PORNOGRAPHY IN CHINA
Pornography is strictly prohibited. The Chinese government periodically tries to crack down on pornography and “social evils” but these efforts — especially in urban areas where hostess bars, seedy karaokes, sex shops and suggestive radio call shows are ubiquitous — make the government come across as out of touch and even hypocritical. Radio commentator Li Dating told the Washington Post, “Over the past 30 years, with the opening up and the reforms, Chinese society attitude’s towards sex have changed a lot...Society is more tolerant talking about sex than the government.”
A government anti-porn campaign in 2009 resulted in 5,000 arrests for distributing porn online. In the summer of that year, local officials blocked the opening of “Love Land,” a sex-themed park in Chongqing that featured a large collection of genitalia sculptures, calling it an “evil influence.”
Zhang Xianmin. Professor of Beijing Film Academy, wrote: Some films have sexual content; sometimes this is not included deliberately by the artists but happens by accident; it depends on how you read it. Two kinds of films are in exile. One is commercialized pornography (art-house pornographic films are allowed in China, so are art-house pornographic videos, which are made using filter lenses and filter paper). They are different from hard-core pornography but are like art-house soft-core pornography. The other kind is comprised of films that deal with sensitive political and social issues. To conclude, at the present moment, politics are more pornographic than art in China. Maybe there is an additional conclusion to be made as well: while politicized art is like propaganda, politics disguised in art is like any other organized or institutionalized activity in China.
Websites and Sources: USA Today piece usatoday.com ; Sex Incidents in China zonaeuropa.com ; Sex Industry guardian.co.uk ; Chinese sex toy maker lacyshaki.en ; Books: “Sexual Life of Ancient China”, written by Robert van Gulik in the 1920s; “The Illustrated Handbook of Chinese Sex History” by Professor Liu Dalin and “Sex China Studies in Sexology in Chinese Culture” by Fang-ju Juan, The Sexology Research Institute of China is at People's University in Beijing. Sex History and Literature Ancient Sex Culture China.org ; Chinese Sex Literature yellowbridge.com ; Sex in Ancient China Book Review dannyreviews.com Prostitution in China : Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Shanghaiist blog shanghaiist.com ; Homosexuality in China History of Gay life in China fordham.edu/halsall ; Websites: http://www.danwei.com/a-brief-history-of-chinese-porn ; A paper titled A Peep at Pornography Web in China compiled by scholars at Xian Jiatong University is one of the few authoritative sources of pornography statistics.
History of Pornography in China
In China, erotic painting and erotic fiction occurred over 1,000 years ago, in the Tang dynasty. The official prohibition of erotic art and literature started as early as about eight hundred years ago, in Yuan dynasty. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1,1949, a strict ban on erotic fiction and pornography of any kind was imposed nationwide. In the 1950s and 1960s, the policy of banning erotica was very effective. In the whole country, almost no erotic material was to be found. There were few difficulties implementing this policy until the mid-1970s. [Source: Zhonghua Renmin Gonghe Guo, Fang-fu Ruan, M.D., Ph.D., and M.P. Lau, M.D. Encyclopedia of Sexuality =]
Then, the legalization and wide availability of pornography in several Western countries during the late 1960s and early 1970s, coupled with China’s growing openness to the outside world, increased the supply of such material available for underground circulation. By the late 1970s, “X-rated” films and videotapes were being smuggled into China from Hong Kong and other countries. (In China, these are known as “yellow videos” and “yellow” refers to erotica). Yellow videos quickly became a fad. At first, the only people who could view these tapes were rather highly placed party members and their families, since only they had access to videotape players, which were very rare and expensive in China at that time. Before long, however, “yellow videos,” including the well-known American pornographic movie Deep Throat, were available to more people, although still very secretly and only through small underground circles. Some people used the tapes to make money; tickets for video shows were very expensive, usually 5-10 Yuan per person (at the time most people’s monthly salary was only about 40 to 50 Yuan). =
Sometimes people who were watching these tapes engaged in sexual activity, even group sex. Because yellow videos were usually shown in small private rooms to very small audiences whose members knew each other well, a party atmosphere often prevailed. It was very easy for young people to initiate sexual activity when they were aroused by what they saw. At about the same time, erotic photographs, reproductions of paintings, and books were also smuggled into mainland China. They, too, were sold at a great profit. One small card with a nude photo would cost as much as 5 to 10 Yuan.
