No sex please, we’re skittish

By Shan Juan (China Daily) 08:23, October 18, 2012

China has had an uneasy relationship with sex over the past few decades. Until relatively recently, public displays of affection were often frowned upon. However, the 250,000 visitors to a recent sex fair in Guangzhou may indicate a change in contemporary attitudes, and as reports, sex hasn’t always been regarded as taboo in China.

Ma Xiaonian, chief physician at the sexology department of Yuquan Hospital at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, likes his work.

In addition to his clinical duties, Ma is also a collector of materials relating to the “birds and bees”. However, he’s recently become worried about the “treasures,” he’s collected over the course of the past two decades.

The 1,200 pieces, mainly artifacts dating back 2,000 years, include a huge Shang Dynasty (c. 16th-11th century BC) jade carving in the shape of a penis, a silver penis holder depicted in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) novel Jin Ping Mei, often translated in English as The Plum in the Golden Vase, which was used to help men maintain erections for longer, and ceramic items from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), featuring highly explicit images.

The pieces were, until recently, on show in North China’s only museum of sexual culture, but are now in storage. China has two other sex museums – one in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, and the other in Shaoguan, Guangdong province, which opened in 2004.

“My collection is now ‘homeless,’ and the pieces are lying on the floor of a warehouse, with no one to view them,” said Ma.

Ma’s museum closed in late September, because the building – located outside Beijing’s West Fourth Ring Road – is undergoing a year-long process of renovation.

Taboo subject

Because of his academic specialty, Ma was first drawn to collecting sex-related artifacts in the late 1990s. So far, he has collected more than 2,000 pieces in total.

“The most expensive cost me 100,000 yuan ($16,000),” he said.

Aged 68, Ma wears casual shorts and looks a little shy, but he talks about his work and his collection with supreme ease.

In his career, he has treated more than 20,000 patients with sexual problems, such as erectile dysfunction, low libido and premature ejaculation, and is the only Chinese sex therapist to have been recognized by the American Board of Sexology and Sex Therapists.

“I’ve never sold a single item from my collection, despite the occasional high offer, and my only wish has always been to find a permanent home where they can be appreciated by the public. That wasn’t easy, though, given that sex remains a taboo subject in China,” he said.

Thanks to cooperation between Ma and the Population and Family Planning Administration of Beijing’s Shijingshan district, the museum, which comprised roughly half of Ma’s collection, opened in 2003 on the fourth floor of the administration’s office building.

“Their work is associated with sexual and reproductive health and, most importantly, the administration was the only institute in the capital willing and able to accept the pieces and facilitate the exhibition,” explained Ma.

However, he conceded that the exhibits had been subjected to censorship by the administration before going on display.

An administration official surnamed Li said the museum has received tens of thousands of visitors, mainly as part of group tours, although individuals were allowed in the very early days.

Li emphasized that he prefers the name “Exhibition of Sexuality and Reproductive Health”, rather than “Sex Museum”.

“It was free, but visitors had to be older than 18 and had to make a group reservation before arriving,” he said.

Ma added that the museum was actually not fully open to the public and said that most visitors were staff members from the population administration, scholars in related fields, and newly married couples.

“We intended to maintain a low profile and seldom promoted the exhibition because we were not sure whether society was ready to accept it,” he said.

“Actually too much attention was not good for it at all,” he added, recalling the chaos that reigned when the museum opened in October 2003 and more than 200 people swarmed into the exhibition hall, which only had room for 100.

“A glass pane from a case housing one of the objects was smashed,” he said, recalling how the chaotic opening day resulted in the museum closing almost immediately.

Since it reopened in early 2004, the museum has only accepted group reservations.

Historical perspective

By working through the six parts of the exhibition, including sex worship in ancient China, sexual physiology and psychology, ethics and morality, and reproductive health, one can begin to gain a deeper understand of sexual urges from a variety of viewpoints and with a historical perspective, said Ma.

“Through the exhibition I just wanted the general public to perceive sexuality properly and become more open about it as a part of human nature, rather than treating it as a social taboo,” he said.

Also, exhibitions of this kind can help to correct widespread public misunderstandings about the nature of sexuality, such as the stigmatization of masturbation and oral sex, and the reasons that cause people to abstain from pursuing quality sex lives, he said.

“Some men with sexual dysfunction simply refuse to consult a doctor,” he added.

Chinese society was much more tolerant of sexual practices in the days before the Song Dynasty (AD 420-479), so depictions of sex from that period are much more explicit, according to Ma.

