Sex in China: An Interview with Li Yinhe

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Li Yinhe is one of China’s best-known experts on sex and the family. A member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, she has published widely on sexual mores, women, and family issues. Li also runs a popular blog, where she has advocated for same-sex marriage and loosening restrictions on homosexuality, orgies, and sex in literature. In the 1980s, she studied at the University of Pittsburgh, earning a Ph.D. in 1988, but returned to China where she was asked by China’s pioneering sociologist, Fei Xiaotong, to be one of the first post-doctoral students at Peking University. Recently retired, the sixty-two-year-old spends much of her time on the Shandong coast.

I visited Li Yinhe at her country home outside of Beijing, where we discussed some of her work and current projects, including two unpublished volumes of short stories about sado-masochism.

Ian Johnson: Why sex?

Li Yinhe: During the first thirty years of its rule, the Communist Party was anti-sex. So studying sex is controversial. Even today, my views get a big reaction online. People attack me very strongly. Even in my current book, the section on laws about sex was eliminated. You can’t publish it.

What about orgies?

I have said they should get rid of laws against orgies, and the reaction was huge. You can’t advocate that in China. [Orgies are illegal in China, with the crime known as “crowd licentiousness.”] And there’s also pornography. Even now it’s still a sexual crime. Recently a twenty-four-year-old young woman from Beijing wrote a sexually explicit novel. She sold 80,000 copies online and was arrested. It was considered pornography. The sentence was light but she still got four months of detention. Advocating against this is not okay.

Why does the party care about sex? It doesn’t challenge its power base.

They still have this idea of what’s proper or not. It’s a very traditional idea. There are two main criteria for banning books or censoring. One is black and one is yellow. Black are political issues, like you’re opposing the CCP. Yellow is sex. This hasn’t changed.

You’ve actually been studying the evolution of official attitudes toward sex.

My latest academic project is a book that will be published later this year called Sexual Discourse in New China. I’m going through all the People’s Daily [the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper] from 1949 to 2010. You can see how the rhetoric has changed about prostitution or toward AIDS, or how the Party has viewed pornographic literature. For example, during the early years after Liberation, literature couldn’t discuss love because more important issues were war, politics, and sacrifice. So love—how could you talk about such a petit bourgeois issue?

Like in the novels of Eileen Chang?

Right, exactly, these issues were considered small and petty, even evil. Later on, toward the end of the 1950s, after a period of peace, you could write about love but sex was always taboo. Then after the reforms of the 1980s it was okay to write about love and sex, but how much was allowed? There were many discussions. For example, you could write about it with humanity, or softness, but not in a wild way. They couldn’t figure out what was okay.

I met your late husband, the novelist Wang Xiaobo, a year before he died in 1997. I was struck by the fact that his novel The Golden Age (translated as Wang in Love and Bondage) discusses sex quite explicitly. Did you talk about this issue much?

Wang Xiaobo wrote about sex in a very direct way. At first it was very difficult to publish. But then when he won a prize in Taiwan it was published here. We talked a lot, of course, and he supported me a lot. When I was researching homosexuals, some men didn’t want to talk to women about it and he helped me by conducting the interviews.

In your blog you’ve advocated legalizing same-sex marriage. Is that a realistic goal in China?

The attitude toward homosexuality in China is not as absolute as in the West. At least in some earlier eras, there wasn’t an absolute opposition to it. In China it’s never been illegal or outlawed. During the Song dynasty there was a law against homosexual prostitution, but not against homosexuality in principle. It’s more something that might have been considered ridiculous but not a crime.

So the main thing was you do your duty—get married and procreate?

Yes, that’s the key. But maybe more, Chinese people’s view of sex is different than foreigners’. Chinese view it as purely a physical desire. Who your partner is—male or female—or how you express it doesn’t matter. Anal sex or things like that, they don’t think it’s bad. So from this point of view, homosexuality is not such a problem. I read a survey of attitudes about same-sex marriage in 2008: about 10 to 20 percent thought it was absolutely no problem and 10 to 20 percent thought it was absolutely wrong. But the rest—the majority—just didn’t care. By contrast, in the United States, 47 percent were in favor of same-sex marriage and 43 percent were against. Only 10 percent didn’t have a view. For the Chinese it was like this: It doesn’t have to do with me so I don’t care.

