China’s Other Billion: Sex and the Country

Following is the latest installment in a series of posts by journalist Rachel Beitarie*, who will be sharing with us dispatches from her journey across rural China. In this post, Rachel gives a sampling of rural attitudes toward sex, in comments made to her by people she has met along her journey. (Read previous installments of the travelogue here.)

Sex and the country

Open talk about sex and all that surrounds it is still very much a taboo in many parts of China. Being foreign, an outsider, someone not familiar with the social rules and not staying for very long., I discovered that people sometime are willing – at times even eager –  to relate things to me that they wouldn’t discuss with members of their own communities. These are often things I don’t really care to know. Here are some of the stories. Names and locations are not disclosed in order to protect people’s privacy.

The Playboy

He works as a hiking guide in and around his native village of minority people in Southwest China. The following monologue wasn’t really given as such but is re-composed from fragments of several different conversations we had. The words are all his.

“My first was a foreigner who was visiting here. I took here for a walk among the rice fields – there were still many rice fields at the time, now people here mainly grow corn, which is easier to grow. Most of the people who still work the fields here are old – and she thought it was romantic.

We never talked about sex at home or in school, it was only whispered among the boys; the older boys always talked about boobs and how they touched them but I think most of them were virgins when they married. I was 24 when I met that foreign girl. Now I am 32. My mother really wants me to get married and so do my older brothers. They are constantly trying to introduce girls to me, always girls from our minority group, always younger, very innocent. My mother wants me to find a girl from the village but my brother is looking in the nearby town. As for myself, I don’t really feel I want to get married yet.. Some day soon I will want kids and then yes, I think I’ll marry a girl from this area because she will understand me. Until then, it’s nice to meet girls who come here as tourists. The Han Chinese, usually university students, are curious about our habits. I think they also see sex with a minority man as an interesting experience. I don’t mind that. They are usually very cute.

The village prostitute

She lives with her two kids in a lonely wooden house between two villages and very close to the local school. The teachers at school whisper about her, that she is a bad woman. Sometimes at night, they say, men would come to her house where she’d accept them in a small log cabin in her back yard. She seemed happy to talk, though not about what she does. Probably, she doesn’t get much company or chance to talk to her neighbors. The women throw her looks of contempt whenever they chance to meet her. The men, she says, especially those that come to visit, wouldn’t talk to her. Boys from the nearby school regularly tease her two sons, throwing the mother’s ordeal in their faces.

She is vague about how she started trading sex for a means of survival or about who initiated the first deal. She is married to a man from a village that is just a few minutes walk from her house, across a small stream. They had a house in the village once, where they lived meagerly if not unhappily. When the house caught fire a few years ago trouble begun. Her husband suffered bad burns and needed hospitalization for which hefty fees needed to be paid. Savings ran out and she needed to generate some income. After the man was released from the hospital they built this house together, feeling they were no longer welcomed within the community. He now stays at home most of the time, unable or unwilling to do much work. She tends to the fields and the children by day, earning their school fees at night. A female teacher at the school thinks I did wrong in talking to her. “I wish she would leave. It’s inappropriate that she lives so close to the school. I’m afraid some students plan to visit her or maybe they already did. This is really distasteful”.

The Husband

“Tell me: in your country, is it legal to marry two women”?

-No it isn’t

“I think it should be. I think in China they should make it legal again. It’s better for the house and field if two women are working together, and it’s less boring for the man.”

The Boss

Less than two minutes into our introduction, his hand goes up my thigh, but once we’ve clarified some ground rules, we continue to a rather interesting conversation. He is the son of farmers who started out by buying a second-hand car in a nearby city and hiring himself out as a driver to whomever needed one. From this modest beginning he quickly ascended the social ladder to become a successful businessman trading in “local products” (I’m not sure what that means). His ancestor’s home in the country is now newly furnished and used to entertain the party secretary and other VIP’s. The lord of the house spends most of his time in another home in the city, or traveling for business while the ancestors themselves, long since dead, were granted a fabulous burial ground on a hillside and ostentatious tombstones. He donates to his old community – most of which are still poor farmers – and is known as “Da Loaban” or big boss, throughout the area. After we’ve talked for a while he profusely apologizes again for the grabbing. “I am just so used to it. This is what I always do with women. I should have known with foreigners it’s different.”

The Single Mother

Her boy is seven years old and taller than all of his friends. His father was from the Northeast, an employee of the power company who spent a few months near her village. She was well over thirty when they met but somehow never got around to marriage, or even to sex. “I knew I could get pregnant, I’m not stupid. Actually I bought some condoms for him when we started dating but he wouldn’t put them on and I just thought it could be a good thing. If I got pregnant, we could just get married.”

They did not. When told about the pregnancy, the father left. She lives with her parents and several brothers and sisters in a big country house divided to separate units for privacy, and supports her child by driving a van. The father of the child calls occasionally. “I still think it was a good thing though”, she says. “This boy is tough to raise but he’s tall and strong and smarter than all the other kids.”

*Rachel’s self-introduction:

I came to China for three months, with a plan to see a bit of Tibet and Sichuan and to get a taste of rural life in this country before I settled down back home with a job at a law firm. Nearly eight years later, I am still in China, and still as fascinated with its rural areas.

After working as a correspondent in Beijing for two years, in July 2010 I have embarked on what I hope will be a six month journey through the Chinese countryside — listening, watching and telling stories from farmers’ lives. Much has been and is still being written about the “Chinese miracle” (or dystopia, depends on your point of view) and this will only be my added two cents. China, it is often said, has more than 400 million Internet users and hundreds of millions of new urban residents, who are changing the face of the country. It is less often noted that China also has another billion people who have not yet been fully included in these new economic and social changes. The following, if you will, are some fragments from the story of the other billion.

My personal blog is Bendilaowai.

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