A land where porn 'doesn't exist'

Chinese actress Lan Yan in a bikini photoshoot featured on news website, xinhuanet.com.

Chinese actress Lan Yan in a bikini photoshoot featured on news website, xinhuanet.com.

Aaron prefers to go by his English name for our interview because, well, he's embarrassed to talk about pornography. The 32-year-old engineer from Shanghai, says that from a young age, most Chinese are warned never to look at porn:

"Parents and teachers would say once you look at pornography you'll lose all control, and then rape someone, and then go to prison, and your life will be ruined." He adds wryly, "Unfortunately I've never seen porn as good as they described, so I don't have to answer your questions from prison.

He watches porn four to six times a month that he either downloaded as torrents or finds posted on user boards like 4chan. Anywhere else in the world such an admission would be unremarkable, but in China, where pornography is illegal, users like Aaron must evade the government's notorious internet filtering system, nicknamed the Great Firewall, that attempts to block Chinese Internet citizens from accessing titillating content and other material.

Every year there are stories of government busts made on huge porn websites and porn rings. Yet porn consumption in the country is on the up, with Chinese newspaper Global Times last year reporting on a survey conducted by Renmin University of China that found "52 per cent of the 7,202 people surveyed between the ages of 18 and 61 say they have watched porn at least once in the last 12 months," an increase of 12 per cent since 2000. And of those surveyed aged between 14 and 17, more girls admitted to having watched porn (26.9 per cent) than boys (21.5 per cent).

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Chen Rui, 30 (not his real name) is from Qingdao and uses torrents such as Xun Lei, emule or BT to download porn. He says as all the films originate from overseas, and require someone with a virtual private network (VPN) to access and then upload them, most of the pornographic videos in China are usually a couple of years old. These VPNs "trick" the Wall into thinking the user is located outside of China, thereby restoring their Internet to all its porn-filled glory along with other blocked sites like Facebook and YouTube.

But even without a VPN, a quick surf by yours truly turned up plenty of sexually explicit content. These were mainly on foreign websites like Video Loves You and AlphaPorno that had, at least temporarily, managed to slip through the Wall.

The demand for pornography in China seems to contradict the country's outwardly conservative attitudes towards sex, but as Aaron explains to me, there is space for the two attitudes to co-exist:

"Chinese culture is kind of like a yin yang sign, half black, half white, mixing together. It means you have to be acting like a priest in public, and yet you'll also find encouragement of 'dirty' acts done under the table."

He mentions having seen ancient Chinese pornography and sex toys in a museum in Amsterdam. According to Richard Burger's book 'Behind the Red Door', throughout its 5000-year-history Chinese attitudes towards sex has swung like a pendulum between liberalism and conservatism, finally arching towards the latter in more recent history. "Puritanism reached its peak in the Mao era, when prostitution was all but eradicated along with almost all public references to sex," writes Burger.

Of course, these days any Chinese person who is a little Internet savvy has no difficulty in accessing pornography. But that's not to say that its illegal status goes without ramifications. The largest effect has been the absence of a local porn industry. Instead the country has barely dressed car show models, and a booming amateur and DIY culture of erotica that regularly flirts with the boundaries set by China's censor boards.

Writer Katrien Jacobs of the book People's Pornography: Sex and Surveillance on the Chinese Internet tells me over the phone, "In China you can find bloggers who publish sex diaries, or high school and university students who are making naughty videotapes of themselves." Even People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China, seemed to get in on the act with this online puff piece on bathing that peddled softcore images of models in bathtubs.

It seems nowhere can the transformative effect of the Chinese digital revolution be seen more clearly than in pornography. Compared to Australia and the United States, it's far more common for social media users in China to go under aliases, rather than use real names. Jacobs explains that the Internet not only provides a public space for the expression of sexuality, its relative anonymity helps preserve the division between private and public identity that is demanded by traditional Chinese culture. It is the ultimate "yin yang" medium.

However, if the Internet is the equivalent of being at a masked ball, there are those who choose to rip their masks off (such as the short-lived sex blogger Muzi Mei) – and those who have their masks ripped off for them. Sex scandals are just as prevalent here as they are outside of the country and recently explicit photos from a sex orgy surfaced. One participant was identified as Wang Yu, deputy secretary of the Youth League Committee of Hefei University. The man's public role as a dour party official, accompanied by his colourful, behind-closed-doors sex life, makes him a more extreme example of China's two-sided coin when it comes to sex.

DIY aside, in the hunt for commercial pornography users must search outside Mainland borders. Stills from a 3D feature film out of Hong Kong called, Due West: Our Sex Journey are circulating on Weibo, China's version of Twitter. (The film is also showing in Australian cinemas with a R18+ rating.) But generally Chinese users look towards United States, Europe and Japan.

