CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition


“On a blank sheet of paper free from any mark, the freshest and most beautiful characters can be written, the freshest and most beautiful pictures can be painted.”
Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung “Introducing a cooperative” (15 April 1958).

2In the spring of 2007, I attended an introductory course on the sociology of sexuality given by Professor Pan Suiming, one of three reputed Chinese sociologists, alongside Liu Dalin of the University of Shanghai, and Li Yinhe of the Academy of Social Sciences, to have reopened this field of study in Chinese sociology. I was immensely surprised by its content, however. Pan Suiming began by showing his first-year students a series of photos of mating animals. He went on to conclude that sexuality is a natural phenomenon, inscribed in what he called the “elementary circle of human life” (Rénlèi chūjí shēnghuó quān 人类初级生活圈). For Professor Pan, this applied likewise to the gendered nature of men and women. He explicitly challenged the gender approach – developed by Judith Butler, but pioneered many years earlier by Beauvoir and other predecessors – that has revolutionized the study of sexual issues in the United States and Europe since the 1990s. While acknowledging the historical variability of gender identities, he launched a humorous attack on the most constructivist sociological approaches which, he opined, give the impression that males and females are interchangeable. [2]

3Given the flagrant contrast between this approach and that of the seminars I had attended as a student in Paris, I quickly lost interest and gave up the course. I nonetheless continued to attend Pan Suiming’s lectures and to read his publications, but without giving serious thought to his—in my view—outdated positions. My surprise did not stop there, however. Between 2006 and 2010, during my two-and-a-half years of immersion in Chinese society, I came to realize that this naturalistic vision of sexuality and gender was utterly predominant, even among students of the social sciences. [3] It was this difference of perspective with respect to the world in which I had lived and studied in Paris that first prompted me to explore the issues discussed in this article.

4To understand the dominance of this representation, I needed to take the theoretical positioning of my interlocutors more seriously, or at least to open my mind to their underlying reasoning. This article is the fruit of these efforts. I will examine the historical context, the political signification and the practical implications of this naturalist vision of gender and sexuality. And in particular, I will show how this naturalism lies at the heart of a moral battle around Chinese cultural identity. This situation provides important insights for understanding the political and moral issues of Chinese society today and the positioning of Chinese feminists in the overall context. I will begin by explaining how the contemporary approach must be viewed in conjunction with the antinaturalism that preceded it during the Maoist era. I will then show how this naturalism lies at the heart of an unnamed intellectual and political confrontation, and describe the ambivalent symbolic position in which Western societies—as both model and antimodel—are placed. Last, I will examine the consequences of representing sexual desire and gender inequality as natural features of the individual life course.

A specific historical experience

5It is the historical experience of Chinese society, in which the Communists defended women’s rights to equality and challenged male domination from the outset—in theory at least—that lends particular interest to the question of the natural or non-natural nature of sexuality and gender in China. As early as the 1930s, these issues were addressed in Mao’s decree on marriage [Hua, 1981, p. 21; Kazuko, 1989, pp. 151-154]. This decree, and the law which followed in 1950, introduced the principle of equality between spouses, the right to divorce, the protection of the interests of all parties, including the children, the principle of free consent to marriage by both spouses, and the banning of all forms of arranged marriage, bigamy and the traditional keeping of concubines. Even though actual practices, notably those of the Communist leaders themselves, may cast doubt upon any genuine desire to apply these principles [Ding, 1942; Xinran, 2003, pp. 110-118], they were nonetheless formally laid down in law and disseminated by propaganda throughout the country. They were implemented by an official women’s federation (Fùlián 妇联) responsible in principle for protecting women’s rights, but in practice for putting women to work for the Party and the state [Wang Z., 2005; 2006]. Following Marxist logic, in the beginning at least, the Chinese Communist party encouraged women to contribute to national production by leaving their homes to work in fields and factories [Davin, 1975]. This ambition is illustrated by the place given to women in the representations of that time. The one yuan banknote of the 1960s, for example, featured China’s very first female tractor driver. The aim was for China to catch up with the world, to make up for the development lag that was partly attributed to women’s confinement to the domestic sphere and to the practice of foot binding which hampered their mobility. [4] The Party also sought to eradicate prostitution by closing brothels and “reeducating” the prostitutes [Coulette, 2003, pp. 53-54]. A key marker of this period was the saying popularized by Mao that “women hold up half the sky”, implying that they have as many rights as men.