World's Oldest Pornography in Xinjiang
Mary Mycio wrote in Slate.com, “The Kangjiashimenji Petroglyphs are bas-relief carvings in a massive red-basalt outcropping in the remote Xinjiang region of northwest China. The artwork includes the earliest—and some of the most graphic—depictions of copulation in the world. Chinese archeologist Wang Binghua discovered the petroglyphs in the late 1980s, and Jeannine Davis-Kimball, an expert on Eurasian nomads, was the first Westerner to see them. Though she wrote about the carvings in scholarly journals , they remain obscure. [Source: Mary Mycio, Slate.com, February 14, 2013]
“The cast of 100 figures presents what is obviously a fertility ritual (or several). They range in size from more than nine feet tall to just a few inches. All perform the same ceremonial pose, holding their arms out and bent at the elbows. The right hand points up and the left hand points down, possibly to indicate earth and sky.
While Chinese scholars attribute them to nomadic cultures from 1000 B.C., Davis-Kimball points out that nomads generally create portable art and not huge tableaus. The makers of the petroglyphs had to have been a sedentary people, since the elaborate artworks appear to have been carved over a period of centuries. This narrows the potential candidates down considerably. The only time in prehistory when sedentary people are known to have populated the region was during the Bronze Age, the millennium prior to 1000 B.C.
Mary Mycio wrote in Slate.com, “The few scholars who have studied the petroglyphs think that the larger-than-life hourglass figures that begin the tableau symbolize females. They have stylized triangular torsos, shapely hips and legs, and they wear conical headdresses with wispy decorations. Male images are smaller triangles with stick legs and bare heads. Ithyphallic is archeology-talk for “erect penis,” and nearly all of the males have one. A third set of figures appear to be bisexual. Combining elements of males and females, they are ithyphallic but wear female headwear, a decoration on the chest, and sometimes a mask. They might be shamans. [Source: Mary Mycio, Slate.com, February 14, 2013 ]
“The tableau is divided into four fully-developed scenes beginning at a height of 30 feet and progressing downward. In the first scene, nine huge women and two much smaller men dance in a circle, seemingly admonishing their viewers. This is the only scene without ithyphallic men—though to the side, a prone bisexual has an obvious erection. Two symbols near the center look like stallions fighting head to head.
“The second scene is packed with weird happenings. Women and men dance in a frenzy around a large ithyphallic bisexual about to penetrate a small hourglass female with an explicit vulva. His breastplate depicts a female head, with a conical headdress just like his. On the left, a second bisexual in a monkey mask is about to penetrate a small, faceless female. Nearby, a pair of striped animals lies prone amid bows and arrows, while at the other end, a giant two-headed female seems to lead the ritual. Disembodied heads abound, perhaps indicating spectators.
“The next scene is smaller and cruder. A chorus line of infants emerges from a small female being penetrated simultaneously by a male and a bisexual while three more ithyphallic males await their turn. Another figure holds a penis longer than he is tall, pointing it at the sole large woman in the scene. She stands in front of a platform on which a faceless body lies prone, wearing what looks like the striped animals’ fur. The body resembles the females copulating in this and the previous scene. It is the only figure shown with its arms lowered, probably indicating death in a ritual sacrifice. A small dog is also at the center.
“The last full scene contains no obvious women at all, though the floating bodies on the upper right may be female. Ithyphallic males and a bisexual take part in a frenzied dance. One male seems to have his arm around another while a loner near the bottom seems to be masturbating as a parade of tiny infants streams from his erection. It looks a lot like a frat party. There are four additional scenes that seem more like sketches. Two include a pair of dogs and another depicts male and female torsos with multiple heads. The last figure has a very long penis but the body of a woman and seems to be wearing a conical hat. I think of it as the artist, though no artist could have carved such a large, complex, and detailed tableau in a single prehistoric lifetime.
Obscenity Laws in China
Nudity and sex scenes have been edited out of widely-viewed series such as "Game of Thrones" and the film "The Shape of Water". Joshua Wickerham wrote in the “Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History”: Communist ideology focused on the productivity of people as a social unit, whereas erotic or non-reproductive sexual activity was viewed as morally wrong, socially irresponsible, and a kind of self-indulgence only associated with bourgeois lifestyle — something unacceptable to the Chinese government. CCP reports that no erotic materials were produced in the PRC during the 1950s or 1960s [Source: Liana Zhou and Joshua Wickerham, “Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History”, Thomson Gale, 2007]
“In 1970, along with the economic reform policy of the CCP, China was flooded with X-rated movies and videos smuggled from Hong Kong and other countries. In time, yellow, or pornographic, videos, which had been beyond the financial reach of the average citizen, became much more accessible due to their availability in video stores, hotels, and other venues.
