Chinese Prostitution: Consequences and Solutions in the Post-Mao Era

Article excerpt

This paper examines the development of Chinese prostitution in pre-communist China during the Mao regime and the post-Mao era, drawing lessons from the Chinese Government's efforts to eradicate prostitution. It discusses the relationship between prostitution and sexual disease, and argues that China's market economy, lack of religious beliefs and diverse cultures have contributed to the revival of prostitution in the post-Mao era. In order to effectively control the problem, it is necessary to adopt a comprehensive approach to change Chinese people's beliefs and ways of life.


Prostitution has existed in China for more than 2,000 years. Although prostitution was already prevalent in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), its growth did not reach its highest point until China was forced to open its doors to the rest of the world in the second half of the 19th century. Under the Mao regime, between 1949 and 1976, prostitution was strictly forbidden and disappeared from Chinese society. After China launched the reform movement in 1978, however, prostitution has rapidly developed, causing some serious social problems, especially sexually transmitted diseases (STD). What are the similarities and differences between the flourishing period of Chinese prostitution in the second half of the 19th century and its revival in the post-Mao era? What lessons should we learn from the Government's efforts to eradicate prostitution in the Mao era? Why has Chinese prostitution come back in the post-Mao era? Does a market economy inevitably produce prostitutes? How can the growth of prostitution and STDs be effectively controlled in the 21st century? This paper attempts to argue that the Government tried to eliminate prostitution under the Mao regime but eventually failed, because coercive force and physical labour are not the most effective means for eradicating the roots of prostitution. The influence of Western culture cannot fully explain why prostitution is so rampant in the post-Mao era. Rather, the market economy, lack of religious beliefs and diverse cultures have contributed mainly to the revival of prostitution in China. To effectively halt the growth of prostitution and legally crack down on it requires the adoption of a comprehensive approach to change Chinese people's beliefs and lives.

Prostitution in Pre-communist China

Prostitution is one of the oldest social phenomena in the world. Although prostitutes have different characteristics in different historical periods, a prostitute is one who grants sexual access for payment. Generally speaking, prostitution can be defined as the explicit exchange of sex for money. (1) Prostitution existed in China as early as the Shang dynasty (17th-11th century BC). (2) According to G.L. Simons, China was one of the first countries in the world to institutionalise prostitution. (3) In ancient China, it was considered a "class privilege" for upper class men to visit prostitutes, so it was regarded as legitimate and socially indispensable. (4) Chinese men were motivated by various reasons to visit prostitutes. In addition to men's physical desire and male dominant psyche, Chinese men believed that they could gain more yin from prostitutes than from normal women. Since prostitutes had sex with many men, they had acquired more yang essence from them. Thus, they could give a patron more yang essence than he had lost. (5) It was said that "the wealthy husband had his concubines and the poor man had his brothels". (6) There were entire blocks of ancient cities given the title of "pleasure quarters", where men could go to solicit dancers, singers and prostitutes. During the reign of Yongzheng in the early 1700s, "prostitutes and pimps had been leniently treated as members of a status group, and occupied a grey area of toleration". (7)

After the First Opium War, China was forced to sign the unequal Nanking Treaty, which ceded the Chinese island of Hong Kong to Britain and opened five ports--Guangzhou, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo and Shanghai--to foreign trade and residence. …


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