Category Archives: Chinese

Sex Education: Self-education

It is impossible for most young women in China to talk to their parents about sex and reproduction: “do you want to tell me about sex?” a woman from Tianjin asked her parents at age 13. They threw the question right back: “do you want us to tell you about sex?” The conversation ended there, and she had to work out the rest for herself. Chinese parents are too shy to discuss the issue with their daughters. So how do Chinese women learn about sex?

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Chinese young women conduct their own sexual education to increase agency and enable personal choices

“My parents told me they found me in the street”, said Elena Cui. Another woman’s parents still maintain that they found her “in the garbage can”. Some were told “fairytale stories” about where babies come from: her parents met, fell in love, and then there was a baby. None were told the truth at any stage, and most still haven’t discussed sex or reproduction with their parents.

Amy Ma spent much of her young life confused about sex. Her parents would reach over to cover her eyes during kissing and sex scenes in romantic movies, a physical act embodying the whole family’s mutual embarrassment. Amy is one of many girls whose parents would chidingly remind their daughters not to do what they saw on screen throughout childhood. But horrifying rape scenes in war movies went uncensored at home and in school, so Amy grew up wondering why rape seemed okay if consensual sex wasn’t.

Mothers advise girls not to “do things” with boys because “it” is bad — very bad — for girls. Daughters are left to connect the dots between emotions and sex, then sex and pregnancy — links that are never stated, only implied in highly coded language. Girls are expected to understand through guesswork and implication that an unplanned pregnancy (ie. outside wedlock) would be the end of their education and careers — careers that the whole family is anticipating and working towards.

After learning how to put a condom on a banana, Elena texted her boyfriend to show off: “do you know how to use a condom?” 

Contrary to (mainly western) feminist paradigms, for Chinese women the advent of birth control is not automatically synonymous with “freedom”. Within the collective cultural memory, family planning holds the cultural weight of painful state control, as legislation to reduce family sizes in the early Maoist period was enforced through forceful means. Rather than the spectrum of possibilities opened up by various kinds of contraception, without sexual education, only a few huge choices are made apparent: choose to have a non-sexual relationship; choose not to have a relationship at all; or, risk pregnancy and (commonly) the secret abortion that would result from it. Only a curious few will make the leap to a fourth choice: contraception.

Chinese women learn about contraception
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Parents are willing to put in only minimal effort to educate their children, often neglecting opportunities due to embarrassment about the subject matter. The woman from Tianjin remembers finding condoms under her parent’s pillow when she shared their bed in the nineties, and blowing them up like balloons, much to her parent’s humiliation. They never explained what the condoms were for: she put two and two together from the images on the box.

Parents sidestep the what and how questions of sex, and schools follow suit, ignoring young peoples’ educational and sexual needs and desires to the point of danger. Undergraduate Grace Zhu told me that several girls at her middle and high schools got pregnant at age 15 or 16. Students in Grace’s school had never been given any sexual education beyond learning about genitalia and menstruation from pictures in textbooks. She had no idea contraception even existed until attending university. Grace’s sexually active classmates could not tell their teachers or parents, and rarely told their friends until after a pregnancy had been terminated. They’d go to abortion clinics alone or with their boyfriends, having raised the money to pay for it by asking school friends for cash, and then take time off school by pretending to have flu. For Grace, these stories were a warning for her to be careful.

“Privacy is a luxury. I am being responsible with my body, I want to know that I am okay, so why am I being judged?”

Women in China are working to empower themselves and one another, even if their parents and teachers are not. Elena Cui, a graduate student in Beijing, often travels to visit her boyfriend who studies in Nanjing. Before she travels, her mother will offer up a warning. “She doesn’t tell me about sex, she doesn’t say ‘you can’t have sex with your boyfriend’, she just says ‘you can’t, it’s not good for the girl’.”

Elena feels her mother is hiding something, because she repeats this vaguely threatening aphorism regularly. Elena does her own research online, and as a result she now believes that having sex is human nature, and nothing to be shy or ashamed of talking about. She talks about it with her boyfriend. Elena was surprised that her roommate (another graduate student) had never heard of condoms or other forms of contraception before the pair attended a potentially one of a kind women’s health seminar. After the meeting, in which she learned how to put a condom on a banana, Elena texted her boyfriend to show off about her newly acquired skill: “do you know how to use a condom?” she asked him.

