A Look at “Behind the Red Door: Sex in China”

China is in the midst of a sexual revolution. Before you conjure up images of the countercultural movement that swept the west half a century ago, clarification is needed: China is in the midst of a sexual revolution with Chinese characteristics. As such, trying to understand this revolution through a lens stained by western culture, history and sexual mores will lead only to confusion. In his book Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, Richard Burger cuts a clear path through the long history of sex in China, surveying the ever-fluctuating societal view of sex on a quest to explain today’s revolution.

Richard is the author of the long-lived Peking Duck blog, which he began in 2002. “I never meant for anybody to read it,” he told CDT in a recent interview. As the SARS outbreak began to gather international attention in 2003, so did Richard’s blog. “I was overwhelmed with what I saw, I couldn’t believe a country’s leaders would lie to its people saying there was no SARS in Beijing. I began to write about that nonstop.” The reflections he’s recorded on his ten-plus year blogroll have made him a trusted scribe – with 3.5 million collective visitors, The Peking Duck attracts about 600 unique hits each day. The blog continues to analyze China and all of its contradictions, and has long been a popular virtual discussion space for China experts and the casually curious alike. “I try to see china in a tolerant way, and not simply write the country off as bad, in spite of all the negative material the Chinese Communist Party gives me to work with.”

From unprecedented sexual openness and licensed prostitution under the Tang dynasty, to party-promoted androgyny and fear of homosexuality under Mao, to the 13-million estimated annual abortions under the CCP’s one-child policy, the state is as recurring a character in the book as are prostitutes, sexologists, sex toy peddlers and concubines. “While the government has done its part to encourage this revolution – for example encouraging sex help hotlines in Shanghai – the state still draws the line in the sand, and the censors are very aggressive as to what they deem ‘spiritual pollution’.” But the state is not the only entity lending to the obscurity of today’s revolution.

The book could be edifying and enjoyable to both the seasoned China-hand and the relaxed reader. After Richard set on this task at the request of Earnshaw Books, he quickly realized that there was no mainstream book offering a panoramic history of China from ancient times to today that could be read by people who weren’t scholars and professors. “I wanted a book that could be read by anybody, but would at the same time be detailed, and hopefully, insightful.”

Behind the Red Door hasn’t been translated into Chinese, and according to the author likely won’t see that rendering: “The problem is, it’s quite critical of the government, and it’s quite sexually graphic at times. I won’t be holding my breath.” While Richard said that he’s sent the book to mainland-based Chinese bloggers, who offered positive feedback, the candid material in the book, the language in which it’s written, and its framing – with the sexual revolution of the western world constantly serving as a point of contrast – seem intent on limiting the work to an English-speaking audience.

“No society has swung more dramatically from extreme sexual openness to prudish orthodoxy and then to the sexually ambiguous atmosphere we see at present,” writes Richard in the book’s introduction. Drawing from the extensive existing body of scholastic work to cover the obscure – for example, an academic study of the sex lives of “sent down youth” during the cultural revolution, the book also examines the current zeitgeist by citing coverage from the mainstream and state-owned press – a realm that Richard is very familiar with after years covering the country on his blog. Interviews conducted either by Richard or by publisher-hired researchers are scattered liberally, lending a practical credence and enhancing the book’s readability.

Each of seven chapters tackles a specific issue that lends to the current and confusing sexual revolution. The book closes with the author’s parting thoughts, as he strives to make sense of sexuality in China today, and tries at the tortuous task of predicting where it will be tomorrow.

“The final chapter was torture to write. One point that I am trying to make is that, even though there is undoubtedly a sexual revolution occurring, it is not necessarily liberating. This is a very different revolution than was seen in the West,” Richard remarked in our interview.  “Whether this will lead to greater personal freedoms and self expression, acceptance of the human body, I can’t predict that. The best I can say is that, based on the trajectory of other countries that have experienced a sexual revolution, China will slowly but surely continue to open up sexually. But, they’ve still a long way to go, and you never know what might happen in the meantime.”

For more on Behind the Red Door, see reviews from Salon, The Independent, Global Times and Shanghai City Weekend. To hear the author talking about homosexuality in China, see a podcast he put together on the subject. Also, head over to Danwei.com to read a “Sex in China Q&A” with Richard Burger.

And of course, follow Richard’s musings on contemporary China at his blog The Peking Duck, and join in on the discussion.

Also see CDT coverage of some of the topics that contribute to China’s “sexually ambiguous atmosphere”: homosexuality and gay rights, birth control, sex educationSTDs and HIV/AIDS, sex bloggers, prostitution, marriage, sex scandals, family planning, and the sex industry, to name a few.


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