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Human Rights & Social Issues

The birds and the bees in China


The statue outside Tongli Sex Museum

The statue outside Tongli Sex Museum

The peaceful water town of Tongli is home to a museum one would not expect to find in modern mainland China: a sex museum. The sculpture in the main courtyard that depicts a very small man with deformed limbs and features, giant feet, and an enormous erect penis might give off a vulgar impression of what is to be seen inside the museum until you read the caption that goes along with the sculpture: “This part of the body could not be locked.” The man’s body is bound by a large chain except for his erect penis, which resists bondage.

The sculpture is actually making a revolutionary statement about what can and cannot be suppressed very easily: There are some parts of the human body that will always resist control. This is a bold statement to make in a publicly sexually oppressed country such as China, but what the sex museum aims to do is provide an overview of the evolution of sexual freedom, sexual practices, and even the public opinion of sex with artefacts that date back as far as 5,000 years ago.

The museum was barred from Shanghai, and therefore set up residence on its outskirts. It was founded by esteemed and now retired sociology professor Liu Dalin as a response to Alfred Kinsey. Four different buildings and a garden boast 1400 artefacts Liu has collected, which explain sexual behavior in China through the ages. In an interview with Professor Liu from 2004 on China.org, Liu states that the museum has been serving its purpose as a base for research and education. The biggest discovery Liu says the museum’s audience makes is just how open their ancestors were 5,000 years ago. The question Liu himself most wanted to answer when he started studying ancient Chinese sex culture was why the attitude towards sex was open before the Tang Dynasty (619-907) but became a taboo subject during the Song (960-1279) and increasingly so thereafter.

The answer posed by the museum’s exhibits is that the conservative attitude towards sex increased with the introduction of monogamy. Pottery and other decorative pieces that date back 5,000 years ago in the museum’s collection depict images of pregnant women and phallic images. As Liu says, they are examples of how these ancient people saw sex as a natural need to be fulfilled, and they would have sexual relations with various partners as opposed to just one. Monogamy not only introduced a more conservative attitude towards sex, but it also made women subordinate to men. Some of the other artefacts include a chastity belt and devices that were used to bind women’s feet, which were meant to immobilise women so they could not be unfaithful.

Sex is part of any culture’s history, and to avoid it means dismissing vital information about our ancestors. To spark a more open conversation about sex in China, Liu seems to have taken his cues from Dr. Alfred Kinsey. Dr. Kinsey is obviously the quintessential sexologist known for his reports on male and female sexual behaviour: The Kinsey Reports. His research was controversial for 1940s and 50s America. The controversy regarding his work lay in his promotion of open sexual activity and his methods for collecting data, which often included filming his co-workers having intercourse in his own attic. Despite questionable methods, his books were bestsellers and helped change American society’s perception of sex as it moved into the 1960s.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, the Western world was engaged in a sexual revolution that challenged the traditional monogamous relationship. Like China, I’m sure that the Western world’s ancient history similarly depicts men and women involved in liberal sexual relationships with various partners because there was no taboo on sex, yet during the 1960s this was considered a revolutionary idea. How many revolutionary ideas have actually just been recycled from the past?

The purpose of Liu Dalin’s sex museum is not to convince Chinese people that they should revert to using the sex practices of the ancients, but that, as Liu states, they should think about sex and talk about sex with an open mind. Seeing how open their ancestors were is meant to remind them that they have just as much freedom to talk about sex. Except that, actually, they really don’t.

A study on pre-marital sex in China from 2012 found that over 70 percent of China’s unmarried young people are having sex outside of wedlock, suggesting that they believe in having sex for pleasure and not just to produce an offspring. Having a one-child policy I suspect makes it rather difficult to get young people to accept the view that sex is meant only for procreation. If that were true, then Chinese married couples would only be able to have sex up until they conceive a child.

But having pre-marital sex doesn’t exactly equate to open-mindedness. China is a country that is not only focused on marriage but treats it as a commodity. Despite the relatively open attitude toward sex developing in China, men still desire a “pure” bride. This desire for virginity obviously puts a constraint on female sexual freedom. According to an article on CNN from 2010, by 2020 China will have an excess of 24 million bachelors. How many of them do you suppose will still be virgins when they finally tie the knot?

There are plenty of people looking to take advantage of China’s shortage of brides and Chinese bachelors’ heightened desperation. Marriage agencies look to draw Chinese men to Vietnam by advertising that the country has a male to female sex ratio of three to five and that Vietnamese women are everything Chinese women are not: virgins, low-maintenance, quiet, traditional. This marriage agency also guarantees that these Vietnamese women will marry in three months, but if they run away replacements are guaranteed. Yes, Chinese men are not only promised a bride, but also a warranty. It isn’t just the desperation of Chinese men this takes advantage of, though. Many Vietnamese women want to marry Chinese men to escape poverty and the low positions they hold within their families.

The sexual restrictions placed on women in China—in Asia in general—are still quite appalling. They’ve come a long way from foot binding and chastity belts, but the demands men make on a woman’s virginity while, most likely, engaging in premarital sex themselves seems to be a modern incarnation of these age-old sexual oppressive practices. The history presented in Liu’s collection should help audiences reflect on the ways sexual oppression has evolved.

Sex education is severely lacking in China, and this limited education allows for certain negative perceptions about sexuality, particularly female sexuality, to arise. The survey on pre-marital sex also found that over half the respondents had not received any form of sex education. Despite religious and moral debates, most of the Western world is aware of the necessity of sex education. Works of literature abound on the danger of leaving young people completely in the dark about their sexuality, especially if they are left with nothing to believe but old wives tales about getting hairy palms or going blind from masturbating too much. In China, I’ve heard that women who have very large breasts are thought to be sluts because they allowed men to touch them between the ages of nine and fourteen. This was told to me by a 25-year-old Chinese man who lives in Shanghai, and he actually believes this. A woman in China, without proper sex education, must have a very negative conception of her body.

A recent survey in Beijing News has found that 90 percent of the parents polled want schools to incorporate sex education into the curriculum. These parents admit that they tell their children little about sex, that they are unsure about how much their children learn about sex in school, and that they are sure that their children have no idea how to protect themselves from any form of sexual abuse. This is an aspect of sex education that is always overlooked. It is not meant to just teach young people about sexual intercourse, but about their bodies and how to protect them from being taken advantage of.

After several publicised cases of sexual abuse, including one where a school principal spent the night in a hotel room with four underage girls, the need for more and better sex education seems imperative. The response to these incidents includes an online protest campaign with the slogan, “Principals, get a room with me! Leave the young students alone.” Participants photograph themselves holding a sign with the slogan and how they can be contacted. The campaign was started by prominent feminist figure Ye Haiyan and has since been followed by activists, artists, students, parents, and police officers alike. Through a kind of “black humour,” these people are uniting to raise public awareness about the need for more sex education, as well as young people’s rights. According to an article on Fox News,

“Schools and parents have failed to instil in our children the sense of rights and to teach them how to protect themselves,” Xiong Bingqi, a deputy director of the Beijing-based education think tank 21st Century Education Research Institute. “If the children know about their rights, know they can call police if they are sexually assaulted and have the assaulters punished, it will sure deter the criminals.”

Quality sex education would, invariably, unlock the chains that have been placed on sexuality in mainland China. Although parents are calling for better sex education in their children’s schools now, it is possible that they will change their minds once they see the proposed curriculum. It may be invited, but will then be banished like Liu’s sex museum.

 

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