6However, it is important to remember that these new rights to equality and freedom of marriage were above all a political act in the context of a civil war with the Nationalist Party [Béja, 2004, pp. 30-31; Hu, 1973; 1974; Hua, 1981]. They were by no means unconditional; designed to serve the desired transition of the Chinese people towards the Communist ideal, they remained contingent upon the will of the Party.

7When the law made its civil registration obligatory, marriage became a public question. This point was still contested in the 2000s by liberal-minded authors such as Pan Suiming who opposed this state interference in individuals’ private lives [Pan, 2006, pp. 258-259]. Of course, the public registration of marriages was intended to prevent private power dynamics from perpetuating the now illegal practices of bigamy and concubinage; it was nonetheless accompanied by measures instructing citizens “to consider politics in their decisions regarding marriage and the family” [Diamant, 2000, p. 17]. Rather than freeing individuals from the weight of tradition, the aim was to shift their allegiance from family to state. Propaganda slogans of the 1950s such as “My life belongs to the Party” illustrate the degree of loyalty expected from Chinese citizens, who were never to let themselves be distracted by personal considerations. The proclamation of freedom to marry the spouse of one’s choice thus came with a glorification of the ideological and revolutionary qualities of the ideal marriage partner. In practical terms, this meant that young people’s marriage choices, but also their sexual practices, were not under their own control. The fate of the young generations varied from one local context to another. The work units (dānwèi) which organized collective life—allocating jobs, homes, food vouchers and clothes, and handling all administrative matters—held enormous power. Couples wishing to marry or divorce were at the mercy of specific conflicts of interests or personal dislikes that might work in their favour or disfavour. Some found themselves separated and sent to work in different regions, while others were denied the right to marry, forced to marry someone else, refused a divorce or even the right to request one, sometimes for one or two decades. More than a general ideological principle, it was the arbitrary and contingent nature of these decisions that characterized the entire Maoist period. Social class and region of residence also played an important role, as did the local density of state institutions [Diamant, 2000, p. 205]. The social and ideological control of personal relationships proved to be much stronger for the higher social classes and city-dwellers in general, and weaker in the more peripheral spheres of the state.

8What vision of human nature underlies this absolute submission of one’s body and one’s emotions to the state? As Chi-Hsi Hu observes “the Maoist conception of human nature […] has a dual aspect. It reaffirms the classic Marxist position on man’s capacity for metamorphosis and on the inevitable emergence of the New Man, a natural product of the new relations of production in a new society. At the same time, it […] believes that an ideal man can be created through constant ideological remodelling” [Hu, 1973, p. 83]. Mao saw the Chinese people as a “blank page” on which “the freshest and most beautiful characters can be written”. He believed both that man could be transformed, and that man could transform nature. This was illustrated both in his ambition to reform the people by regularly eliminating the elements he considered as corrupt, and in his desire to submit the environment to human will. As a direct consequence of this vision, the Chinese population underwent regular coercion to forcibly achieve the desired changes, in what Judith Shapiro [2001] describes as a veritable “war against nature”, a major consequence of which were the famines of the “Great Leap Forward” which killed tens of millions of people [Dikötter, 2010].

9This ideological tyranny reached its paroxysm in the Cultural Revolution and the subsequent forced exodus of educated young people to work in the countryside. The period began in 1966, when Mao mobilized the masses in order to restore his power over the Party, but also to directly influence the ideological convictions of the young generations, and thereby impose his legacy. The Chinese regime thus assumed its most oppressive countenance as it sought to forcibly unify the thinking of the Chinese people with that of its infallible leader.

10A symbolically powerful image of this experience is that of the propaganda photos and posters featuring men and women in similar uniforms working side by side in the fields, digging trenches or breaking rocks with a pickaxe [Bonnin, 2004; Honig, 2002; Hopf, 2011]. More than gender identities, which, despite everything, remained circumscribed by traditional roles organized around biological reproduction [Evans, 2008], sexuality lay at the heart of these struggles, individual sexual desire being associated with selfish, bourgeois decadence. Anyone accused of sexual permissiveness or excessive interest in sex was subjected to frequently brutal chastisement [Zhang, 2015, p. 39]. Everett Zhang has shown how sexual desire was experienced at that time as an interior threat, to the point where some men chose to castrate themselves to escape from the political danger of their own body, in case of spontaneous ejaculation especially [2015, pp. 43-46]. Romantic feelings, also a sign of egotistical and bourgeois self-interest, were reproved likewise [Zhang, 2005, p. 12]. Sexual or sentimental transgressions became tools for public humiliation and political elimination [Diamant, 2000, pp. 288-294; Honig, 2003]. The “worn shoes” (pòxié 破鞋) [5] and their lovers, wearing debasing outfits and carrying placards that denounced their so-called crimes, were paraded through the streets by the red guards, and often bludgeoned to death along the way. When young educated people were sent to the countryside in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, “revolutionary puritanism took on extreme forms […]. Social pressure went as far as broad interference in individuals’ private lives, including constant surveillance and opening people’s letters. If any contained declarations of love they might be read out loud publicly at meetings to denounce the ‘class enemies’” [Bonnin, 2013, p. 325].

