Hymen - “High-Men”?: Virginity Obsession in China

大白兔奶糖 June 21, 2019, 2:10 p.m.

Language learning


“That piece of hymen is really a thing.” This sentence Zhao(interviewee) told me keeps crossing my mind. In Chinese society, “处女情结”is a commonly discussed topic. The closest translation to this would be “virgin obsession”,it means a man is obsessed with virginity , thinking virginity as an extremely important aspect of his partner, usually this men wishes his wife (or even girlfriend) to be a virgin. This paper aims to explore Where does contemporary virginity obsession stem from. Through close reading on history and precise interviews, I argue that virginity obsession results from Chinese traditional philosophy and politics whose major contents devote extensively on advocating men’s power is bigger than women. In Chinese modern and international cities,like Beijing, Nanjing and Shanghai, virginity obsession remains to be an inevitable topic,because of the heterosexual sexes’s fear to challenge such strong social ideology and risk losing privilege they originally owned.

How Chinese philosophy and politics shaped virginity obsession is history all resulted from power. The powerful: authorities, emperors and Mao all promoted ideology that female and male should mind themselves ‘ gestures consciously when it comes to sexual behaviors.

Chinese philosophy used to approve women’s desire to sex and think it is common for them to have sex freely. According to one of the classic books of Confucianism-“Rites of Zhou” Liu xin. Translation name: Rites of Zhou , at pre-Qin times (before 221BC), if anyone attempts to stop young people who are having sex in the wild, the person will be punished officially. “The Book of Songs[ Translation name: Classic of Poetry. The authors are unkown. Guesses are they were Confucian scholars from different dynasties around 11-7BC]”(11th to 7th centuries BC.) is the oldest book of Chinese poetry. It contains many poems that directly depict intercourse and women’s bodies. The word in description is positive, bold and detailed. The official books like “Rites of Zhou” and “The Book of Songs” thinks the sexual activity of women is natural, pure and beautiful.

However, a transition in the Song dynasty(960-1127) appears resulting in the virginity obsession. Major Chinese philosophers (male philosophers) started to emphasize the importance of purity and chastity of women through their books or lectures. A famous philosopher Cheng Yi said “饿死事小,失节事大。”[ 《程氏遗书》卷二十二 Cheng Yi, ] (“Death by starvation is preferable to loss of chastity ”). Then under leader effect of authorities,emperor also supported these kinds of theories about chastity and purity. Being pure and chastity seems like a law to women. Little by little,chastity became the most important thing for women. The more chastity a woman is holding, the more admiration she will get. Therefore, people take chastity to an extreme by conflating the concept of chastity with virginity. Virginity became the best quality of an unmarried woman. In this sense, there is division between women and men on sexual problem. On one hand,men have the right and freedom to have sex with others and will not get bad reviews. But women lose their right to be free on sex,they will never have the chance to achieve “a good woman’s morality” like before.More, this “chastity” is more like a cage to women than a moral code later. Because of this women are lived with much more regulations like they can not go out in the night,they can not wear kilt,or clothes which will show their body shapes and so on. By creating the new moral code for women, Chinese philosophers moralize men’s superiority between heterosexual relationships. This male superiority further enables emperors and authorities to consolidate the patriarchal structure of Chinese society. For example, in the long history,there are only one female king —Empress Wu,in our minds we all think that women should stay at home to take care of family,while men should go out for making a living.That maybe the reason why people are still talk about that legend after so many centuries. And until now,every leader of the country is male but not male,this can make clear that women‘s social status is lower than men more or less.

