Curious about the ways in which love, sex and relationships manifest themselves in contemporary Chinese society, I met with my friend J in the library café on a cold October evening to discuss boys, relationships and sex; more specifically J’s reasons for hiding her 3 year relationship with her boyfriend from her parents, the lack of sex education in school and gender roles in modern Chinese relationships.
Sex education; why are people embarrassed to talk about sex in China?
For J, the first mention of sex was in her final year of Primary school when her PE teacher set aside an hour to discuss the female reproduction system, preparing the girls for the imminent arrival of their period. Beyond this, J has never received a formal sex education. Instead, she uses online books, articles and videos to educate herself. I asked J why she has never told her parents about her boyfriend; she replied they have never asked her as they are too embarrassed. Why is sex taboo in China? Sex education can prevent against sexually transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancies and empower both young boys and girls to make a more informed decision if they find themselves in a sexually active relationship. During the Cultural Revolution, “normal sexual desire and romantic love were outlawed as ‘bourgeois’”. The Communist Party effectively controlled all sexual behaviour; “Good” sexual behaviour played a part in one’s promotion and homosexuality was illegal, punishable by imprisonment or death. Furthermore, the introduction of 独生子女政策 (China’s one child policy) in 1979 might be interpreted as the separation of sex from pleasure; couples were encouraged to simply reproduce for practical reasons. Without the same exposure and access to the online resources the current Chinese youth have today, this might help to explain the shyness and embarrassment associated with sex when Chinese parents are confronted with it. The taboo even extends to the use of language in talking about sex ; J told me that people would not normally say 性 sex, but instead subtly clap three times, refer to it as the 啪啪啪 (pronounced papapa) or say to do the 滚床单 (to roll around in bed sheets).
Over a period of 9 years, Beijing Normal University tested a series of sex education textbooks aimed at children aged 6-13 covering “reproduction, sexual abuse, gender issues, homosexuality and safer sex.” Following their use in schools, parents posted photos of the books online which has drawn criticism for their “pornographic”, “immoral” and “inappropriate” nature.
Nevertheless, criticism has come up against unswerving support for the textbooks. Li Yinhe 李银河 believed to be China’s first “sexologist”, is a highly influential Gender Studies Sociologist born in Beijing in 1952.  She has stated that “In a sense, parents’ refusal of sex education harms their children … sex education matters to their life and future.” China is no doubt beginning to realise the importance of sex education; whether this movement can spread sufficiently to second cities, towns and villages remains to be seen.
Parental expectations; University 20 – Marriage 25 – Children 28
J started dating aged 18. She went to boarding school in 济南 (Shandong Province) which is a 2/3 hour drive from her hometown. In secondary school, she was attracted to one of her close friends and they soon started dating in secret. 3 years on and whilst the relationship is no longer secret among friends, J is yet to tell her parents. One of the necessities in keeping the relationship undisclosed is because dating in Chinese secondary schools is often frowned upon and in some cases forbidden. In 2011, a school in 四川 Sichuan imposed a rule stating that students found “20 inches of each other would be told off by teachers in the first instance and then given a formal punishment”. It remains that the 高考 (University entrance exam) is the most intense period of a Chinese student’s education. In 1977, “6 million students competed for 220,000 university spots” after reinstating the 高考 following the Cultural Revolution 1966-1976. Hence whilst many parents express concern for their child’s love life, many believe that relationships would interfere with one’s studies so throughout education (usually up until the age of 25) one should stay focused on academia and only after graduation should one find a partner, get married and have children. Yet this gives way to a dating culture that is linear, intense and pressurised.
There is a Chinese saying that goes 宁坐宝马车里哭，不坐自行车上笑 (I’d rather cry in a BMW, than laugh on a bicycle) . In 2010, 20 year-old Ma Nuo, a contestant on TV dating show 非诚勿扰 (If you are the one) rejected a potential suitor after he suggested they go on a romantic bike ride … to which she replied no thanks pal a BMW would be far cooler. After much social media criticism of modern Chinese dating values, the phrase “I’d rather cry in a BMW, than laugh on a bicycle” was thereby coined and now thought by many to represent the motivation and mentality of Chinese youth in seeking a partner. Yet this isn’t always true. In a Youtube video 宝马车里哭自行车上笑你选哪一个？“What would you choose; cry in a BMW or laugh on a bike?”, only around 1/3 of the women interviewed said they would rather cry in a BMW; one justifying such a decision due to it being 务实 (pragmatic). Without previous experience, based on parental advice and societal pressure, some Chinese youth are selecting life partners based on their material wealth as this is said to guarantee financial security and a certain lifestyle.