“The CCP reacted swiftly to the spread of such materials. Raids on sellers were frequent and materials were confiscated. In 1985 the state promulgated a new anti-pornography law: Underground publishing houses were suppressed. By 1988, during the National People's Congress, lawmakers introduced stiffer penalties for pornography dealers. Dealers could be imprisoned for life if the total value of the pornographic materials was between 150,000 yuan and 500,000 yuan. Ruan's book, Sex in China (1991), cited the International Daily News (August 24, 1989) as reporting that in 1989 there was an intense effort to eradicate publishing and distribution venues for erotica. More than 11 million books and magazines with explicit sexual content were confiscated and 2,000 distribution centers were raided. In 1990 the highest court in China ruled that courts could impose death sentences on those convicted of human trafficking, including prostitution, and pornography.
Crackdowns and Arrests Related to Pornography in China in the 1980s
In the 1980s, the suppression of pornography has was a very serious political and legislative concern. The number of arrests and the severity of sentences on people involved in pornography have both increased in the attempt to suppress it entirely. There was a strong reaction at the highest levels of the Chinese Communist Party and the Government. The police were ordered to confiscate every type of pornographic material, from hand-copied books to “yellow” audiotapes and films. Severe penalties were ordered for all people involved in the showing or viewing of “yellow” videos, and, in April 1985, a new antipornography law was promulgated. The nationwide crackdown on pornography led to numerous arrests and confiscations in city after city. For example, by October 1987 in Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi Province, forty-four dealers in pornography had been arrested and 80,000 erotic books and magazines confiscated. It was reported that an underground publishing house with 600 salesmen had been circulating erotic materials in twenty-three of China’s twenty-eight provinces, making a profit of 1,000,000 Yuan (in that period about $300,000 U.S.) in two years. [Source: Zhonghua Renmin Gonghe Guo, Fang-fu Ruan, M.D., Ph.D., and M.P. Lau, M.D. Encyclopedia of Sexuality =]
A Shanghai Railway Station employee was sentenced to death because he and four other persons organized sex parties on nine different occasions; during these they showed pornographic videotapes and engaged in sexual activity with female viewers. The other organizers were sentenced to prison, some for life. The climax of this wave of repression seemed to occur on January 21, 1988, when the twenty-fourth session of the Standing Committee of the Sixth National People’s Congress adopted supplemental regulations imposing stiffer penalties on dealers in pornography. Under these regulations, if the total value of the pornographic materials is between 150,000 Yuan and 500,000 Yuan, the dealer shall be sentenced to life imprisonment. =
In a nationwide strike against pornography, beginning a few weeks after the Tiananmen Square massacre, on July 11, 1989, 65,000 policemen and other bureaucrats were mobilized to investigate publishing houses, distributors, and booksellers. By August 21, more than 11,000,000 books and magazines had been confiscated, and about 2,000 publishing and distributing centers, and 100 private booksellers were forced out of business. But then Deng Xiaoping, China’s top leader, went further by declaring that some publishers of erotica deserved the death penalty. It may be at least one of the most severe political punishments against “pornography” ever suggested by a national leader anywhere in the world. After this, in July 1990, the Supreme People’s Court issued a new decree stating that the death sentence is the proper penalty for traffickers in prostitution and/or pornography. =
Pornography Research and China
China has a long tradition of erotic art but pornographic films and pictures are currently illegal. Despite frequent anti-porn clampdowns, pornography remains available both online and in the form of DVDs. [Source: An interview with Katrien Jacobs By James Griffiths, Danwei.com August 23, 2011]
A paper titled A Peep at Pornography Web in China compiled by scholars at Xian Jiatong University is one of the few authoritative sources of pornography statistics. The scholars examined “part of network traffic in Northwest Net of China, from Mar. 29 2009 to Jan. 25 2010 and “collected 92,950 online porn web pages from 1,826 porn sites” of which only 12.8 percent were hosted on servers inside China. The paper looks at usage patterns of the people detected visiting porn sites, but does not attempt to derive any numbers about porn use nationwide. Nonetheless, anecdotal evidence suggests demand for porn in China is growing. Aside from professionally produced films, there is a growing subculture of DIY porn movies.