11After Mao’s death in 1976, a counter-movement emerged in Chinese society in the early 1980s, giving rise to the ideology that dominates today, in total opposition to the one it replaced.

The new nature of desire

12While the period of the Cultural Revolution was shaped by the Maoist ambition to transform humankind, how can we qualify the current period? What is the place of physical desire in contemporary China? How are men and women represented? In all these respects, the break with the past is even more revealing than it is flagrant: contemporary Chinese society seems to have turned its back on the ideological positions of the preceding era. There is a strong belief that sexual desire and the gender division of roles are a part of nature [Farquhar, 2002, p. 250-256]. In fact, the repolarization of genders and clothing styles was already becoming perceptible by the early 1980s [Honig, Hershatter, 1988; Farquhar, 2002, pp. 211-214]. This gendered mode of organization forms part of a social order that is itself constructed around an ideology that contrasts utterly with the one that preceded it: capitalist economic competition imposed upon the population with the same force as the earlier egalitarian ideal. It is striking to see how even the people who defend feminist positions today generally do so on the basis of a differentialist viewpoint [Angeloff, Lieber, 2012, p. 21; Chow et al., 2004, p. 178].

13These two succeeding periods must be analysed together. The fact that so many young Chinese people see sexuality as something natural—described by many as a “bestial” need—cannot be fully understood without observing its flagrant and absolute contrast with the previous state-imposed discourse. Likewise, it is difficult to ignore the role of politics in the scornful rejection, so commonly voiced today, of the idea that sexual desire is built upon sociohistorical constructions. And above all, it is difficult to overlook the symbolic role played by the expression of these desires in the organization of contemporary Chinese society, where they are often seen as incarnating a form of resistance to state power [Rofel, 2007], and as symbolizing individual reaffirmation in response to state repression. This new discourse affirms the biological origin of desire and the inalienable nature of gender roles, in opposition to the anti-naturalist vision of the preceding era [Farquhar, 2002, pp. 239-240; Rofel, 2007, p. 67]. This position “biologizes” gender inequalities in the occupational sphere through the idea of differentiated natural abilities [Attané, 2012, p. 9]. Logically, it assigns women to a reproductive role. This is very clearly expressed in the hurtful insults addressed to unmarried women in their thirties [Hong Fincher, 2014; Wei, Zhen, 2014; Zurndorfer, 2018], and by the way in which women are consistently placed in men’s shadow [Pietryka, 2015; Zheng, 2009, p. 127].

14In contrast with the previous era, the pleasure industry has grown rapidly, initially as a branch of the medical industry [McMillan, 2006]. Everett Zhang has described the development since the 1980s of what he calls an “impotence epidemic”, with the growing numbers of men who seek medical treatment for their inadequate sexual prowess; this reflects, in his view, the emergence of a new “desire to desire” [2015, pp. 13-15]. This discourse takes practical form in the ubiquitous commodification of sex which, for Evelyne Micollier [2004] is now implicitly shaping the dominant sexual culture. For the clients of prostitutes interviewed in the 2000s, this representation provided a means to challenge the “unnatural” social state and to regain control over their own bodies [Zheng T, 2009, pp. 124-129]. In sum, the post-Maoist period has seen the resurgence of an eminently conservative model in the name of newfound individual liberty. But one of the most characteristic aspects of this discourse is its affirmation that there is nothing political in sexual desire: it is a purely natural phenomenon. And because it is natural and not political, its control is an issue of individual morality. This is the true heart of the matter.

One desire, two moralities

15In a certain manner, this represents a consensual and reassuring return to a social space structured around two complementary but opposite genders, in line with the traditional cosmology of yīn and yáng. However, unanimous belief that sexual desire is natural does not signify unanimous agreement about how it should be dealt with. This question is central to the debate. Put simply, two fundamental moral positions coexist, one arguing that desire should be controlled, the other that it should be fulfilled. Both accord an important, but ambiguous, symbolic role to Western societies. The first, more traditional, sees the West as abhorrent. The second, more liberal, sees the West as a model of society that offers freedom for self-fulfilment and satisfaction of desire.

