Sex, Marriage, & Motherhood in China

Slide1

I have admittedly been putting the subject off for a long time both due to a lack of firsthand knowledge and experience and because it’s a delicate subject. But since I have discussed the preeminent role that children play in Chinese society it seems only logical to discuss how they come to be.

Sex, of course, is a pretty broad topic and I think you have to think of it in terms of three broad categories: economic, social, and reproductive.

Economic sex is prostitution and exists in every country in the world. And in poorer and less developed countries it’s easy to understand why it does. It all comes back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. People have to feed themselves and if all other avenues have been exhausted there is, and always will be, no doubt, a male market for sex the world over.

Prostitution, however, is clearly illegal in China – as are all forms of pornography (you cannot buy even a copy of Playboy here and all pornographic websites are blocked) – and in addition to cracking down on corruption the current government has clearly made the crackdown on prostitution a priority, in part, I suspect, because the two issues can be inter-related. In Dongguan, a large manufacturing center in Guandong Province with an immense migrant worker and ex-patriate population, for example, the government recently conducted a massive attack on the sex trade, shutting down more than 3,000 venues that were rumored to have employed nearly 300,000 people in one way or another.

Many Western observers will tell you that there is a 'sexual revolution' going on among the young people of China.  I beg to differ.  That is not what I've observed.
Many Western observers will tell you that there is a ‘sexual revolution’ going on among the young people of China. I beg to differ. That is not what I’ve observed.

In terms of social sex, surveys conducted by both the government and others suggest that attitudes toward casual and premarital sex, like everything else in China, are changing. It is often referred to as a sexual revolution not unlike the one experienced by the West in the 60’s and 70’s but, from my observation, I don’t think the change rises to the level of ‘revolution.’

On balance, I believe, the Chinese remain quite conservative when it comes to sex. While public displays of affection were considered totally taboo among people of my own age, it’s not all that evident among the young people of Beijing and Shanghai even today. By Western standards it’s all pretty tame.

Young women certainly dress more provocatively than they did a couple of decades ago when men and women were encouraged to dress in a similar conservative fashion, but I think much of that is driven by young women’s perception of fashion rather than a desire to look ‘sexy.’ And while I don’t want to imply that this is a personal obsession, I admit to being a man, and I have to say that in my entire time in China I have yet to notice a woman that wasn’t wearing a bra. Which is a little surprising since many Chinese woman, for obvious genetic reasons, are not as well endowed as many European or American women who routinely go without them.

In ancient China, of course, marriages, as elsewhere in the world, were arranged. But while that is no longer the case today the process of choosing a spouse strikes me as more objective than emotional here. Seldom, I’m told, will a man or woman take a spouse with a vastly different educational, economic, or social background. In a culture of filial piety and obligation built around family and relationships marrying someone completely outside of your ‘league’, to put it bluntly, is considered a recipe for disaster.

When a young woman marries in China it is still generally considered that she is joining the family of her husband.
When a young woman marries in China it is still generally considered that she is joining the family of her husband.

China, of course, has been patriarchal traditionally, and while modern Chinese women enjoy all of the same political rights as men and are evident in both private and public leadership positions, it is still viewed that when a man and woman marry the woman is joining the family of the husband. Which partly explains why male suitors are still generally expected to provide well-stuffed ‘red envelopes’ to the parents of their potential bride. (One of the rites of engagement still commonly practiced in the lead up to the actual wedding is for the parents of the groom to prepare a special bedroom for the new couple to stay.)

And while virtually all young women now have careers, the career potential of a potential husband appears to get ample consideration in a young woman’s final choice. Questions about income, property, and investments are considered appropriate, or so I’m told, once a dating couple starts to get serious.

It’s a stage reached fairly quickly, from what I’ve seen. It is not uncommon for young women in my own office to publicly acknowledge that they have no boyfriend only to announce their marriage a few months later.

The parental pressure to marry is so intense that there is actually a market for "suitor rentals" with respectable jobs that young women hire to take home for holidays in hopes of avoiding the pressure of over-bearing parents and relatives.
The parental pressure to marry is so intense that there is actually a market for “suitor rentals” with respectable jobs that young women hire to take home for holidays in the hope of avoiding the pressure of over-bearing parents and relatives.

There is little question, moreover, that young women, although things are changing and it’s always dangerous to generalize, are under immense pressure to marry. In addition to carrying on the family heritage, of course, there is the practical question of who will take care of the grandparents when they’re old.

And not long after marriage, it often seems to be the case, comes the child. Boys, of course, remain the preference, although that remains more true in rural areas than in the large urban centers. Still, the national gender bias of newborn babies remains at 117 to 100 when 103 to 100 is considered natural in the West.

It’s actually illegal for doctors and other hospital professionals to reveal the sex of an unborn child but I’ve yet to meet the expectant mother who didn’t know. A small gift to the ultrasound technician, I’m sure, will get you a good look at the screen, if not an actual assessment.

China is actually ahead of the U.S. when it comes to maternity benefits, although when I first arrived in China you were expected to get a certificate from the government before you actually got pregnant. (I’m not sure if that rule still stands, to be honest.) At a minimum new mothers are given three months off with full pay and that can extend to six months depending on a variety of factors, including the province where you live and the age of the mother. And even upon their return to work nursing mothers must be allowed liberal time to nurse their child should they desire to.

New mothers are encouraged not to leave the house or bathe for 30 days after delivery in order to retain their inner warmth (yang).
New mothers are encouraged not to leave the house or bathe for 30 days after delivery in order to retain their inner warmth (yang).

There are many rituals and traditions relating to both the newborn baby and mother. Most are falling out of favor among young mothers but one that is still followed to a surprising degree is the belief that a woman who has just delivered a baby should not bathe or leave the house for one month after the delivery. The reason, as you might suspect, comes back to Traditional Chinese Medicine and that, of course, inevitably involves issues of yin and yang. A mother who has just given birth needs to retain her inner warmth (yang), which will dissipate through her pores should she bathe. This concern undoubtedly dates back to the days when few Chinese had access to warm water but, as noted, it is still considered appropriate by many Chinese, even today.

And then there are the eggs, which recovering mothers are expected to eat in abundance. One colleague told me that her own mother, having just delivered my colleague, ate at least 10 eggs per day for the first month. And eggs, for that reason, are often given as gifts by visiting friends and relatives following a birth.

Unwed mothers, I’m sure, exist, but I have yet to meet one. And while getting married is, today, a fairly simple affair involving going to the appropriate government office and registering, divorce appears to be equally simple and is increasing in frequency even though it was considered a source of shame just a generation ago.

Ever practical in their perspective, in fact, when the government of Beijing put a limit on the number of homes any household could own in an effort to control rapidly rising housing prices there was a material spike in the divorce rate, a development virtually everyone believes was created by the desire of wealthy couples to get around the property restriction. (Surely another excellent example of The Law of Unintended Consequences.)

On balance I believe the Chinese are generally still quite conservative when it comes to sex and marriage. And practical. While things are undoubtedly changing, and faster in places like Shanghai than Chengdu, my sense is that the young Chinese are still pretty darn traditional by Western standards when it comes to relations between the sexes.

There, it’s done.   Phew!

On balance I believe the Chinese are still overwhelmingly traditional and conservative when it comes to the relationship between men and women.
On balance I believe the Chinese are still overwhelmingly traditional and conservative when it comes to the relationship between men and women.

Copyright © 2014 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.