After this time, Shou gong sha”[ This method is recorded by many historical record books, such as 《淮南·万毕术》and 《博物志》. It’s a common knowledge in China.] was becoming popular around general public,“Shou”means keep or remain,“gong” is females‘virginity,“sha” refers to a red sign in maiden‘s elbow colored by a material: people used this method to test if an unmarried women’s a virginity, which was promoted by male-government authorities. By means of this, people mashed gacko into blood paste and put it onto young girls’ arms, they believe that the red color would not fade away until the girl had sex. This method has no scientific support, there are no anyone to prove it is a practical way but people believed it without a shadow of doubt. Women who failed the test will suffered verbal comment and could hardly get married. Nevertheless, this animal blood test legitimized judgement on women’s virginity. By creating an official test, authorities and men added a barrier for women to be qualified into marriage. This barrier amplified the importance of virginity, and gave men the official right to judge their future wife. It further entrenched men’s power by giving them the method to judge maiden. We all know that the new-married couples will have a test named premarital examination,of course this examination apparently are prepared for women only not for couples during that time. Also,only those pure women can get through the test and then have a chance to be other’s wife. Because of this barrier,more women struggle to keep their virginity for being a good woman.

With the time goes,a fear appears around Chinese men. Because of political reasons,foreign men began to entered into China,apparently,they are so different from Chinese men and they came with their open ideas,all of this new elements attract Chinese women stimulating their desire to release from their present situation and this definitely formed a threat to Chinese men‘s dominating place on China Social position,and this can be a reason that why the virginity ideology was increasing more later.

Chinese men worried about losing their power which is bigger than Chinese women before.So they had to do some actions to protect their right,and their higher social position.And on that special time the most efficient way was to emphasize the importance of being virginity.In Robert Hans Van Gulik’s Sexual Life in Ancient China[ Gulik, Robert Hans Van. Sexual Life in Ancient China: A Preliminary Survey of Chinese Sex and Society from Ca. 1500 B.C. till 1644 A.D.Leiden: Brill, 2003.], he pointed out that Chinese men were afraid that foreigner intruders would have sex with their partners or daughters, so they demanded women to stay at home,telling that a woman just have one husband in her life,and this action contributed to the formation of virginity obsession. In this case, Chinese men began to take practice by “protecting” women’s purity through restricting women to domestic sphere, and in the other words,men ensured their masculinity over women in the private space. More,men’s fear of foreigners having sex with Chinese women also implicated their fear of losing the “Chineseness”of their children.But the fact I think is an excuse that they want to hold their social position,and under the fear‘s effect,women were less freedom,being virginity seems like more common than before. Even today,married with a foreigners can get some bad verbal comment,too. Because of this,virginity and purity became bonded with national identity,it wears a new clothes which is a great reason . The intersection of nationality and gender strengthened men’s dominating position both in the public even private space.

Additionally,under the effect of politic,the importance of chastity are on a new level. Mao’s political movements further emphasized the importance of chastity. During 1950s to 1960s, Mao asked everyone to put the People’s Commune before any personal attachment. Also,Jasper Becker in his book “the Hungry Ghosts”[ Becker, Jasper. Hungry Ghosts: China's Secret Famine. London: J. Murray, 1996. Kindle version. Achieved at Amazon.] stated that women were especially not encouraged to get attached to lovers or husbands (1996, kindle version, location 1717). The words that “especially women” implies Mao and his communism party view women as a threat to his “no personal attachment” slogan. And women are seen as a special group,they have to restrain their nature and their hormone to keep their virginity. During cultural revolution, many women were called “Worn shoes”[ Worn shoes were used to describe women who were slept by many men. It’s a very offensive word to say to women..] and publicly humiliated because CCP[ Chinese Communism Party] suspected them to have inappropriate relationship with men before marriage. Even in the old days, a widow can not get married again,and people call that loyalty to their husband.By critiquing and humiliating women on their sexual behavior, Mao’s political system devalued women’s sexual behavior as a threat of their ideal society, while at the same time, men’s sexual behavior was not treated as a problem at all. This tolerance of inequality on sexual freedom asserted men’s superiority over women.From all these above there are no any ine woman stand out to fight for their right or call for the first-time of men or call for equality on virginity. In addition,through the method of public humiliation, Mao and his campaign gave virginity obsession the political layer of shackles.Write virginity into country's law and make that be right formally. Therefore, people who judged women upon virginity fact are not only morally right, but also politically right. In other words,different from before,women can complaint about that while now it had been a legal law,they have no choice but obey it.From then on ,Mao and his communism party took virginity obsession to a solid place.

