For me, China's fascination lies in the rapid change in attitudes, so rapid that parents are becoming ever more alienated from their children. Four years is considered a generation gap; it’s so uneven that huge differences may be found even within generations and between genders. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the delicate area of boy-meets-girl.
Boys have always had it easier. As young adults they're not expected to be chaste. Though gender-roles within relationships are complicated, generally the male is in control. Given how easy boys have had it, it's not surprising that the biggest shift in attitudes has been amongst girls. They have more to gain from changing.
I taught my first Chinese university class in Autumn 2000. There, one of my girl students had a 'reputation'. None of her classmates knew what to make of her weird hairstyle, choice of clothes and, more importantly, her boyfriend. She was not the only girl in her class to have a boyfriend but – this told to me in the most delicate of language – she and her boyfriend had, well... done it.
Five years later I found myself in conversation with another student who had, well... done it; only she was quite open about it. She had lost her virginity, she told me, in high school. None of her college friends knew.
"Are you sure they don't know?" I asked.
"Certain," she replied. "They think I am very innocent."
"Are you sure you're the only one who has?"
"Definitely," she said. "My friends are very pure."
She may have missed the irony in her own words, but I didn't. I knew she was far from alone. Around this time I was a repository for a lot of secrets; dreadful secrets parents couldn't be told, terrible secrets that couldn't be shared with pure and innocent classmates. So many secrets, indeed, that I was almost tempted to gather all the secretive together in one place and announce, "Look, you've all had sex. You're not alone. Now for heaven's sake talk to each other."
During this period, a minor surgical procedure was popular: virginity restoration. A stitch or two and the mythological unbroken hymen was seemingly restored, ready for the wedding night. Boys still planned on marrying virginity in those days and yes, difficult entry, and a bloodied sheet were still regarded as proof.
Today, ten years on from my scandalous student, a ‘generation’ away from dread secrecy, things are different again. Few boys expect to find a virgin bride. When lights go out in student dormitories, sex is a common topic for late-night conversation. Student couples live together off-campus. Five years ago I had a class of students nodding in agreement with one of their friend’s outspoken revulsion at the idea of homosexuality; today, having a gay friend or two is a chic accessory. You simply must have one in your address book; homophobia is so yesterday.
Almost heartening, then. Farewell repression. Today’s Chinese youth is sexually liberated. Rejoice!
Only they're not. Not really. In so many ways they're more trapped than ever before.
Students who don’t want partners face peer-group pressure to get one anyway, or find themselves left out. Parents don't know – or don’t like – what’s happening. After all, college student parents of today are ten years behind those students I taught ten years ago, and would be just as shocked if they knew that one of their kids was no longer a virgin.
Still, parents are increasingly bowing to the inevitable. Five years ago the common parental instruction was: "You're not to have a boyfriend until you've finished your studies." Now, aware they will only be lied to, many parents have changed the rule. "Yes, you can date him, but if you do you must marry him." I have spoken with several girls who see their future caged in a marriage with a first love that didn't last. Moreover, many girls want careers and try to avoid the parental pressure towards early marriage and the obligatory grandchild for as long as they possibly can, so they struggle when a college boyfriend means that all that’s left to decide is the date of the wedding.
Relationship complications are not catered for within the family, in education or in society at large and there's nowhere to turn for answers. Some girls remain ardently traditional; others have a single sexual partner; still others lead lives of such rampant lust that even the most broad minded observer can't help feeling they may be overdoing it. What is normal? No one knows.
Though the publicity surrounding AIDS has made condoms commonly available in recent years, few girls seem to know about the pill. Many know about the morning-after pill, but do not know it can be harmful as a regular form of contraception and so use it as such.
Then there is self-perception. I have referred to 'girls' and 'boys', but they are not. These are young men and women. However, it's as dangerous to call a 20 year old girl in China a 'woman' as it is to call a 20 year old woman in England a 'girl'. Young adults here still define themselves in relation to their parents until they are married, becoming a man or a woman only when responsibility shifts to a spouse. For girls in particular given their traditionally subservient role, if would be better if sexual emancipation went hand-in-hand with social emancipation, seeing themselves as fully independent women. Without that there's considerable room for abuse.
Saddest of all, many student suicides these days are triggered by relationship problems. Unable to turn to their parents, with friends who know no more than they, with no counselling and no health education available, too many give way to desperation when things go wrong.
Without equality and support, sexually-liberated Chinese youth may not be so emancipated after all.
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Keywords: generation gaps China Chinese youth attitudes Sexual emancipation China
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