Interview: Sexuality in China - Pan Suiming

Pan Suiming

Given that talking about sexuality in China is taboo, how did you begin? Why do you think talking about sexuality is important?

Yes, in the early 1980’s it was taboo, but not after 1985. Now, it is only taboo in some kinds of official media, especially on TV and movies. In everyday life, you can almost say everything about sexualities. I have worked as a lecturer and later professor in Renmin University since 1984. For the first three years I was a lecturer in the History Department and then later in the Sociology Department. I began to study sexuality from a historical and cultural perspective which is much easier to be tolerated and understood, and then began to study sexuality in people’s everyday life in current contexts.

In one of your interviews you have said that ‘the cultural revolution is the father of the sexual revolution’. Tell us more.

During the Cultural Revolution, there was no expression of sexuality in any so-called cultural field in China for as long as ten years, although the birth rate was high and the population number was growing up fast. Such kind of strong oppression is a violation of Chinese tradition and the people’s will, so it led to a reaction in the form of a sexual revolution. It began in the mid 1980s and covered the following five aspects: the relative separation between sexuality and procreation; the relative separation of marriage and sexuality; the expression of sexuality; the diversity of sexual behaviour; and, the expression of women’s sexuality.

Such a sexual revolution was the Chinese people’s own choice historically. It fought against the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and the so-called New China Culture of the 1950s (something like the ‘puritan culture’ in western history). It is a great advancement, because not only did it serve the people’s happiness, but it also revived the pre-1750s ancient Chinese sexual culture. By the way, as a researcher who has lived in China for near 60 years, I strongly disagree with the view that the Chinese sexual revolution followed the Western one of the 1960s. The two revolutions are very different in their motives, objects, signals, patterns and what drove them. The only similar aspect is that the proportion of youth within the population had reached the highest point at that time and the youth culture could not be stopped.

How has the ‘one-child policy’ affected peoples’ sexual lives in China?

I don’t know whether the people outside of China will understand my ideas about this or not, but I would like to try with my poor English. There were no religions like Christianity or Islam in China historically. The taboo on sexuality was mainly not the idea and conception of ‘sin’, but the ‘reproductionism value’ (as I call it) of Confucianism. It indicated any relationship and behavior as abnormal if it did not lead to pregnancy. The example is not only of gay sex, but also oral sex, anal sex, and even foreplay and kissing among heterosexuals. Can my readers believe that among Chinese married couples over the age of fifty, almost half of them, in all of their life, had never once kissed each other while having sex! Why? It is because kissing is considered as useless for pregnancy.

Such a ‘reproduction-ism value’ came from the so-called ‘Chinese religion’ of ancestor worship. This was destroyed by the one-child policy firstly and totally and also by the Chinese sexual revolution.

Firstly, when the one-child policy started in the 1980s, the sexual revolution followed. Why did any couple have sex? For what? The idea of sex being for reproduction is prohibited by the Government if I have a child already. So I have to understand and believe that sex is for pleasure only. Thus, all the traditional ideology was broken up. For example, if sex is for birth, any kind of non-marital sex should be harmful not only to the society but also to every individual and ought to be punished, because the sex might bring a child without fatherhood and care. The offspring tree will be cut down. On the other hand, if sex is for pleasure, non-marital sex might be a good affair if I have no pleasure with my wife while I am happy with my extra-marital girl friend, who could blame me?  With what kind of reason?

Secondly, the one-child policy produced the legalisation of contraception and abortion very easily and fast in a short time of two years after 1980. (Look at America; they are still fighting for this now.) By using contraception and abortion, there were almost no children born outside marriage in China after the 1980s. Thus, how can society find out about any kind of non-marital sex? If I did not know who were doing it, how can I criminalise and punish them? Thus, I lose my main moral weapon. All sexually suppressive morals became foolish enough soon (Again, American Christians understood this. They considered the pill as the knife to cut down God’s hand to control human sexuality.)

Thirdly, what had limited women’s sexuality for at least two thousand years in China? If a woman has to give birth to 10 children on average and feed them and bring them up, did she have any possibility of having time, energy and a good mood to think, talk and practise sex? In that situation, could I imagine any girl to be active even in her marital sex life? Opposition of any non-marital sex would be initiated by women themselves.

However, after 1980, one woman can give birth only one time. This is the basic liberation. The ‘female sexual revolution’ will come soon. Thereby, men could be liberated by the new free women.

And, fourth, because they have only one child, most Chinese parents tend to coddle him/her and relax the sexual moral limitations. This is a very important source of the sexual revolution among youth.

You have said that people have become more open to talk about sexuality. What kind of changes have you observed?

After 2000, I think there is a coming of a ‘sexualised era’ characterised by the following: more open expression of sexuality, embedding sexual meanings into lots of phenomena, distinguishing sexual difference among different genders, an increasing usage of sexual words and phrases, and taking sexuality as a tool of expression of some kinds of social ideology, such as individualism. If one reads Chinese, one could read every kind of detail about sex and sexuality in thousands of web sites. If one lives in China anywhere and understands Chinese oral language, one would hear thousands of sexual jokes, the jokes will even appear in mobile phone text messages.

On the other hand, sexual interactions and practices are highly consumerised, sexuality is regarded as a consumable especially in the world of fashion and by the media. Meanwhile, sexual nativism is emerging. Nativism indicates the local culture’s reaction to ‘Westernisation’. That means some Chinese people have started to oppose the sexual revolution in the name of the sexually repressive ‘tradition of the late Qing dynasty’ (1750 - 1919). This kind of nativism was not there in the 1980s and 1990s.

Have you observed some specific trends in sexual behaviours or attitudes unique to the middle class in China?

There is still not a ‘middle class’ in China with the true meaning of this term. Chinese people often take the ‘urban white collars’ as ‘middle class’. There have been great changes in their sexual behaviors and attitudes. A few of them can try anything which is/was regarded as ‘abnormal’ by mainstream ideology, such as membership of clubs where one can exchange partners, one night stands, group sex, male strip shows and S&M etc. However, they occupy only a small percentage even among the ‘urban white collars’. They are not very young, maybe around 30 years old.

How do gender and age affect the sexual attitudes and behaviours of people in China?

There is still not a ‘women’s sex revolution’ in China. Only after 2000, a few young women wrote some novels with sexual descriptions which became known as ‘body writing’ (means they write by using their body, not pen). According to our survey done in 2000, comparatively speaking, in sexual life, the wife is still ‘the second sex’ without a positive role and initiative.

For example, amongst the women respondents, 52.4% regarded pre-marital sex as a violation against the moral system; 97.7% thought people should not have sex out of marriage; 95.3% did not believe in having sex without love; 64.9% considered that sex should be man-initiated and only 3.8% initiated sex in their actual sex life. On the other hand, the male respondents minds were more ‘opened’ in these fields.

In terms of age, according to our survey in 2000 among people from 20 to 64 years of age, there are significant differences among them in terms of sexual attitudes and behaviors. Premarital sexual behaviors happened more frequently among young people. Men at around 30 years of age and women at around 40 are more likely to have sex out of marriage. Men aged 25 to 29 years are more likely to buy sex from female sex workers.

Sexual attitudes have significant correlation with age, education, gender and urban/rural location. Those who are young, well educated, men, in urban areas are much more open than others.

In your longitudinal study on Chinese college students, what did you observe?

That study produced a book with 250,000 Chinese words. It is quite difficult to talk about it in a short paragraph. However, if you want, I would like to say: there was no sexual revolution among the college students until 2001, although it occurred among non-college going young people of the same age. It is because, in China, college students are very different from other young people. The students were only four percent of the same-aged youth in 2000. They were the so-called ‘spiritual aristocrats’ and more conservative than the youth who worked and lived in the real world.

On the other hand, students have to live together in the dormitory administered by the university officers, six or eight people in one room. They don’t have cars. There are no private parties on campus. Most of them have no relations or friends in the city where they study. So, in one sentence, they have no way to liberate themselves sexually.

What is the state of research on sexuality in China? How can it be improved?

It is growing and requires more support and more researchers, especially sociologists and anthropologists to be involved. It has advanced a lot. There is quite a lot of good research on sexuality in China, but rarely known by the other countries because of the problem with language. Moreover, more and more young scholars are interested in this topic.

Firstly, sexuality research still lacks a supportive environment. Very few official organisations, companies, media, and even NGOs would like to support research on sexuality. Thus, few young people are able to engage in research even though they maybe interested. Secondly, lack of access to international papers and books and the difficulty of communication because of language and other problems becomes an obstacle for the development of sexuality research. To bridge China with the international world on sexuality related research and work is very important. The best way (maybe the only way) is to encourage young staff to give courses and classes on sexuality in universities.

How has HIV affected discussions on sexuality?

In China, the sexual revolution came in the middle of 1980s. AIDS came in the early 1990s. So, Dr. Huang Yingying and I think, sexuality would be ‘AIDS-lized’, if people say sexuality only when they mentioned AIDS and STD. The only convenience brought by AIDS is that I can speak about anal sex publicly in my lectures. And more health workers speak out about sex, anal sex, etc in the public sphere. Besides, sex work and MSM issues are also discussed.

What is the attitude towards homosexuality in China?

Traditionally, gay men were looked down upon morally, but were not considered sinful or criminalized. Few people cared about lesbians. There has not been any mention of homosexuality in Chinese Law, although some gay men were arrested and put to ‘labour reform’ in the 1950s and 1960s under charges of  ‘hooliganism’.

You have done extensive research on sex workers and their rights to labour. What kind of sex workers’ rights do you support?

Because they have the rights to labour, so they are legal and have every kind of rights in every aspect and every field, same as me, a professor.

In India we have campaigns against censorship, the sodomy law and the laws against sex work. Are there any similar campaigns in China?

The issues are same, but the social contexts are different. Could I really think there is anybody, whether an organisation or individual in China who has any chance, ability and way to fight against any Law in any field?

What are the major influences on  your thoughts and ideology?

The philosophy of Yin-Yang, modern Marxism and post-constructionism.

What is the Yin and Yang theory? What is its connection to sexuality?

Excuse me, with my level of English, I will not be able to explain Yin-Yang theory clearly. Speaking very simply, Yin and Yang combine together at any time and forever. Yin does not equal to female absolutely and Yang does not indicate male only. However, love-making or having sex is the course of combination of Yin and Yang.

Most ancient and many current Chinese people, especially men, believe such a philosophy. So they take having sex as a natural, even a good way of ‘keeping one’s health’. There was no tradition of asceticism like Catholicism in Chinese history, except amongst some Buddhist priests.

How do you incorporate the notion of sexual rights and pleasure into health related work in China? How do you advise people to do that in their work?

I teach sexual rights in every lecture and claim it in every paper. Chinese readers would remember I was the first person in China and the only one to disseminate this idea and the term, since 1986 until 3 years ago. For example, one of my papers (1987) was about the ‘sexual rights of girls over 14 years old’. It is still cited though it was prohibited to be published by many media.

I talk about pleasure in my papers, lectures and during media interviews. However, the situation does not change quickly. The main reason is that the workers in the fields concerned with sexuality are medically trained for a long time
time. In the Chinese context, the medical doctors consider sexual pleasure as a harmful factor, especially if it is compared with the so-called ‘health’. So, at least in my country, we have to wake up the people. The real issue is not whether ‘pleasure’ or ‘health’ is better and more important; it is that we still do not get both, and we even have no hope to get any one of them!

In my mind, to construct a false conflict between pleasure and health is the new weapon of the Christian-Judaism to fight against sexual rights. To Chinese people, this is the real and most dangerous ‘cultural aggression from the West’. Even if I am left with only one tooth, I would bite such an aggression.

Pan Suiming is a Professor at the Sociology Department and the Director of the Institute for Research on Sexuality and Gender at the Renmin University of China in Beijing. The principal researcher of more than 20 national and international research projects, he has published thirteen books and more than 200 papers on sexuality. His research covers theories on sexuality and gender (especially post-modernism), quantitative and qualitative methodology, cultural and historical studies of sexualities, Chinese people’s attitudes and behaviours around sexuality, and, sex work in China. He has also translated Kinsey’s and Laumann’s books on men’s and women’s sexual behaviour into Chinese.