History maybe is the most important cornerstone of the formation of virginity obsession. It gets passed on from generation to generation. Virginity obsession are transformed into different styles,poster,text,poems,articles and so on. Resulting from this, virginity obsession are inherited by new generations and then innovated with more new elements come down until nowadays. Every forms of ideology will difficultly changed if it has been deeply rooted , the same as virginity obsession ,it is very hard to change this firm situation of virginity obsession.

However, as time going,a group of young people appears,and they are a little bit different from the old Chinese men, they began to transform themselves‘ attitudes towards virginity. For the sake of knowing contemporary’s ideas to virginity obsession, I interviewed 41 heterosexual unmarried people (16-35years old) from Chinese eastern cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing. However,after that, I found out that the influence of the history on maiden chastity seems like has never been fade away, on the contrary, the history even resonates with contemporary ideas about virginity. And the reasons are as following.

History is always strikingly resemblance. Men see virginity as a matter of course like the last century‘s men. I interviewed 22 males, and 20 out of them said that they hope their own wife to be a virgin. But when I asked why, they all were lost in thought. From this it reflect that the influence of that ideology seems like being weaken. After a while of thinking, some of them answered the reason is for their family traditional sense and social comment. The others still couldn’t answer it after long-time thinking. Of course we can not ignore the influence of the old parents for they experienced that ideology personally and they are the media of passing on virginity obsession.The difficulty for these men to think about where do their virgin obsession come from, implicating that they maybe never thought about it before,even they never think if this idea can be a little bit wrong,or if men should be in the line of keeping chastity the same as women.Just like they said they think virginity is important for family and social pressure,maybe if without this they will ignore the necessity of virginity. Or it can be seen as a selfish idea,in a modern time when everyone is calling this is a wonderful time with gender equality,but there are so many gentlemen require their partner to be a maiden. Anyway,Maybe this can be a mutual and equal action. The virginity to the future wife is something subconscious. For these men in my interviews, virginity obsession just appears in their body as it does. The environment,their parents‘firm idea and society ideology give young men the right to judge women on virginity. These men don’t need to interpret it, because they view their ability to judge virginity as their natural privilege. Even maybe some females also can not answer why can‘t men judge their chastity before marriage. Even now we can not say it's must be wrong for judging this.But we also can not say it's right for men to judge women because of a piece of hymen.

Just because of Men’s fear to lose their existing privilege contributes to contemporary virginity obsession. In Angry White Men[ ], the author points out that white men are being angry because they are afraid of losing their privilege that they are used to have. They are angry because they feel like losing their privilege status in American society. They called this is a protection to women,but don't admit this maybe because of their desire of possessing.The virginity obsession case in China has the same pattern. 12 male interviewees directly express their discontent towards women who are claiming virginity is not important at all. An interviewee said:
That’s crazy. Feminism in China has gone too far. I understand women want to get rights. But that doesn’t mean they should give up chastity. Chastity is a Chinese traditional good moral, and virginity is a nice gift for a husband. for I think many women are making excuses to act like a whore. There’s no reason why, chastity is a good moral. Women should keep that in mind. (Li , male, age 20, lives in Beijing)

Li devalues women who don’t care about virginity as “whores”, the anger he hold towards women are similar to what happens in Angry White Men. The angry white men don’t face troubles in their life, In the same manner, hymen doesn’t grow on Chinese young mens’ body. Lacking of virginity,women doesn’t directly do harms to men physically nor mentally,in China,even today many men think hymen is a necessity of a maiden,just like Li,women are caged by virginity,if without this they can not be a good girl,or even called “whores”. Li and many other Chinese young men showed anger because they are afraid of losing his privilege which formed in the history, male superiority in public and domestic sphere, and their unique sexual freedom. In other words,men want to through hymen to show their same kind that they have a higher class in their family or in a heterosexual relationship,no only Li,in the real life,there are many men think having a girlfriend are virgin makes them feel respectful.

