shanghai -- if you want to knowabout sex in China, you have to do a little digging. But a little digging can uncover a long history of erotic culture, including "sensual Buddhas," Taoist sex scientists and a landscape of phallic mountains and vaginal crevices.The controversial Museum of Ancient Chinese Sex, the only one of its kind in China, is tucked away in a residential area north of downtown Shanghai for a good reason. The former location in crowded Nanjing Road had to close down in April after police clamped a chastity belt on the distribution of flyers in the pedestrian mall. Citing weak ticket sales, the museum's co-sponsors, the New World department store, pulled out.
But like a spurned lover who refuses to give up, the founder of the sex museum says he's determined to bring sexuality out from under the covers of conservative modern China.
"Sex culture has been hidden for a long time because of historical prejudice," says Dr. Liu Dalin, an author and sociologist who founded the first sex museum on Nanjing Road in 1999. "People thought it was a dirty thing. But China has a long culture of erotic art. I decided to bring it out to promote the development of society, to take it as a base for sex education."
He says he's hoping to get government permission to bring in groups of teenagers who lack sex education beyond the basic mechanics taught at schools. But he admits it won't be easy.
"Change in China regarding sex is like a door. It's been opened recently, but only half-opened. We have a lot of hard work to do to open the door fully."
Not only does the law forbid the use of sex in advertising, but there are also social rules about the word "sex" itself.
"Sex is a sensitive word," says Shirley Wang, the manager of Shanghai Chuangyuan Tourist Consultancy, which hopes to bring groups of foreign and local tourists to the museum. But the museum is not pornography, she says. "This is art, culture and knowledge... the first and only sex museum in China."
To skirt around the word, Dr. Liu Dalin says he's calling his collection the Dalin Cultural Exhibition. If high-schoolers ever do get permission to visit, they'll see a more respectful and sacred view of sex than they can already perv on the Internet.
Throughout the museum, texts extol the benevolence and spirituality of sex. "Buddhist Tantrism advocates men and women's "double cultivation,' "double meditation' and the idea of "using desires as an antidote for desires'," says Exhibit 8, Sex And Religions. Statues of "sensual Buddhas" show goddesses mounting Buddha sitting in meditation.
According to 17th-century tradition, mothers would give their newlywed daughters a "trunk bottom" that appeared to be a mere strawberry box. But when the bride opened it up -- ay yo! -- it was a couple demonstrating foreplay.
"I never knew about some of these things," says a bashful Wang, working alongside her father. "The first time I visited the Nanjing Road museum, I was shocked. For Chinese people, sex is not a public topic. But if you look inside the museum, you can learn about our history and culture."
That history includes male homosexuals, who are depicted in 15th-century paintings hiding their faces in their hands -- or in a partner's buttocks. Says the sign for Exhibit 10, Unusual Sexual Behaviour: "It includes homosexuality, fetishism, exhibitionism, voyeurism, sadism, masochism, etc...."
Any good work of art speaks to the viewer. A sculpture of a man agonizingly bent over an erection twice the size of his body would likely strike a chord in many a man.
The display on the binding of women's feet will repulse women and men alike. According to one of Dr. Liu's books, pre-liberation men were turned on by the swaying walk of women with 3-inch-long bird-claw feet, a sign of wealth and an indication that a woman could neither wander far from home nor do farmwork like a big-footed woman. The display includes the ghastly bone-grinding instruments used to mutate young girls' feet into "little lotus roots." Says an old proverb: "A pair of small feet represents a jar of tears."
His struggle can't be compared to foot-binding, but Dr. Liu has had to step carefully to pursue his career as a sexologist. Born in 1932 in Shanghai, he studied journalism in Beijing in 1949, and then a year and a half later became a soldier for 20 years. After returning to Shanghai to work in a factory for 12 years, he began studying sociology at Shanghai University school of art, focusing on family and marriage. "That's when I began to pay attention to the sexual life," he says.
He conducted a small survey in the early 1980s that led him to conclude that an unhappy sex life causes about a third of all divorces. With rates of divorce, sex crimes and prostitution on the rise in China, he felt compelled in 1985 to shift his life full-time to the topic of sex.
While conducting China's first nationwide sex survey of 20,000 people in the early 1990s, he began collecting antiques. After exhibitions in Japan, Australia and Europe attracted media attention, he bought a villa in rural Shanghai in 1995 and set up his first museum -- for scholars, journalists and officials, not the general public. Finally, in 1999, he moved the show to the public, and popular, Nanjing Road.
Half the museum's 40,000 visitors in 20 months were foreigners. "They said it marked China's opening and development," he says. "Chinese visitors said it was an important lesson in human life. They learned to accept the reality of sexuality."
But even if the public was ready for it, the police weren't. "The difficulty is that some officials in this region think sex is not so nice. We could not get permission to advertise."
Dr. Liu admits the museum was also hard to find. Some Japanese would-be visitors trekked three hours around Shanghai in their unsuccessful search.
His new museum has more parking space and prominence in an otherwise unremarkable residential district. He says his daughters, aged 39 and 33, think he should stay at home because he's too old to run a museum. "But I don't mind. I still do my work. I think it's very meaningful."
He has been married to a doctor for 40 years, yet his personal views about sex and the younger generation seem more conservative than one would expect of the proprietor of a sex museum. "The young people are very open, but they don't understand the value of sex," he says. "They must control it. They should have a scientific and healthy sexual life, but they don't know about that. In their mind, it is just open, open, open. We must educate the teenagers to take a responsible, serious attitude toward sex. They want to be very free and international."
Dr. Liu points to rising rates of sex before marriage: 10 per cent of college students surveyed in 1992, and 30 per cent now, according to studies by other academics. "I cannot say it is right or wrong absolutely to have sex before marriage, but in general it would be better to make love after they graduate from college, and work and make some money to support their own life. The culture of America is more free than Chinese. Traditional ideas are still strong in China. Almost everybody thinks the first sex should be in marriage."
Even during Shanghai's notorious 1930s, an era of sugar daddies and concubines, women could be put to death for having sex out of wedlock. But love in China hasn't always been enclosed in barbed wire and fastened with padlocks. The Tang dynasty, from the 6th to the 9th century, was the pinnacle of sexual freedom, Dr. Liu says. Divorce was common -- 23 princesses were divorced during that time. Divorced women were not discriminated against. Youth could love freely. "This is because China was strong and prosperous at that time. It's a law in history. If a society is strong and rich, people will get more freedom, including sex freedom."
But he doesn't expect a return to Tang dynasty openness overnight. "I think it will change gradually. In a long process, China will be strong and sexual life will become more free."
Beyond economics and the political climate, the inflow of foreign culture may get China's mojo working faster. Graphic, sexually charged movies like Quill have packed out theatres during Shanghai's international film festival. Nobody seems to walk out at the sight of a Parisian threesome similar to the subject of an ancient Chinese painting.