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Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, By Richard Burger

A former Beijing editor charts the tumultuous history of desire in the Middle Kingdom

In 2003, a young Chinese writer published a blow-by-blow account of her sex life on her blog "Left-over Love Letters" under the pen name Muzimei. The blog, which named the men she slept with in breathless detail, soon had over 100,000 hits a day. Muzimei became a symbol for China's burgeoning sexual revolution: her unapologetic sexuality summed up the zeitgeist of changing times as morals loosened and taboos lessened in the post-Mao era.

But what happened next is just as interesting. Within three months, Left-over Love Letters had disappeared from the internet amid rumours of censorship (Muzimei's published diary was later banned). As Richard Burger spells out in Behind the Red Door, Muzimei represents the taut relationship between sex and the state which stretches from ancient times to today.

Burger, a former editor at a state-run newspaper in Beijing and blogger, has taken on the daunting task of relaying the history of sex in China in just over 200 pages. Topics, clearly divided into chapters, range from dating and marriage to homosexuality and the sex trade.

His is no easy undertaking in a land which belies neat categorisation. Examples of contradictions are myriad. In 2010, over 50 per cent of urban Chinese women admitted to pre-marital sex (up from 15 per cent in 1990). Yet virginity remains highly sought after. Thousands of women annually pay hundreds of pounds to restore their hymens. For those who cannot stump up the cash, sex shops sell artificial hymens that seep synthetic blood onto the wedding bed. Such clashing values are what make this book a fascinating read.

Burger gallops through the ages with whirlwind enthusiasm. For centuries, China had scant influence from the monolithic religions, meaning there was no traditional link between sex and sin. China's home-grown religion, Daoism, celebrated sex and preached prolonged life by withholding ejaculation. Confucianism valued marriage and children but also allowed concubinage. Sex was viewed as a necessary human function.

Despite this, sexuality in China has swung between liberalisation and suppression. Sexual freedom, erotic arts and institutionalised prostitution all thrived during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). But by the time of the second Opium War under the Qing, Western mores had crept into China bringing with them an age of repression. This reached its zenith under Mao Zedong who preached strict sexual puritanism and oversaw an eradication of prostitution. Homosexuality, once liberally enjoyed in imperial China, was branded a mental illness and "hooliganism".

Burger quotes from texts, including Daoist sex guides, vividly to illustrate these eras. These historical tracts are complemented by contemporary interviews, ranging from a homosexual man who cannot tell his parents he is gay to a prostitute who gives hand jobs to support her family. The interviews, sadly, are where the book falters. Many were conducted by researchers, rather than the author himself, leading them to lack grit and colour.

Despite these foibles, Behind the Red Door is a more than competent introduction to sexual mores in China. Burger asserts that one day in China sexual freedom might be seen as a fundamental human right: but, while censorship continues and social values largely still condemn preferences that err from the norm, this is still a while off.