One woman who studied abroad in the US felt reassured by the friendly staff and safe environment when she got a free STD test there. She didn’t have to make an appointment, and received her results by text message. She couldn’t believe the contrast with sexual healthcare in China. Having got an appointment with gynaecologist at a reputable Beijing hospital, she was told, “we don’t do that test here”. Reproductive health services are commonly provided only to married women; single women are not expected to be sexually active. Women often find that taking action to maintain reproductive health places them in situations in which they feel their agency is restricted or undermined.

Women have to make choices about contraception
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“Privacy is a luxury,” she says. “I am being responsible with my body, I want to know that I am okay, so why am I being judged?” In a hospital that does make sexual health checks available, she queued for several hours on two separate occasions, even after making an appointment. Once inside, she felt forced into what she calls “social pariah” territory, by sharing a waiting area with patients with infectious diseases. During her examination, other doctors and patients walked freely in and out of the consultation room, while still more patients peered around the door as they waited in line. A self-described “tough girl”, she doesn’t feel shame in seeking the healthcare she needs. But this kind of treatment would prevent the softer hearted from accessing reproductive healthcare.

“I didn’t know anything about sex before I came to university,” Jodie Mai tells me. “But I have done a lot of research, watched a lot of informational videos online, and talked to my roommates about it. Most of the time we make jokes about sex, with girls and with boys, but sometimes my roommates and I have long, serious conversations about sex and boys. They’ve helped me learn everything I need to know about sex. So now, I still don’t want to have sex before marriage, but I know that it is my choice.” There is little reason to assume that institutions are changing in regard to providing sexual health education and services. But, young women are definitely asking the questions, and some of them seem to be finding answers.

My numerous conversations with young Chinese women gave a clear picture, that most Chinese women in their late teens and twenties have never received a comprehensive sexual education from parents or teachers. Without this, young women find making decisions about sexual relationships at the most granular level is still like moving boulders.

They told me that schooling around sexual education was sparse for those born in the late eighties and nineties. Their teachers refused to discuss sex, sometimes giving students as little as five minutes to memorise scientific terms from textbook diagrams of genitalia. Reproduction was a scientific subject, far removed from real women’s bodies.

For many, the teacher’s embarrassment effectively locked students’ curiosity out of the classroom. They had to find the practical information they were really interested in via other means. Most turned to the internet as teenagers, most often finding pornography and unfiltered information on Baidu pages, but sometimes finding Youku videos presenting accurate information for this specific purpose. Some learned from their parents’ sexual habits, studying the adults’ pornography stashes and connecting the dots with what they heard and saw when sharing a bedroom with their parents early in life.

“Most of the time we make jokes about sex, with girls and with boys, but sometimes my roommates and I have long, serious conversations about sex and boys. They’ve helped me learn everything I need to know about sex.”

One woman I spoke to remembered waking up to find her parents watching porn, and later repeatedly telling them she wanted to watch “that thing” she wasn’t allowed to watch. By taking charge of their curiosity, these women have gone beyond their formal education to explore their questions about sex, relationships, contraception and their bodies. These women say they feel freer to make choices that reflect their personal values and desires. Getting past the stigma to learn about sex can be a life-changing experience for women to increase their individual agency.

Read on

Sexuality, Contraception and Challenging the Patriarchy: Lijia Zhang (Interview)

Lijia Zhang on Gender, China’s Sexual Revolution and Prostitution in Contemporary China (Interview)

Sell-by-date: Fertility and F**kability

Closer Look: Jin Xing, China’s first transgender woman 

Series: Dating in China [Part 5]

Gender Equality in China (Interview)

Can Rape Jokes Ever Be Funny? 

Hedonism, Reproductive Health, and Fighting Repatriation: Lijia Zhang on her Debut Novel Lotus (Interview: Part 3)





Closer Look: Jin Xing, China’s first transgender woman

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I was born in China. It is in China I must be reborn as a woman.

Jin Xing was the first transgender person to undergo sex reassignment surgery in China with government approval, and the first whose sex change was officially recognized by the Chinese government.

