December 30, 2012

Chinese Traditions

Mara Hvistendahl argues that China isn't undergoing a sexual revolutionl; it's rediscovering its past (Andrew Sullivan)
Changes in China are really important to the rest of the world today. Whether you are a believer in the Chinese rise or subscribe to theories that say China's glorious future is an illusion, you can't ignore the country. Its sheer size demands attention- not to mention the size of its economy and its army. We watch Chinese films, we eat Chinese food, in a couple of years time we'll probably listen to Chinese music in a way that our grandparents would never have done. So that makes understanding China really important and makes accounts of China as a place vital. We have received lots of those accounts over the last few years- but something sticks in my throat when I think about some of them.

The statement above was taken from Andrew Sullivan's blog. Sullivan writes a lot about sexuality from a particular perspective and he welcomes the rise of Chinese 'liberalism' regarding sex. Sullivan sees that as a positive thing. I've cited from one of his posts where he discusses a review of a book about Chinese attitudes to sex in the past. Sullivan's post makes one statement which is supported by the review he cites: China has not always been a conservative place when it comes to sex. However I think his insert might lead you, or me, to make two errors about the place of sex in Chinese society in the past and present and future- errors which I think have wider resonances for how we understand other societies.

The first of these errors is to say that China is more liberal than the West when it comes to sex (or more conservative). This is an error for a very simple reason. There is no such thing as China. What do I mean? There is obviously a China which exists today and which people believe that they are a part of- just as there is a Britain or America. There is a China in the past as well that people believed that they were a part of. When a Chinese person believes they are part of this present China they might connect it with a history of a particular thing- including a particular word or their family's ancestral political commitment. But that does not mean what happened in the past determines what the content of China is in the future. Think very simply: there is nothing innately Chinese about Communism- anymore than there is something innately Russian about it or innately British about liberal democracy. If you had gone back to 1500 and introduced the concept that Russia and China were innately communist and Britain was innately democratic, the elites and peoples there would have fried you alive for saying it. Things happen to countries- but we should not read them back into the past or forward into the future.

The second of these errors is to say that every sexual liberalism or every sexual conservatism or every similar position is the same. There are a number of different reasons why modern Chinese liberalism about sex will be different from anything that went before. Firstly we understand the mechanics of sex in a different way today: noone in the 8th Century believed as we do in evolution. Secondly we see sex differently: contraception and pornography mean that any modern Chinese understanding of sex has more in common with a modern Western one than it does with an ancient Chinese one. This does not only apply to sex. A modern religious fundamentalist is not in the same position as a medieval one for a simple reason: he or she has almost certainly read more things. He or she participates in a culture where it is not assumed that one has to be Christian or Muslim. The belief either in sexual liberalism or religious fundamentalism may look the same- but it is not the same. This doesn't just work over time- but over space as well- its very likely that Chinese sexual liberalism or conservatism looks different to Western sexual liberalism or conservatism. Its also probable that my sexual liberalism or conservatism differs from yours- because we have different experiences to make our ideas out of.

Sullivan's statement is right and its useful to know that China has a 'liberal' past with relation to sexuality- but its fatal if we start saying that China is innately liberal or conservative- just as its fatal to say that about Britain or anywhere else. There have been liberal and conservative Chinese people and at times China has been liberal- over its entire history it may well have been on average more liberal than the West or less liberal. Ultimately though the past does not determine the future. Ultimately its dangerous to be essentialist about nations or any other group of human beings. We are as the crowd in the LIfe of Brian puts it, all individuals.


Unknown said...

Good post.

It reminds me of a vignette in The Swerve (a book about the Renaissance) where the protagonist is contrasting how the Germans he encounters are carefree and liberated, in contrast with the uptight workaholic Italians like himself and his colleagues.

(Ok, in that time period neither Germany nor Italy existed as states, but the point stands in nice contrast to a lot of the essentialist talk during the EU crisis.)

Gracchi said...

Brilliant comment- I've not read the Swerve yet and should do and the quotation is right.

edmund said...

course at any given point cultures can be v hard.. as the EU is finding out (even i think even in that case can be oveerrated)

I think a lot of it is even in our culture 'sexual liberalism' and 'sexual conservatism' are coalitions of ideas (usualy defined as such by sexual liberals) . But even insofar as they are coherent they exist as alternative systems of belief in our ideas. Competing belief systems historically One good example is medieval europe was stricter on divorce but softer on adultery than the Islamic world (with of course various ) .

I'd also be v sceptical if those chinese ideas / behaviour looked anything like a modern liberals idea of good sexual behavour!