Beyond the wilderness years

Catherine Liu is 28 and a little nervous, she says, because two weeks ago she split up with her boyfriend and it is making her twitchy about her prospects. “In China, it is only [okay not to be married] until 30.’’ Then, a little forlornly, “My mother is worried about me.’‘

Liu is a Shanghai success story — well educated, sophisticated, with a high-profile job. She is also unsettlingly fluent in the language that every woman of a certain age who wants to be married prefers not to utter aloud: how she is getting older, how she is looking for a guy who understands her, but who also has a solid career and promising earning potential.

She liked her boyfriend, she says, but he wasn’t quite up to the mark.
And so she is glad that during their four-year relationship, although they travelled together and frequently shared a hotel room, they never slept with each other. Dating, she says, means “kissing and hugging’‘, nothing more. “My parents always told me not to have sex before marrying,” she explains, “but I am sure some women do.’’

There is her cousin, who is 22. “She is dating a married man from her company. I feel like I am standing on the edge of something. China is not like it was before. People have their own thinking. Sometimes even I am confused about the way the younger generations are thinking.’‘

Chan Li (23) is only five years younger than Liu but a social chasm separates them. She is dating an American guy who was her French teacher. Li, who likes to use the Japanese name Miki, works for Disney Asia, is conspicuously financially independent and is absolutely the master of her dating transactions.

I tentatively ask Miki about the nature of her relationship with her boyfriend. “Of course if I like a guy enough I’ll sleep with him!’’ Her girlfriends, aged between 22 and 25, noisily agree. Solvent, attractive and intimidatingly confident, none of these women admits to any enormous desire to get married or to have their allotted child.

Last month, in a poll of 200 students from Fujian province, 92% of the respondents said they thought that premarital sex was acceptable. Virginity was not listed among the top 20 factors that the students said they looked for in a partner. That is remarkable: in 1990 a study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found that 80% of Shanghai residents believed that a woman’s chastity was more important than her life.

If China’s economic and social development in the past decade has been remarkable, the revolution in sexual mores that is taking place among sections of its society is simply dazzling. A 2003 survey found that nearly 70% of young Chinese were not virgins when they married; only 15 years earlier that figure was 16%. But if sexual liberation has hit Shanghai with something of a bump, its impact is restricted to a tightly limited demographic, leaving those on the outside not a little bewildered.

I am having coffee with Miki and her friends in a Starbucks in Shanghai. They like it because it’s the kind of place where foreign guys hang out — Chinese men, Miki notes with a little sneer, all want to go to karaoke bars and watch girlie dancers.

So how does this group think they differ from girls 10 years older than them? “Our lives are totally different,” says Gia. “Girls 10 years older are like another generation to us.’’ Angie, a quantity surveyor, says: “Just three years is an incredible gap in the way people live.’’ Yet they are quite happy to talk to their mothers about their sexual adventures, pregnancy scares and all, says Vanessa.

Shanghai’s sexual history is so colourful, and so strange, that perhaps the fuel-injected sexual fizz of recent years should not seem so remarkable. The foreign influence on the bustling port has meant that its reputation has always been a curious melange of the sophisticated and the slutty.

James Farrer, a sociologist who has written a book on the city’s recent sexual awakening, cites one claim that before 1949 Shanghai had more prostitutes per capita than any city on Earth; in 1930, the sex industry was the biggest employer of women in the city.

But the draconian restrictions on personal, social and sexual behaviour imposed with the arrival of communist rule in 1949, and the introduction of the one-child policy in 1979, mean that for half a century young people have undergone very curious sexual awakenings indeed.

Sex education, too, has until recently been minimal or non-existent, so many young-ish Chinese still find themselves ignorant about basic sexual biology. Concern about Aids is finally activating China’s public health authorities resulting in a belated push on education about safe sex, and the beginnings of a programme to distribute condoms.

But the unintended consequence of such huge-scale social engineering will be to give sexually active young people even greater sexual independence. The great irony of China’s strictly controlled social programmes is that in Shanghai at least they have created a subculture that has found the space to be remarkably socially liberated. A generation of girls, for instance, has grown up remarkably relaxed about abortion owing to its widespread use in population control.

And indeed, while the change in the general acceptability of sexual behaviour among Shanghai’s youth has been staggering in its speed and scale, this remains at heart a deeply conservative society.

David Li, a 21-year-old student, says he and his university roommates do sometimes talk about “girls and kissing” after they switch off the light and before they go to sleep. Li has never has a girlfriend. “I think I will give my first time to my wife. I’m quite traditional. I think it’s not acceptable for me to have sex with anyone when my future is not guaranteed.”

Miki and her friends, meanwhile, are making plans for the weekend: which clubs they will go to, whether there will be foreign guys there, whether there will be drugs. “I think Shanghai is very unusual,” says Gia. “I think it must be a bit like New York City.” And are they very unusual? “Maybe we represent a small group,’’ says Vanessa, “but we are growing very quickly.’’ — Â

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