In an early-morning class at a local primary school in Beijing, about 60 curious students were giggling when being asked where they were born.
"My mom told me I was picked up on the street," an 11-year-old boy said loudly, triggering a burst of laugh in the class. "Is it true, kids? " asked the elderly man standing in front of the class. Another tall girl replied at once, "No. We were born from mom's womb."
The man with a pair of glasses and patted her shoulder, nodding. He is Min Lefu, deputy director of Beijing Sex Health Education Research Centre, who has been promoting sex education in primary and middle schools in Beijing for more than two decades.
His remarks concerning the beginning of life aroused pupils' interests, ranging from puberty changes, feelings and relationships. Kids listened, laughed and sometimes blushed to things they'd never heard before.
It is the first time for this primary school to introduce sex education. In China, sex education commonly starts in junior middle school and is taught in biology class.
"Healthy students should know what's going on with them mentally and physically in adolescence," said Qi Zhenjun, principal of Beijing-based Chaoyang Elementary School Attached to Chaoyang Normal Institute, who arranged for his staff to attend the class so that they could learn from experienced teachers. "Experts help us talk about adolescent changes to children."
The increase in the number of open-minded parents also lessens the teachers' concern. "Parents often turn to us for help, asking us to explain it to the children," Qi said. Qi's school of 500 pupils in Chaoyang District is one of many trailblazers in the country in introducing education on sex and relationships to pupils.
According to the China Population Communication & Education Centre in Beijing, puberty is hitting children earlier. Its survey shows that Chinese girls enter puberty at the age of 13.38, one year earlier than a similar study done in the 1960s, and boys at 14.43 years, about two years earlier than in the 60s. However, formal sex education generally doesn't start until age 14.
"The earlier, the better," said Sun Yunxiao, a researcher and deputy director of the China Youth & Children Research Centre. "For a little kid, perception of a sex organ is as same as a cup because they don't have sexual excitement." Scientific study has found that children taught about sex are less likely to try it earlier, Sun added.
"Young children need sex education," said Min, now 62. "There is no way to avoid it. Children have the right to know their bodies." But he remained cautious about his teaching approach.
"I will not show models of sex organs to primary kids," Min said. "If you go too far, children will be more likely to get confused than really grasp the message, and teachers will worry. But at the same time, if you talk only on the surface, it won't help."
The method of communication that Min chooses is both modest and comfortable. "Chinese kids are very shy," he said. "To begin with, they need encouragement and to be reassured that growing up is perfectly normal and healthy."
However, Min warned that teachers and parents who want to hide the basic facts and hope that the sex education taught in biology classes starting in middle school will solve all the issues are kidding themselves.
Yet, Qi, the school principal, emphasized the morality aspects of Min's class. "I don't want to call it sex education; it is relationship education," Qi said. "We have the responsibility to teach the single-child generation about the importance of friendship and love to their families."
His viewpoint is reflected by the fact that only five out of 50 minutes in Min's class can be properly called sex education, or about things directly related with sex. But five minutes are enough for the beginning - so long as the kids like it.
A big smile on the boy's face is, in Min's eyes, the best response of all. "If they smile," Min said, "I know they understand what I'm saying."
(China Daily March 20, 2006)