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Liu Dalin and His Sex Museum

Sociology Professor Liu Dalin of Shanghai University is a pioneer of sex studies in China. Now 72-years old, Prof. Liu started researching China's sexual culture in 1985, and in 1999 he opened China's first sex museum in Shanghai. Sex has long been a taboo subject in China, and even in Shanghai, one of China's most open cities, Prof. Liu's museum of sexual culture ruffled many feathers. After several changes of location, the museum has re-opened in what the Prof. Liu hopes is a more permanent home in the small town of Tongli in Suzhou, some 80 kilometers away from Shanghai.

The following is an extract of an interview that Professor Liu Dalin did recently with CRI.

Why did you open the museum? How have visitors reacted?

This museum has been running for 5 years. It has proved its use as an educational and research base. After visiting it, the audiences say they haven't seen or heard things like this before, and by visiting they have a very lively lesson in cultural history. And many visitors said they had little idea that 5000 years ago their ancestors were so open, so they say we shouldn't have such a backward attitude towards sex.  I think the major role of the museum is to promote Chinese culture, and change the attitudes of people who assume our Chinese ancestors were backwards or conservative, and this includes Western scholars as well. China enjoys a very long history, and sex is an inseparable part of society so it also enjoys a long history. You can't say a country has a long and rich culture without talking about sex. And I think the museum can help change and correct erroneous ideas about sex being vulgar and obscene and help encourage a scientific, natural and healthy view towards sex. Since our ancestors were so active and open, why can't we be too? I think the museum can help us explore something good. In China's long history, there are many things that haven't been publicized or researched. Some of this has been lost, such as the educational books about making love like we had in ancient China. And I think if we have found these books, then studying them can benefit our families and our children. We have a lot of other studies related to sex, including the study of folk customs as well as history and religious studies. In the past, all these subjects avoided sex; there were many taboos which blocked research into these areas. The museum can help to change people's ideas, and it will also open doors for further research into these subjects.

How did you become interested in the sexual culture of ancient China?

I organized a sex survey in China between 1989 and 1990 involving 20,000, the largest of its kind anywhere in the world. The results showed that many Chinese people were still quite conservative about sex and believed that traditional Chinese culture was very conservative about sexual matters. I couldn't help but think that if we don't understand our past, we have no hope of better understanding the present and the future. So I decided to shift my studies from modern society to ancient society. I'm most interested in why attitudes towards sex was quite open before the Tang dynasty, but then the subject became taboo in the middle of the Song dynasty, and became more and more taboo after that. I think we should look at this change because modern society is an extension of the past. This conflict between openness and conservativeness still exists.

Is contemporary Chinese society sexually conservative?

In conservativeness there is also openness, but if we say that sex is still a taboo subject today, we're really only describing the surface. In fact, the sexual culture is quite active because sex is an instinct. In modern society sexual culture is still a little conservative for various reasons including the continuing influence of feudal ideas and restrictions put in place after the founding of new China. On the other hand, after 20 years of opening up and reform, as western culture enters and as China opens up, openness and conservativeness coexist. We can't say openness is good, it should depend on whether it is healthy or not.

Why has there been a change in attitudes towards sex in China?

I am a sociologist, and we should discover rules, regardless of whether these
rules relate to ancient or modern societies, or China or Western countries. When a country is strong and prosperous, and the inhabitants are living a happy life and the rulers are confident, then the freedom of the society is greater because the rulers are not afraid of rebellion. As other freedoms grow, sexual freedom grows as well. But when a society declines whether due to disaster or war, people become dissatisfied with their lives and rulers try to control the thoughts and ideas of these citizens, so freedom is limited and this applies to sex as well. So it follows for China as well. As China becomes more prosperous, all kinds of freedom are growing. As a whole, China is opening up more and more and this is clearly a historical trend which can't be stopped, but of course there is backsliding during some periods. But over all, China enjoys more freedom now.

What do you think of young people's attitudes towards sex?

 I think most youngsters are quite open now. Maybe it's because the society was so restricted before, and then when the door opened, people behaved like a person who has been hungry for a long time and wants to stuff himself. Although this is natural, I can't say this is good. Youngsters are open to all kinds of things and are willing to accept everything. So based on this we should say that openness towards sex on the whole is a good thing, but it should be healthy, and one of our missions as sociologists is how to lead, guide and give proper instructions to these youngsters.

What's your favorite piece in the collection?

It's too hard to say which one I like most, I like so many of them! For instance I like the jade devices of Hongshan culture and the pottery of Majia-Yao culture which are 5000 years old. In these articles, the implied eroticism is quite obvious. There are lots of images of pregnant women and phallic images. You see, food and sex are the primary needs of ancient people, and we can say it is the same for modern people. So these needs are of course reflected in art and utensils. So I think it shows that modern people can not neglect these primary needs. Some other pieces are quite instructive for modern day women interested in feminism. Take foot-binding for instance. We have equipment that was used by professionals to bind women's feet as well as special shoes made for the feet. When modern people see this they think its funny and don't understand it. Throughout the world, only China had this practice. Why? China has now abandoned this custom, but here people can find out about it.

If you compare the sexual artifacts of China with those of western countries, the articles from western countries are quite simple and straightforward. They are used during love-making and do not contain much information. But the Chinese articles are veiled–they are not straightforward. This is a result of culture. These articles have a common characteristic which is you can not tell from the outside what they are used for. But inside there is always something. For instance we have some China bowls. Just looking at them, they seem like ordinary bowls, but when you uncover the lids, the inside of the bowls are covered in erotic images. This is a kind of cultural characteristic. And what about sex education? The ancients had sex education too and also sex education tools. You know in the early 1980s when China began to launch its sex education projects, there was some opposition.  Some thought that because sex is a natural desire, there was no need to educate people about it. So we can see that ancient Chinese thousands of years ago understood the need for sex education. There are many examples like this, so I think the museum is very useful to society.

Why did the museum move to Tongli?

There were two reasons for moving. One was to solve some problems and
the other was to allow for development. As far as the problems go, we originally rented an 800m2 room in Shanghai. The rent was 30,000RMB a month not including other fees. We had to pay 50,000 or 60,000 a month and we simply couldn't cover our costs. Actually we couldn't even cover just the rent. Why did we meet these financial difficulties? Well we didn't get sufficient support. For example, 5 years ago we were planning to hold an exhibition in Nanjing road. You know it is a very crowded and prosperous street – maybe the most prosperous in China. Well the municipal government didn't allow me to make a public sign for the museum; they said the character for sex was inelegant. So many local people couldn't find us, not to mention foreigners. We also planned to cooperate with a travel agency and make the museum a tourist activity. The agency agreed, but when we applied for the necessary certificate from the municipal government, we didn't get approval. It's not because we were not good, it wasn't approved because the leaders hesitated and had misgivings. So on top of our economic problems, there were obstacles in our way. Some people described me as 'begging with a golden bowl', because there so many obstacles. Then Tongli offered a large space and they spent 3 million RMB on renovations and gave us the space rent free. This means our economic problems are a thing of the past. Now the museum is 3800m2 indoors, and outside it is 5200m2. We can use the inside as an exhibition space, and the outside to exhibit sculptures.

(CRI June 4, 2004)

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