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Love and Sex in the Middle Kingdom

April 5, 2009 1 comment

The societal pressures in Asia are tough for the kids.  Like most things, they don’t really hit home until someone you know is directly affected by them. While the newspapers have been all over the fact that Chinese boys outnumber the girls by a staggering 32 million, for me, the realization only came when I met up with one of my old students to give her some coaching on her IELTS exam.  We’d sat in a trendy café in Wu Dao Kou for around 2 bladder-straining hours, brainstorming topics for the conversation test.  Josie had revealed that the only reason that she’d been allowed out by her parents was because she’d convinced them that she was going to a private tutor for a while to study.   

The place was quiet and pokey, and the air conditioning wasn’t working properly.  There was a familiar smell of Chinese cigarettes in the air (after the Olympic smoking ban, smelling cigarette smoke inside a café was something of rarity).  We took a table in a corner, and Josie stroked the cat that was lying unhelpfully on a six person table.  The air conditioning unit was blowing out clouds of frosty air over my left shoulder, and I still barely felt a thing.  Somehow, as these things often go on a roasting summer afternoon in a cold coffeehouse in Beijing, we got talking about differences between Chinese and western ideas of what girlfriend and boyfriend meant to Chinese people and foreigners.

“My boyfriend asks me to marry him everyday.”

I was a little confused.  I had gotten used to the idea of people marrying young in China, but for Mimo, young marriage didn’t seem right, she had too many plans and ambitions to fulfill before she even began thinking about marriage.

“How how is he?”

“21.”

A year younger than she was.  She leaned in conspiratorially.

“You know when you send me messages, and I don’t reply?”

I nodded, I had these baffling non-replies before.  Usually that means that a girl isn’t interested in meeting up, but with Josie, I had a barrage of text messages, then days of silence, then another barrage of messages.

“Well, that’s when I’m with my boyfriend.  He doesn’t let me talk to other men.  He thinks I should stay at home all day.”

What was emerging from Josie, the girl who wore short skirts and knee length boots for a class at my school, was an idea of the pressure that is piled onto the nation’s youth, demands of good school grades, marriage and, eventually grandchildren are at odds with the county’s rapid modernization and the massive influx of liberal western ideals.  Such ideals are at direct odds with the traditionalism that China is steeped in – and the traditionalism that the government espouses with unbridled gusto to the rest of the world.  I realized that the school was really the only place that she got time to spend with people who were interested in what her opinions were, and what she wanted to do with her life, rather than live in a household where she was largely told what to do.

With the attempts to purge the Internet of pornography, virginal purity is venerated and actively promoted on the mainland..  A chastity belt has recently been patented, which, the inventor hopes will bring couples closer together, and put the hookers out of work.  Parent’s want their children to be virgins till their wedding night, but there’s a dawning realization that the wedding night may never come.  In the Southern Weekly, Shen Fan, a 25-year-old philosophy student at Nanjing University preached about the many and varied benefits of a chaste Chinese girl.  She told reporter Shen Liang, “losing virginity before marriage is losing competitiveness, which may lead to losing an opportunity of a good marriage”.  These days in China, young unmarried girls (and boys) need to work every angle to find an agreeable spouse.  Aging parents are taking photos and their offspring’s vital statistics to parks in the hope capturing an eligible bachelor that will capture their daughters hearts.  The marriage marts have spread throughout China, and can be found in any park in any major city in the country.

The advertisement are depressingly desperate: “Boy – 28 yrs, has own apartment in Fuxing district, no mortgage, Communist Party member” reads one battered paper, another is for a daughter: “Girl, 35 yrs, 1.6 meters tall, PhD, University teacher”.  Some of the adverts show a preference for people born in a certain year (one initially baffling paper reads “Rat preferred”), while another shows that a 28 year old IT professional avoids gambling.  Some parents are getting old and don’t care anymore, one white haired woman says that “I don’t mind if the girl is Chinese or foreign. She must have a good heart and be in a good job,” with the reporters who interview her, she leaves her mobile number in case they run into someone who might be suitable.

Of course, the desperation isn’t limited to out-and-out lying, parents will show their sons a fake photo in the hope of at least getting them a date, and the children are becoming more and more wary of meeting up with anyone their folks unearth at the local park.

