TABOO IS THE NEW NORMAL

October 1, 2012

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.

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.

Also by Tom Carter Eating Smoke — a question and answer with author, Chris Thrall in addition to Harlequin Romance Invades China

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Note: 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

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Blonde Lotus

October 11, 2010

Guest Post (book review) by Tom Carter

If there ever was an expat author in the Middle Kingdom whose enthusiasm and love of life was as contagious as Cecilie Gamst Berg’s, then that person has yet to be published.

Part travelogue of a directionless backpacker, part bedtime stories of a frisky European babe who enjoys seducing young Chinese guys “out of the festering prison of virginity,”

Blonde Lotus is in fact one in the same person.  Gamst Berg, via her alter-ego protagonist Kat Glasø, accidentally arrives in late-1980’s China (“all I wanted was to be on the train; I had no interest in the journey’s destination, Beijing”), back when the mighty bicycle was still king of Peking and foreign tourists were a rare sighting.

Expecting a people with “long, billowing sleeves, reciting poetry and plucking at stringed instruments,” what Kat finds in New China instead are street corners populated with shady money changers and young hipsters whose knowledge of English is limited to the words ‘Okay-la’ and ‘Sex!’  Lulled by their charming incessancy, Kat shrugs her shoulders and good-naturedly gives it to them – the money AND the sex.  “How could so many men find the women of a race attractive, and so few women find the men the same,” she ponders postcoitally over a shared Zhongnanhai cigarette.

Queen gweipo (devil woman in Cantonese) Gamst Berg is an unpretentious, fun-loving writer with nothing to prove.  She’s not out to save China as so many a self-righteous foreigner here are (“I hope this country never modernizes” Kat admits in one of her many blunt moments of sincerity), she’s not trying to force feed them Faulkner (“I loved books and he never read one”), nor is she out to land a career in journalism like the rest of us.

No, the author is clearly just looking to have a good time (“We were young, stoned and in China”), and maybe learn some Putonghua while doing it, and therefore spares us the sappy, sympathetic observations and “deep understanding” of life in China that makes most Laowai Literature such a torture to read.

Conversely, nor is Gamst Berg out to tear Communism apart, vilify Chinese people or point and laugh at the “strangeness” of their culture, a common last-resort for some western travel writers (whom I refrain from naming as a professional courtesy) who don’t want to admit that they have learned nothing about the Chinese during their stay here.

Indeed, while her fellow expats spend their time in China sitting around at bars “shouting out orders in English, and when they weren’t understood, complained loudly to each other about how stupid the Chinese were,” rather than join in, Kat moves tables, literally and figuratively, to the Chinese side of the bar.

Instead of whining about China’s infamously filthy public toilets, Kat hangs out in them (smoking dope), then laughs when there’s a line of squeaming girls waiting to use the stall. 

Rather than bitch about the People’s Republic’s chaotic queues at its railway stations, she jumps right in, elbows swinging, with the rest of the seething proletariat.

Our Blonde Lotus ain’t no saint, and she would laugh in your face if you dared suggest it.  “I wanted to experience everything and sleep with everybody…” confesses, nay, asserts the Norwegian-born Kat Glasø – and then proceeds to actually do so, from coal-and-petrol-scented industrial North China all the way down to the steamy islands of Hong Kong, her final destination.

Throughout her candid memoir, the author employs an uproarious combination of reluctant intellectualism (“learning Chinese was better than being in love because there was no danger of waking next to the Chinese language wanting to kick the f*cker out of bed”) and ribald hedonism (“I felt something push into me, shudder and expire. Was it an asparagus?”) that is sure to win Gamst Berg as many fans as frighten them away.

If Blonde Lotus is a window into China, then that window has been fogged with the sultry breathe of its occupants.  If it is a work of reportage; then the author was too distracted by eating, drinking, smoking and playing cards with the peasantry to be concerned about making the front page.  And that nonchalance, that self-depreciating humor, is exactly this novel’s charm.

Blonde Lotus is a refreshingly unserious memoir of an infectiously upbeat young woman (this reviewer’s favorite line in the whole book: “Ha ha, life was perfect and made for me!”) who, lost in China and unsure of what she wants to do with said life – as many of our kind are – inadvertently ends up making a new, better one for herself.

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Travel photographer Tom Carter is the author of China: Portrait of a People (San Francisco Chronicle Book Review), a 600-page China photography book, which may be found at Amazon.com.

Discover more “Guest Posts” from Tom Carter with Is Hong Kong Any Place for a Poor American?

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