16The first position was clearly brought to light by Vincent Gossaert in his historical analysis of Chinese texts on morality over several centuries. This ancient approach “applauds discipline and the control of desire”, for men especially [Gossaert, 2013, p. 44]. Today, this standpoint is often based on a representation of Western societies as a decadent counter-model [Gossaert, 2013, p. 46], but its reasoning draws primarily upon a latent Confucianist principle that humanity is the fruit of an individual ascetic effort to surpass oneself. This has been studied by Yan Yunxiang, who shows how “doing personhood” is a manifestation of “the moralist self”, i.e. the self who places the needs of others above the accomplishment of one’s own desires [Yan, 2017, pp. 8-10]. Under this mode of thinking, it could be argued that we are not born truly “human”, but become so gradually by transcending and sublimating our animal desires. It is thus through personal effort, the expression of a capacity to transcend our nature, that we can reach a higher moral level.

17This obviates any contradiction between recognizing one’s sexuality and natural physiological needs, and choosing to remain chaste or protect one’s virginity, as was the case for many student couples I met. For example, a young 23-year-old English teacher of rural origin living in Chengdu told me that he consumed pornography to satisfy his “physiological needs” but criticized his former girlfriend for being too licentious, doing things “that make people say bad things about you”. He admired his new girlfriend on the other hand, who had vowed to remain a virgin until marriage. It was not his choice, and he had not asked it of her. But this vow, a source of physical frustration for him, also made him proud; it was a rare quality to be respected and not questioned. This effort of restraint was a way of proving the sincerity of his attachment and of his own masculine dignity; any discussion of the question would be unworthy. A 22-year-old medical student from Chengdu with a very conservative family background told me that desire was an animal instinct. In her view, it is generally men who incite women to behave badly. With a few exceptions of more virtuous men held back by their moral values, “they are incapable of controlling themselves,” she said. She alleged that most male students had pornographic films on their computers. She recounted her horror at discovering the violence of an American porn video that she had seen when she first entered university. “These men behave like animals” she said, with disgust and contempt for the actors; she pitied the actresses who “looked as if they were having a hard time”. Before immediately adding that everyone has animal impulses, and that moral values are vital for keeping them under control. For her, as a woman, what was important was to preserve her virginity.

18As already observed by Harriet Evans, it is therefore women who are charged with upholding sexual morality [1997, p. 109]. Many told me that men have sexual needs that, unlike women, they are unable to control. In fact, some pointed out that young women of their age often read magazines devoted to questions of love and sexuality so that they can find out what men want and do what it takes to satisfy their desires. Here too, desire is essentially masculine and instinctual. But rather than avoiding it, the aim is to serve it. Why so? And above all, as indiscriminate satisfaction of men’s “natural” desire is out of the question, how does this form of submission fit into social dynamics of distinguishing between the men to be served and those to be repelled? It is the interplay between the crudeness of a physical desire perceived as normal and natural, and a moral discourse on how it should be correctly managed that is interesting here. While sexual desire is always presented as normal, it is not necessarily seen as a quality. It is associated with a form of animality that must be controlled—by men in particular—in order to become a true human being. In this context, the role of personal morality is not to challenge the nature of things or the differences between men and women. It establishes men’s self-control as a higher moral virtue, distinguishing those who exercise it from those who are incapable of doing so, and who are no more than animals, unworthy of the gift of women’s surrender.

19The second—more liberal—vision is that adopted by the majority of social science scholars. Founded, like the first, on a rejection of Maoist anti-naturalism, it does not promote a traditional morality of self-control, but a liberal morality of freedom to express one’s nature as a sexual being. Often based on the fantasy of a Western society where desire is natural [Zheng, 2009, p. 132-134], this vision has been adopted by numerous intellectuals, sociologists and anthropologists seeking to denounce the repression and indoctrination of earlier times. In their view, this very normative vision of gender identities enables Chinese men and women to reaffirm their nature [Farquhar, 2002, p. 224-242]. In the 1990s, for example, women’s return to the home could be seen as a form of resistance to the state [Chow et al., 2004, p. 169; Zhang, Sun, 2014, pp. 126-127; Zheng, 2009, pp. 19, 24-25], in reaction to the Communist discourse of women’s “liberation” through non-domestic labour.

