The Complex Evolution of Sex in China

October 10, 2012

A Guest Post by Richard Burger of The Peking Duck

One of the questions I hear the most is whether the Chinese people’s attitude toward sex is conservative or open-minded. And the answer is that it’s complicated.

First, there is more than one China: there’s rich China and poor China, urban and rural China, young China and older China.

Generalizations are tricky, and there always have to be qualifiers. It’s safe to say that in the larger cities like Beijing and Shanghai people are far less hung up than they were about sex twenty years ago.

Even in most of the second-tier cities you’ll find gay bars, sex shops, young couples holding hands and a lot of young people finding one-night stands over the Internet.

Sexologist Li Yinhe estimates that more than 50 percent of young urban Chinese have premarital sex, something that was unheard of thirty-five years ago. In the countryside that number is probably far lower, but most young people are leaving their rural hometowns to find work in the larger cities.

At the same time, however, traditional Chinese beliefs still hold sway over many of these young people.

For example, sex is not something you talk about openly.

In addition, when it comes time to choose a spouse, nearly all young Chinese will include their parents in the process, striving to make it a family decision.

Many if not most husbands still place a high premium on virginity and expect to see blood on the sheets the night of their honeymoon. This attitude is so fixed that every year hundreds of thousands of Chinese women have an operation to restore their hymens, or buy inexpensive artificial hymens that seep artificial blood.

This is an anomaly: more Chinese young people are having premarital sex yet men still expect their wives to be virgins.

China is in a tug of war between its conservative past and the lure of Western-style sexual freedom.

Looking at the trends and how quickly China’s sexual revolution has progressed, I would have to predict that sexual openness and tolerance will increase, and eventually China will shake off the vestiges of the sexual puritanism that prevailed under Mao.

However, for now, sex remains a touchy subject, even in the cities. Sex education, for example, is mandatory but often biology teachers who are supposed to teach it are too squeamish and simply skip to the next chapter. When they do teach this subject, the focus is on biology and anatomy, with little or no reference to contraception or sexual morality, such as the woman’s right to say no.

Here, too, there are signs of improvement in the larger cities, but it is very slow going. Sex remains a taboo subject that most Chinese are not comfortable discussing outside of their bedroom.

Discover more of China’s Sexual Revolution


Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China’s sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

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China’s Sexual Revolution (viewed as single page)

April 27, 2011

The world’s biggest country is going through the world’s largest sexual revolution. From the Internet to corner sex shops, China is changing. However, lost in the mix, millions of single men cannot find a date much less a mate.

Changes are talking place as China goes through the West’s 60s rebellion. Mao’s Little Red Book has been replaced with a black book filled with phone numbers and date info.

Mao’s taboos against capitalism and sex are gone. With these changes comes the dark side—drugs, prostitution, HIV and STDs. Under Mao, sexuality was almost done away with. Everyone wore the same baggy colored clothes. Everyone had the same haircut. Couples that fell in love and were caught were punished. Today, cosmetics, perfume and stylish clothes have replaced Mao’s uniforms.

Millions are learning about romance and love. However, millions of others have been left with sexual, psychological problems and are very ignorant about sex. They were victims of Mao’s Cultural Revolution‘s sexual repression.

According to a 2004 survey, only twenty percent of Chinese men know where to find the clitoris, while fifty percent of Chinese women haven’t had an orgasm. Sexual ignorance and dysfunction is common. Mao’s Cultural Revolution left invisible scars.

China also has a new, popular holiday,Valentine’s Day. On February 14, cupid and roses have become fashionable. Nightclubs hold Valentine’s festivals where couples meet, drug use is common and kissing leads to sex.

Private businesses that cater to romance and sex are flourishing in China. Some shops are a cross between a sexual education center that also sells adult sex toys. In Beijing, there are an estimated five thousand sex shops and business is booming. This industry is worth billions.

When the first graphic sex Blog came online, the server crashed and was down for days. When the government censors shut down a sex Blog, more replace it.

In China today, teen girls are living lives their parents never imagined and do not understand. The teens are very open about what turns them on in a guy. Many do not care what their parents think. They only want to have fun.

Listening to the conversation between this group of Chinese girls sounds like listening to spoiled kids in the US talking.

The teens often go out clubbing and the nightclubs are equal to or better than the best in the West. The nightclub featured in the video has life-sized wall paintings from Cultural Revolution posters while teens dressed in sexy clothes dance and grind to loud music. These changes started in the late 1990s.

Even in China’s rural villages, the sexual revolution has been felt as millions of young women leave the villages to the big cities and experience what the urban Chinese are doing. The first stop is the hair salon.

The media is even climbing on board this sexual revolution. Glitzy magazines, like the Chinese edition of Cosmopolitan, feature the stylish, hot and sexy.

China’s one-child policy, created to control the growth of the population, is complicating the sexual revolution.

By ending the pressure on Chinese women to have many children, this has liberated them to do other things. Now Chinese women have the freedom to get an education and find a paying job.

The one-child policy also created another problem. Since Chinese families have always favored having boys, many women get abortions when the fetus is identified as a female. This has led to a growing imbalance between the number of men and women.

Now, millions of poor men cannot find a mate. With so many poor men unable to find women, gangs and crime have become a problem.

China now has the fastest growing sex industry in the world. A decade ago, there was little prostitution. Today, there are many brothels masquerading as massage parlors. Some are modeled after the brothels in Thailand.

Capitalism has arrived in all its guises, and the same problems the US has with sex slavery and drugs is now a problem for China too.

Most prostitutes are village girls and have no idea about safe sex. This is causing an increase in HIV. Many of the men refuse to wear condoms. Sometimes, when the girl says no, the paying customer will rape her.

The sexual revolution in China is a fragile one. While the new China supports it, the old China is afraid of these changes. Adultery and divorce are on the rise. Kids are leaving home. There is a growing generation gap.

One older Chinese man says that China is not used to this. Under pressure from the older generation, the police must crack down, raid bordellos and arrest prostitutes.

However, now that China’s sexual revolution is in the open, it will be hard to stop. At first, the government tried to stop what was going on but soon backed off. In addition, many parents, who grew up in Mao’s puritanical era, don’t want their children to experience the same repression.

These changes are talking place while women are gaining power and many families now value having female children. Few want to return to the way things were.


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 love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.


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China’s Holistic Historical Timeline