For example one piece, a Stone Age sculpture, depicts a couple engaging in reciprocal oral sex, a practice that “is the same today”, he said.

Compared with contemporary attitudes, the ancient Chinese were actually quite open about sex, he said.

Confucius considered sex as simply an intrinsic part of human nature: “Food and sex are the essential desires of human beings,” explained Ma, quoting the great philosopher.

The change in attitudes occurred during the Song Dynasty, he added. Human desires, including sex, have been suppressed since then and have gradually become taboo in mainstream Chinese culture.

“That’s actually the governing class’s method of exercising greater control over its subjects, through the suppression of their natural desires,” he noted.

Wang Runguo, a Beijing based journalist, said he was originally appalled by the explicit, if not downright pornographic, exhibits, but was eventually won over.

“That (the museum) was 100 percent worth visiting. I was not sure if I’d learn anything, but I did get to see and understand some things I hadn’t before,” he added.

Underlying messages

Ma said the descriptions that accompany each exhibit help visitors to better understand the pieces and the underlying messages they seek to convey, which are actually about Chinese culture.

For instance, in ancient China the bird represented the male and the flower was female, and a large number of sex-related artifacts incorporated those symbols, according to Ma.

Meanwhile, the associations with the natural world go even further: “Birds have flexible and extendible necks which symbolized the penis, while the shape of the butterfly represented female genitalia,” he explained.

“The sex culture is about all social values, norms and behaviors. The mentality related to sex, its meanings and connotations, have evolved constantly. What was taboo in the past may simply be seen as commonplace now,” he concluded.

Li, of the Shijingshan family planning administration, said exhibitions of this kind have a positive value because they can help to raise public awareness. Meanwhile, the original materials have been supplemented and updated over the years.

“We’ve integrated new material, such as that relating to HIV/AIDS, plus a range of tips on the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases,” he said.

He was unable to say if the museum will reopen next year when the renovation project has finished.

Ma, however, is hopeful. “I think they will still keep the exhibition open as an innovative way of promoting family planning and reproductive health work,” he said.

Ma has canvassed ideas from the public on how to maintain the exhibition during the period of renovation. “We’ve loaned 200 pieces to the drug company Pfizer, which manufactures the erectile dysfunction treatment Pfizer’s Blue, for use in exhibitions at academic meetings,” he revealed.

One suggestion he received from members of the public was to open a sex-artwork-themed restaurant, but Ma said the idea would be inappropriate: “Restaurants are public places and children visit them,” he explained.

However, until a solution is found, the pieces will remain “hidden from the public gaze, “Before I can figure out an appropriate way to display the pieces, free from trouble, they will have to stay in the warehouse,” he said.

The history of sex museums in China is chequered, but Ma’s has enjoyed greater luck than many of its predecessors.

China’s first sex culture museum, which was privately owned and operated, opened in Shanghai in 1999. However, low visitor numbers and revenue meant the place closed down, although it did reopen and the 3,700-plus exhibits were moved to a new location in Tongli, a popular tourist spot in Jiangsu province, in 2003.

“Back then, we were not even allowed to attract visitors by putting up signs displaying the Chinese character for sex,” said the founder Liu Dalin, a retired sociology professor at Shanghai University.

At first, the local residents (in Tongli) rejected the museum, and ridiculed it as the “obscene museum”, he said. The locals are still unhappy, but have become more tolerant as the exhibition has attracted a large number of visitors, bringing extra revenue to the town.

However, as the contract with Tongli will soon expire, Liu is once again concerned about the future.

New kid on the block

If Liu’s museum does survive, it will soon be joined by a new kid on the block, albeit online.

Fang Gang, an associate professor of gender studies at Beijing Forestry University, is a leading light among a group of Chinese sexologists who have set up an exhibition called the Chinese Sexualities and Gender Museum.

The newcomer has three major functions: collection; exhibition and research; and the raising of awareness of sexology among the public, he said.

To date, China’s sex museums have simply displayed related artifacts, mainly from ancient times, but Fang’s project will widen the focus and will be dedicated to issues of gender and sexology.

“Our museum will go online first, given the cost and difficulty in finding a building to house it,” he said.

The new venture will highlight contemporary gender equality and sex education for younger members of society. These are topics that have attracted scant attention, but are in urgent need of greater promotion, he noted.

“The scope will be far wider than other sex museums in the country and will be aimed more at promoting the concepts of sexual rights, equality and diversity. The Chinese people generally lack this sort of knowledge,” he said.