Sex sells. Even in Communist China.

Sex sells. Even in Communist China.

In China, sex happens.

This ought to be self-evident, since the Middle Kingdom’s population is now approaching 2 billion—and storks don’t proliferate in China. Some of the world’s oldest erotica, further, originated in China. The best-known may be the Qing Dynasty masterwork—long banned under Communist rule but widely regarded as the apex of Chinese classical fiction—The Dream of the Red Chamber. But Red Chamber was preceded by The Golden Lotus, the satirical Carnal Prayer Mat, and others—all serving the didactic purpose of enlightening readers about maximizing sexual pleasure. Shanghai Baby and The People’s Republic of Desire are simply new additions to an old genre. Not that any of this rich sexual tradition would have been apparent in modern times, post-1949. (Think baggy unisex Mao suits.) Not, that is, until quite recently. China’s publishing industry has now rediscovered sex with a vengeance, and a cursory glance at Chinese magazine covers tells just one (highly profitable) part of the story. The popular For Him Magazine, published by a government-run agency, advises readers on how to “do it in five minutes,” while Chinese bloggers have garnered worldwide attention by describing their own sexual exploits online.

Make no mistake—sex is still a taboo subject and the authorities take a very dim view of pornography, which remains illegal. But as any Western advertising executive can tell you, sex sells, and in 21st-Century China, selling is the name of the national game. Lingerie shops, sex toys, and pirated adult DVDs are selling like dumplings.

No one is publishing a mainland equivalent of Penthouse yet, but soft porn and fantasy are easy to find. And Chinese women are increasingly marketing themselves online by uploading suggestive photos, and more, onto blogs and Web sites.

People are more anonymous these days, to be sure, with far greater mobility than in the past. And sociologists speculate that the younger generation, raised under the one-child-per-family policy and often greatly indulged by doting parents, is simply more focused on its own pleasures than any previous Chinese cohort. People are marrying later in China, and surveys show a large majority of city-dwellers have engaged in sex before marriage.

“The government announces periodic crackdowns on pornography and often censors sexual content in magazines and on the Web. But since about 2000, the censors have started to look the other way,” writes Dave Barboza in The New York Times. “Political activism is still a no-no in New China. Entertainment is a different matter. Even the Web site of Xinhua, the official press agency, offers slide shows of the ‘10 Hottest Babes of 2006’ and ‘Rarely Seen Photos of Sexy Men.’”

In the blogosphere, Li Li—writing as Muzi Mei—posted a podcast of herself in the coital act that tens of thousands of people tried to download at once. “Despite government attempts to censor it, the sex diary is so popular that Li’s pen name is intermittently the most searched keyword on China’s top search engine,” writes Hannah Beech, in Time magazine. “’I express my freedom through sex,’ says Li, unapologetically. ‘It’s my life, and I can do what I want.’”

Sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, and divorce rates are meanwhile surging, much as they did in the West in the free-love era of the 1960s and 70s. But here’s another interesting fact: Evangelical Christianity is also on the rise. A potent cocktail of hedonism and religion, that, which begs the question whether China might be careening headlong toward a backlash resembling 1980s, Reagan-era, “just say no” America.

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