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Sex in Mao’s China: how a foreign barbarian blushed

In 1974, when Englishman Richard Kirkby was invited to teach at Nanjing University, he entered a country that, as far as foreigners were concerned, was closed and mysterious. And he witnessed the tumult of the Cultural Revolution, despite official efforts to isolate the tiny group of foreigners in China.

Following an interlude in Hong Kong, in 1978 the academic was persuaded to return to China, and a posting at Shandong University. By then, the nation was regaining its balance and for the first time it was possible to forge almost normal relationships with acquaintances and colleagues.

What follows is an excerpt from Kirkby’s new book, Intruder in Mao’s Realm (Earnshaw Books).

SEX WAS A MINEFIELD in Cultural Revolution China. Youthful urges were brutally repressed, and in at least one case, willing lovers condemned to death. This kind of thing was confirmed to me more than once by friends who had shared the Red Guard life. Happily, as an alien on the fringe of the great Chinese masses my own experience of vital bodily functions was rather less harrowing.

The cultural offerings of Mao’s China had no room for any human relationship other than revolutionary camaraderie. There was one glaring exception – “foreign culture” in the form of North Korean movies readily permitted to the weary Chinese. Pyongyang and Beijing were close at the time, and it was not unusual to spot North Koreans in China on some obscure official business. Long after the Chinese had been allowed to dispense with their Chairman Mao badges, the giveaway was the Great Leader Kim Il-sung’s porky face on every lapel.

In an unguarded moment, a colleague joked that amongst all the world’s peoples, only the Koreans found Mao’s China a good place for a relaxing holiday. Yet in the realm of the silver screen lay a paradox. Like their Chinese counterparts, the North Korean film studios were expected to churn out patriotic epics of revolutionary bravado. But in contrast to the Chinese fare, Korean movies were laced with tear-jerking story lines which not infrequently turned upon the love between a man and a woman.

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[Kirkby and his wife, Jo’s] visits to the cinema or revolu­tionary opera were pretty well obligatory in Nanjing. Just when we were looking forward to a peaceful evening, our minder would turn up and boldly announce, “You will go to see a show tonight.” We knew that to rebel would be an affront, so invariably we went. But we soon brightened up when a Korean film was on offer, and it was clear that the Chinese audiences just loved these creations even though the scenes depicting physical proximity between actors of opposite sexes were often crudely cut. Cultural Revolution China saw fit to censor – of all people – the North Koreans.

Indeed, the ultra-puritanical society in which we were immersed embodied a host of paradoxical surprises. I was once strongly reprimanded by our Party overseer for touching a female student’s forearm. I had momentarily forgotten that this part of the female form carries sexual overtones; all I had been trying to do was get over a difficult point of grammar. We were a little taken aback that, to the Chinese, no medical consultation was complete without a needle being wielded, invariably to one’s fleshy behind. Yet when I happened to pass by the ever-crowded clinic and the same young woman was offering her naked bottom to the nurse’s giant syringe, not an unworthy thought seemed to cross the minds of the onlookers. I tried to remember this whenever my own hairy rump was laid bare for the delectation of passing colleagues and students alike.

Calls of nature were another case where vital bodily functions were regarded in a disarmingly unfamiliar way. I will not forget my first foray into a street latrine in Shanghai. This was in the early 1970s, when foreigners had not been seen for many a year – let alone their nether parts. The stinking concrete trough was perhaps 50 feet in length, and in an attempt to preserve some dignity, I chose a section free of immediate neighbours. As soon as I got into position, however, I found myself being flanked on both sides by a close line of squatters whose curiosity had got the better of them. I was fixed by two score eyes and a running commentary soon aroused general mirth.

The Chinese lavatorial experience often provided thought-provoking anthropological insights. And despite the ultra-puritanism of Mao’s China, bodily functions of a rather more alluring variety might also be conducted in a strangely matter-of-fact way. Official paranoia meant that we were never told of the comings and goings of other foreigners. But one day during our confinement in Nanjing’s Dingshan we were pleased to find that there were new neighbours, a young couple from the “fraternal revolutionary party” in Ecuador. With the dust of their long journey barely removed, the newcomers were assembled for introductory formalities by their minder, a timid grey woman of late middle age.

