Sexual Life in Modern China

Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, Chinese writers grappled with the traumas of the Mao period, seeking to make sense of their suffering. As in the imperial era, most had been servants of the state, loyalists who might criticize but never seek to overthrow the system. And yet they had been persecuted by Mao, forced to labor in the fields or shovel manure for offering even the most timid opinions.

Many wrote what came to be known as scar literature, recounting the tribulations of educated people like themselves. A few wrote sex-fueled accounts of coming of age in the vast reaches of Inner Mongolia or the imagined romanticism of Tibet. Almost all of them were self-pitying and insipid, produced by people who were aggrieved by but not reflective about having served a system that killed millions.

Then, in 1992, an unknown writer published a strange novella that told the hilarious and absurd story of two young lovers exiled to a remote part of China near the Burmese border during the Cultural Revolution. There they have an extramarital affair, are caught by officials and forced to write endless confessions, tour the countryside in a minstrel show reenacting their sinful behavior, escape to the mountains, and return for more punishment, until one day they are released, unrepentant and slightly confused.

The novella was immediately popular for its sex, which is omnipresent and farcical. But it isn’t described as something liberating during a period of oppression or as a force of nature unleashed by living in Chinese borderlands. Instead, sex is something the Communist Party wants to control—the apparatchiks want the couple to write endless self-criticism so they can drool over the purple prose—but the narrator and his lover still manage to imbue it with a deeper meaning that they understand only later, at the end of the story.

After the sex, what was most shocking about the novella was how intellectuals are portrayed. They are almost as bad as the party hacks who control them. The novel’s hero cons his lover into the sack, picks fights with locals, dawdles at work, and is as tricky as his tormentors. The novella’s title added to the sense of the absurd. It was called The Golden Age, leaving many to wonder how this could have been anyone’s or any country’s best years.

And who was Wang Xiaobo, the author? He was not part of the state writers’ association and hadn’t published fiction before. But after its publication in Taiwan, The Golden Age was soon published in China and became an immediate success. Wang followed it with a torrent of novellas and essays. He was especially popular with college students, who admired his cynicism, irony, humor—and of course the sex.

Just five years later, in 1997, Wang died of a heart attack at the age of forty-four. Few remarked on his passing. Most in China’s…

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