Everything you wanted to know about sex in China, but were afraid to ask

When I heard that Richard Burger, of The Peking Duck, had written a book about sex in China, I expected it to be a somewhat scandalous introduction to the topic (he had told me that it wasn’t meant for China experts). However, I found Behind the Red Door: Sex in China to be an incredibly thorough exploration of sex and sexuality in China. He covers almost every aspect– dating, marriage, prostitution, concubines, homosexuality, pornography, sex shops – and each in a way that considers the past and present and avoids easy answers.

The only gripe I had with the book was when Burger chastised the missionaries of the past for bringing their close minded western views on homosexuality.

He highlights a passage from a Jesuit writing in 1610:

“That which shows the misery of these people is that no less than the natural lusts they practice unnatural ones that reverse the order of things: and this is neither forbidden by law or thought to be illicit, or even a cause of shame. It is spoken of in public and practiced everywhere, without there being anyone to prevent it…”

Richard uses this to prove his broader point that homosexuality is condemned in the West based on religious views, but in China was practiced freely until missionaries interfered saying, “Chinese passing by on the street would most likely have viewed the male prostitutes as providing entertainment that harmed no one.” However Richard writes just a few pages later to say that of the male prostitutes “the most prized were those between 12 and 14 years of age,” and that, “unlike concubines who were often treated as family members, catamites (male prostitutes) were often discarded like an old shoe, and many became beggars who took on the most menial jobs and died in poverty.”

So perhaps the monk was shocked not only by the homosexuality, but also the society’s complicit acceptance of child prostitution. However, his coverage of the modern day struggle within Chinese society over the issue of homosexuality seems to be spot on, and is worth the price of the book on its own.

He also seems to struggle with how to best present the seeming contradiction that Victorian attitudes toward sex ended China’s sexual freedom, but that it is now western openness that has contributed to China’s sexual re-liberalization. Richard though does bring this point out toward the end of the book.

With that out of the way, I would like to say that I very much enjoyed this book, and found scores of new information about attitudes towards sex in ancient China, as well as several interesting anecdotes about more current events. I was also very pleased to find that Richard’s book avoided the ChinaSMACK approach to some of the topics, meaning that he relied more on personal conversations and news accounts than translated comments from Chinese message boards (although not entirely).

I feel that this gives a much more accurate view of what’s really going on than simply focusing on the most outrageous events. Furthermore, Richard’s style, which has been honed over his years of blogging, reads very well, despite the amount of information crammed into every page.

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About T

I have been working in China for nearly five years now. I have traveled to more than 30 cities and towns, and have lived in 3 provinces. I am interested in issues concerning development in China and the rest of the world. I hope to provide a balanced look at some of the issues facing China as it continues its rise to power.
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7 Responses to Everything you wanted to know about sex in China, but were afraid to ask

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  2. Richard says:

    Tom, thanks a lot for posting about my book. You may have a point about the missionary being shocked by child prostitution; he doesn’t specify, but makes it clear that was he saw was very Sodom-and-Gommorah-like.

    • Tom says:

      And I think there are a lot of ways of interpreting that story. On Monday, I’ll be sharing a story about what happened when an American friend hosted a conversation about homosexuality in rural China.

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  6. Anna says:

    While 12- to 14-year-olds are certainly children by our standards, would this have constituted child prostitution in 17th-century Europe (or China)? Not intending to be a devil’s advocate on this, but weren’t many girls married off at such an age or barely older? Did missionaries also consider that ‘unnatural’, did they consider prostitution of women ‘unnatural’, or just that of boys or men? My guess would be that they would have disapproved of female prostitution and would have been shocked by male prostitution.

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