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“Which size do you take?” was her straight-from-the-hip opening remark to the man. The new arrivals were puzzled. The woman pointed to the two children – a barely acceptable number for foreign friends to bring to China, the land of the one-child family [although the one-child policy would not be formally implemented until 1980, moves were already afoot to limit family sizes]. She then waved at the man. When the penny dropped, there were gasps of astonishment and then embarrassed laughter. After all, Westerners did not start to talk about such intimate things in public until the Aids virus arrived. I had indeed noticed that every downtown pharmacy had a counter where the goods were free. Around it, there was always a flurry of women, scrabbling through the poorly packaged da (large), zhong (medium) and xiao (small) condoms. Human nature being such and the central planners in Beijing characteristically unresponsive to consumer preference, of the “small” variety a huge surplus always remained unclaimed.

When it came to the question of sexual liaison between East and West, a far less relaxed attitude prevailed. Like us, the Chinese sought diversions from the daily grind, and the unorthodox, the delinquent, the prurient were always compelling.

The non-event of the Suzhou dancer demonstrates the prevailing sexual hysteria. In 1976, the last year of Mao, a group of American political tourists had been so enthralled by a song and dance performance – part of their official itinerary – that they innocently invited the leading dancer for a sociable exchange after the curtain had come down. Since the performance had been staged in their Suzhou hotel, and official paranoia meant that no hostelry had any public meeting places available to foreign guests, the daring leading lady was seen entering the room of one of the Americans. I am sure nothing happened except a halting conversation over a cup of jasmine tea. Yet the thought of a lissom entertainer closeted with foreigners was too much for the authorities. The dancer was dismissed and from the way it constantly returned to my own ears, the account of this non-event – ever more scandalous in the telling – must have reached a hundred million Chinese.

There was one tiny exception to the prohibition of sexual relationships between Chinese and foreigners. As a rule, the only foreigners in China in this period were distinctly middle class – diplomatic personnel, members of overseas friendship associations, and the like. And the only foreign proletarians who came into contact with the country were seafarers whose ships had business in Chinese ports. The port authorities made a great effort to lavish every attention on the visiting sailors and well-equipped seamen’s clubs were found in every major port. These places were open to other foreigners such as ourselves, and we sought them out when in Shanghai and Qingdao, for they had the best canteen food anywhere in China. And it was strongly rumoured amongst the foreigners that the first-class service to seafarers extended beyond the appetites of the stomach. In a gesture of proletarian internationalism, women could be provided, too. There was, however, a small proviso: only those who could claim some Chinese blood were deemed eligible. It was said that the Filipino sailors were the main beneficiaries of this official pimping, for many are the descendants of Chinese settlers.

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To be sure, sexual contact with foreigners evoked fears of an invasive outside world, a theme deeply (and not unreasonably) embedded in the national psyche. Rapine, real and imaginary, was an integral element of foreign aggression in the 19th century. But that only partly explains the widespread belief that Western foreigners (and Japanese), whether male or female, were incapable of sexual self-control. There is even a Chinese character (yin) in the past used almost exclusively for the barbarian’s lewd state of being. With my wife heavily pregnant, I was only a little surprised when the university authorities suggested they might arrange temporary relief. Not with a Chinese female, of course, but courtesy of another blameless and unsuspecting foreign resident.

“You and I are supposed to leap into bed together, now that Jo’s pregnant,” I joked with the hapless Myumi, an unprepossessing Japanese school teacher who had just arrived at the university. Actually, we had a good laugh together about Li Hua’s completely serious suggestion that she should be my concubine. We became friends, but that was it.

With the Mao regime over and done with, by 1978 our requests to learn Chinese were at last being taken seriously. As it happened, the provision to us of a Chinese tutor was to leave us in pretty much the same state of ignorance of the language. But we did learn a great deal about the question of sex and the Chinese. Secluded association between foreigner and Chinese for any purpose was still considered highly risky, and the university authorities doubtless agonised over the choice of a suitable tutor. The search led unerringly to a middle-aged, podgy teacher of Chinese, who presented him­self at our door in his bright blue polyester Sun Yat-sen jacket and an outsized cap under which his close eyes squinted shiftily. That cap was never to come off in all the months we had the dubious pleasure of Teacher Yin’s instruction.

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It was easy in those days of rigid uniform and standardised demeanour to spot a Chinese “intellectual”, and the new arrival just did not seem to measure up. We were quickly reassured, however, that in Piggy Yin we had an outstanding teacher, with as solid credentials as anyone might hope for. Not only had his parents been beggars before the Communist victory, but they had also died shortly after it, and the orphan Piggy – it was respectfully announced – had been “brought up by the Party”.

