On the 24th of August, Minjie Chen posted a long essay on the Cotsen Library blog, titled Let’s Talk to Kids About Sex…in Chinese Too. Helen Wang was keen to know more, and she kindly agreed to answer some more questions.
World Kid Lit is pleased to publish this Q&A post simultaneously on the Chinese Books for Young Readers and WKL blogs this #WorldKidLit Month.
Helen Wang: What inspired (provoked/motivated) you do this research? (Perhaps it’s part of a bigger research project, or there is an existing field? Or you did it solo?)
Minjie Chen: I have multiple versions of answers to this question. The longest and most complete one will need to begin with when I was five, the age I now wish I had access to the picture books I get to read today! The short answer is, I was stumped by questions from the audience when I was giving a lecture at New York University – Shanghai last fall, and that eventually led to this essay. I was talking to sophomores about using primary sources in humanities research. I mainly study children’s reading materials as a source of information for youth and one project I did was on the early history of sex education movement in Republican China. The students’ interest quickly moved from history to here and now–what sex education resources are available to Chinese children and adolescents in the 21st century? What do they teach about sex, gender, LGBTQ, pleasure, and a host of other topics? I had only meager knowledge about their questions. I was under the impression that there were a lot more translated picture books for children’s sex education than homegrown works in China. A Chinese reader series that offers sex instruction for Grades 1-6 students had attracted media attention and controversy in China. Except for a few online snapshots of illustrations from that book, I didn’t have much to say about Chinese sex education books of the 21th century.
While standing at the lectern listening to students’ thoughtful inquiries, I realized that I was just as curious as them. It would be a worthwhile project to survey the types of sex instruction books produced by Chinese writers and find out what information and messages are imparted—Are they accurate, useful, and empowering? Are there caveats readers should be aware of? For the Cotsen Children’s Library, it was a prime moment to collect the earliest picture books that China has made for young children’s sex instruction.
HW: How did you go about doing this research?
MC: This is by no means an exhaustive survey of all Chinese sex instruction books for children, but based on what the Cotsen Children’s Library was able to procure from the current book market (let’s just say that I spent quite some time poring over the Chinese site of the online retailer Amazon, doing keyword searching for “sex education” and following helpful or unhelpful leads of “Customers who bought this item also bought…”). I looked at dozens of picture books, comic books, and illustrated books, and examined dimensions that include childbirth, reproductive organs, gender roles, sex crime and prevention, and the backgrounds of the writers. I took notes from individual titles and summarized the prominent patterns I observed.
HW: In your essay you cover mainly books about babies. Is there a similar range of books about puberty, periods, early sexual stirrings/desire?
MC: Unlike picture books, which for the first time bring sex instruction to readers as young as preschoolers in China, there have been informational books about puberty intended for school students. The greatest achievement of China’s earliest sex education movement was that it made puberty and adolescence standard topics in middle school curriculum on physiology and hygiene. Sexual desire was a major topic that pioneer sex educators treated seriously, and they presented no-nonsense information to disentangle sexual instinct from shame. In fact, I have yet to find a contemporary Chinese writer as good as Zhou Jianren 周建人 (1888-1984), the most prolific voice at the dawn of China’s sex education movement, who explained human reproduction in lucid language to school children, adolescents, and adults.
Zhou Jianren tongshu [Zhou Jianren’s stories for children], Haitun chubanshe, 2013. 《周建人童书》， 海豚出版社。 2013年。
I found a wide range of topics in sex instruction books published after 2000 for teens: sexual attraction and impulse, romantic and sexual relationships, menstruation, nocturnal emissions, masturbation, hygiene, pregnancy and birth control, STD, sexual abuse and prevention, drug abuse, pimples, bras…just to give some examples. Exactly what information is given about those topics warrants another investigation.
HW: A few specific questions – is there a legal age of consent?, until what age is someone considered a minor?, what about under-age sex?, what about contraception? can “early developers” access contraceptives? what about education re sexually transmitted diseases?
