Playful sexuality in New China

“Everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.”

This is a quote by one of the foremost wits that the Greco-Roman tradition has produced; it is about life within that tradition in the late 19th century and applies equally today. China has a different history and understanding of itself and its place in the world. One that is as contradictory as our own. We can pull themes and normative narratives from the cultures. Each of these is intertwined through the culture, and often they are contradictory themes. In the USA there is both a strong sexuality and a strong puritan theme in a constant cultural battle. In this essay I would like to discuss the work of three male Chinese artists and their response to sexuality. In Behind the Red Door, Richard Burger discusses the Tang dynasty’s registration of sex workers in order to pay taxes. On homosexuality, he says in an interview:The same goes with with homosexuality. This might have been the biggest surprise; ever since recorded history, there are records of men having intimate relationships with other men in China. They weren’t homosexuals per se, these were married heterosexual men with families.I find this quote fascinating, it reads these records from a heteronormative perspective - perhaps the men were homosexual who were socially obliged to have families. Perhaps our binary of hetro/homo-sexual was not a concept that the Chinese of this time held. Perhaps sexuality was to be enjoyed and male/male and male/female were not in competition but co-existed without question, as often the Chinese can hold what we would see as contradictions without consideration for the anomaly. Can we really know?During the Ming Dynasty, Chinese culture had invented the novel, the erotic novel and had a very open attitude towards sexuality. This is perhaps best illustrated in the Carnal Prayer Matt, a moral tale of a ‘Don Juan’ type character who goes on a life of sexual debauchery to discover the error of his ways. Of course the adventure is great fun for the reader; it allows him to participate in the (graphically told) sexual exploits, while reassuring him that if he gets as ‘known’ as the anti-hero of the story his life will become difficult. The tale tells of the scholar who wishes to sow his wild seeds before committing himself to the life of a monk. The story includes the luring of maidens, of married women, of a mother and two daughters into intercourse, as well as the same with his shutongs. A shutong is a boy given to a scholar as servant on the condition that he is taught to read and write by the scholar, the hope being that he will sit the public service examinations. It is what one did, if you where poor and had a smart son. Homosexual acts and relationships have a long history in Chinese culture. Kam Louie in his seminal work Theorising Chinese Masculinity: Society and Gender in China goes as far as saying that Chinese cultural history makes more sense if you assume that homosexual/homosocial relationships have priority over heterosexual ones, and that heterosexuality was a social obligation. During the QingThe court was a place of sexual intrigue and if 'Décadence Mandchoue' by Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse is to be believed there was much going on! Research indicates that the Qing became more conservative which may have been in part due to Western influence. The MaoistsThe party decides that sexual expression outside marriage and for pleasure was ‘bourgiwa’ (middle class Western). Officially enjoyable sex ended for average Chinese; it was now something to be done fast and secretly. This didn't affect the sexual appetite of Mao himself, based on the memoirs of his personal physician. Mao for all his statements during the Cultural Revolution was very well read in Chinese history and quite superstitious, believing that sex with young girls would prolong his life as many emperors had believed. There were no kisses on screen in film. No public displays of affection. There was a forced androgyny of the population though the Mao suit and acceptable hairstyles. The InternetWith the Internet and mobile phone ownership, things are changing dramatically in China. Young men learn hacking to gain access to porn. As much as the Chinese say they hate the Japanese for the atrocities of 70 years ago, they watch more Japanese porn than that of any other culture. The net also allows young Chinese to play with identity creating various realities and fictions as profiles on various chatrooms, apps and other platforms to test what is acceptable and how much they can express themselves. Over time many gain the confidence to explore their sexuality. Homosexuality is now more open and discussed. Based on conversations in chatrooms it would seem that for guys in their 30s they lost their virginity at around 26, for guys in their late 20s it was 22ish, low twenties around 19, now the net has many 16 year olds looking to explore sexuality. What is the ‘given-to-be-seen’ of this sexual revolution? What images appear in the culture that people can see that allows them to form their sexual identity, allows them compare themselves with others and feel within the norm? With pornography banned, other methods are used. Much is sexting, via web apps like Momo (heterosexual), Blued and Zank (gay). This can be as simple as bare chests or ‘cock pics’ to actual sex photos. There is a constant tension concerning the issue of sexuality in contemporary China. Blogs that deal with issues around sexuality are removed. Trade shows are told that they are to retain a modesty about the dress of the women on their stands. Yet prostitution is a huge (illegal) industry and functions without a lot of attention from the law in most places. Yet the issue of sexuality is not fully addressed. I can’t help but to feel that the dominant illustrative instruction on sex which comes from the Japanese and to a lesser extent the USA, does not sit comfortably. I’ve gone through this cultural history so that we can put aside (hopefully) the preconceptions and conditionings we come with these photographs. They are not made in our culture, and their meaning shifts when we see them. The purpose of this essay is to bring them back into their own context.Artists have also been covering this field: 223 and Ren Heng were