As a boy, Jin had an affinity for dancing and soon became a ballet dancer. At nine, Jin began performing in a prestigious troupe that was part of the People’s Liberation Army – ballet has long been considered a valuable propaganda tool – and serving as a soldier. By the age of 17 Jin was the number one male dancer in China, and had risen through the ranks to become a sergeant.

At the age of 19, she started set off to start from scratch as a dancer in New York. Jin, a major celebrity in China, was nobody in New York in the nineties. But that didn’t stop her. She studied modern dance with Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and Jose Limon. News of her successes in New York reached Beijing, and she was promoted to colonel even though she was not serving. Her career took her to Rome, where she learned Italian, and she toured Europe before deciding that sex reassignment was the right thing for her.

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Jin Xing training as a PLA solder, age 9 | image from hollywoodreporter


When I was six years old, I thought I should be a woman. I myself knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what was wrong or what was mistaken.



 

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Jin Xing in New York in the 1990s | image from hollywoodreporter

During her years in New York, Jin began to explore gender and sexuality. She considered the possibility she was homosexual. But at that time, homosexuality was still illegal in China, and considered a mental disorder. Similarly, very few Chinese people had undergone any kind of sex reassignment and none had been recognised by the state. This was a new idea to Jin, but America had opened her eyes to new things:



I discovered words — transsexual, transgender. I said, ‘OK, I belong to that small island.’ Then I started researching.



Jin underwent three surgeries in 1995, aged 28. She emerged from the last surgery, which lasted 16 hours, to tell her father: “Your son has become your daughter.” In reply, he told Jin: “Twenty years ago, I looked at you and wondered, I have a son but he looks like a girl. So 28 years later, you’ve found yourself. Congratulations.”

Since her sex change, Jin has started a dance company in Shanghai, adopted three children, married, and begun presenting her own hugely popular television talk show, The Jin Xing Show, on the basis which she had gained the nickname “Poison Tongue”. She’s often billed as the Chinese Oprah. But she is so much more than that.

With her celebrity status, Jin Xing has brought attention to LGBTQ+ issues and the difficulties faced by the LGBTQ+ community, who struggle against social stigma and legal discrimination. She is loved as a beacon of hope by young people across China.



I don’t want to change the world… I just want to be myself.



Read on

Meet the Oprah of China, Who Happens to Be Transgender, THR

Jin Xing: China’s sex-change pioneer, CNN

Behind the Spotlights of Transgender China, Whats On Weibo

Looking Back

Reading this in China? View Narrate China on youku

“It was a very peaceful place… and up ahead, we hear this blood curdling scream”. When he met a traveller on the way to Huangshan (Yellow Mountain), Tom accidentally got more than he bargained for.

In this video, Tom thinks back on an old story from his early days in China as he packs up to leave after living in China for eleven years.

Read on:

Learn more about Narrate China

LGBTQ+ in China: a quick introduction

In China, the LGBTQ+ community face severe discrimination. Many LGBTQ+ people’s families and communities refuse to accept their sexuality or gender identity, and therefore find themselves in compromising situations like ‘fake’ marriages to fulfil their filial duty. Homosexuality was considered a mental disorder until 2001, and some private Chinese clinics still offer ‘electroshock’ gay conversion therapy.

Thankfully, there are many people speaking and acting out against such discrimination. In Beijing, the LGBTQ+ community are a strong driving force behind the feminist movement. We’re incredibly privileged to know women like Iron, who runs Beijing’s LGBT Centre, and Li Maizi who spoke in London last week. There are feminists across the country speaking out about everything from Trump to censorship, and campaigning non-stop when the two coincide.

Kick-start your understanding of China’s LGBTQ+ community with this informative video from Out China:

 

So, here’s to our LGBTQ+ friends in China and worldwide. May this be the beginning of a long alliance.

China’s International Women’s Day in Pictures

A quick rundown of how International Women’s Day looked from the perspective of women in China – in pictures.