20While such positions might be seen as conservative or sometimes even reactionary from a contemporary Western viewpoint, the sociologists who express such views might be termed as pro-Western and liberal in the context of the Chinese debate. In their discourse, the West plays a role that is the strict opposite of its perceived decadence under the previous vision: it is an alternative model which proves that people can live a fulfilling and satisfying sexual and social life without the need for official moral oversight or control of sexuality. What’s more, this belief that sexual desire is natural often gives rise to a perception that sexual freedom in China is still too limited by comparison with Western countries, and sometimes to some surprising judgements about the sexual incompetence of their compatriots. For example, the sociologist, Liu Dalin states that “perhaps some couples simply do not know what a satisfactory sex life is” [Liu et al., 1997, pp. 311]. Here too, the tendency to compare China with an idealized representation of Western society is by no means new. From the start of the twentieth century, it is widely referred to in historical explorations of romantic love. In the 1920s and 1930s, for example, Zhang Jingsheng published a series of studies on love inspired by Western romantic thinkers. He concluded that Chinese society at that time “understood nothing” about this sentiment [Zhang J., 1998, p. 281; Lee, 2007, pp. 142-151, pp. 246-247].

21It is because they oppose the control of sexuality by the state, and because they consider sexuality and gender to be dimensions of life previously subject to repression that many sociologists and anthropologists of contemporary China, such as Pan Suiming [2006] and Everett Zhang [2011; 2015] use the term “sexual revolution” to qualify the changes that have occurred since the 1980s—a period which in other respects might otherwise be judged as regressive [Pettier, 2010]. More generally, “the repressive hypothesis” to use Foucault’s [1976] expression, is highly dominant here. While the state had no specific policy on sexuality during the Cultural Revolution, and the individual experiences of the period were diverse, it was nonetheless a time of severe sexual repression [Honig, 2003]. Restoring a sexuality in which desire is no longer shameful, even if this means a return to conservative sexual mores, is a liberation in this respect.

22These two moral stances share two points in common: both consider gender and sex as natural traits, and both use Western societies rhetorically as if they formed a unified civilizational bloc. This is perhaps a form of “Occidentalism” that mirrors the literary role of Orientalism in our own societies in past centuries. All the more so, given that these general arguments are based on a form of self-Orientalism or “nativism” [Zheng Y., 2001], pervasive in both public and private discourse, in which the unified Chinese “us” opposed to a Western “you” are extremely commonplace and constantly recurring figures. It might, in that case, be misleading to qualify only the first position, that of the moralists encouraging sobriety and self-control, as “traditional”, as if Chinese tradition was unified and immobile. In fact, the moral discourse of preceding centuries examined by Gossaert must certainly have targeted social groups who advocated quite the opposite. The question concerns the internal structuring of debates between liberals and conservatives within China itself. If lines of long historical continuity can certainly be detected in these exchanges, the dynamic is also inseparable from the experience of the Maoist era. It is therefore no surprise that the more constructivist positions developed in Europe and the United States in recent decades have failed to gain a foothold in contemporary Chinese intellectual debate.

Desire, material success and inequality

23Be it a question of controlling one’s desires or experiencing them fully, the idea of a formal equivalence between male and female desires appears to be irrelevant for these two outlooks: both see men and women as complementary beings. Indeed, controlling one’s desire does not call for any formal recognition of gender inequality, since the natures and social roles of men and women are understood to be different. Moreover, in daily life, the opposition between the moral standpoints that I have highlighted is often not so clearcut. Rather, male success is simplistically associated with both the control of natural impulses and privileged access to women’s bodies. Successful men who have a string of girlfriends, a young mistress, etc., are commonly qualified as “a big deal” (tài lìhài 太厉害). The term is by no means negative, but rather used admiringly by men and women alike. The fact that men’s ambitions are couched in terms of domination is seen as physiologically justified, and its social consequences likewise. Many young women, for example, take it as read that their future husband’s career prospects are more important than their own, and that men have greater capacities; they explicitly associate sexual fulfilment with material success, as a way of acknowledging the value of a particular man. Men’s conquests serve as a marker of their value and as a recompense for the chosen women: they are an outward sign of success.

24In this context, the multiple female conquests of the men concerned resemble a collection of personal trophies in a competition of debauchery and swagger. Conversely, for these female “trophies” or “flower vases” (huāpíng 花瓶), to use the Chinese expression, the reward is in the quality of the man they have attracted, since the greater his success, the more women he can attract, and hence the higher the prestige of being the woman he actually chooses. As explained to me by an interpreter in her thirties in Beijing, the money a man spends on her is perceived as a form of care; a man’s material gifts and financial generosity towards a woman are the sign of her value in the man’s eyes, and certainly not a threat to her independence. “For women, the “gendered” body, youth and beauty are […] the surest means for climbing the social ladder” observes Evelyne Micollier [2012, p. 193].

