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Black Market Bodies
by Valerie Sartor
2008-02-11 10:12:05
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China's account of prostitution, like her history, is long and venerable. Imperial Chinese concubines and courtesans evolved during Victorian times into Shanghai's famous "flower girls". These historic women-for-hire served as erotic models for other Asian countries and provoked great literary works in China as well.

The traditional Japanese geisha, honored in ancient times for her exquisite beauty, extraordinary social skills and artistic talents directly descends from the ancient lineage of Chinese courtesans. These elegant women entertained royalty through storytelling and music. They were not considered true prostitutes; they were erudite ladies educated in the fine arts who sometimes also provided sex.

Chinese courtesans allegedly did not sell their bodies for sex: "shi mai kou bu mai shen: (Sell mouth but not body). In the 18th and 19th centuries, especially in South China, such talented women became "Flower Girls." Addressed as "xian sheng", the courteous title for bookkeeper, these "Hua" or flower girls they performed on stage as storytellers. Before the Opium Wars some of the "flowers" worked in opium dens and were known as "smoke and flower girls."

Business changed beginning in 1949 when Chairman Mao demanded an end all forms of whoring. His argument was based upon the communist ideological principals of egalitarianism. Prostitution virtually and visually ended under Mao's regime. When Mao died in 1976 his successor, Deng Xiao Ping, opened China to the West again, enacting in 1978 the "gai ge kai fang; literally Open Up Reforms. As China unlocked her doors to the West the sex-for-hire industry in China once again exploded and has boomed ever since.

Consequently, many party leaders assert that prostitution is an inevitable outcome of capitalism. Others have advocated legalizing the sex trade in order to gain tax funds and monitor the spread of sexual diseases. Although illegal, authorities routinely ignore it because contemporary Chinese hookers, just like ancient harlots, service all of China's citizens on many economic levels.

Prostitution in China reflects Chinese culture, where women have traditionally been viewed as less worthy than men. The ancient Chinese patriarchal system was based upon continuing the male bloodline; a woman's choices for survival up to now were severely limited. Five major occupations: wife, concubine, servant, nun or whore, were available, either by fate or by choice.

A traditional Chinese wife must be well matched to her husband, who was also literally her master. She must come from a good family, be pure and chaste, give birth to boys, and conduct herself in a modest, demure fashion at all times. She was not required to be beautiful because her role was reproductive. A Chinese proverb still reflects this idea: " lao po chou shi fu" (An ugly wife is good fortune).

Concubines, in contrast, served as toys for rich men. They had beauty and talent; many often were not formally educated. These women were purchased outright or married into rich families. They became family members and could possibly replace a wife if she died or was infertile. The master of the house and his entourage tolerated much when such beauties acted in spoiled, childish ways.

Servants (not just females) were basically used as slaves in the house and garden. Nuns, often with shaved heads and completely clothed bodies, generally they lived apart from society. These chaste, serious women had no voluntary sexual contact.

But the last category: the whore, consisted of women exclusively trading their bodies for money and/or material wealth. The highest tier of sex workers, courtesans and the “qing lou nu” (blue mansion girls) were greatly honored as skilled companions and artists, as reflected in the term "yi ji" (female-performing-artist). Middle class hookers often resided in a cozy brothel while supervised by her madam. Finally, the lowest sex workers plied their trade in "whore huts" in red light districts, servicing migrant workers and low-income men. Clearly Chinese prostitutes bolstered three economies: for the rich they provided extensive, expensive relationships; for the middle-class they provided sex as a commodity, and finally to survive themselves they serviced other indigents - in today's China, these three levels, from past to present, have altered in form, but not in function.

After the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949 Chairman Mao made spectacular efforts to eradicate prostitution. The Communists accused pimps and brothel madams of class exploitation. The communists conducted sweeps, picking them up: "sao la ji" (sweep away garbage) and imprisoning them. A few were executed as examples, greatly diminishing their trade. The Women's Labor Training Institute rounded up prostitutes, attempting to re-educate these “fallen women”. Many, found it hard to accept. Prostitutes were sent to obscure labor camps in the far north and northwest parts of China. Sadly, some of these "reformed" women suffered as scapegoats during the Cultural Revolution, exactly the opposite of Mao's intentions.