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Chinese news outlet Global Times provided a timely reminder of International Men’s Day | image from: twitter 

Global Times, a daily newspaper owned and published by the state-affiliated People’s Daily, decided International Women’s Day (known as Women’s Day in China), was an appropriate time to remind readers of International Men’s Day. Apparently, Global Times thought Men’s Day seemed a more effective “time to celebrate our achievements and fight against discrimination” than Women’s Day. Here’s looking forward to November 19th to see how they do so.

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Chinese search engine Baidu’s IWD doodle | image from baidu

Chinese search engine, Baidu, went for a celebratory angle this year, promoting restaurant, cinema and shopping deals for women on their special day. The image is a distinct improvement on the controversial doodle of 2015, going for a “modern women can have it all” feel.

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Google’s dynamic International Women’s Day doodle | image from: google 

In comparison, Google’s doodle was diverse and dynamic, including representations of a variety of influential women, and stressing the importance of intergenerational relationships – every women pictured (whether or not she had children in life) was shown sharing her experiences with a young girl.

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Demonstrators in NYC showed their support for Feminist Voices © Jun Chen

Demonstrators around the world showed their support for Feminist Voices, the Chinese women’s rights organisation whose social media accounts were temporarily blocked on 20th February for criticising Donald Trump’s misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic and racist policies. The overlaid green text is a reminder that the account has been forcibly inactive for 20 days so far (the total given was 30 days).

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Feminist activist Li Maizi spoke in London this week © Li Maizi 

Chinese feminist activist, Li Maizi (or Li Tingting), spoke at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), in London this week:

Marking two years since her arrest by Chinese authorities, activist Li Maizi of China’s ‘Feminist Five’ is joined at SOAS by a panel of experts to share her activism experience, and discuss the current state and future of feminism in mainland China. Unprecedented in the UK, this is a chance to hear from one of the PRC’s leading activists and one of the most inspirational figures in global feminist and LGBTQIA+ networks.

from: zhuanlan

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Storytelling was just one of a myriad of Beijing events that recognised International Women’s Day © Cas Sutherland

Meanwhile, in Beijing, feminists, women, members of the LGBTQ community and their allies celebrated in a variety of ways, meeting in solidarity to show continued support for the cause.

 

Sexuality, Contraception and Challenging the Patriarchy: Lijia Zhang on her debut novel Lotus (Interview: part 2)

Inspired by her grandmother’s deathbed confession of being sold to a brothel, Lijia Zhang injects her cutting social criticism into her first novel, Lotus. The book delves deep into the sex industry in contemporary Shenzhen, following a young migrant woman, Lotus, who is eager to escape her life as a prostitute.

 



China is going through a sexual revolution. If her husband cannot satisfy her, a woman can divorce him. These women will not stand for second best, because they don’t have to any more.



I spoke with Lijia Zhang in December 2016, just weeks before the publication of her long-awaited first novel, Lotus. In part one of this interview, we discussed her personal reasons for telling this unparalleled story, how she learned to relate to Chinese sex workers, and how her own struggle for self-improvement informed her character, Lotus.

Here, in part two, we talked about how women are faring in China’s sexual revolution, Chinese attitudes toward contraception and reproductive health, and the lengths some women go to in the fight against the patriarchy.

 

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Author Lijia Zhang © Li Qiang

Lotus struggles to align sexual desire and social norms. She’s learned that good women shouldn’t enjoy sex, yet earning money involves trying harder to please clients. How are attitudes towards women’s sexuality changing? 

I met a woman who was very empowered by earning money, and by her relative liberation since becoming a sex worker. People don’t get into the trade for sexual pleasure, but some women do find sexual pleasure with clients, which they hadn’t experienced with their husbands.

China is going through a sexual revolution. Studies show that a much higher number of people are having sex before marriage than previously. In sociologist Li Yinhe’s 1989 study, 85% of people claimed they had no sexual experience before marriage. Among the 15% who did have sexual experience, some of them were already engaged, which means by Chinese standards that they are already a couple. (According to The Report on the Health of Chinese People’s Sex Life, jointly released by Media Survey Lab and Insight China magazine, 71.4% of people were sexually active before marriage in 2012.)

There are more prostitutes, more pornography, more young people having sex before marriage, a higher rate of divorce, and now people have many different sexual partners. If her husband cannot satisfy her, a woman can divorce him. These women will not stand for second best, because they don’t have to any more.

