Sex & Relationships

From Prude to Lewd: China's New Sexual Revolution

The real 'Cultural Revolution', the one stoked by individual desires and ambition, is happening now.
A new cultural revolution is underway in China, and it's all about sex.

Take the latest and biggest celebrity sex scandal that has rocked China. This month about 1,300 explicit photos have been circulating over the Internet of heartthrob Edison Chen, a 27-year-old Hong Kong hip-hop artist and actor, having sex with a dozen other starlets. Voted sexiest "newcomer" in People Magazine's 2006 Sexiest Man Alive issue, Chen has apologized and even left the continent -- but his explicit photos continue to be downloaded by tens of millions of viewers in China and elsewhere.

While pundits bemoan the "loss of morality" in China, Beijing is struggling to stop the spread of pornographic images -- and failing miserably. What baffles some observers, however, is the speed with which the Chinese went from prude to lewd in such a short time.

Consider some statistics:

  • A 2007 poll by Renmin University of China found that more than half of the Chinese surveyed in 10 provinces said that premarital sex is okay. Only 12.8 percent said that it was immoral. Among male entrepreneurs, 68 percent said they have multiple sex partners.

  • Time Magazine's 2006 article, titled "Sex Please, We're Young and Chinese," noted that, "Some 70 percent of Beijing residents say they have had sexual relations before marriage, compared with just 15.5 percent in 1989."

  • The number of Chinese who have access to the Internet has surpassed 200 million, making China second only to the United States, and catching up fast. Interestingly, 63 percent of those polled said they lead double lives online. In another survey, 32 percent of Chinese respondents said the Internet has made their sex lives "more abundant" or "richer" as compared to 11 percent of Americans polled.

If Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966 to rid the country of the "liberal bourgeois" and continue the revolutionary class struggle, it seems the bourgeois liberals have struck back, and are winning. The real cultural revolution, the one that starts from the bottom up, stoked by individual desires and ambition, is happening now.

Part of the reason has to do with China's one-child policy, implemented in 1979, which helped usher in the new culture of openness. Besides population control, it radically shifted Chinese views of sex from being about procreation to recreation. Women, no longer bound to become mothers, find themselves earning higher incomes in the workplace and, as the men-to-women ratio works in their favor, can pick and choose their partners.

Extended families in China are smaller than ever before. The shrinking of the Chinese family has reduced the role of clanship -- a powerful Confucian structure that once modified behaviors and suppressed the ego. Under the structure of clanship, each person accepted his or her role -- marriage, career, where to live -- as a kind of fate.

The one-child policy has also turned the old Confucian filial piety sense of obeisance upside-down. China is full of parents kowtowing and doting on their spoiled children instead of lording over him -- something that would surely shock their ancestors. But it cannot be helped. These modern parents, without clan or social welfare, fear being abandoned by their only child in old age.

And, of course, there's economics. In 1992, Deng Xiaoping declared that "to get rich is glorious" and the clarion call echoed loud and clear across the land. But if Deng meant glory for China, it seems that most of the glory fell upon the individual. The laissez-faire economy that Deng unleashed in the post-Cold War era has led inevitably to a culture of live and let live. To have a dispensable income is to act upon one's own private desires, to want a certain glamor and, well, to adore and celebrate one's self.

Seemingly overnight, that old green and gray sea of men and women in Mao's jackets has transformed itself into a vast field of a hundred million colorful flowers blooming. In this world of fast economic growth, we see an explosion of spas, sports clubs, fashion magazines, beauty products, talk shows about sex, underground porn, movie star and athlete obsessions.

The public square of Tiananmen has been replaced by a space vaster than anything previously imaginable -- cyberspace, that borderless world in which private passions spill into a public forum never before seen. And because so many Chinese express themselves in this virtual square, the order of things, the status quo, is unraveling. Chinese authorities are busy trying to control this space, but despite various crackdowns, information continues to flow.

As the cult of individualism rises in China, the new socialism is one in which each person can express him or herself openly. In the age of globalization, the more rigid the politics, the more mellifluous the culture becomes to serve as a counterpoint, forcing change through a sideway rebellion.

Nearly two decades after student protesters were gunned down in Tiananmen Square in a failed confrontation with the state, a new culture has risen up in China that is at once playful, open, daring and disruptive. It is this cultural shift that worries the government most: the Chinese people, who have lost their inhibitions, could turn political -- and let loose their tongues.
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