Earnshaw Books, £13.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv'The Last Kingdom' embraces politics, religion, warfare, courage, love and loyalty, say creators
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

film
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
News
peopleThe Game of Thrones author said speculation about his health and death was 'offensive'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Arts and Entertainment
Sassoon threw his Military Cross into the Mersey
booksAn early draft of ‘Atrocities’ shows the anti-war sentiment was toned down before publication
Arts and Entertainment
Actors and technicians on the march against changes made by Hollande
theatreOpening performances of the Avignon theatre festival cancelled as actors and technicians walk out
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West performed in a chain mail mask at Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park
Rapper booed at Wireless over bizarre rant
Arts and Entertainment

They're back, they're big – and they're still spectacularly boring

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
    Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

    Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

    Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
    10 best girls' summer dresses

    Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

    Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
    Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

    Westminster’s dark secret

    Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
    Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

    Naked censorship?

    The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
    Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil