China’s ‘sex in the city’ drama is making a splash with taboos — here’s why

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China is seeing a sexual revolution. Average couples are having sex more than any time, perhaps, in the nation’s 5000 year history — “average” meaning not including Emperors of ancient dynasties who had hundreds of concubines.

One night stands are more common than ever, as is planning a sexual triste online with someone you’ve not yet met.

But at the same time, the subject is taboo. While everyone’s doing it, there’s not much public discussion.

That’s why China’s drama Ode to Joy has been such a hit with the show’s mostly young, female fans. The show — loosely based on the American smash hit Sex in the City — follows the lives of a group of young, urban Chinese women living in the same apartment building.

The show highlights a number of subjects that are still often considered too taboo for public discussion in China, a country where a large segment of the population still turns red in the face when subjects like sex are mentioned. In most cases, such topics are simply not the subject of most TV shows.

That’s likely why Ode to Joy is so popular — its first season getting 50 million views on Youtube and billions (yes, that’s billions, with a B) of online views in China. The drama fulfills a real demand for public discussion of modern, urban China.

That’s because while modern China is changing at the speed of light, many TV dramas seem like they were written 30 years ago. Breaking away from other typical Chinese shows, where the female protagonist is a cookie-cutter version of other chaste, virtuous women, the show has been praised for showing the hardships that exist underneath the shiny new buildings of major Chinese cities.

One episode underscored traditional China’s obsession with virginity, in which one character’s boyfriend stormed out on the news that she was not a virgin.

In China, many men still  expect their girlfriends or fiances to remain virgins until they are married, although the same requirement does not exist for men. And in a country where prostitution is fairly common, and many young men partake in sex for cash, some Chinese women believe this is a double standard. Moreover, many say this is now an unrealistic expectation in modern China, where sex has become the norm for many young people. One online survey, published last year by Chinese Internet firm Tencent, found that 32 percent of respondents were sexually active within a month after they started dating their current boyfriend/girlfriend. The survey is likely understated, as participants likely didn’t want to divulge such personal information.

Since the “virgin” episode was aired bay in May, China’s blogsphere has seen much heated debate over the issue, in a country that has seen more major social changes in the last couple of decades than many Western nations have seen over the past century.

Chinese traditional culture has long stressed the purity and chastity of unmarried women, and was the focal point of a number of ancient Chinese classic literary works, such as Biographies for Chaste Women, published during the Western Han Dynasty, which spanned from 206 BC to AD 24.  During the Qing Dynasty, which stretched from 1644-to 1911, the purity — i.e. virginity — of young women was the subject of literature, paintings and poetic works.

At a time when the sheer number of views highlights a real demand for discussions of sex and other issues facing young, urban Chinese women today, Chinese censures are ratcheting up the pressure, stating recently that entertainment should reflect China’s socialist morals and values.

Recent weeks and months have seen China’s censures blocking Western stars such as Bon Jovi and Lady Gaga, and the Asian giant grabbed global headlines when it blacklisted Canadian singing sensation Justin Bieber for what the communist government called bad behavior.

It remains unknown whether China’s censures will set their sites on Ode to Joy amid the crackdown.

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