“Chairman Mao is my father,” Piggy proudly explained. To our surprise and enjoyment, it turned out that the Party’s judgment of character was deeply flawed. It soon became very clear that if anyone ran the risk of moral corruption, it was certainly not Piggy Yin. Life in the Chinese provinces was not overburdened with excitements, and we soon came to relish every Chinese lesson as a minor adventure. The sessions would start routinely enough, Piggy’s teaching material the usual pseudo-heroic stuff – the soldier who sacrificed his life by leaping into a raging torrent to save state property, the worker who was glad to be no more than a small cog in the machine. But not far into the lesson, a point arrived when Piggy could no longer bear the boredom. His gaze would shift from the deadly revolutionary tract, and apropos of nothing, he would now emit his only known words of English: “Kee-ss, touch breast.”

This would be followed by a brief interlude of guiltily concerted attention to the Chinese text, Piggy all the while pressing himself against his retreating student, until he had practically shifted both buttocks from his chair to theirs.

Even more unexpected was Piggy’s favoured catchphrase. Ba tade kuzi la xia lai (“rip her trousers down”). Curiously, it was not uttered with any note of vulgar humour, but rather as fierce admonition. Once this point had been reached, all pretence of continuing the lesson was usually abandoned. Piggy would then start to pace the room and, with a practiced inevitability, settle on the pile of old American news maga­zines. This was 1979, and foreign publications remained out of bounds to ordinary folk. What interested our Piggy were the advertisements – especially the airline ads with their mildly suggestive but well-covered hostesses.

Even without the socially difficult “rip her trousers down” our Chinese made not a lot of progress. But we were delighted to keep Piggy on for sheer entertainment value. In any situ­ation, sexually obsessive behaviour in a relative stranger would be rather astonishing. Under the circumstances of China at the time, it was a wonder.

One Wednesday evening, the appointed hour came and went, and no teacher. Long after we had retired for the night, there came a timid tapping at the door, and a shamefaced Piggy pushed his way in – eager and ready at this unheard-of hour to start the usual session. He breathlessly explained that while on the way over, some public security men had hauled him off to the neighbourhood police station for questioning. They were out looking for a rapist. Our initial thoughts were that perhaps just maybe, for once, the police might not have been too wide of the mark. But in reality there was something about our cumbersome little Chinese teacher which made him the most unlikely assailant, and we hoped that there was nothing sinister in his sudden disappearance.

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This turned out to be Piggy’s last visit to our premises. Perhaps there was a simple explanation as to why our Chinese “lessons” ceased so suddenly. But later, we realised that the privacy of our home had been compromised, our evenings with Piggy having a wider audience.

The thought of Piggy Yin and his expostulations still brings undimmed astonishment. The very fact of Piggy demonstrates a vital lesson: that individuality and inde­pendence of thought, however bizarre, are able to survive the severest straitjackets of politically inspired conformity. We were strangely grateful for our Piggy Yin.

Intruder in Mao’s Realm (Earnshaw Books), by Richard Kirkby, is available now.


China calling

British author Richard Kirkby caught the China bug as an academic specialising in urbanisation.

“I was educated as an urbanist […] and then looked at the problem of urban development in different countries. I was fascinated by China, as it seemed to have an industrial revolution without all the urban squalor and slums of other countries and I wanted to find out why,” he says, on a visit to Hong Kong this month.

So, in the early 1970s, he organised a study tour of academics and students from the Architectural Association, in London. While it was “all very political
in those days”, Kirkby and company were shown model communism. He would return to China with his partner, Jo, in 1974 as a “foreign expert”, teaching English under the watchful eye of many a minder.

Kirkby was one of the few foreigners to see China in the mid-70s. He was forbidden from learning Putonghua – but did so anyway. He was also not permitted to ride a bicycle – another restriction he ignored.

He taught English at Nanjing University, witnessing the disastrous consequences of the Cultural Revolution and spending time with villagers in the countryside, where he worked in rice paddies and a factory machine shop. After Mao Zedong’s death, in 1976, he moved to Shandong University, in Jinan.

Born in Yorkshire to a farming family, Kirkby was the third generation of his family to have experienced China.

“My maternal grandparents moved to Sichuan in about 1903. They went to be medical missionaries as part of an evangelical Quaker group […] and my mother was born in 1919, in a town near Chengdu.”

And the association continues: Kirkby’s younger son, William, now works as a foreign-language adviser for a hi-tech company in Chengdu.

Kirkby, who is now married to museologist Louise Tythacott, is the author of Urbanisation in China and in the 90s worked at Liverpool University, directing a China research institute. He now works in Chinese art and antiquities – “I advise people with collections what they’ve got and assist them in getting the best prices when and if they decide to sell at auction” – and lives in the Lake District, in northwest England.

Annemarie Evans