25This discourse is pervasive in daily life and in collective representations [Farquhar, 2002, p. 274]. It is visible everywhere, as in this TV commercial broadcast in a China Telecom agency in Chengdu on a morning of November 2009:


“On the TV screen in the waiting room, the endlessly repeated corporate commercials featured only men (young, modern, business leaders and loyal family men…) for whom technology provides all the comfort and contacts they need… In the first, a trendy and stylish young man watches the world open up to him via the mobile internet. The stream of implicit messages carried in the symbols that float towards him from all directions (hearts, teddy bears…), and the choice of colours (warm, lustrous, shades of mauve…) are clearly suggestive of young women (who are never shown), and of how his love life and dating opportunities will be enhanced thanks to this new technology. The second features a handsome business man in his office and around town meeting other professional men and drinking champagne with charming young women. His internet access makes everything so much simpler. His pretty and fawning secretary appears instantly to help and serve him, offering an affectionate smile and a submissive downward nod of her head. The commercial ends with his image as a family man, looking tenderly at his sleeping son pictured on his smartphone.”
(Excerpt from the author’s field journal)

27This discourse creates a transparent link between men’s success with women and their material success. It shapes desire in social terms. This handsome, successful, family man with whom so many women would love to share a glass of champagne is the antithesis of a vulgar lout getting cheap thrills from pornographic films in a student dorm or internet café. Such moral discourse is a class discourse, justifying the domination of certain men at the expense of certain others. And indeed, contrasts between the sexes are sometimes startling in contemporary China. The extreme population diversity provides scope for considerable variation. The modesty and restraint of some contrasts flagrantly with the unbridled behaviour of others. While many young workers publicly watch pornographic films in internet cafes, and prostitution is visible everywhere, some students, both male and female, have an extremely reserved approach to sexuality, defending very conservative viewpoints, such as the need to protect one’s purity or virginity. In some cases, they even display an almost total ignorance of all things sexual. Chinese society is indeed highly complex, and it would be impossible to do justice to its diversity in these pages. But in the light of historical experience, this categorization of some as slaves to their animality and of others as capable of a controlled sexuality shows that the production of sexual desire, now presented as non-political, is key to the moral arguments that serve to justify inequality in China today.

28If masculinity is redefined in terms of control or domination of women, where does this leave the female sex? It is revealed in a well-known contemporary Chinese stock phrase: a young women looking for the ideal husband would choose a revolutionary hero in the 1950s, a poor peasant in the 1960s, a soldier in the 1970s, a graduate in the 1980s and a business owner in the 1990s. This expression captures two important dimensions: first, that it is “women”—verbally at least—who symbolically decide what is erotic, and who define the ideal marriage partner; second, that this choice is made in accordance with social representations of success and moral ideals, with the dominant ideal today being that of material success.

29The explicit materialism expressed by many young women in their choice of marriage partner and, in some cases, the brashness of their demands, are no mere figment of the imagination. During my research I observed several cases of young men whose girlfriend broke up with them, often under family pressure, because they couldn’t afford a sufficiently elaborate wedding. The reverse situation is practically non-existent. If the man’s family disapproves of his girlfriend—a situation that also exists, of course—it is generally for moral rather than economic reasons. [6] What matters here is to understand why things work in this way.

30The materialist demands of young women—or their families—are not surprising, given the prospects they face after marriage. The material goods offered by their future husband are taken in exchange for their future as a mother and for the sacrifice of their own working career. These demands reflect their position in this reinvented conservative model. For things to be different, they must have a good chance, at an equivalent educational level, of fulfilling their own professional ambitions, and this is rarely the case in contemporary Chinese society [Angeloff, 2012, pp. 97-99].

31It would be premature, however to posit a direct causal relationship between the unjust sacrifices expected of many highly qualified young women and the material demands made by themselves or on their behalf; an individualistic viewpoint of this kind does not dominate the reasoning of the men and women I spoke to. In any case, very few women explained their expectations of their future husband in terms of the sacrifices they would have to make. When the question was raised, most stated in explicit terms that her husband’s professional career must take precedence over her own. Of course, some women denounce such attitudes as unfair, but feminist pronouncements of this kind are quite rare.

32Overall, this representation of the gender division of labour—the woman’s role is to become a mother above all—is shared equally by young women and young men. The two parties thus define their expectations of each other in line with this representation, assuming the benefits and the costs, which vary by age and sex. For practically all the young couples I met, the man was expected to use his earnings to cover the costs of shared living, leisure activities, etc. before marriage. Far from representing a second income, young unmarried couples see the woman’s earnings as a form of pocket money that the woman can spend as she wishes, even if her salary is equivalent to that of her partner. One such example is that of a young couple I knew in Chengdu. Both partners worked at an equivalent level in the same company, but it was the man who clocked up countless hours of overtime to save money for their wedding while also paying all the expenses of their shared daily life. This did not stop his fiancée, who held a similar position but didn’t need to do overtime, from criticizing him for being incapable of earning more, while spending her own salary as she pleased. This case was by no means exceptional; it reflects the dominant trends I observed directly among those around me, both in Beijing and Chengdu.

