Wednesday, Jul 26, 2017, 8:38 PM CST – China


Sex Education

Yet to Mature

Lacking a solid foundation, sex education in China remains fragmentary and falls far short of comprehensiveness. How can a country so conflicted about sexual values move forward?

Grade one students in Renbei Primary School learn about the inconveniences of pregnancy Photo by Zhen Hongge and CNS

During the Cultural Revolution sexuality became absolutely taboo and sexual relationships for anything other than procreation were equated with rightism.

Jin Wei, a professor from China’s Cen­tral Party School, still remembers a question her teenage daughter asked her three years ago: “Mom, our teacher told us in class that shaking hands, hugging or kissing can transmit AIDS. Is that true?” Her daughter was at the time a junior mid­dle school student in Beijing’s Zhongguan­cun area, seen by many as the heartland of progressive education in China.

Jin was astonished by her daughter’s ques­tion. She was even more shocked by the fact that a teacher in a prestigious middle school knew so little about AIDS transmission

Jin Wei, like many educators in China, believes that sex education in China re­mains backward, despite the proclamations of academics like Pan Suiming, a well-known sociologist from Renmin University of China, who claims that the country has already fulfilled its own “sexual revolution.”

Early Days

In the early 20th century, following a cen­tury of humiliation at the hands of more advanced foreign powers riding the wave of science, Chinese scholars, public figures and political reformers began to discuss sex edu­cation in the context of general moderniza­tion. Advocates for a comprehensive curricu­lum urged the teaching of what they termed “sexual imperatives,” such as monogamous marriage, and the eradication of “evil habits” such as masturbation, prostitution and ho­mosexuality. “Free” (as opposed to arranged) marriage, eugenics and gender equality were also championed as progressive concepts.

During this period, it was believed that the spread of sexual knowledge should start with the family, relying on sex education in schools to serve as a supplement. Two of the most vocal advocates for modern sex educa­tion were the scholar Zhang Jingsheng and writer Lu Xun, who had graduated from colleges in France and Japan, respectively. Settled in teaching jobs after they returned to China, both set about integrating sex educa­tion into the curriculum in their respective schools. But their efforts failed to bring about a national-level sex education curriculum.

In her paper “Sex Education in Contem­porary China,” Italian academic Alessandra Aresu describes sex education in China in the period between the 1920s and 1940s in this way: “The debate [on sex education channels and measures] remained largely in academic circles. Only in isolated incidences was sex education taught in schools.”

After the founding of the People’s Repub­lic of China in 1949, Premier Zhou Enlai showed concern about the state of sex educa­tion in China, and is thus regarded as a chief advocate of sex education in the 1950s and 1960s. Zhou emphasized the need to spread sexual awareness among China’s youth, and advocated birth control. Zhou pointed out during a national medical conference that “schools should teach female students sexual hygiene before they have their first period, and boys before their first seminal emission.” Close to death in 1976, Zhou enlisted the help of Wu Jieping, a leading figure in the country’s medical circles and also a famous urologist in his own right, to continue the promotion of a national sex education policy.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966- 1976), sexuality became absolutely taboo and sexual relationships for anything other than procreation were equated with rightism. All concerted efforts to promote sex education were nullified, with even Zhou Enlai swept aside.

In the early 1980s, as the country was just emerging from the ashes of the Cultural Rev­olution, population control and what would later become the One Child Policy meant that the country’s leaders could no longer avoid the topic of sex. As part of the efforts to find a long-term solution to overpopulation, the State Education Commission (predeces­sor to the Ministry of Education) introduced the Population Education Project. Under the project, courses on population education were introduced into many senior middle schools across the country, and special classes on “sexual hygiene” were also included. In 1982, a book translated and edited by Wu Jieping entitled Medical Science on Sex was published, a move now seen as the first of­ficial attempt to formulate a national policy on sex education. The same year, Beijing Na­tional Day Middle School launched a course on “puberty education,” one of the earliest at­tempts to formalize sex education in Chinese schools.

In 1988, the State Education Commis­sion, Ministry of Health and State Family Planning Commission jointly issued a circu­lar, requiring middle schools throughout the country to start “puberty education,” which became the State euphemism for sex educa­tion.

New Era

When AIDS appeared in China in the late 1980s, sex education gradually shifted its emphasis to the prevention of AIDS and other STDs. An official guideline in August 1990 listed young people as the group most in need of special education to prevent and control a potential AIDS pandemic.