However J told me that despite her boyfriend’s socio-economic background and financial status, she loves him unconditionally and their shared agreement on values, morals and ethics are what keeps them together. J knows that when she brings her boyfriend home to 见家长 (meet her parents), he will be inundated with a series of questions including; “What do your parents do?”, “What is your salary?”, “Do you own a house and a car?”, “How many people in your family?” “What grades did you score in X,Y,and Z?” J explained that in China, a marriage between two people is more like a marriage between two families. There is less emphasis on individual happiness and satisfaction, and more emphasis on the needs and requirements of the family as a whole. Despite this, and whether changing norms and expectations of the Chinese youth are due to greater influence from the West, a fast-emerging wealthy middle-class in emphasising individual pursuits of happiness, or the contribution of globalisation in providing more information about love, sex and relationships is unclear, but it cannot be refuted that more and more Chinese youth are shunning conventional expectations and choosing happiness over materialistic wealth. For example a group of 剩女 (a term for leftover women i.e. those that have reached late 20s without having married) fought against parental and societal expectations as shown in the video “Marriage Market Takeover” (An extremely powerful message … the video made me cry) and couples are now embracing 裸婚 (naked marriages) which disclude the importance of materialistic wealth (house and car ownership) from a marriage. One couple that have been the subject of much discussion and awe in China is a French exchange student at Fudan University and her Chinese groom, a golf instructor. The Chinese social media reaction included remarks such as, “Foreign girls are more laid-back than Chinese girls. My girlfriend says she won’t marry me until I buy a BMW”.
What role do women play in modern Chinese relationships?
J told me her boyfriend and her are equal in the relationship, but he displays 大男人主义 (chauvinistic) behaviour and considers his role as a boyfriend to protect and support J; he will pay the bill on dates, if she is tired J holds her bag and when walking along the street he will make sure she is walking on the inside away from the road. Nonetheless, J stressed she relentlessly offers to split the bill on dates, she would hold the bag for her boyfriend is he was tired and she interprets his act of walking on the outside of the pavement as him caring deeply about her well being and safety. Traditional expectations of Chinese women included “passive and inactive” behaviour, “maintain one’s virginity” and “not to ask too much for sex and consider men’s satisfaction as one’s own”. J said that men who hold onto these expectations are said to have 直男癌 (straight man cancer) and are fiercely criticised by many Chinese youths who strive for gender equality in relationships. Like many countries both developed and developing around the world, China has a long way to go before the longstanding Confucian values (which assume women are inferior to men) are squashed and gender equality can be achieved. However, “in 2005, 6.72% of men and 5.63% of women received post-secondary education in China” and in 2016 the first law on domestic violence was passed which “legally defines domestic violence and extends legal protection to victims”.
In general, my Western friends are a lot more sexually liberal than my Chinese friends. In the UK, sex education is compulsory from year 7 onwards (age 11/12), early teens are exposed to popular TV series such as Skins and the Inbetweeners which confront and, to an extent, glamorise teen sex lives whilst there are even documentaries entirely devoted to teen sex lives, notably “The joys of teen sex” by Channel 4. However despite their shyness in talking about sex, Chinese youths are having sex at an earlier age than before. A study by Peking University showed “the average age for first time sex in China was 22.2 years for those born after 1980, dropping to 17.7 years for those born after 1995”. Furthermore TV shows such as Chinese “Sex and the city” are tackling expectations of virginity and sexism head on. Perhaps what we are beginning to see is the start of a “Chinese sexual revolution”; China is slowly starting to lay the groundwork in becoming a society that feels comfortable in talking about love, sex and relationships. As attitudes towards sexuality align more with those of the West, China is accumulating all of the building blocks to eradicate gender inequality, educate youths on sex and maybe even relieve marital pressure on young people.
This post was first published on Olivia Halsall’s blog The 66 Hands, a project that seeks to understand China through interviews with 33 anonymous PRC citizens from all walks of life.