agency, the National Tourism Administration, an indication of official interest in investing in the phenomenon.
Jacky Jin, the magazine’s editor in chief, said he wanted to affirm a new kind of lifestyle for readers that he calls the new mainland metrosexuals, guys who love cars, gadgets and girls.
“We’re opening a new window for Chinese men,” he said, noting that he has been criticized by government censors on several occasions.
A decade ago, the private lives of people on the mainland were still quite restricted. Whom you married, where you lived and what was considered permissible were tightly controlled or closely monitored by the government, employers and other authorities.
But urbanization, greater mobility and the power of the World Wide Web have challenged all that.
Now, experts say, the mainland is going through a period of enormous personal and sexual freedom. Young people — most of whom grew up without siblings under the one-child policy — are wearing more hip and provocative clothing. And they’re growing addicted to entertainment online, where they can also search for love and indulge their lust.
Pan said he thought one reason for the cultural change was a change in women’s attitudes.
“Women, especially young women in the cities, no longer think it’s a bad thing to expose their bodies,” he said. “Five or six years ago, when some women started to wear clothes that exposed their midriff, most people couldn’t understand why belly buttons should be regarded as beautiful and deserve public exposure. Today, young women think it is natural to bare their midriff.”
Zha Jianying, a Beijing writer and author of “China Pop,” said the growing openness was actually a good thing.
“This trend of being more open about sex is definitely healthy, coming after all those years of puritanism and Maoist suppression,” Zha said. “Now, maybe we’re seeing the pendulum swing in the other direction.”
But Xie at Fudan University said things had gone too far.
“In certain periods in history, such as the decadent Ming dynasty, sex was not a taboo and even intellectuals would talk about their sex skills casually over tea,” he said. “Today’s society is still better than that. But I do find that people care less about dignity.”
He went on to call for limits on how much skin can be shown publicly, and said: “Human beings should have a sense of shame.”
Other critics say the new freedoms have brought degeneracy, a boom in prostitution, and what Wang, the author, called “the concubine mentality.”
Hard-core pornography remains under assault by the government, which can exact heavy fines on trespassers. One pornography kingpin was recently sentenced to life in prison.
And the censors are wary of influences from the West, like the TV show “Sex and the City,” which has a huge following here, mostly on pirated DVDs.
Even “The Vagina Monologues” theater play was canceled in Shanghai recently, apparently because of the title.
But in a country that also happens to be the largest manufacturer of sex toys, being naughty is catching on.
In November a man in Shanghai was selling condoms in packages bearing the likeness of Chairman Mao.
His shop was closed for selling condoms in “inappropriate packages.”