MC: Once again I am stumped! I flipped through several informational books devoted to the prevention of sexual abuse, and couldn’t find any mention of legal ages. It is unpardonable not to share this piece of information with children and youth! As I dug into the Internet I was surprised by what I found. Chinese Criminal Law (available on the website of the Supreme People’s Court of the People’s Republic of China) does not really articulate the concept of consent. In circular language, Article 236 of the Code indicates that a person who has “illicit sex” with girls under fourteen years old is guilty of raping. The official English translation (link to the Supreme People’s Court website) of the Criminal Law, in contrast, clearly states that whoever has “sexual intercourse” with a girl under the age of fourteen is guilty, and accordingly fourteen should be considered the legal age of consent in China–I applaud the sensible interpretation of the anonymous translators for closing the loophole for “licit sex” with preteen girls. (There is also a debate on removing the gender reference and making the article inclusive of child victims of all sexes, not just female ones.)
Minors are defined by Chinese Civil Law as under age eighteen.
It looks like contraceptive pills are over-the-counter medicine and available to any teenager should they muster their courage to visit a drugstore in China. Chinese government agencies are supposed to provide contraceptives for free, but it is unclear if minors are eligible or if they need to jump through hoops for the “freebies.”
I am glad that you asked about sexually transmitted diseases. Of all the topics that Chinese sex instruction books may cover for adolescents, this is one topic you never need to worry might be forgotten. STD was practically sex educators’ favorite topic, until the issue of sexual abuse and prevention vied for attention in recent years. Sex educators have always exploited fear to rally the public to their controversial cause, whether it was fear for STD leading to deteriorating health of newborns and enfeebled national defense, or anxiety about sexual abuse harming the physical and mental health of children and youth. As Chinese society and especially middle-class parents increasingly prioritize children’s emotional wellbeing and happiness, sex education literature will be able to throw off the crutches of scary social crisis for bolstering legitimacy, and embrace all aspects of human sexuality including the pleasant and beautiful part.
HW: In children’s books, how is sex presented – eg in a loving relationship, for procreation, obligation, fun, to be avoided with weird uncles …
MC: Chinese picture books present sex as the means for procreation between a married couple, and occasionally acknowledge the process as a joyful and exciting one–because a baby is going to be made! Some books also teach children that parents have needs for privacy and intimacy, but in subtle language so I am not sure if a child reader necessarily understands the association.
Books for teens typically discourage premarital sex as well as dating before adulthood, but they also pragmatically provide information on birth control, thus differing from abstinence-only programs found in the US.
HW: what about LGBTQ ?
MC: Chinese picture books for younger ages faithfully subscribe to a binary view of sexes and sexual orientations, so do not expect to read about gay penguins (like And Tango Makes Three) or queer frogs in them just yet. Many books for school-age readers and parents send conservative, ambiguous, or contradictory messages about the LGBTQ population, but changes can be seen in some of the newer publications. The controversial sex education reader series Treasuring Life 珍爱生命 published by Beijing Normal University Press fully normalizes all sexual orientations. Be Sexually Informed Dad and Mom 做知”性”爸妈 (2016), published by the Southwest Normal University Press, is a parental self-help book on sex instruction and its last and brief section, titled “The Unbearable ‘Brokeback Mountain’,” addresses homosexuality. The movie reference is interesting considering that Ang Lee’s 2005 picture was banned in China, but enough Chinese must have found successful ways to watch it outside theatres. The book cites high attempted suicide rates among LGB youth, and warns that parents will easily push their vulnerable children over the edge if they, too, are insulting and hostile like the larger society is. Appealing to parents’ love for children and protective instinct, the book closes with the following remarks,
Just think of it as a cruel joke that nature has played with your child and family. Accept your child in need of help and let him/her know that you will always be there with unconditional love, even if the entire world has rejected him/her. (p. 177)
I sure hope the next book on the market will not have to end with such a gloomy message imbued with death threat. How about telling readers something interesting and inspiring, like influential LGBTQ people in history and contemporary popular culture, for a start?