As the world marks International Women's Day on Thursday, China can reflect on many achievements in women's rights.
Yet, the issue of virginity appears to be just as divisive as ever.
Gao Weiwei (right), a lecturer, talks to students about the human body at a summer camp focusing on sex education. The camp, believed to be the first of its kind in Shanghai, was established in 2009. [China Daily]
Although attitudes toward sex have steadily become more relaxed over the last few decades, sociologists say little has changed when it comes to the desire among men for "pure" brides.
Guo Jianmei, director of the Beijing Zhongze Women's Legal Counseling and Service Center, said it is still common for men - especially in the countryside - to beat their wife if they discover she is not a virgin on their wedding day.
The center has recorded roughly 1,000 domestic violence cases since it was founded (originally as the Center for Women's Law and Legal Services at Peking University) in December 1995. Almost 30 percent were the result of a man becoming upset over the question of virginity, Guo said.
The situation is not much better in the cities.
Relatives of the Beijing bachelor Ma Fei, 39, have been trying to introduce him to potential girlfriends for some time. "A friend of my father said he knows a pretty girl studying at the Central Academy of Drama, but she is probably no longer a virgin, and so probably not good enough for me," Ma said.
"I have to admit, I still care about the virginity of a woman who might be my wife," he said. "If she has lost it, I need to know why."
"Non-virgins how can you have the nerve to get married?" read the headline of a recent post on Tianya, an Internet forum.
In the piece, the male author criticizes women who have had sex before marriage, denouncing them as cheap and having low moral fiber. They are unsuitable as wives, he says, because they will be easily seduced by other men.
The post received about 100 comments, with more than one-third supporting his view.
Wang Xingjuan, director of the Maple Women's Psychological Counseling Center in Beijing, said such an attitude shows double standard.
"Men want women to remain sexually as pure as ice and jade before getting married. Yet, they consider guys who fool around with women talented and romantic," she said. "This is discrimination against women."
Cause for divorce
Making sure their bride is a virgin on the wedding night can even be an obsession for some Chinese men as well as their parents.
Tu Shiyou, a 38-year-old single woman from Hubei province, runs Preserve Virginity, a website that promotes sexual abstinence to women under the age of 23. [China Daily]
Wang recalled the story of a rural mother in Shenyang, Liaoning province, who called her center for help a few years ago. The woman had been living with her husband for some time, and that he had just learned women often bleed when they have intercourse for the first time, which in China is referred to as "seeing red".
As he could not remember his wife bleeding on their wedding night, he assumed she had not been a virgin and accused her of sleeping around.
The couple received counselling at the Maple Center and Wang showed the husband scientific studies that proved about one-third of women do not have hymens, while another one-third break them at an early age due to physical activity. Shortly after, the couple reconciled, the psychologist said.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for a couple represented last year by Wang Xiuquan, a senior divorce attorney at Beijing Chang An Law Firm.
"The husband was 25 and works at a Stated-owned enterprise," he said. "Both his parents are very conventional people. They wanted to know everything about their future daughter-in-law's past and background, and whether she was a virgin."
After being led to believe the bride had not been sexually active, they agreed to the union, the lawyer said. When they later discovered this was not the case, they were furious. After much arguing, the couple divorced.
"This is just an external symptom of China's deep-rooted gender inequality," said Xu Jin, a sexologist and director of Qingdao You&Me Youth Health Center.
Peng Xiaohui, a professor of anthropology at East China Normal University in Shanghai, said sex has been a moral issue in China for 3,000 years. In the early days, men held a much higher social status and controlled the family property, they were the ones who made the rules, such as the requirement that women abstain from sex until marriage.
The New Culture Movement in early 20th century changed many traditional rules on chastity, while the rapid economic development that began in the 1980s opened up new sex-related business opportunities.
"Society on the surface seems more open and tolerant toward sex, but people's traditional views haven't really altered," Peng said.
Divorce lawyer Wang Xiuquan said the double standard displayed by many Chinese men is asking too much. "Some guys demand a virgin bride but will also make their girlfriend have an abortion. It's not fair," he said.
"I don't agree with the belief that women who have sex are no longer pure. A woman is pure as long as she has sex with the man she loves, rather than for money. This is enough to show her self-restraint and self-respect."
Tu Shiyou, a 38-year-old single woman from Hubei province, attracted the attention of Web users and the media in February when she launched Preserve Virginity, a website that promotes sexual abstinence to women under the age of 23.
In her introduction online she writes that she has a master's degree in journalism from Wuhan University and is celibate. She has even published a medical certificate to prove she is still a virgin.
The site has won Tu fans and critics in equal measure.
Shang Lei, 37, is one of the latter, and said he does not agree that being a virgin at her age is an honorable thing. "What is she trying to prove?" asked the freelance writer. "I can't believe she is healthy, mentally or physically."
He said he cared less about virginity than love, although he admitted he would still want to know why his girlfriend had already slept with another man.
"If the reason is nothing to do with bad moral quality, I can accept it," he said. "But still, a virgin would be better."
Analysis suggests that this hymen obsession runs counter to the otherwise liberal attitude now taken toward sex in China.
A survey of more than 6,000 people aged 18 to 61 across 100 cities by sociologists at People's University Beijing in 2010 found that one in three had had more than one sexual partner. When the same study was done in 2000, it was one in eight.
Peng, the anthropologist, said that teaching children about sexual equality from a very early age, like many other countries do, is essential to changing views on female chastity.
Education authorities in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, launched a pilot program last month to introduce sex education at kindergartens. It is the first time the subject has been taught in China to children under 6 years old.
As part of the program, Chengdu No 16 Kindergarten invited a professor of sexual health from the Netherlands to give lectures and spend five days training 30 teachers. Meanwhile, students are being given games and painting and singing lessons that promote sexual-health knowledge in a simple way. They will also get the basic facts on pregnancy and birth.
However, to tackle unfair stereotypes and expectations among adults, Peng said the government must look to narrowing the country's wealth gap.
"In a society where the middle class is the majority, such as in northern Europe , sex is more closely related to love than a woman's moral standard," he said. "At the moment, women in China still have a lower social standing, so they don't have a say."