33The inequality between partners described here has inevitable repercussions over time. The economic and professional capital gradually accrued by men as they move up the career ladder, for which they have certainly made great sacrifices, eventually turns to their advantage. It gives them wealth and social standing, but also serves them well if the couple separates. Separated women who have complied with the social norm by giving priority to the family over their career pay a heavy price. There are plenty of forty-year-old divorcees whose social and financial situations take a nosedive after their husband leaves them, even though their starting salaries were very similar.

34These important realities show how the system of male domination operates in Chinese society. The multiple challenges facing very young men, often willingly acknowledged by young women themselves, have long-term effects on the organization of conjugal life. They generate fluctuations over time in the power relations between spouses, which remain very unequal. As couples grow older, the situation is significantly and violently reversed. In their youth, it is the men who are constantly expected to demonstrate their masculine virtue and to engage in an infernal, never-ending battle to succeed; in later years, once they have accrued enough power and wealth to behave as they wish, it is their wives, whose careers have been left by the wayside, who are the ones to suffer. The demands of certain young women—sometimes apparently quite childish— [7] and the repeated ordeals and failures that young men are forced to withstand, give rise to what can only be called misogyny. When the wind changes in later years, it is the women, of course, who suffer the direct repercussions, losing out on an interesting professional career, or simply being replaced by a younger woman when the husband’s career advancement so permits. [8]

35The tribulations, humiliations and outrageous expectations weighing on the shoulders of very young men can perhaps be interpreted as the mode of reproduction of a gendered division of power in a society where the norm of male domination remains all-pervasive. At the same time, let us not forget that the immense majority of men are, of course, incapable of meeting the current prevailing standards of money-making and success, and therefore suffer from the symbolic pressure placed upon them. This “natural” system does not necessarily produce a lot more male winners than female winners. We cannot fail to observe, however, that the growing concern in China about future population decline and accelerated demographic ageing is now reinforcing these trends, and increasing the pressure on women to give priority to a traditional mother’s role over a working career.

The political is personal

36In this context, the social sciences have played a questionable role. The pronouncements of numerous sociologists have paradoxically contributed to the normalization of a structurally inegalitarian reality, all in the name of resistance to a state which, in truth, is now itself built upon this same neo-naturalist model. They have not all spoken out for the same reasons or in the same way, but most share a natural vision of a humanity requiring protection from the excesses of a Maoist-type state. In the context of China, where all forms of criticism are dangerous, it is also important to keep in mind the difficulty of expressing intellectual disagreement when no public discourse can afford to be perceived as “political”. Discussion of these questions with Western countries is also highly ambivalent. On the one hand, it is these countries which serve as an imaginary reference—either positive or negative—to a “natural” conception of desire. On the other, gender-based approaches, and the politicization of sexual issues seen in the United States and Europe in recent decades, have not gained a foothold in China [Evans, 2008].

37Since the 1970s, the Western feminist movement has adopted the argument that “the personal is political” [Hanisch, 2006; Picq, 1995], i.e. that personal choices are social issues that deserve to be publicly debated. By refusing to accept that private choices are not open to discussion, this idea sought to rekindle debate around questions that had previously been excluded from the political arena. Yet by naturalizing and systematically depoliticizing the question, those seeking to bring sexual questions into public debate in China are doing exactly the reverse. This reveals that in China, the negotiation of “sexual democratization” [Fassin, 2006, pp. 123-131] is an inverted process. Debate is paradoxically only possible on condition that all political questioning is symbolically set aside, since all things political are taboo. This is a very sensitive issue for local actors, who refer to it very regularly, whatever their own positions may be. For example, Pan Suiming has repeatedly declared that his research on sexuality and prostitution in China is not political [Monteil, 2011]. He is not alone in doing so, and a similar discourse is practiced widely in China today, including, and perhaps above all, among feminists. Quite simply because politics is dangerous.

