Sunday, October 18, 2009

China rebukes rude Miss Belgium

Hedonistic navel-gazing is the prevalent mode of contemporary popular culture. Never in history have celebrities found the opportunity for self-indulgence on such a massive scale. This makes them painfully incomprehending of people who have to deal with reality and therefore have a more sober and less whimsical lifestyle. Case in point: Goedele Liekens' misplaced intervention on sexual mores in China.

Enough has been written against colonialism, including irritatingly anachronistic tirades by Third-Worlders against "neo-colonialism" deemed to secretly perpetuate colonial power equations. Yet, some colonial attitudes do persist, particularly among the liberal elite. They have neither understanding nor sympathy for the cultural conservatism and resistance to Western cultural influence displayed by most Third World populations. After all, even if Muslim populations free themselves from their religious straitjacket, they still won't fall into the other extreme, that of Western liberalism and libertinism. This is demonstrated by the reticence of the highly secularized Chinese people in matters on which our society has recently broken all taboos.

Just now I saw a re-broadcast of a VRT (Flemish state TV) series on contemporary China, some two years old. The guide was Lulu Wang, a Chinese author living in the Netherlands and fluent in Dutch, and she takes one Flemish celebrity after another to places and people pertinent to their own specific areas of interest. This time her guest was Goedele Liekens, former Miss Belgium, sexologist (a specialism within the psychology faculty) and author of several very explicit sex guidebooks. She went around questioning people about their love/sex lives.

Every businessman about to visit China is briefed beforehand that prior to talking business, you first have to establish a relationship by means of light talk over tea or dinner, and let a day or more pass before coming to the point. And that's only business, here the theme of the conversation was rather more intimate stuff. Yet our Goedele (no, I'm not being sexist by using her first name: she set the trend herself by launching a magazine named Goedele) plunged right in. The programme had to be shot in a few days, so perhaps there was no alternative. At any rate, in those circumstances I'd be wary of the quality of the answers she was getting.

Then again, it's not like as if the Chinese interviewees were made to divulge more than they wanted. Those ordinary peasant women knew for themselves how far to go with this unabashed big-nose (= Westerner). They mainly talked about how their marriages were contracted and how concerned they were about finding a good match for their own children (or, more often, only child). A mother of one remained perfectly friendly when explaining that she was with her husband only once a month, for that's how often he could come home from work, and even when being asked: "Don't you miss the sex?" Kindly, she didn't let on that Goedele came across as not merely vulgar, but as a sex-hungry unhappy female, just the stereotype that most Orientals have of emancipated Western women.

Dissatisfaction is indeed the basic vibration of her type of sexual liberation preacher. To make the point more explicit, while teaching her Chinese interlocutors about love, she had to include a little aside that she had just divorced. And we may add that meanwhile in the real world, the boyfriend who replaced her husband has also just left her. These things happen, and I wouldn't dream of berating any fellow human being for it,-- but then please don't start preaching to distant nations about how to conduct relationships.

She kept on fussing about how unhappy rural Chinese wives were under the presumed tyranny of their husbands, fathers-in-law and (especially) mothers-in-law. Yes, a young man on the look-out for a bride was recorded as saying that she should be well-disposed towards his parents, and Goedele considered this a strange priority. She failed to understand that the nuclear marriage is a very shaky construction whereas the integration of a couple into a larger family is a formula that has proven fairly successful across millennia. She saw no sign of love between any husband and wife, even between boyfriend and girlfriend, meaning that she didn't see them making intimate displays of affection in public. Just once did she observe a couple kissing, and this made her exclaim: "This is the first time I see people showing love for each other." She had no appreciation for the Chinese people's natural discreetness and modesty, as if these were merely obstacles to be removed.

In her sexology studies, Miss Belgium had of course come across the fabled illustrated sex manuals from ancient China, in which the woman's pleasure is a central concern of her male partner. That is a far cry from the African and now largely Islamic custom of female genital mutilation, intended to limit the woman's lust. While this Chinese pursuit of the female orgasm was of course more pleasurable for the woman, the reason for it was nonetheless far from feministic: the idea was that female juices enhance the vitality of the man who plunges his organ into them, and he could extract more elixir out of her if she climaxed mightily. To maximize the effect, he should do it with as many healthy young women as possible. This practice has been denounded as "sexual vampirism", though the victim was given maximum pleasure. For all her lamentable oppressedness under the ancient Confucian patriarchy, at least this premium on the Chinese woman's sexual satisfaction must have been quite a consolation to her.

