SHANGHAI, China -- Several hundred thousand residents of China's most sophisticated city took the small but revolutionary step earlier this year of attending the first public sex education exhibit at which lovemaking positions were displayed.
Various postures were modeled only by tiny clay figures, but the graphic exhibition is part of a much larger sexual revolution that has swept China over the past decade. Although China has the world's largest population, its most severe family-planning controls and one of its longest traditions of erotic literature, sexual mores here until recently remained a topic largely veiled by Confucian modesty and Communist prudery.
Deep ignorance still can be found among even the most educated Chinese, says Jiang Yunfen, vice president of the Shanghai Sex Education Research Society. Her group has discovered that half the couples with fertility problems don't have the foggiest idea how a baby is made.
"We've had childless college professors who come in after being married for several years," she said, "and they still believe that if they just lie down together and fall asleep, they will produce a baby."
But significant changes in sexual attitudes and practices are being documented for the first time -- changes that parallel China's rapid economic growth and that are only beginning to be cautiously studied by a small band of Chinese sociologists.
"We used to emphasize the collective, the whole society, and people neglected their personal feelings to serve society," said Liu Dalin, president of the Shanghai center. "Now Chinese are paying more attention to their development as healthy individuals, and that includes paying more attention to their sexual feelings."
Evidence of that shift comes in an unprecedented study completed this year by Dr. Liu, whose research team asked 23,000 Chinese in 15 provinces more than 200 questions about their sex lives. Though not yet published, the survey is already being hailed as China's equivalent of the Kinsey Report, which shocked Americans in the 1940s and 1950s with revelations of Americans' less than puritanical sex lives.
In stark contrast to the Communist model of monogamous sex mainly for procreation, the new study shows that most Chinese, particularly the young, view sex as a means for pleasure, approve of premarital sex and condone extramarital sex.
The study also revealed that most Chinese are often or sometimes naked during lovemaking and that about half sometimes stray from the so-called missionary position -- practices that, while hardly striking for many Westerners, greatly surprised Dr. Liu and his fellow researchers.
Such a portrait of relative sexual liberation may raise political concerns, given that the Communist Party since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown has redoubled attacks on anything smacking of what hard-liners term "bourgeois liberalization," socialist jargon for Western individualism.
Indeed, Dr. Liu was not able to get official support to finish his study, financing it with donations from friends and proceeds from his books.
But China's hard-liners can perhaps take heart: Dr. Liu's study also shows that, although many Chinese may now view sex differently, many still practice it in a decidedly unsubtle and unsatisfying manner. The study found, for example, that more than a third of all Chinese couples usually engage in foreplay for less than one minute. Perhaps related, more than a third of the women reported pain during intercourse, and fewer than a third said they felt pleasure.
Dr. Liu attributes this to traditional Chinese male dominance. "The husbands only think of themselves, and so there's no kissing or hugging."
Not surprisingly, China's educated youth, deeply swayed by Western mores, are leading the sexual revolution. More than 10 percent of the college students surveyed by Dr. Liu admitted to having had intercourse, and the actual percentage is believed to be much greater. A decade ago, few would have dared even to answer the question.
"You don't have to really be in love to have sex with someone. You only have to be in love with that person for the time when you are making love," said a 27-year-woman at Shanghai's Fudan University.
Divorce and venereal disease rates are soaring, along with interest in pornography. Said Dr. Liu: "After so many years in which sex could not be discussed, there's a real hunger in this society for almost any kind of sexual knowledge."