Contemporary males‘ virginity obsession also results from lacking self-confidence in a heterosexual relationship. Men needs the hymen to reduce his sense of insecurity. Many men explain they can’t stand the fact that other men had sex with his wife or girlfriend before. But they said it is about jealousy not for other reasons. Moreover, men said they need the hymen to give them the feeling of dignity. Men also needs the hymen to prove his masculinity. One interviewee said: “the first time of a woman is unique, the breaking of the hymen feels special to me, after breaking that hymen, she feels like mine. Losing that experience makes me feel incomplete in making her my wife ” (Zhang)

The breaking of hymen is largely mentioned in why virginity matters. This reflect that virginity is like a medicine can care their anxiety,they want to use this piece of hymen to prove their charm,and keep their dignity.If a woman is a virgin, it enables her future husband to have the special experience of penetrating the hymen.On the contrary,virgin can use hymen to get a relative higher position in her marriage than others who have lost their hymen. The idea of physical breaking implicates the mental influence. Men needs the breaking process to prove his masculinity. Nevertheless, in fact,Chinese men feel they should be in a dominating place at domestic sphere, and the need of a hymen just an excuse to help them build masculinity uncovering this fact that they are not confident enough about themselves,and this reason seems has been accepted nowadays.Even a lot of women think if a man cares about his girlfriend‘s hymen,it can prove that this man can be a traditional good man.

In contrast to men, they take virgin obsession as a matter of course, women are thinking about it in a complicated way. Although they are being punished, women still allow men to judge them in the base of virginity.The conservative and cautious attitude of women towards virginity obsession is because women don’t want to risk losing virginity. Most females interviewed said if there’s a way that they could be a virgin once more,they want to be that again before marriage. Most of them also said that they knew they shouldn’t be restricted from being a virgin, but they still view the hymen as a “bonus” point. Therefore, women are still trying to keep their virgin because they are afraid of devaluing themselves of not being one.They are afraid of possibilities that they might lose credit in their future partner‘s mind.Because of this, women dare not to surpass the line of male privilege. In modern society, even so many comment support non-first-time, but the fact is those woman who are virgin when they got married they lived a happiest life than those who are not.Indeed, it's hard to remove rooted things.

It’s not only men who support this obsession. Women also have privileges that they don’t want to lose. Many women want to exchange respect and material supports from men through their virginity. Ma mentioned that she couldn’t trust men completely, that they need to provide some material goods physically. in this sense, she feels something like “to be a virgin” could be a chip in exchange for “a good man”. Many good girls dream to get married a good man,so they will protect their hymen until they meet their Mr.right.It can be a new element for virginity obsession.

Gayle Rubin demonstrates the idea of “gender labor”[ Rubin, Gayle. 1975. “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy ‘ of Sex.” she briefly introduces that the division of labor through heterosexual marriage systems defining women and men’s role in a relationship. In Contemporary China’s case, these young people are talking about the same thing. All of my male interviewees want to be masculine, and all of my female interviewees wants to trade her “good wife” role through virginity. Virginity means extreme chastity,the extreme chastity makes a good wife. And being a good wife means a woman can gain respect from men and society. The division of masculinity and extreme chastity in contemporary Chinese heterosexual relationship is formed firmly by the history. Virgin can get more respect on work,because this can be a good character in others' minds. While,there are some other ideas,if a woman gets a top position in a young age,no matter what the fact is,the others will think she must do some physical business.

