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"Behind the Red Door" Exposes China's Promiscuous History

Among the many misimpressions that Westerners have of China, the idea of sex as some kind of “taboo” topic here seems to be the most common and clichéd.

Forgetting for a moment that, owing to a population of 1.3 billion, somebody must be doing it, what most of us don’t seem to know is that throughout the years China has been a society of extreme sexual openness. And now, according to Richard Burger’s new book Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, the Chinese are once again in the sweaty clutches of sexual revolution.

Best known for knives-out commentary on The Peking Duck, one of China’s longest-running expat blogs, Burger takes a similar approach in surveying sex among the Chinese, leaving no explicit ivory carving unexamined, no raunchy ancient poetry unrecited, and ahem, no miniskirt unturned.

Opening (metaphorically and literally) with a discussion of hymen restoration surgery, Burger delves into the days of Daoism, when prurient practitioners of free love encouraged multiple sex partners as “the ultimate co-joining of yin and yang.” Promiscuity, along with prostitution, flourished during the Tang Dynasty—recognized as China’s cultural zenith—which Burger’s research surmises is no mere coincidence.

Enter the Yuan Dynasty, and its conservative customs of Confucianism, whereby sex became regarded only “for the purpose of producing heirs.” Later, Mao Zedong is credited with single-handedly wiping out all those neo-Confucius doctrines, including eliminating foot binding, forbidding spousal abuse, allowing divorce, banning prostitution (with some exceptions) and encouraging women to work. But in typical fashion, laws were taken too far—within 20 years China under Mao became an outwardly androgynous state.

We then transition from China’s red past into the pink-lit present, whence “prostitution is just a karaoke bar away,” yet possession of pornography is punishable by imprisonment—despite the fact that millions of single Chinese men (called “bare branches”) will never have wives or even girlfriends due to gender imbalance. Burger laudably also tackles the sex trade from a female’s perspective. There’s an interview with a housewife-turned-hair-salon hostess who, ironically, finds greater success with foreigners than with her own sex-starved countrymen.

Western dating practices among hip, urban Chinese are duly contrasted with traditional courtship conventions, though. When it comes to settling down, Burger points out that the Chinese are still generally resistant to the idea that marriage can be based on love. This topic naturally leads to discussion of the all-but-acceptable custom of kept women (“little thirds”), as well as “homowives,” those straight women trapped in passionless unions with gay men out of filial piety.

Behind the Red Door concludes by stressing that while the Chinese remain a sexually open society at heart, contradictive policies designed to discard human desire are written into law yet seldom enforced, simply because “sexual contentment is seen as an important pacifier to keep society stable and harmonious.”


Publisher: Earnshaw Books

How much: RMB127


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