There is a Sexual Revolution Taking Place in China.

November 28, 2017

A review of “Behind the Red Door” by Richard Burger
Review by Tom Carter

Among the many misimpressions westerners tend to have of China, sex as some kind of taboo topic here seems to be the most common, if not 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, at several points throughout the millennia, China has been a society of extreme sexual openness.

And now, according to author Richard Burger’s new book Behind the Red Door, the Chinese are once again on the verge of a sexual revolution.

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

Opening (metaphorically and literally) with an introduction about hymen restoration surgery, Burger delves dàndàn-deep into the olden days of Daoism, those prurient practitioners of free love who 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.


In this video, “The sexual revolution in China is underway, but not without its contradictions. The ‘sexless China’ over three decades ago is long gone, but gays still enter sham marriages, some women have hymen restorations before their weddings, and some men have a second ‘wife’ or a mistress. In an interview with Xinhua, Richard Burger, author of ‘Behind the Red Door: Sex in China,’ explains the ongoing Chinese sexual revolution.”

Enter the Yuan Dynasty, and its conservative customs of Confucianism, whereby sex became regarded only “for the purpose of producing heirs.”  As much as we love to hate him, Mao Zedong is credited as single-handedly wiping out all those nasty neo-Confucius doctrines, including eliminating foot binding, forbidding spousal abuse, allowing divorce, banning prostitution (except, of course, for Party parties), and encouraging women to work.  But in typical fashion, laws were taken too far; within 20 years, China under Mao became a wholly 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 gross gender imbalance.

Burger laudably also tackles the sex trade from a female’s perspective, including an interview with a housewife-turned-hair-salon hostess who, ironically, finds greater success with foreigners than with her own sex-starved albeit ageist countrymen.

Western dating practices among hip, urban Chinese are duly contrasted with traditional courtship conventions, though, when it comes down 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 segues into the all-but-acceptable custom of kept women (little third), as well as homowives, those tens of millions of straight women trapped in passionless unions with closeted 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 (enforced by dubious statistics) 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.”

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Travel Photographer Tom Carter traveled for 2-years across the 33-provinces of China to show the diversity of Chinese people in  China: Portrait of a People, the most comprehensive photography book on modern China published by a single author.

This guest post by Tom Carter first appeared in China in City Weekend Magazine. Reblogged with permission of Tom Carter. Behind the Red Door was published by Earnshaw Books.

Tom Carter is married to a Chinese citizen, and he lives and works in China.

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Tom Carter traveled 35,000 miles in two years to capture a portrait of China’s people

February 18, 2015

“Tom Carter is an extraordinary photographer whose powerful work captures the heart and soul of the Chinese people.” – Anchee Min, author of “Red Azalea”.

Most tourists travel by jet or bus and spend nights in four-or-five star hotels sleeping on plush beds. They eat at only the best restaurants. A rare few visit countries like Sir Richard Francis Burton, the famous nineteenth century explorer and adventurer. Tom Carter is one of the rare few. Imagine backpacking for two years and walking 35,000 miles to capture the heart and soul of a nation. That’s what Tom Carter did to create China: Portrait of a People.

The consensus among ‘backpackers’ is that China is probably the single most challenging country in the world to visit on foot. That by itself says a lot.

There are more than 1.3 billion people in China. Besides the majority Han Chinese, the population includes fifty-six ethnic groups numbering over one hundred million. Carter saw it all from the teenage girl living in Chengdu dressed like an American punk rocker to the soot covered coal miner in Southern Shanxi. Carter’s camera lens captured the complexity and diversity of China.

Tom Carter is a guerrilla hit-and-run photojournalist with a camera instead of a grenade launcher.  To take the up-close-and-personal pictures in ‘Portrait of  a People’, Carter risked jail; almost froze on his way to Tibet; faced exhaustion and hunger; was beaten by drunks; plagued by viral infections, and risked being shot by North Korean border guards.  The hundreds of photos in ‘Portrait’ are priceless. I doubt if there will ever be another book about China like this one. From Inner Mongolian nomads to newlyweds in Hong Kong, Carter captured it all with his photography.

There is an old saying that a picture is equal to a thousand words. Great pictures tell stories.

In ‘China: Portrait of a People’, each picture is worth ten thousand words or maybe more. Carter’s photojournalist study of China stands alone in its genre as it focuses expressly on the Chinese people. Carter backpacked to remote areas to visit China’s minorities like the thousand year old Phoenix Village perched over the Tuo Jiang River or the seventy-five year old Pai Yao minority farmer in his red turban.

To reach some locations, Carter had to travel on foot into some seriously rugged terrain. To get an idea what I’m talking about, consider that China, almost the size of the United States, has only sixteen percent of its land for growing crops. The rest is either mountains or deserts.

Between the covers of ‘Portrait’, you will see what happens when a modern day Sir Richard Francis Burton spends two years backpacking through China’s thirty-three provinces and autonomous regions, not once but twice. During his odyssey, Carter discovered that the Chinese are a friendly, open hearted people.

If you plan to visit China, buy this book before you go. On the other hand, if you are an armchair tourist that never strays far from home, Carter’s Rembrandt ‘Portrait’ of China will not disappoint. You will chuckle when you see the young, twin boys walking out of the river after a swim or watch the eight-year-old acrobat student at Wuqiao bending herself like a folded sheet of paper.

Between the covers of ‘Portrait’, you will start a vicarious journey visiting China like few have done even among the Chinese. You will travel on this 35,000 mile journey without leaving your house, bus or jet seat.

  • The Christian Science Monitor said, Tom Carter shows us that there are actually dozens of Chinas. The American photojournalist spent two years traveling 35,000 miles through every province of China by bus, boat, train, mule, motorcycle, and on foot. – August 27, 2010
  • The San Francisco Chronicle said, Getting a full picture of China – a vast country with an enormous population, a place that is experiencing sweeping cultural and economic changes – is, of course, impossible. But Tom Carter comes close. … It’s a remarkable book, compact yet bursting with images that display the diversity of a nation of 56 ethnic groups. – September 26, 2010

As you might see, there is no way this review does justice for ’China: Portrait of a People’. To try might require a million words—seeing is believing. What are you waiting for?

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the lusty love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

Finalist in Fiction & Literature – Historical Fiction
The National “Best Books 2010” Awards

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Honorable Mentions in General Fiction
2012 San Francisco Book Festival
2012 New York Book Festival
2012 London Book Festival
2009 Los Angeles Book Festival
2009 Hollywood Book Festival

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