Aaron is tongue-in-cheek when telling me about his porn preferences. "I prefer the Western ones, because most of the actresses seem to really enjoy the process. Whereas Japanese actresses always show a face of suffering."

Chen Rui too is a fan of Western porn that he says "gets straight to the point". But he also enjoys Japanese porn because the Japanese look more similar to the Chinese and their actresses accord to Asian ideals of beauty.

Testament to the depth in which Japanese porn has penetrated the Chinese market is the massive popularity of Japanese porn star Sola Aoi, boasting over 13 million fans on Weibo. A recent post from the actress urging Chinese-Japanese friendship in light of the dispute over the Diaoyu Islands, attracted over 160,000 comments – although not all of them supportive.

Pornographic films is the one – perhaps only – product that the "world's factory" isn't producing. And one can't help but wonder, what with hotheaded Chinese nationalists taking to the streets and calling for the boycott of Japanese goods, if this isn't the perfect time for an enterprising and patriotic filmmaker to produce a truly great porn "with Chinese characteristics". ­


19 comments

  • There are over 1.5 billion Chinese, so a lot of Chinese people have been having sex for a long time- its similar to India, these cultures are so prudish when it comes to sex.

    Commenter
    Choppy
    Location
    Surry Hills
    Date and time
    October 04, 2012, 8:38AM
    • Not sure that either the Chinese or Indians are particularly prudish.
      I know from experience that couples from these two backgrounds are strongly represented on a few of the online swinger sites we frequent to meet other couples.

      And probably the most famous book on sex - the Karma Sutra - is Indian.

      Commenter
      steve
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      October 04, 2012, 12:10PM
    • @Choppy, your miscalculated and ignorant comment is astounding. Firstly there is 1.3 billion Chinese in China and secondly, the reason why there are 1.3 billion Chinese is because their history is over 5000 years. So if you were to calculate the birth rate x generations, then you would get the same amount if Australia was inhabited by the English for over 5000. Australia's Anglo Saxon History has been only since the 1770's when the first fleet landed in Botany Bay.

      Commenter
      Chop1
      Date and time
      October 04, 2012, 12:24PM
    • @Choppy they might look at us & judge us as being a culture with no morals whatsover. the point is you shouldn't be so judgemental of other cultures, we're all different.

      Commenter
      S!
      Date and time
      October 04, 2012, 1:38PM
    • @chop1 your reasoning for the population of china stating if australia had english for 5k years we would have similir is absolutly absurd

      population growth depends on a number of factors including cultural enviromental and other factors

      the main factor that china grew such a large population is that all farmers used to pop out babies like crazy to get help on the farm this has been documented but it is not the only reason

      @steve have you ever been to india
      they are actually one of the least prudish when it somes to sex in the world
      cultrally their mothers tell their daughters how to please a man sexually
      and they are often very open and willing to discuss sex and sexual expierence

      Commenter
      84 yo viet vet
      Date and time
      October 04, 2012, 3:19PM
    • 84 yo

      I have been to India, and was advised not to hold my girlfriend's hand in the village I was staying at, as we were not married. In fact, when I kissed her, I got dirty stares from men.

      Women's Cosmopolitan in India is a lot less sexual than that you get in Australia - about the spiciest thing you'll find in there is a curry recipe for your husband.

      Look at the outcry when Shilpa Shetty kissed Richard Gere...look at the issues surrounding the new Bollywood film Jism.

      Commenter
      Choppy
      Location
      Surry Hills
      Date and time
      October 04, 2012, 4:28PM
  • I lived in China about 10 years ago. Porn DVDs were openly sold on the street at all times of the day. I'd be very surprised if this has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. Who needs the internet for porn when it's readily available through other media?

    Commenter
    Judy
    Date and time
    October 04, 2012, 8:53AM
    • @judy Internet porn takes the embarrassment out of having to buy the DVD. This internet censorship is yet another way the Chinese government is attempting to control and squash the basic human rights of the Chinese people. The internet should be a place of free exchange of (legal) content, ideas and opinions.

      Commenter
      The-B-Pirate
      Date and time
      October 04, 2012, 10:31AM
    • A few years ago I was withdrawing money from a bank in Nanjing and the security guards were watching porn on their computer. It looked internet based.

      Commenter
      Sam
      Date and time
      October 04, 2012, 11:45AM
    • What system is in place to determine whether content is legal? This is an important question if you're concerned about human rights because Asia is notorious for exploitative and/or forced pornography, which is not simply an idea or opinion but somebody's life.

      Commenter
      Kay
      Date and time
      October 04, 2012, 12:00PM

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