among the first to gain traction both inside and outside China; both started to make images of their social circle and sexual exploration. Both use the low run photo-book as a medium. To these I would like to add Sukura25, who has come to note on Tumblr, who is currently documenting his relationship and more recently has men offering to model for him. All three artists are not afraid to publish images of male and female nudity. According to my conversations with Rong Rong, male nudity is more accepted than female nudity. This was reflected in the August 2011 artist projections at Three Shadows Photographic Arts Centre, where Diana Coca’s work came under higher scrutiny then my own work which was predominately male nudes. What ties all three together is their playfulness an their use of vernacular image making, all are either on camera flash or found light, as opposed to the use studio lighting. All are an exploration of adolescent - 20’s themes around the discovering sexuality and body as well as the strength of friendships and relationships of the years of growing into an adult.I will consider the work of 223 and Ren Heng together, as they have a lot of overlap in their practices. Both started out being soft, and playful. The playfulness has remained but an image of a man brushing his teeth while another urinates across his mouth can hardly be seen as soft. Both men use the visual language of the snapshot often with flash on camera. They delight in the bright colours that the flash affords them, often using backgrounds, clothing and props to bring this out. This disarms the viewer’s response to the sexual under- or overtones, as does the humour. Both have a playful sense of the absurd in their work. For example eating noodles while looking like the subjects have urinated in their brightly coloured jeans or a naked man in a bath of goldfish.There is a great deal of nudity in both men’s work but there is no penetration - that would cross the line into pornography. Though there are several works where a type of penetration is visually inferred, I’m particularly thinking of the fish at the groin of a man and the octopus with a suggestive tentacle. At the forefront of both, the sense of playfulness. 223 and Heng have clothed models in everyday situations as well as sexualised imagery. There is a comfort about their subject’s interactions, in spite of the discomfort of some of the positions. At once the camera is acknowledged but does not interfere with the intimacy of this type of photograph. As the artists got older, this interest has decreased. 223 has moved to curating more then photographing. Heng as started pushing the boundaries of what can be done, in terms of the physicality of the body and negotiating the line of acceptance. It is a very interesting to see the differences in selection from Heng’s work when it is exhibited in China (Three Shadows or The Beijing Photo-Biannial, compared to European exhibitions like Fuck Off 2 at Gronigan.) Both men use analogue photography. Both men are now past their late adolescent period. Sukura25’s work is conceptually different; he’s exploring his own sexuality via his relationships with his (male) partner and his friends. He is a diarist, albeit a very modern one, using post-production processing to find the feel he is looking for. His visual aesthetic is somewhere between fashion and photo-documentary, depending on which image we are talking about. His work is softer in tone and contrast compared to the other two, also he relies on found natural light over flash. Often it is the interactions between the subject and the environment in a playful, fun and even ironic way. Recently on his trip to Taiwan he posted works of the male nude in an abandoned building with particular pleasure taken in the images in the men’s bathroom. He posts his work to Tumblr, and has developed a strong following. The style is well suited to commercial exploitation. ‘Shanghai Artitude’ is another practitioner who is recording the male body in China. His work is more in keeping with Western traditions in that he models are young, attractive and have lean, though not gym-hardened bodies. The work is most often in the neutral spaces of hotel rooms, usually very nice hotel rooms. The nudity is very matter-of-fact, with more than a hint of putting the photographer, and thus the viewer, into the position of voyeur. Most often the model seems to be waiting, thinking and calm. Occasionally couples making out. These do not so much arouse but instead have a playful sense of exploration of tenderness and, dare I say it, love. The light is more often high-key, with windows blown out and soft light on soft young skin. The Cultural ShiftAll four make their sexual explorations photographic and public. A generation previous could never hope to document their lives, except with great expense, for example Polaroid or home developing and printing film. And even with that could not reach the attention of others without most likely finding themselves facing criminal charges. Further, this is a more artistic expression of the sexting revolution that has taken hold particularly in the youth and gay communities. This monumental shift in culture since the early 1970s after years of sexual repression has us are embracing depictions of sexuality that are not manufactured for male masturbation, or to market product, but instead occupy a different space. A space where we can look, even gaze, in part for the depiction of the erotic or (perhaps depending on where we are living) the exotic, but there is more happening. These models are not the best of the best, they are not porn stars, they not selected because they have the biggest penises; these men choose their friends and acquaintances and people who ask to be in their photographs. The subjects are average young Chinese people, who after 20 years of economic growth and stories of the Cultural Revolution from the previous 10 years, combined with a one child policy are now exploring sex as a part of life. These three artists are looking at these issues without the Western history we face when making nudes, which has taken our innocence from such depictions. In these three there is a wonderful nativity that encourages us to look at the images as everyday and normal.

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