It’s on thing to hook up with someone in the marriage market, and another matter completely when it comes to the idea of till death do us part.  The sad fact of modern china is that Chinese couples simply do not have the social awareness needed to maintain a long term adult relationship.  There’s some rather simple psychology at work here – ‘little emperors” are doted on by their mothers, but have a distant father figure.  As the boys grow into men, something of an identity crisis develops because no one, least of all their fathers, has been on hand to show them how to act like a man, resulting in hyper-masculinity, essentially the men violently overcompensate for…well, nearly everything.  This coupled with the unhealthy psychology of being an only child results in a serious lack of social skills that people need in order to deal with the modern world.

And the reason as to why more foreign women don’t have Chinese boyfriends?  That all comes down to losing face.  The foreigners who come to work in China, must, by law, hold a degree certificate, which is more than most of the men looking for brides has in China.  When the women start their jobs, they will, invariably, be earning much more than their male, Chinese counterparts.  Not wanting to be embarrassed by the cleverer, richer foreign women, the men look for someone more deferent, respectful…in essence, more Chinese.  Also, there’s the small matter of the husband’s mother probably wanting someone to look after them 24 hours a day – an idea which most western career women will understandably turn their noses up at.  The men of Japan and China are facing something of an identity crisis.

The problem is that the women are usually more open-mined and accepting of new western ideas, the man, finding that his wife is more independent than he expected her to be, and his traditional samurai/hunter gatherer role.  In all my time in China, it’s the men who have been the most stubborn, most proud, and most traditional, the women have been completely the opposite.  In Japan, this phenomenon has given rise to the Narita Divorce – a Japanese couple heads off for their honeymoon in a European country, and it’s the woman who adapts to Western ways better than her husband, who finds himself relegated to lowly bag-carrier, rather than katana brandishing protector of his defenseless young bride.  Because the marriage license is only signed after the honeymoon, upon their return to Narita Airport in Japan, the once happy couple go their separate ways.

Money is an important issue for Chinese women.  A recent news story in the UK Daily Telegraph supports the theory that Chinese women see foreigners as walking ATMs – as the financial “crisis” rages, Chinese women are seeing foreigners as a less attractive bet – at least where money is concerned.  A survey conducted by Hongniang.com, an online dating site revealed that only 16.8% of the 6600 women polled wanted to date a foreigner – in September, the number had been almost over twice that – 42.5% said that they were looking for a foreigner to date.

The misanthropic attitudes that many western men having when it comes to bedding Chinese girls isn’t helping matters.  The infamous Chinabounder, who wrote at length of his various amoral sexual conquests on his blog led to a witch hunt initialed by a professor at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.  On the other side of the coin, ChinaSmack.com translated an essay written by a girl at Jiaotong University –  is apparently a lead cheerleader for the football team – who claims that there are no suitable Chinese men for her – she can either be a mistress or the wife of a rich, uncouth coal digger from Shanxi.

In Japan, which has the world’s fastest aging population ( by 2015, one in four Japanese citizens will be 65 or older), the hardcore porn industry caters for the dissatisfied Japanese man, leaving the jobless women without children and stuck in a sexless marriage.  The Japanese statistics are appalling, 34% of all couples responding to a survey say it’s been over a year since they had last sex with their partner, and more and more women are turning to sex volunteers to get laid.

Japan is on the verge of a demographic disaster with the birth rate hitting record low of 1.29.  In 2000, 70% of all Japanese men were unmarried, and the ones that were think of their wives more as substitute mothers than lovers.  There are repercussions on nearly all aspects of Japanese life, exam hell is less of an ordeal because of the reduced competition (which drives school fees higher because there are no students), divorces blamed on sexual inactivity have skyrocketed, amusement parks are closing across the country, and once-prosperous baby-clothes manufacturers are shutting their doors.

More and more socially inept children being raised by the TV and Nintendo are suffering from extreme social withdrawal known colloquially as hikokimori.  One extreme case tells of one Japanese teenager who shut himself away in his room for 13 years, unable to cope with the pressure cooker of exams and society’s demands of achievement.  The inability to vent sexual and social frustrations can turn bloody, with young men going on knife wielding stabbing sprees in the middle of Tokyo, or otherwise, throwing themselves in front of train on the loop line – “accidents” often delay local services during the day.

Japan is one of the most sexually tolerant countries in Asia – where else would you see middle aged businessmen kissing their goodbyes to their husbands on the late train home?  Yet, in a country where love hotels are on virtually every street, where bikini idols adorn the thick manga magazines, and where pornographic DVD shops have six packed floors (so I’m told…) the young girls of Japan are reduced to dressing themselves up in bandages feigning serious injuries.  Known as the kegadoru, young, single, attention seeking girls now sport clinical white bandages and eye patches.  For some – for most – it’s the only way to get boys to talk to them.