The number of people infected by HIV in China has been estimated as being as high as1.5 million. Statistics show that by 2009, the confirmed cases of AIDS infec­tion had reached over 700,000. Globally, an average of over 6,000 young people become infected with HIV/AIDS every day, with ad­olescents between 15 and 24 years of age con­stituting half that number. The rate of Chi­nese adolescents infected with HIV/AIDS is also rising sharply, though the number of new infections nationally has begun to fall in other demographics. The cause for the ma­jority of new infection cases has also shifted from mother-to-infant transmission to sexual transmission for the first time. Zhou Zuny­ou, director of the China National Center for AIDS/STD Control and Prevention (CDC) thinks sex education is the most fundamental form of AIDS prevention. He insists that sex education should play a larger part in AIDS prevention from a social and ethical perspec­tive, with the CDC handling treatment.

Since 1990, the Ministry of Education has released documents time and again demand­ing that AIDS prevention education be of­fered in schools across the country. However, critics argue that AIDS prevention education has simply turned into free condom give­aways, with teachers avoiding the subject of how the disease is actually transmitted.

Social campaigns on condom use have largely been successful, though many claim this is more to do with the national birth control policy than heightened AIDS aware­ness. Condom vending machines are avail­able in most universities and instructions for proper condom use must be offered on campus by law. However, at the same time, teaching proper condom use has been treated as a catch-all solution to the problem of how to educate Chinese people, young and old, about sex, sexuality and STDs.

Modest Breakthroughs

“Through sex, sperm and ovum meet in the woman’s oviduct and the ovum thus turns into a zygote.” This is a line quoted from the 1996 version of Health Education for Puberty published in Beijing for middle school use, the only passage in the book that mentions sex and reproduction. Even in composing this superficial description, called “scratch­ing an itch from outside the boot” by critics, editor Yu Chengmo told NewsChina he spent hours agonizing over this simple sentence, for fear of overstepping social taboos.

Fifteen years have passed since the 1996 version of Health Education for Puberty was published but until now, sex education re­mains optional for schools. As a result, the majority choose to opt out. The government is little help, continuing to refer to sex edu­cation as “puberty education” in official ru­bric, according to Xu Zhenlei, chairman of the China Sexology Association. The latest regulation from the Education Ministry on sex education, issued in 2008, still refrained from using “sex education” directly in the title of the document, instead referring to it as “health education.”

Xu, along with other critics of current policy, argues that China’s official stance on sex education has reduced educators to dam­age limitation – responding to crises after the event. “When AIDS becomes a problem, we gear sex education toward preventing AIDS. When premarital abortion becomes wide­spread, we introduce reproduction health education to stave off the trend. And so on,” she told NewsChina.


According to Joanna MacMillan’s Sex, Science and Morality in China, a survey conducted by the Chinese Sexology Association in 2000 revealed that of all young people in Shanghai who claimed to have received some form of sex education (only 35 percent of the city’s middle school students), 54 percent de­scribed it as “boring and of no interest,” a clear indictment of contemporary Chinese sex education. However, in the last 10 years, educators have seen some, albeit limited, changes.

Last year, Chengdu University launched a three-year sex education subsidiary major program, enrolling 30 students. The program is the second of its kind after one offered by Capital Normal University which made sex education a subsidiary major in 1996. This has allowed some experts in sex education to trickle down into China’s vast school system.

On September 5, a class called “Where do I come from?” was held in Renbei Elemen­tary School in Chengdu. “This is a prolonged journey… mom and dad grew up like us, and they met each other, fell in love, and got married. Then, dad put his sex organ into mom’s…” a female teacher recited to a class­room of captivated youngsters. She then de­scribed the process of ovum meeting sperm, and then the embryo taking shape and grow­ing. When the picture of a newborn baby was displayed on the screen, the teacher walked closer to the students and said, “You are the child produced by the best of all the sperm, the healthiest and most competitive ones.”

The course, which has run in Renbei El­ementary School since 2003, has drawn positive responses from both students and parents. Each year, teachers send a letter to the students’ parents, informing them of the start-date of the course on sex education and inviting parents to participate. Parents can also choose whether their children will take part or not. It turns out that most parents welcome the course and some also join in with class activities.

The content of the course changes for each age group. For lower grades, the course in­cludes information on basic anatomy, learn­ing about the sex organs and the facts of conception and birth. The psychology of sex is then gradually introduced. For students in higher grades, the course shifts its focus to the communication between genders. In 2005, this school published its own sexual health manual. Renbei has become a rare success story in an education system struggling with the problem of sexuality.

Some argue that the will for greater access to sex education in China already exists, but that the number of qualified professionals in this emerging field is far too small to cope with demand from the State education sys­tem. Statistics from the Ministry of Educa­tion indicate that a total of 500,000 sex edu­cation professionals are needed for primary and middle schools in China. An Yunfeng, director of the China National Association for Ethical Studies, once expressed, “Sexol­ogy should be based on a solid foundation consisting of four systems: sexual biology, sexual psychology, sexual ethics and sexual law. However, in reality, even sexology has yet to become an independent discipline, let alone the rest.”

(Qian Wei and Alex Taggart also contributed reporting)

Tags: sex education

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