Unfortunately, in today's China Goedele didn't see any signs of this erotic tradition. Of course not, it was mainly a pastime of the ruling classes dismantled by the Republic (1912-49) and the People's Republic (1949-), never much in vogue among the peasant majority. Moreover, as a vestige of "feudal superstition" and "decadent ruling-class hedonism", this Daoist sexual "alchemy" and any general displays of erotic enthusiasm, after having already lost some steam during a neo-Confucian millennium of increasing prudery, were actively suppressed by republican modernizers and especially by the Communists. Chairman Mao, however, was one Communist who, as his unique privilege, did put into practice the belief that plenty of sex with plenty of young women promotes health (and even cures venereal disease). Unfortunately, he wasn't available for an interview.

Goedele equated the marriages brokered by parents or by match-makers with the "loveless, calculated" marriages in premodern European royalty. Chinese people explained to her that when a couple start raising children, they lose their initial passion for each other anyway but evolve a deeper bond, more consequential and lasting than the juvenile infatuation which Westerners call "love" and deem the only legitimate basis for marriage. But she didn't do much listening and preferred to do the talking. To the extent that the Chinese (and likewise the Indians) haven't been swayed yet by pop culture from the West, they consider the exclusive Western premium on emotions as the basis of marriage or "relationships" as downright silly.

For all her psychological training and sexological experimentation, she clearly hasn't understood that the emotionalism and self-centredness that condition contemporary sexual mores in the West, are not deemed superior by Asian societies, nor a welcome enrichment. Far from being superior to the sobriety and self-control that she found to be still largely the norm in China, they are the main cause of the brittleness of contemporary marriages in the West.

My apologies to Goedele for my rudeness in putting it so explicitly to her. But then, speaking of rudeness, her performance at Beijing University (rated one of the top five universities worldwide) was amazingly inappropriate. She started telling the Chinese audience, consisting of advanced psychology students and their professors, that they did it all wrong, that Chinese men don't love their wives, etc. After the Western fashion, she invited comments from the audience, and those that she got made perfect sense: the proud Chinese explained to her, again in very friendly tones, that she shouldn't confuse love with ostentatious displays of affection. When a man said this, she objected that he was a man, and he had no answer to that. So female students raised their voices to explain that Chinese women lead pretty successful lives and are pretty happy as well. (They certainly smile a lot more than Goedele does.) She had announced before entering the hall that she was going to carefully raise explicit sexual issues, which I didn't see, but it must have been tough stuff, for at some point Lulu Wang, at the hosts' request, told her she had to stop the presentation. She was not taken to a labour camp, merely shown the door in the most inoffensive manner possible. Outside the door, she wondered aloud why they had taken offence.

To be sure, my judgment may be overly harsh in that I haven't taken into account her disorientation at being thrown quite suddenly into a very foreign society. So, my apologies again if this has come across as my definitive opinion on Goedele Liekens' sexual philosophy and on her record as a missionary of sexual liberation. If she could do it all over, I am sure she would correct some of her mistakes even without anyone telling her to. Nevertheless, her performance certainly has revealed an incomprehending attitude of condescension that is still common enough among Westerners.

Two days ago, I saw an episode of a similar documentary series on India (conceived as a sequel to the China series), where another Flemish TV lady explored man/woman relations in Kerala and uttered all the same platitudes. She too failed to show any respect for the explanations the natives gave for their age-old familial arrangements, e.g. the allotment of specific types of agricultural work to women only. There is plenty of progress in the position of women in both India and China, but what alienates our celebrity ladies is that it doesn't have the same self-obsessed quality that they themselves display in their interviews to glossy magazines. In China, chan/zen monks literally contemplate their navel, but people seeking love should extend their awareness beyond their little selves.


Naras said...

Thanks Mr. Elst for a sympathetic take on Asian sexual attitudes. You have hinted at other uses of sexual energy in Daoism/Taoism. I'm sure you know what place the navel has in Tantra, which was similar to Daoism and may have influenced it. It is called the Manipura Chakra, the seat of will and sublimation. I'll look forward to a post on that in the future!

Anonymous said...

Good observation.
Attitude shapes perceptions.
It is when a person considers his attitude as blameless, that perceptions are taken as the absolute, erroneously.

Indians probably called it the mleccha attitude.