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Lost in SARFT

April 5, 2009 Leave a comment

“I thought there would be some trouble, though not this bad. When I heard their decision, I couldn’t help a bitter smile. It was the same thing that happened to me in the past, the same thing that many directors have experienced. I bet even the official who made the announcement was bored.”

For someone who has been banned from making movies in China for five years, Lou Ye doesn’t really seem too bothered about the decision. For the director whose trademark is combining the discussion of politically sensitive subjects (at least in the mainland), being told off by SARFT is something of an occupational hazard. Weekend Lover, Suzhou River and Summer Palace, all of which have the career-killing combination of covering sensitive political topics with a hefty dose of nudity, have earned the director the dubious moniker of the enfant terrible of Chinese cinema.

Summer Palace, described as the most controversial film to come out of China for the last 50 years, and Ye shatter sexual and political taboos of Chinese cinema – mixing the political upheavals of 1989, both in Germany and in Beijing around an sexually charged, and very explicit plot( which includes for the first time in a Chinese film, full-frontal nudity of both flavors). Now, I know that any French readers, raised on a diet of Betty Blue and the Emmanuelle movies would drag deeply on a Gauloises, and give a slight shrug of bemusement, but trust me, in China, this is a big deal.

Despite having his career stolen from him by the Chinese censor, Lou is remarkably upbeat about the whole, going as far to say that “The political system is more flexible, the economy is growing fast and the relationship between people is more equal.”, he firmly believes that things in China are better than they ever were. He’s adamant that his films are not political, although he has a harder time trying to explain why there is so much sex and nudity in the movie, he says that “I don’t understand why the authorities are so sensitive about 1989. They shouldn’t worry about it. The facts are out there already. Analysis of those facts still requires a lot of work. But I’m not trying to make a comment. This movie is just a love story set against that background.”. Lou Ye is not alone is suffering the wrath of the Chinese censor, at the start of the year, Li Fang’s Lost in Beijing was edited, submitted, re-edited, resubmitted. None of the adjustments to the story were good enough for SARFT, and, even after 20 minutes of footage was cut for Chinese audiences, the film was still banned, and then Li was banned from making any more films in China for 2 years. Shot in a realistic, documentary style, similar to that of Eric Zonka (the wonderful The Dream Life of Angels), the movie follows the stories of a masseuse, her abusive boss, her husband and her boss’s wife.

Like Traninspotting, the first half of the movie is very funny, in fact, it’s almost farcical. After her friend gets fired from the foot massage parlor, they go out and get drunk on their lunch hour, Liu then returns to have a short nap in one of the massage rooms. Her boss discovers her, and halfway through the physical act, they are caught by Liu’s husband – who works as a window cleaner and was cleaning the wrong window at the right time to catch his wife and her boss at it on one of the beds. The plot thickens when Liu falls pregnant, and her boss makes a deal with the couple to unofficially adopt the baby – his wife is unable to bear children. The whole deal will depend on who the father of the child is.

The apathy that the film promotes, and the constant bombardment of unfinished apartment blocks, the squalor that Liu and her husband live in, is unavoidable, indeed the directorial style is such that the film grabs you but the throat and rams apathy and the emptiness of a city existence down it. Even something like Trainspotting had a message, and had some delightfully self-centered moments in it, but after watching Lost in Beijing, there’s nothing but the empty, dreadful feeling that we’re all going to die. The surprising thing about these two filmmakers is that they say they are both willing to edit their films so that they can be exhibited. Lou Ye says that while he’s willing, the Chinese negotiations with the Chinese authorities have broken down, the government isn’t interested in giving him a second chance: “I think the most fundamental reason is that they think movies are a form of politics. If that was their opinion 10 years ago, I could fully understand. But the reality today is not like that. In 2006, films are part of the entertainment industry.”.