In 1978 Deng Xiao Ping began opening China to the West. Prostitution began booming again this time beside "socialism with Chinese characteristics."

Today powerful men have adopted the tradition of the "er nai" or second wife. Like a courtesan, she is basically a young, beautiful, spoiled woman who acts as a long-term contract mistress. They install their lovers in expensive apartments and pay for everything.

The "bao po" is another privileged expensive harlot but she engages in time limited mistress service. Her name: "bao shen fei": means indentured and "po" wife.

The second level introduces the pei nu, or escort girl, who targets the successful upper-middle class male clientele. In karaoke bars she is called "KTV Miss". This working girl charges multiple fees and can be very expensive. Fees to sit at a client's table, fees to escort you home – no sex, fees to sleep next to you – no sex, and fees to "fire the gun" – sex.

For the less prosperous, there are "ding dong ladies", who solicit by ringing hotel doorbells and/or calling rooms after guests check in. Today, many university girls try to earn tuition money via hooking and solicit business over the Internet rather than renting a hotel room and canvassing the building.

Perhaps the most ubiquitous and hardest to clearly identify in level two are the "hair salon girls." They generally offer ordinary services as a front and/or to supplement slower sex trade business. Services include: foot washing, massage, hair washing and so on. Clients may engage in on the spot sexual services, usually for about 200RMB in larger cities. A madam employs these girls and they often live together amicably. These girls must pay off an indenture fee. They are sold to a brothel as children. The madam feeds, clothes and supervises them until they are old enough to start working. Such girls may choose to leave and strike out on their own after paying off their debts. A few lucky, beautiful girls may become escorts or courtesans.

The third, lowest level consists of hookers and cheap whores. Currently, street hookers are not often seen because the Chinese government doesn’t approve of public solicitations. But they exist, nonetheless. Together with the so-called "work shack" whores, these two classes of women service the migrant workers, low-income laborers and other minor wage earners. Such women in old China were deemed "xian rou zhuang" (salt pork ladies) because, like salt pork, their meat was not entirely fresh.

China today – with her new mélange of socialism mixed with capitalism, has created a dilemma regarding the world's oldest profession. The Chinese government has debated whether or not to license the sex workers. By issuing formal licenses these women could be monitored for disease. Brothels could be effectively taxed, adding income to state coffers.

Prostitution by definition is the voluntary exchange of sex for money; it doesn’t fit communist and socialist ideals. Prostitution, either as an art or a service, remains a patriarchal phenomenon, independent of nations, political movements and religious affiliations. Globally reviled, the "world's oldest profession" thrives in China as well as the rest of the world because these working girls have provided positive opportunities for females: poor, unskilled women survive by selling their services, especially during periods of great economic upheavals.

Rural women migrating to the cities, in hopes of a better future, may fall back on whoring until other employment is found. Young, beautiful girls looking for high wages and low hours may capitalize on their physical assets, choosing either full time or part-time to earn high wages in short periods of time. Moreover, Chinese men seek out prostitutes, claiming necessity due to the gender imbalance. And most significantly, the Chinese GNP has risen via harlotry, organized and otherwise. Despite official government circulars against this issue Chinese hookers are here to stay.

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Get it off your chest
 (comments policy)

Emanuel Paparella2008-02-11 11:58:37
Idealogues always try to legislate morality and usually end up making things worse. Be that as it may, Madame Butterfly is not!

Sand2008-02-11 15:38:36
I assume the unfinished sentence should read "Madam Butterfly is not Chinese." True enough.

LL2008-02-11 19:31:49
Interesting read.

Tebow2008-02-20 14:54:20
Interetsing and informative read. Thanks

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