Archive for ‘book review’

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Book Review: Behind the Red Door – Sex in China

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.

Mr Wang's REAL life is quite different.

Mr Wang’s REAL life is quite different.

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.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Book Review: Gang then, Dynasty now

– How the Chinese Communists (possibly) Rose to Power

You wouldn’t usually think of the Republic of China between 1925 and 1937 as a country which was developing rapidly, would you? And if aware of Chiang Kai-shek‘s achievements in unifying China, one would also be aware of the toll the KMT’s wars against warlords, and later communists, took on economic development.

Thomas Weyrauch, in China’s Unbeachtete Republik1) doesn’t ignore the costs of war, or how the KMT, under Chiang’s rule, broadly violated human rights. But in his view, the Republic of China was still a success, which could have led to a free and democratic Chinese nation, had it lasted.

The main reasons for the Republic’s constant troubles and its collapse in 1949 were, in Weyrauch’s view,

  • communist terror in the “liberated” territories by which Mao Zedong and his followers broke the will of the population, rather than winning the public over,
  • the Soviet Union’s support for the Chinese communists,
  • the Japanese war (during which the communists did more to expand their territories and power than to fight against the Japanese occupiers), and
  • an often ill-informed American approach on Chinese matters (including a misinformed public).
  • With a few lines, Weyrauch also touches on the problem of land reform, but apparently sees no crucial Republican negligence or failure in  improving life in the countryside:

    Contrary to communist propaganda which tried to justify the murder of alleged “great landowners”, China’s peasants were no wage slaves of extre4mely rich, exploiting great landowners at all, but by eighty per cent owners of their land. According to surveys, 98.66 per cent of the rural populaton were peasants with arable land of less then seven hectares. The others owned larger areas. Of about twenty per cent of peasants who worked fields they didn’t own, most were tenants. Only the rest of the rural population were wageworkers.2)

    Weyrauch also refers to some efforts of the Republican government to modernize agriculture – and to support reconstruction of farming where affected by fightings with the communists or their mismanagement -, but the material he provides says little about the substance of such efforts, nor does it tell much about how, if at all, these numbers would put peasants into the position to make a living of their properties – or if, as ever so often in history, they would have to incurr debts and depend on their creditors or landlords again.

    And for the numbers themselves, as for most statistics provided in his book, Weyrauch rarely provides specific sources.

    There are several interesting takes on the Japanese war, too. Weyrauch is quite critical of all foreign attacks on China from the opium wars to the Japanese war, but his book mirrors Chinese memory in that the Japanese war features most prominently. Four photo pages in a row show Japanese atrocities. Still, (or so I understand Weyrauch’s book), the Japanese aggression, both in Chiang Kai-shek’s, and in Mao Zedong’s views, posed no lasting threat against China’s existence. Chiang sought compromise with the Japanese government for a number of years, before the Lugou Bridge incident near Beijing’s (then Beiping) led to all-out war, and Mao Zedong – according to Weyrauch – even considered concessions to the Japanese during all-out war. Weyrauch quotes from a secret directive, allegedly issued by Mao, in October 1937. The following is a translation of it used on a Freedom Foundation‘s paper online, mostly the same as Weyrauch’s German translation:

    The Sino-Japanese war affords our party an excellent opportunity for expansion. Our fixed policy should be seventy percent expansion, twenty percent dealing with the Kuomintang, and ten percent resisting Japan. There are three stages in carrying out this fixed policy: the first is a compromising stage, in which sell-sacrifice should be made to show our outward obedience to the Central Government and adherence to the Three Principles of the People [nationality, democracy, and livelihood, as outlined by Dr. Sun Yat-sen], but in reality this will serve as camouflage for the existence and development of our party.

    The second is a contending stage, in which two or three years should be spent in laying the foundation of our party’s political and military powers, and developing these until we can match and break the Kuomintang, and eliminate the influence of the litter north of the Yellow River. While waiting for an unusual turn of events, we should give the Japanese invader certain concessions.

    The third is an offensive stage, in which our forces should penetrate deeply into Central China, sever the communications of the Central Government troops in various sectors, isolate and disperse them until we are ready for the counteroffensive and wrest the leadership from the hands of the Kuomintang.

    Quoted Source: Documents on the Problem of the Chinese Communist Party. Presented to the People’s Political Council, March 1941. Published in Chungking 1944 by the Supreme National Defense Council.

    This quote can be found on the internet, even if not too frequently – on Conservapedia, the trustworthy encyclopedia, for example. They date the secret directive to 1944, and the footnote link to it simply redirects the reader onto the entire page of “Causes of World War II”.

    Weyrauch’s book provides no specific source, either, and doesn’t even explain how the “secret” communist directive became public in the end. Such an approach comes across as rather murky, given the potentially controversial character of such a piece of information. For now, I’m thinking of it as a hoax.

    To sum my impressions down, the book is easy to read, and too many footnotes might have been impedimentary – but a mere “selected literature” list at the end of it is too little. At certain points, detailed sources and explanations would have been essential to make the information credible for a reader with rather little historical knowledge of his or her own.

    Which makes me wonder: who is the target readership? To me, it seems that it must be people who have some big issues with the CCP anyway, and who are glad to listen to any bit of “evidence” against them.

    That said, the book might offer insights into what makes Chinese Republicans abroad ticking. Besides, the book is at times thought-provoking, and a recommendable follow-up reading for anyone who has read Edgar Snow‘s Red Star over China before – just as a frequent reader of the People’s Daily should reach for an edition of the Epoch Times, every now and then.


    1) Thomas Weyrauch, China’s unbeachtete Republik, 100 Jahre im Schatten der Weltgeschichte, Giessen, 2009. This book is apparently only available in German.

    2) My translation. China’s unbeachtete Republik, p. 217


    Reform without Zijiren, October 5, 2009
    Walking the Boundaries, Oct 3, 2009

    Saturday, May 1, 2010

    “China Megatrends”

    Tung Chee-hwa (Dong Jianhua, 董建華) is reportedly fond of Doris and John Naisbitt‘s China Megatrends (Eight Pillars of a New Society), and he probably won’t need to explain why he is. Yang Hengjun (杨恒均) on the other hand isn’t fond of it, and he explains why he isn’t.

    I’m reading a book myself at the moment, hence this blog may have to take a back seat in my spare time for a few days.

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