The two heterosexual sexes follows the history path and are dragged by it. Both sexes have privilege if they don’t want to let go, and both sexes behave the same pattern as China before. In ancient times there’s shougongsha, now there’s the blood statement for the hymen. Many men believe that the breaking of a hymen must cause blood bleeding,if not they will think this is not the first time for a girl to have a sex. In the ancient time,men hoped for those anti-science test to judge women's virginity. Currently,with the development of medical,men start to use scientific means to sentence women's to disobey chastity. They seems like to be accustomed to do this test to women.In modern times,people all not only men but also women all think the first time is important to a girl,and it must be gave to the right man,and some women even feel regretful to their husband or their boyfriend if she is not a virgin.But this ideas has changed less important than the old days more or less.

Both in history and current, men’s fear and insecurity of losing power or masculinity plays a critical role. In ancient times, men were afraid of the foreigners. However, now, they were afraid of losing their dominating position in the heterosexual relationship.The fear of power being taken away both are from inside and outside implicates that under the effect of this unnecessary feeling ,men put more attention on testing women‘s chastity,and regard this protection can keep their dignity to be a male. They will have a sense of satisfaction if they find out the fact that their girlfriend is a virgin,and positively,some men will transform this satisfaction inti a promotion on their work or life.

Both in history and current, humiliation reemphasize the importance of virginity. Under Mao, women who have no relation with politics were politically punished. Now, women themselves are used to admit this punishing roles. Most internet violence on “inappropriate sexual behaviors before marriage” are made by women themselves. In a marriage,if a woman do inappropriate sexual behavior,more than a half women will attack her verbally even physically, while when the same case happened on men, most women will persuade wife to forgive him for family and children.Additionally, if the wife forgive his husband immediately,a tons of people will think she is right,smart and scheming.The fact is in our real life there do have a division between male and female. It is common for a man to have sex with many different girls,but the only one requirement is the man should be loyal after get married, while, or the women, they can not have sex with many difference boys, if they did, this action will make others name them“whores”.

If looking at the pattern of history and current, both heterosexual men and women from Beijing, Nanjing and Shanghai showed their fear and concern on changes in the structure of power. Men are afraid that they can no longer be in the dominating place if this emphasis on virginity fade away. Women, on the other hand, are afraid of losing competence if they ignore the historical test being put over their hymen. Both sexes are too afraid to make a change Women today are more brave than before,they began to call for equal sex,but just a little women can through general media to express this comment,and others are afraid of social verbal pressure.As for the men,the fact is the most of them are still obsessed with virginity,and less than women think hymen is not important.

The socialization of importance on virginity is too strong through the emphasis of government authorities and philosophers‘speeches. These people are responsible for guiding and teaching people toward freedom and knowledge, but in China’s case, they are restricting both young Chinese men and women from changing their thinking. We learn ideas from all kinds if speeches,and these speeches have an influence on our minds unconsciously. Even the new generation they can know the “virgin”from all kinds of media.

As an ethnographer, I’m appreciated that they were willing to tell me exactly what they think. I am a female, but like Li in the interview, many interviewees didn’t concern about my feelings when answering my questions. As time going, people hold much more open ideas on sex, but the obsession of virginity still stick into the society. When you walked on the street in China, among the supermarkets and restaurants you may find a small, weird shop advertising a board with words “Hymen repairing”. If the ideas about sex are more open, why the virginity still matters to the young people? Because making a challenge to social ideology is impeccable. The long history of authoritarian politics and academic sphere is dominated by men. Both men and women get used to the male-dominating power structure. Even now there are still a lot of man-only work,and when women find jobs they also will not think about construction job,drive and so on.These can reflect that the social idea ideology has formed firmly.

But maybe it’s time for the Chinese young people to be not afraid of losing privilege and make some changes. China already treat sex openly, it is the time to end the obsession of a piece of hymen. Because the long history of the obsession of it is a history of “high” “men”. Nowadays, there are so many social activities are calling for free sexual love , like contraceptives and condom,the most famous condom brand is Durex,from its born,he always keep a principle—dare to love. Also nowadays it is less embarrassed to see those private product advertisement in public places,and in the school even the child can have the right to know these private things.It can be seen as a transformation of virgin obsession,also it is an improvement of social ideology.

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