38In China, defining the personal, sexual or intimate as outside the political domain brings it back into the arena for a debate that is potentially public. Politics being the domain of arbitrary control and stratification of authorized speech, leaving this domain signifies a release from state ideological oversight. An explicit retreat from the political sphere might, paradoxically, be the only way to bring it back to life. A clear grasp of this situation is needed to understand the substance of local debate and the positions taken by the people who speak out. Chinese feminists, for example, often criticize their American and European allies for their propensity to qualify their combat as political. For them, the stakes are high. Their safety is in the balance. In this context, denying any political intent is an act of resistance and a disavowal of the state’s stifling hold over people’s intimate lives. In China, where political means a state of paralysis and non-debate, where silence is imposed and dialogue is held in check, the personal is already too political, one might say. Yet the debate is urgent. Without it, the political reality taking hold simply consists in a strict moralization of sexual questions, arguably serving solely as an instrument of repression and social regression.

  • Translation from the French original was done by Catriona Dutreuilh and revised by the author. It was financed by the Dahlem Research School, Freie Universität Berlin.


  • [1]
    I would like to thank two anonymous reviewers for their very encouraging comments and their bibliographic recommendations. Roberta Zavoretti also made some very useful suggestions on the first version of this article. I am also grateful to Evelyne Micollier for her advice and encouragement during my research, and in the time since.
    Successive versions of this paper were presented at the Assises d’Anthropologie de la Chine en France in 2017, at the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies and at the Center for East Asian Studies at Stanford University in 2018, and at the Margherita von Brentano Center for Gender Studies at Freie Universität Berlin in 2019. I would like to thank the organizers and participants at these events, whose questions and comments helped me to refine my analysis.
  • [2]
    Pan Suiming’s details his position on gender studies in a text published in 2013, arguing for greater consideration of the feminine point of view in research, and reiterating the idea of social malleability of gender while clearly distancing himself from a more constructivist outlook [Pan, 2013].
  • [3]
    As part of a master’s degree in social and cultural anthropology obtained at EHESS in 2007, followed by a PhD in the same discipline and at the same institution defended in 2015, I conducted a lengthy survey on questions of gender, sexuality and matchmaking practices, known in Chinese as xiāngqīn. Most of the data were obtained from groups of students and young workers in the cities of Beijing and Chengdu. For practical reasons, the PhD thesis focused on the question of xiāngqīn, to which most of my subsequent publications have been devoted [Pettier, 2016; 2017; 2018; 2019]. The present article enables me, for the first time, to analyse some of the data on gender and sexuality collected during the survey. These data have been further fleshed out over time through regular consultation of the scholarly literature and the media over the last few years, not only to complement the survey, but also to prepare various teaching seminars on these topics in France, Germany and the United States.
  • [4]
    Although this reading of Chinese women’s situation, be it foot binding [Ko, 2005] or their confinement to the home before the Communists took power [Hershatter, 2011], is at best an exaggerated generalization and at worst a shameful propaganda exercise.
  • [5]
    A sexist insult referring to so-called “loose” women who were unfaithful or had lost their virginity outside marriage.
  • [6]
    For example, the young woman is thought to be too beautiful, and hence dangerous; or she is accused of immorality for having had too many previous partners, etc.
  • [7]
    In the case of the couple cited above, in which both partners worked for the same company, the wedding was delayed by several months, and very nearly cancelled, because the young man was unable to supply the very best brand of spirits for the wedding guests. He could only afford the second-ranking brand, which nonetheless cost several tens of euros per bottle, and this was seen as dishonouring by the young woman (according to the young man’s account; I only heard his version of events).
  • [8]
    On the link between career and sexuality, and the way in which a large share of masculine professional sociability—and corruption—takes the form of keeping mistresses and frequenting “hostess” clubs, see the work of Tiantian Zheng [2006], John Osburg [2013] and Fang Chen [2016].

The period of economic reform which began in China in the 1980s has been regularly understood as one of sexual liberation, but also of reassertion of gender identities. Prostitution and pornography have become publicly visible, in particular through the spread of corrupt practices among male decision-makers. In this context, the unrealistic character of the Maoist era ideals has been widely criticized in Chinese public debate. The most notable commonality in these debates is the rejection of a constructionist perspective on human nature, with a general acceptance of the notion that sexual desire, particularly male desire, is a “natural need”. Two morals, one calling for the control of desire, the other calling for its accomplishment, stand in opposition here. Desire lies between animality and civilization; both normal and reprehensible, it has become a matter of Chinese moral identity.

  • gender
  • sexuality
  • morals
  • politics
  • inequality
  • human nature
  • feminism
  • China


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Jean-Baptiste Pettier
Affective Societies Collaborative Research Center, Freie Universität Berlin (Germany)
Translation from the French original was done by
Catriona Dutreuilh
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