Saturday, October 27, 2012

Behind the Red Door

When I heard that The Peking Duck blog's author, Richard Burger, had written a book, I knew it was something I'd want to check out. I found The Peking Duck in early 2006 after I'd just arrived in China for the first time. I've been reading it ever since. It was one of the first and most popular China blogs in the blogosphere and it has maintained its quality over the years. Burger has influenced my blog and my thoughts on China a great deal.

Burger, a trained professional journalist, chose a spicy topic for his book that is of interest to anyone: sex. Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, published last month, is a survey of Chinese culture, history, and attitudes towards sex from ancient times to the present day.

Burger's book is broken into the following parts:

1. Sex in Imperial China
2. Dating and Marriage
3. The Sex Trade
4. The Family
5. Homosexuality
6. Education and Health
7. China's Shifting Sexual Landscape
Parting Thoughts

The book covers a lot in a little over 200 pages. The book discusses ancient China and a number of the dynasties before the 20th century, but most of the book is about contemporary China. Like really contemporary, as in the last ten years and particularly the last five.

Anyone who's read Burger's blog knows that he is a China news junkie of the highest magnitude. He weighs in on just about every noteworthy current event in China on his blog and has done so for a decade now. This deep and encyclopedic knowledge that he's developed over the years blogging turns out to be a great resource in writing a book. I consider myself a pretty hardcore China news junkie and Burger busts out all kinds of stories and events that I'd missed.

Two of my favorite parts of the book are about something right up Burger's alley: blogging. Burger uses two bloggers - China Bounder's (aka. David Marriot) Sex and Shanghai blog from 2006 and Muzimei's Left-over Love Letters blog from 2003 - as prisms through which to view sex in contemporary China.

China Bounder was the pseudonym used by a British man who slept with dozens of young Chinese women in Shanghai and then wrote about his sexscapades on his blog. After a few posts, the China Bounder blog went viral. Chinese people, in particular, were infuriated with this foreign devil who deflowered untold numbers of Chinese women with no regard for who he left in his wake.

Muzi Mei was the pseudonym used by a woman from Guangzhou who wrote of similar promiscuity (with Chinese men) on her blog. Readers of her romps initially measured in the hundreds and then thousands and then, before the blog was shut down, tens of millions. She was a pioneer in sexual liberation in China.

I was vaguely aware of both of these examples. They were a little before my time, though. I caught the tail end of the China Bounder fame but completely missed the controversy Muzi Mei created back in 2003.  Burger does a great job of telling the two bloggers' stories and how they are related China's ongoing sexual revolution.

Another area that Burger nails is prostitution. I really liked this following passage from pages 72 and 73:

Burger is right on with this passage. I found the same attitudes towards prostitution myself. There were pink light hair salon prostitutes all over the neighborhood where I lived. Prostitution was (and still is) rampant in Xi'an (just like it is in the rest of China). I like the way that Burger ties China's lax attitudes towards paid sex today to Chinese culture and history.

The final part of the book I want to comment on is the discussion of the male/female imbalance in the final Parting Thoughts chapter. I agree with Burger that China's skewed male/female ratio - somewhere around 118 boys born for every 100 girls - is one of the largest problems facing China and the world, for that matter. There are going to be tens of millions of men in China in the coming years who will simply be unable to marry. Burger has a nice analysis of what to expect with this looming disaster.

The only thing that I wish Burger had done differently with his book is include footnotes and references. Behind the Red Door is a non-fiction book with few personal anecdotes. A book like this should've had references in my opinion. It's not as if I would've checked many (or any, honestly) of the sources of information, but I feel that notes for the hundreds of references Burger made would've been helpful.

Behind the Red Door is a nuanced, thoughtful book about China. He's done a nice job with his first book. It's accessible and at the same time informative. Being about sex, it's also quite a fun read.


Richard said...

Mark, thanks so much for the generous review.

Ramesh said...

Was expecting this review, knowing you had been following his blog and had known him in China.

One of the few references from you that I won't be reading !!