In an interview posted on Danwei.com, Dr. Katrien Jacob, author of “People’s Pornography: Sex and Surveillance on the Chinese Internet” said, her “book is about waves of Chinese erotica and pornography in the age of Internet activism and a tightening of Internet censorship. It shows that despite the total ban on pornography, Chinese people have developed an impressive porn industry and progressive sex cultures. I show that Chinese people can have access to sexually explicit products and are able to explore novel sexual identities. But there is currently also a new clampdown on political activists and sex/AIDs/queer activists, so the book wavers between optimism and despair about China’s future. [Source: An interview with Katrien Jacobs By James Griffiths, Danwei.com August 23, 2011]
When asked about the preference amongst Chinese porn consumers for Japanese produced materials Jacobs said, “Yes it seems that Chinese men really prefer Japanese porn over Western porn. I think it is primarily because the Japanese know how the play the Chinese markets for pop culture and sex entertainment. They simply supply an excessive kind of erotic imagination that Chinese entrepreneurs cannot handle. Even though there is a wealth of genres and mind-boggling fetish products available from Japan, the cultures actually share a quite narrow-minded patriarchal view on sexual pleasure. This is perhaps the reason why Chinese men like Japanese stars, because they embody a feminine ideal of innocence and purity that is harder to find in Western porn. Western females in porn are considered to be too active and too “coarse” for Chinese men. Also, it works well for Chinese people, and specifically youngsters, to project liberation and otherness onto the “foreign” Japanese porn culture.
“Meanwhile, there are some DIY productions on the Internet, or there are webcam movies being made by sex workers for their clients. There are online web communities for erotic literature and taboo stories, and there are diaries and galleries by bloggers. I am not sure where it is going. Hong Kong has equally lost its glory days of erotic soft-core cinema, but at least there are small squads of people who are into them, and I do think these older movies are marvelous. There is the recent Hong Kong 3D porn blockbuster “3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy,” which was an enormous success in the box office and really also create a moment of social awareness and ‘sex talk” both in China and Hong Kong.
On young people getting information on sex from pornography, Jacobs said, “Yes that is definitely happening now. I have interviewed many students who have said that pornography is their only sex education. I think that it is a problem indeed, as it creates distorted expectations in males who do not know very well how to handle their women sexually. Generally speaking the porn culture and erotic vanguards in China are leaving behind the women and sexual minorities. Pan Siuming is one of the leading Chinese scholars who has documented the deep-rooted effects of abstinence and sex/porn starvation in males during the Mao years. While males are now able to find a wealth of movies and hostess/sex work services, it is much harder for women to participate and release their frustration about this situation. So I think that China needs porn education, which would be more exciting than sex education, and would allow all kinds of people to watch and judge products, or even to make some of their own. But this is merely a fantasy at the current moment.
Sex and Zen in 3D in China
In April 2011 The Guardian reported: “It is being billed as the world's first 3D porn film, a movie so salacious that Chinese audiences are reportedly flocking from the mainland to more permissive Hong Kong for the chance to see an uncut version. “ Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy” will open in Hong Kong and Taiwan next week. The £2m Cantonese language film is an ornate fantasy with high production values, set at the kinky court of Ming dynasty ancient China. It is ostensibly based on the classic Chinese erotic text, The Carnal Prayer Mat, and follows a young man as he befriends a duke and enters a world of royal orgies and other sexual peccadilloes. The film is also a reworking of an earlier Chinese movie, 1991's Sex and Zen.” [Source: The Guardian, April 6, 2011]
Writer and producer Stephen Shiu told local media the film would feature some "very graphic sex scenes". He added: "It will leave audiences feeling like they are sitting right there at the edge of the bed." Sex and Zen's content means it is unlikely to be screened uncut in mainland China, though there are reports of tour groups planning trips to Hong Kong and Taiwan so that people may see it. Such a development mimics events in 2007, when mainlanders travelled to the island to watch an uncut version of Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, the Chinese cut having excised key scenes which left audiences confused and disappointed.
Last year during the shoot for Sex and Zen, Shiu told Reuters "It's because it's forbidden in China, (that there) is so much enthusiasm in China for this film." He added: "Somehow when you're doing a 3D movie you always want to make an impressive image because the viewers ... are going to buy tickets with double or even triple the ticket price to get into a world they've never seen before. It's not just erotica, they want some 'wow factor'!"