For Chinese who do oppose it, what are their reasons?

They think it’s unnatural because homosexuals can’t have children. But I think this view is slowly changing. The main hindrance is there are no rights groups. In the West, you might have members of parliament or prominent people who are gay or lesbian and they can raise the issue of same-sex marriage. In China, no one raises the issue. Most people don’t think it’s a big issue.

But there have been examples of same-sex marriages.

A couple of years ago, the Chinese press carried sympathetic stories of a same-sex wedding. Everyone in the village was out to help them celebrate and photos circulated online. If you see those sorts of stories and photos, you’d assume it was legal. But that’s only what’s known as a folk-style wedding. It’s a big banquet and party but the Ministry of Civil Affairs doesn’t give you a marriage certificate. If you go there, the officials say, “No no, it’s impossible.” People have gone there on purpose and asked. The officials’ attitude was good; they said, “Ah, we’d like to help and approve this but the law doesn’t allow it.”

When was China’s marriage law passed?

In 1950. It was one of the first laws promulgated after the Communist takeover. It’s been revised a few times: in 1980 and 2000. In 2000, the National People’s Congress legal affairs committee asked experts for advice and I was interviewed. I said they should allow same-sex marriage but the legal affairs committee said, “Do we really need this? Why do we have to be at the forefront of it?” I said, “We’re not at the forefront.” In 2000, there were already five countries that had legalized same-sex marriage, but they said, “There’s no need.”

Are official attitudes toward sexuality also a reflection of earlier Chinese traditions?

I would divide Chinese sexual history into three very broad eras. In early traditional China, Chinese didn’t have that many prejudices. The view was that sex was the “harmony of yin and yang.” It was natural. Male and female together was a good thing, especially if it led to having children, because in traditional China children were so important. The second phase started around the Song dynasty (960-1279) The state began to emphasize purity and looked at things more from a perspective of virtue. There was a sense of antipathy toward sex. This period continued through the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). The Qing were quite anti-sex. Under the previous dynasty, prostitution was not illegal. But starting in the Qing, officials were not allowed to engage prostitutes. Then in 1949, when the Communist Party took over, they forbid it. The pinnacle of this era was the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Women and men mostly wore the same clothes and sex was almost purged from public view.

The third era is the start of the reform years [beginning in 1978]. Sex could be a good thing and wasn’t a crime. New ideas were introduced as well, such as sexual rights. This is something that the first phase didn’t have.

What about women’s rights under the Communist Party? Has progress been illusory?

It’s definitely better than it was before 1949. It started in the 1950s, when all people—male or female—were asked to participate in the workforce. In the past it was “outward affairs handled by men, household affairs handled by women.” But this change—work—changed things for women in the cities and in the countryside.

Even in the countryside? Haven’t women always labored there?

Not always. In the north of China, women very often didn’t do agricultural work. They stayed at home, gave birth to children, and looked after the house. But starting in the 1950s they had to work. That helped their status immensely. They had their own income and didn’t have to rely on men. Now, in rural areas, women accounted for a third of a household’s income. This is quite different than not earning anything. In the cities, in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies, women’s income reached 85 percent of men’s. This was amazing. It was really high by international standards. In the US around that time, it was just 60 percent.

But you don’t think that overall the status of women in China has declined since the economic reforms of the 1980s?

There have been some losses but it’s not uniform. Women’s income has slid from 85 percent to 70 percent of men’s. Also, there are more women not working and a lot of companies don’t want women with children, and if women get pregnant they lose their jobs. But it’s not all negative. In the 1980s, for example, the ratio of women to men at university was one to three. Now it’s 51 percent women. In fact, some universities have had to reduce admission standards for men to maintain some sort of equality—because women study harder than men! If you look at the situation of women entrepreneurs, there’s been a big improvement. Some reports say that many of the world’s top self-made female entrepreneurs are Chinese. In the past, managers were all men.

Besides blogging, you’re still writing a lot. What are you working on now?

I’ve written two short story collections about S&M.

Like 50 Shades of Grey?

It’s something like that. But I’m hesitant to try to publish them.

But I’m sure they would sell well.

Right now they would be banned. S&M isn’t acceptable. But I predict that in a few years it’ll be allowed.

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