A passion to save a sexual heritage

Pioneer: A retired professor has started a daring museum to open China's attitudes toward sex and its culture.

January 29, 2000|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SHANGHAI, China -- Wearing a sweater vest and a winsome smile, 67-year-old Liu Dalin seems an unlikely candidate to liberate China from its modern sexual hang-ups.

But that is what the retired sociology professor hopes to do with a daring museum that he opened here in the fall, the first, he says, to celebrate China's ancient sexual culture.

The museum, formally known as "The Exhibition for Chinese Ancient Sex Culture," features everything from centuries-old bronze marital aids to Qing Dynasty porcelain figurines entwined in sexual rapture.

Liu's creation is noteworthy for two reasons. First, it details a part of Chinese cultural history that the Communist Party has suppressed and that many citizens know nothing about. Second, he is getting away with it.

"The society is becoming more open," says Liu, a soft-spoken man who exhibits a childlike enthusiasm for sexual artifacts. "I could not do this three years ago."

The 1,200-piece exhibition is part of a trend toward sexual liberalization in China, which continues to shed the straitjacket of communism.

Despite his notorious lust for young women, Mao Tse-tung saw sexual interest as a threat to the party's authority. After he came to power in 1949, he called sex bourgeois, and the regime effectively went about the business of repressing human nature.

Some communes required married couples to live apart. The regime instituted a dress code requiring people to wear identical suits and quilted jackets that obscured their sexuality.

In the past decade, though, the development of a more market-oriented economy and increased contact with the West have sparked a sexual comeback. More young people in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai live together before marriage. Pornography and prostitution have become so pervasive that the guesthouse in Mao's hometown of Shaoshan operates as a brothel.

Liu says he opened his museum to educate Chinese about their culture, demystify sex and help people find a healthy middle path between sexual repression and indulgence.

Inside the glass display cases sit such artifacts as a green porcelain penis taken from a eunuch's tomb during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). In another section, the museum explores the history of sexual oppression, displaying a stamp imperial officials affixed to the buttocks of virgins chosen for the court as well as a metal press used for crushing the fingers of female slaves.

China claims such inventions as gunpowder and paper. To the nation's list of firsts, Liu would like to add what he calls China's "pioneering" work in the area of sex education.

During the 19th century, parents gave newlyweds pieces of fruit made of porcelain. When the top was removed, instructive figurines in sexual positions were revealed inside. Parents also provided "dowry paintings," scrolls that did for couples in the late Qing Dynasty what the "Joy of Sex" did for Americans in the 1970s.

To generations raised under the scowl of the Communist Party, most of this stuff is revelatory. On a recent Sunday afternoon, the museum's handful of visitors raved about the collection and praised Liu for his boldness.

"He's great," said a 40-year-old art gallery manager who gave only her surname of Gong. "It was impossible for us to know this before."

"We're very proud of this exhibition," said Zhang Haixing, a 44-year-old worker at the local Ford plant. "Do you have this sort of thing in Europe?"

Liu, who studied family and marriage as a sociology professor at Shanghai University, first began collecting sexual artifacts about a decade ago. He built his collection by scouring antique markets and relying on friends and dealers. He acquires, in part, to preserve this part of Chinese culture, which he says is threatened by official ignorance and wealthy foreign collectors.

In a revealing incident eight years ago, police officers asked Liu to look at a cache of porcelain figurines and about 20 books filled with erotic paintings from the Qing and Ming dynasties (1368-1644). The officers had been ordered to destroy the materials, but they thought they had cultural value and hoped Liu's opinion would sway their superiors.

"This one, this one, this one: They were all destroyed," Liu said, pointing to pictures in a catalog. "I told them it was not pornography. I told them it was a cultural legacy."

In an environment where parts of his collection could be viewed as ripe for the shredder, Liu moved carefully to set up his museum. Although China operates under an authoritarian regime, its people are quite skilled at finding and exploiting the seams in the system.

Liu knew that applying for a permit to open a private museum might only provoke the authorities, so he started a private company whose first exhibition was a permanent one: his.

"It's not about sex," Liu said, referring to his exhibition company, "so it's legal."

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