Another woman I met felt very conflicted about one of her clients. An older colleague with more experience told her to just imagine, “The clients give us sexual pleasure and money. We use them for a service – not them using us.” She called clients dogs. She joked that a perfect job would be something that would give her both sexual pleasure and money. But she also craves respect.

Having a mistress (Ernai, or second wife) is a very common way for a man to show his money and status. This started with the Emperor and noblemen, who would have many concubines. Maoist reforms in the 50s changed that, even though Mao himself was doing all sorts of things with young women behind closed doors, disobeying his own rules. For some time prostitution was very uncommon in China but the rates are high again. Now, men have mistresses to prove they have a lot of money and a high status. Ernais are just glorified prostitutes. The relationship between a man and his Ernai is primarily about money and economic status, not love.



Abortion is not considered a danger to society. It is just a common form of birth control, and people rely on access to abortion. Most people don’t think a foetus is a human being, so it is not a problem.



Lotus accompanies her friend Mimi to an abortion clinic, where she listens to her friend’s screams from the waiting room after Mimi’s boyfriend disappears. Although this is an emotive scene, abortions are very common in China with about 16 million abortions are performed annually. Is abortion viewed as a social or political problem in China?

Abortion is quite a normal thing in China. I’ve had an abortion, my sister has had several abortions, and my mother had abortions. There is no social stigma because Chinese women don’t carry the same emotional or religious baggage about abortion as people in the West. It is not considered a danger to society. It is just a common form of birth control, and people rely on access to abortion. Women don’t get counseling after abortions like in the UK. Most people don’t think a foetus is a human being, so it is not a problem.

It is very easy to get an abortion, but it is not always safe. There are many hospitals and clinics that women can go to. There are adverts in the back seats of cabs: “quick and easy treatment at such and such a clinic.” Some women go to get very cheap backstreet abortions, and it can be very dangerous. They go to places without proper licenses and get a razor treatment or something like that and it is very harmful.

Most women don’t know about other types of contraception. The information is not really available. So they just use abortions as contraception. I think this is changing, if slowly, and more women are learning about other ways to prevent pregnancy.

What is the worst thing about the state of women’s rights in China today?

There are a lot of problems for women in China. Women still have much less power than men, and lower social standing but the wage gap is probably the worst thing. The latest official statistics suggest that the income for urban women is 67.3% of men’s income while women in the countryside make only 56% of what men make. But many women are empowered by being able to earn money. There was one sex worker I met who bought a flat for herself and her mother to live in, in a city near her village. I think moving to the city is the best possible outcome that villagers hope for.

Did you hear stories about women fighting back against patriarchy while you were researching the novel?

I know a woman who was with a client who wanted a blow job. He had not given her enough money, so she said no. He told her “stop pretending you are a noblewoman, you are a common prostitute,” but she still refused to take less money. He said, “fuck your mother”, and she replied, “leave my mother out of it.” Again, he said “fuck your mother”, so she picked up a heavy glass ashtray and she hit him in the face with it. She lost her job for that, and she lost a few thousand kuai on the deposit she had paid the massage parlour she worked at as a guarantee she would not run away. But a friend helped her get a job at a higher-class establishment instead.

I know another woman who ultimately wanted to get out of the trade. She made a deal with herself that she would get out if she could earn 10,000 kuai. So she earned 10,000 and she said, 20,000 and I will leave. When she reached 20,000 she said to herself, “now I have to save up to buy a home.” When she had bought her home she still did not give up the trade. Then she learned about the dangers of unprotected sex: she got very worried that she had contracted HIV because she had had unprotected sex. She realised she could have died by now. So she went for a test. Back then the results would be really slow, she had to wait several weeks. While she was waiting for the results, she made a deal with herself. She decided if she got through this without HIV, she would really quit the trade. Her results came back clean, so she quit.

 

Read on

Identity, Breast Implants, and Wanting More from Life: Lijia Zhang on her Debut Novel Lotus (Part I) ZhendeGender

Hedonism, Reproductive Health, and Fighting Repatriation: Lijia Zhang on her Debut Novel Lotus (Part III) ZhendeGender