Red doors are about attracting luck, and when you do an online search about red doors in Chinese – hong men or 红门), you will get tons of fengshui and home-decorating commercial offers to that end. Family happiness is probably as universal a catchword in China as is the pursuit of happiness in America. But here lies the difference: in China, family happiness depends on each and every family member. Red doors may be helpful, but if you, a daughter or son, achieve in contributing to your family’s happiness, or if you inflict pain on your family – your parents especially, but on your grandparents and wider family, too -, will usually depend on the family you are going to build yourself, as a Chinese individual in his or her twenties. It will depend on the wife or husband you are going to marry, and the child you are expected to have.
When I started reading Richard Burger‘s debut book, Behind the Red Door – Sex in China, I became aware that I actually knew very little about the topic. I was aware of the pressure on Chinese colleagues of my age to get married and to have children, and I also got impressions on how the terms were being negotiated between children and parents – even marrying a partner from a different province is considered a flaw by some elders. But what makes Burger’s book particularly insightful is a review of how the outer edges of sexual behavior and identity in China “deviate” from family and social norms, and the troubles in coming to terms with these differences – or in living with them without coming to terms with them.
Behind the Red Door begins with a chapter on sex in imperial China, continues with one on dating and marriage (including marriage between Chinese and foreigners), and a chapter on the sex trade. In many ways, the chapter after these, “The Family”, constitutes a hub to everything else. Neither chapter comes without references to the individuals’ families, anyway. Sex workers will rarely let family people know about their business. One may guess that if a family wanted to know, they would know, but that’s not how psychology works. Gays and Lesbians – they are the topic after the chapter on family – rarely come out to their family people. And few transgendered will even apply for a gender-changing operation (let alone get one), because this would leave them without any chance to keep their sexual identities hidden from their families – and those who are looking on, i. e. basically everyone in the wider family, colleagues, the neighborhood, village, or town.
There is one section where Burger interprets the impressions and trends described in the books actual seven chapters: that’s in his parting thoughts, on the last fifteen pages. It’s the weakest part of the book, in that it unintentionally seems to confirm Burger’s own intuition described as early as in the introduction: arriving at a neat conclusion is impossible. But that attempt is an – unintentional, maybe – practical demonstration of just that fact.
The strengths of Behind the Red Door lie in the way it makes China speak from old and contemporary sources. It builds a narration from imperial times, with instances of traditional societal liberalism towards sex that doesn’t only serve procreation but rather seeks pleasure, even among lower classes, to a strongly puritan (Republican, Maoist and Dengist) modernity, and once again to growing relaxation during the most recent decades – even as traditional family values, and party orthodoxy, continue to linger in sometimes unpredictable areas. Behind the Red Door – and this is much more “political” than what I expected to read, discusses links between sexual liberalization and political control, too.
Burger is highly aware of China’s many political and personal realities, and writes in an engaging style. It isn’t only the author himself who speaks to the reader; it’s Chinese individuals just as well – a few out of millions of “ordinary” Chinese men and women of all ages who – willingly or of painful necessity – test the limits of what is “permissible” in terms of sex and in their relationships – people who deal with varying numbers of disintegrating illusions before and after wedlock – and who, in unfortunate cases, arrive at the comprehension that family happiness, “classical” or not, may not come their way.
Behind the Red Door, by Richard Burger, 2012, at Amazon.