Sex and Zen stars one Hong Kong and two Japanese actors in the main roles and is directed by Christopher Sun. Some are predicting it could be the first of a wave of softcore 3D films, helping the industry to emerge from a period in which it has been hit heavily by free internet porn.
Pornography on DVDs, the Internet and Cell Phones in China
Sexually explicit films, magazines and Internet sites are illegal in China. Many Chinese consider pornography to be a very serious problems, even worse than drugs. Surveys conducted by the University of Chicago revealed that 70 percent of Chinese men younger than 30 watched pornography in the preceding year, a rate comparable to that in the United States.
Pornographic films — usually sold on the streets as DVDs — are known as yellow discs. They are sold like drugs for around $1.20 a piece by dealers who don’t carry the DVDs on them but take customers to a place where they are are hidden. Many of the sellers are pregnant woman or women with small children who can not be detained according to Chinese law.
Pornographic web sites can be easily accessed by those with basic computer knowledge despite efforts by the government to block them. Telephone sex lines such as “Taste of the Apple” and “Wild Nights” can be accessed with cell or fixed line phones.
As of 2004, there were over 1,000 pornographic sites operating in China, with some service providers receiving as much as 40 percent of their income form such sites.
Cracking Down on Pornography on the Internet and Cell Phones in China
The Chinese government does its best to block pornographic web sites. In August 2004, it launched a multi-pronged attack against Internet porn that utilized sophisticated filters to block foreign as well as Chinese sites. Nearly 700 sites were shut down, 97 phone sex lines and dirty text message services were closed and 330 people were arrested. One man was sentenced to 1½ years in prison for spreading pornography via the “Singing Phoenix Web” site which had over 200,000 visitors.
The move was partly a response to stories about teenage boys throwing away the hard earned money of their parents on sex phone lines and teenage girls lured out at night with text messages by older men. According to Chinese Information Minister pornography “depraves social moral and especially brings great harm to the country’s young minds.”
A new drive against online pornography was launched in April 2007. A Chinese official said the six month campaign would target cyber strip shows and sexually explicit images, stories and audio and video clips.
Distributors of Internet and mobile phone pornography and even users have been threatened with life in prison. An elderly Chinese security guard was sentenced to life in prison for running up a 510,000 yuan ($61,000) phone bill by calling a sex line in an unidentified country 180 times.
In January 2008, video and audio producers were told to eliminate “vulgar” material from their inventories or face heavy fines. After that the Chinese government shut down two dozen video entertainment websites in accordance with new rules because of concerns that videos containing state secrets, pornography and images that could damage China’s reputation could be released.
One of China’s biggest online pornography operators is serving a life sentence. In 2014, a doctoral student in Shanghai was sentenced to just five months for a similar crime, this time involving several gay men who met one another online. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, March 6, 2015]
Effectiveness of Chinese Government Efforts to Crack Down on Pornography
Pornographic films and pictures are currently illegal. Despite frequent anti-porn clampdowns, pornography remains available both online and in the form of DVDs. Jacobs said, “There are several statistics that show the net-porn industries are surviving and flourishing despite the ban. It seems indeed that porn cannot be banned and that the PRC government is perhaps even secretly letting it into the country. But besides their bombastic cleanup campaigns, they also censor web communities that stand for sexual freedom or queer identity. It seems as if sexual minorities, sex artists and activists are much more vulnerable than those involved in mainstream commercial porn, especially at this moment when film festivals are being shut down and human rights activist are being tortured and detained. These are the dark times of China’s civil right and sexual creative outlet, but there is still so much porn and sex entertainment available that we can see it as safer outlet. [Source: An interview with Katrien Jacobs By James Griffiths, Danwei.com August 23, 2011]
One anti- pornography campaigns used an excuse to increase general internet filtering and surveillance, Jacobs said, “Yes it does seem to work that way, just as they can use a cheap kind of anti-art or anti-dissident or anti-vulgarity rhetoric to carry out surveillance and to randomly arrest people. That is also why they went after the “big guy” Ai Wei Wei who stands for all of these subversive potentials at once, including sexual freedom and “erotic laughter,” the right to make vulgar kinds of art and jokes. But we also have to keep in mind that the official government bulletins are not taken seriously by Chinese people. I read quite a few of them while researching my book and when asking my informants if the believed in government statistics intimidations, they would often smile and say: “No. Of course not!”
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated October 2021