Fang Li made over 50 cuts and reedits to Lost in Beijing in an attempt to appeased the government regulators, even then, after working with them in what the producer feels was total compliance, the film has been banned. The reason for ban was that the authorities believed that the producers were deliberately choosing themes that they knew were sensitive and controversial in order to pick up international accolades. That the directors have all engineered this to garner public sympathy from abroad to promote their movies to the lucrative western markets is the crux of the whole debacle. The “bleeding hearts and artists” of course will leap to the filmmakers defense, and champion Lou Ye for deciding to oppose the ban and team up with a Hong Kong writer to work on another movie. Fang Li and Lou Ye have repeatedly said that they have worked with SARFT in order to get distribution approval, after all there’s little point in making a movie if no one goes to see it. Lou Ye counters the accusations of sensationalizing the ban on on his film.”I feel that western critics don’t fully understand this film. They ignore a lot and focus only on Tienanmen and sex. But that is only a part of the story,” he says. “What is more important is what is going on inside the characters. This is a journey of the soul of a female Chinese intellectual. Such a trip could only happen here.” “I’ve never been antagonistic toward those official agencies. I’ve been feeling my way along. Where are the lines?”, asks Li.

Whereas SARFT may well approve the script for Summer Palace, they then ban the distribution of the movie because of the sex and the political tone of the movie. If the sex and political tone of the script was a problem, then it should have been rejected at the script approval stage, rather than wasting the time of an entire film production crew, actors and other creative talent that went into getting the film made. In contrast to the claims made by the film makers, the film banned not only because of the subject matter, but also because the film was technically below par for exhibition. The Beijing News reports that “the picture was too fuzzy, and the sound was too low.”, which would have caused some embarrassment to the Chinese people and government if anything less than a slick, well produce movies should ever appear in movie theaters around the world. “Lou Ye tried out some new artistic methods in this film, but the committee of censors judged it as not being up to technical standards. This struck a blow to the director, and he cannot accept this result at present,” so says producer Nai An. With Lost in Beijing, it’s a little different.

Obviously, Chinese cinema is a tool for exporting Chinese culture, and no-one wants to promote a culture that sees causal rape, child-selling and rapant sexual acrobatics when the Olympics is going to be held in your country in less than six months. The Hollywood Reporter was less than impressed with the movie, noting that audiences didn’t walk out of the movie because of the sex, degradation and generally crappiness of life in an Olympic city that is presented in the film, but that it was actually pretty boring. The bans of these two films, and the controversy generated thereof comes at a rather unfortunate time for Chinese movie fans. In December, an unofficial halt of the import and approval of American films came into effect. The ban was never announced in writing, but many suspect that it’s China’s reaction to the rather vitriolic complaints from the already rabid intellectual property rightists in the US. While the ban doesn’t seem to have originated from SARFT, “Enchanted,” “Bee Movie,”, “Stardust” and “Beowulf.” have all been locked out from Chinese exhibition. Things understandably came to a head following the comments of Susan Schwab, US Trade Representative at the World Trade Organization, who said “inadequate protection of intellectual property rights”. This was rather unfair as, on the 20th December, a Chinese court came down on Yahoo for deep-linking to MP3’s on it’s music search facility. IFPI applauded the rule, with John Kennedy saying that “The ruling against Yahoo China is extremely significant in clarifying copyright rules for Internet music services in China.”.

One of the problems with the censorship in China is that there is no definitive list of rules. For the Internet censorship there is no list of what sites are blocked and what sites are acceptable, websites are blocked and unblocked on an almost ad-hoc basis. During my research into the Internet blocking, courtesy of the Golden Shield project, I came across an interesting theory which postulates that it is that exact strategy that generates self-censorship in mainland China. Occasionally, people are reminded that censorship is in place, but it’s not always enforced. By making examples of individuals who do get caught, a reminder is sent that the government is watching.

While it’s written in the constitution of China that Chinese citizens enjoy freedom of speech and expression, there is an abundance of evidence that that is not the case. It’s true enough that other countries do censor films, my home country, the UK has one of the oldest and most controversial movie censoring bodies in the world. Countries where religion and politics meet also stringently scrub and cleanse media before the masses are allowed anywhere near it, the problem is that the Chinese government treats everyone the same, they make a decision and are so used to not having to explain the decision that everyone is left in the dark as to the reason why things work the way they work.

In October, when a group of Dutch marathon runners gathered to run around what had been promised as a tour of Beijing’s best and brightest “modern and historical” sites, they were, in actual fact, given a tour of Beijing’s wastelands – some of the buildings were so modern that they hadn’t been finished yet. The marathon date had been set at least one year in advance with all the participants. After running through mile after mile of highways and building sites, the runners only had one thing to say to the gathered press at the finish line: “We won’t be coming back.”. The reason for the sudden changes in the itinerary? The announcement, three weeks before the start of the marathon, of the biggest political event in the country, National Congress of the Communist Party of China.