Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 15, May 2007

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Elaine Jeffreys (editor)

Sex and Sexuality in China

Routledge, London and New York, 2006,
184 pages; ISBN: 0-415-40143-7 (hbk)

reviewed by Tamara Jacka

  1. Over the last several years, the Routledge series, Studies on China in Transition, has published numerous cutting-edge studies of contemporary Chinese society. The most recent of these is Sex and Sexuality in China edited by Australian scholar Elaine Jeffreys, author of the ground-breaking book, China, Sex and Prostitution (RoutledgeCurzon2004).
  2. Sex and Sexuality is a collection of nine papers (including an introduction) on various aspects of sexual culture, sexual citizenship, and the governance of sex and sexuality in contemporary China, written by an international cast of scholars. These include two of the best-known Chinese scholars on sex and sexuality, Li Yinhe and Pan Suiming, as well as more junior scholars, such as James Farrer and Elaine Jeffreys herself, who are currently producing some of the most exciting new scholarship on sex and gender in China.
  3. The papers vary considerably in theoretical orientation and also in sophistication and originality. The introduction, written by Elaine Jeffreys, is one of the best. More than merely introducing the other papers, it sets the groundwork for a breakthrough in conceptions of, and debates about, sex and sexuality in China, indicating several ways in which we might move beyond the rather tired and foolish dichotomy set up in so many scholarly as well as journalistic studies, between the sexually 'liberated' west on the one hand, and on the other, a repressed and sexually backward China that is nevertheless becoming more sexually 'open' and 'free' as a result of westernisation and legal reform. First, Jeffreys suggests, we need to build on the work of historians such as Emily Honig, Gail Hershatter and others, to show that the recent history of discourse on sex in China is considerably more rich and complicated than the conventional conceptualisation of it as a shift from silence, repression and puritanism under Mao to greater openness and liberation in the post-Mao period. Second, we need to appreciate that in contemporary China there are a range of conflicting views and disagreements about citizenship and the rights of individuals as sexual citizens and about how sex and sexuality should be governed. And finally, we need to see that the governance of sex is about a good deal more than repression or a relaxation of repression, and that in contemporary China governmental authorities are implicated in the creation of new spaces for sexual entrepreneurship, expertise and consumption, and for public discussion of sexual behaviour and mores, as much as they are involved in the control of sexual discourse.
  4. Some of the subsequent papers live up to the promise contained in the introduction more than others. The best papers, by Pan Suiming, Gary Sigley, James Farrer, and Elaine Jeffreys, are rich in new empirical findings, careful historical detail, and theoretical innovations. Perhaps the most original and stimulating is the first paper, by Pan Suiming. Entitled 'Transformations in the primary life cycle: the origins and nature of China's sexual revolution,' this paper is highly significant because it demonstrates that China's recent 'sexual revolution' is not a straightforward product of 'Western influences,' and nor can it be understood solely in terms of changes within sexuality and sexual discourse itself. Rather, Pan argues, it results from a complex set of changes in the interactions between sex and sexuality and the other components of what he terms the 'primary life cycle'—'the sum of and relations between the most basic of human activities, such as sex, reproduction, physical sustenance, and the social and sexual interactions between members of the opposite sex' (p. 24). I'm uneasy about Pan's 'primary life cycle' model—for all his claims to the contrary, to me it looks too much like a model of the heterosexual family. I also worry that his efforts to distinguish between a western conceptualisation of sexuality as an autonomous entity, and sexuality in China as being better understood as just one, unremarkable aspect of the 'primary life cycle' may be yet another simplistic, Orientalist east vs west dichotomisation. And finally, I'm a bit dubious about the validity and usefulness of the conclusions that he draws from large-scale questionnaire surveys. For all this, I found this paper fascinating, wonderfully thought-provoking, and very important for its underlying emphasis on the links between shifts in sexuality and sexual discourse and a range of other changes occurring in social relations.
  5. I also particularly enjoyed the paper by James Farrer on 'Sexual citizenship and the politics of sexual storytelling among Chinese youth.' Drawing on ethnographic research conducted in Shanghai, this is a theoretically sophisticated and empirically rich discussion of how Chinese youth use sexual stories to claim sexual rights in various private and public contexts. According to Farrer, both civil society and classic liberal models of sexual citizenship are useful for analysing the politics of sexual story-telling in China. This sexual story-telling, conducted through schoolyard gossip, in internet chat-rooms, and in the mass media, is not free of commercial interests and state control, but through such story-telling young people are nevertheless collectively defining various rights to sexuality and sexual citizenship. At the same time, Farrer notes, 'all discourses of citizenship are simultaneously discourses of exclusion...Thus, the politics of sexual story-telling itself is a process that will constantly produce outsiders and new forms of resistant narratives' (p. 121).
  6. Other papers in the book are a bit disappointing. Li Yinhe's paper, 'Regulating male same-sex relationships in the People's Republic of China' and Margaret Woo's on 'Contesting citizenship: marriage and divorce in the People's Republic of China' include useful material, but neither are particularly theoretically rigorous or innovative. For example, Li's recounting of several stories about the hardships faced by homosexual men in urban China is moving and disturbing, but her lack of discussion of the politics of these stories contrasts disappointingly with James Farrer's paper. In addition, in the context of very rapid changes, both 'on the ground' and in scholarship on sex, the fact that both these papers draw primarily on interviews conducted in the 1990s makes them somewhat out of date.
  7. Jo McMillan's paper on 'Selling sexual health: China's emerging sex shop industry' and Zhang Zheqing's on 'Female sex sellers and public policy in the People's Republic of China' are rich in ethnographic detail, but again, theoretically they don't live up to the promise of the book's introduction. Furthermore, I felt uneasy at the tone of these papers. Though they would no doubt deny this, I got the impression that each of these authors was trading on the 'titillation factor' of their topics, seeking to engage the readers' attention with a kind of voyeurism and a journalistic dramatisation of the 'risqué' aspects of their research.
  8. In sum, the quality of the papers in this collection is mixed, with some gems and some disappointments. Overall, however, this volume makes a very valuable contribution to the small but growing scholarship on sex and sexuality in China. Unfortunately, like most of Routledge's academic publications, the book is unaffordable for the majority of salaried academics, let alone students. I am sure, though, that there will be high demand for library copies from scholars and postgraduate students interested in contemporary Chinese society, gender and sexuality, and governance.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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