No sex please, we're Chinese


The 69 year-old Liu Dalin does not appear like the type of person who would lead a sexual revolution. However, this soft-spoken, bespectacled academic is heading a campaign to teach his fellow Chinese that sex is not a dirty word. So far, it's been an uphill battle.

Liu first became famous in 1992 following the publication of his landmark Sexual Behaviour in Modern China, ignoring the advice of colleagues who warned that the topic was too sensitive. The study of the sexual attitudes of 20,000 Chinese revealed some interesting facts of life. One in three women reported that they had never had an orgasm. While the study discovered that 25 percent of men and 20 percent of women had premarital sex, disproving the myth of Chinese chastity, it did prove that the Chinese were modest: only 13 percent of married couples said they ever made love naked. Liu, dubbed by Time magazine the Kinsey of China, went on to write more than 70 books, establishing himself as one of the most eminent experts on sex in the country.

The scholar, who retired as a lecturer at Shanghai University in 1993, began studying journalism in 1949 at Yanjing University, but his studies were interrupted two years later when he enlisted in the People's Liberation Army. After 20 years in the military and a 12-year stint in a factory, Liu was conferred a belated degree in 1982, and took a job editing a sociology journal at Shanghai University. Research related to his job led Liu to focus on marriage and family life, which in turn encouraged him to study sexual relations.

Realizing the importance of erotic art and ancient sex paraphernalia for understanding Chinese attitudes toward sex, Liu began building up his own small collection, which he tucked away at home. "I discovered that a lot of Chinese attitudes are influenced by tradition, and that to better understand the present, I would need to better understand the past," he explains. "There are many things that we can learn from our ancestors."

Liu laments the fact that many fine pieces of erotic art were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and during anti-pornography campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s. "Anti-pornography should be carried out, but some officials are not very cultured," says Liu. "They don't know what's pornography and what's art. This is frightening." The substantial collection traveled to six cities around Europe and Asia in 1995 and 1996 before finding its first public home in Shanghai in August 1999, The Museum on Chinese Sex Culture, a joint venture between Liu and the New World Department Store.

"The purpose of opening the museum was to help Chinese understand the role sex has played in traditional society," explains Liu. "I wanted to clear away the mystery and prejudice surrounding sex in China today and to help Chinese understand more about themselves."

It didn't come as much of a shock that China's first sex museum was forced to close its doors in April, after being in business for just two years. The surprise was that The Museum on Chinese Sex Culture ever managed to exist at all.

The enterprise appeared to be doomed from the start. Management of the building refused permission for a sign outside the museum, citing government regulations prohibiting the use of the word 'sex' in advertising. Located on the eighth floor in a building located in an alley off Nanjing East Road, few people found the signless museum.

"We had a good reaction from visitors," Liu laments, "but few people knew about us, or where we were."

Ever creative, he opted for a sign in an adjacent department store reading "Exhibition of Chinese Reproductive Culture." Two days later management caught on, and he was forced to take the sign down. Two girls were hired to stand on Nanjing Road handing out brochures, but the second day they were stopped by police, allegedly for littering.

"The law prohibits advertisements for sex products, but we are not a product," argues Liu. "We are a cultural institution."

Pointing to the existence of some 2,000 shops in Shanghai selling sex aids, Liu complained in an interview with the Shanghai Star newspaper about his dilemma. "I don't understand why they make such a fuss over one word," he said."There are more urgent things for them to do."

China was not always so sexually conservative, says Liu, explaining that the country was quite open about sex right up until the Tang dynasty. Liu points out that in the early years of Communist rule a lot of progress was made in improving the marriage system and bringing about equality between the sexes. However, by the time of the Cultural Revolution, the party became prudish, with Chinese opting for drab and baggy unisex clothes.

"Individuals were encouraged to be selfless and to work for the revolution and not their own happiness," explains Liu. "Anyone caught indulging in personal enjoyment could be criticized, and even sexual pleasure was restricted."

A cursory glance at the objects on show suggests Liu is correct is saying that Chinese society was more open in ancient times. Works dating back 2,000 years explain techniques for refined sexual intercourse, including the "nine principles of shallowness and one principle of deepness."

Liu points out that during the Eastern Han Dynasty (15-220 A.D), sex education was provided for the children of wealthy families, while ordinary families conducted this mostly "by way of suggestion."

He describes a type of porcelain euphemistically called the "trunk bottom." The piece was usually in the shape of a piece of fruit, boat, or child, and was hidden at the bottom of a girl's dowry trunk. The item has two parts, and when the top is lifted, two naked figures are revealed having sexual intercourse. When a girl was to get married, the mother would take the item and show it to her daughter, suggesting what a husband and wife should do. Serving the same purpose, dowry scrolls depicting colorful, cartoon-type characters trying different positions for intercourse, were placed among the pieces of dowry for the daughter. The newlyweds would hang it on bed curtains and act out the drawings on their wedding night.

Ancient Chinese culture held that evil spirits were afraid of coitus, and sexual objects came to be used as talismans. "Bihuo tu," or "drawings to repel fire," depicting scenes of sexual intercourse, were likewise placed on the roofs of houses to scare away the fire god.

No object is considered too small for display. There are tiny ivory combs used by prostitutes to comb pubic hair, and a porcelain jar decorated with the amorous Lu Dongbin, the patron saint of prostitutes, as well as an ancient chastity belt. Also on display are thick wooden sticks used for punishing prostitutes in brothels, and a 12th century seal used to establish the chastity of girls chosen for the imperial palace: once a girl's virginity was established, the seal was stamped on the her buttocks. Small copper coins for use in brothels were given to prostitutes to keep them from saving money to run away.

There are also several naughty pieces. A 17th century porcelain basin shows a man lifting a woman's gown, while a scroll portrays a beautiful naked demon attempting to seduce a monk. A statue of the rotund Laughing Buddha is turned on its side, revealing a man and woman having sex on the normally unseen bottom. An amusing fan shows an innocent painting of a man and woman together in a garden; when it's partially closed, they are caught engaging in a sexual act.

The exhibit on "unusual" sex includes a vase painted with gays "in secret activities," a teapot emblazoned with "two lesbians embracing," and a painting of a woman masturbating.

Using his own savings Liu reopened the museum on June 18 at a new location, with two floors and plenty of window space to attract the attention of passersby. "This is a heavy financial burden for me," explains Liu, "but at least I'll be free to run the museum as I like, without any limitations."

Liu says he hopes his museum can teach people not to see sex as something bad, and help promote a healthy and scientific attitude toward sex.

"When people visit the museum they can see that we had this tradition thousands of years ago, and that there is nothing wrong with it," he says.

Liu's wife is not happy about his avocation, arguing that he's retired and should take it easy. Liu, however, shows no sign of sitting back, explaining that "At my age, the future is not very long."

"I have a responsibility, a duty to society, to save this culture which is being destroyed," he says. "It is important to save this for future generations."

The Museum of Chinese Sex History is located at 1133 Wuding Lu, Shanghai. Tel: (021) 6230 1243


© 2013 Paul J. Mooney