Sex, Eugenics, Aesthetics, Utopia


A review of Sex, Eugenics, Aesthetics, Utopia in the Life and Work of Zhang Jingsheng (1888-1970), by LEON ANTONIO ROCHA. 

In 1927, a popular science author wrote that “in the beginning sex was morally decent.” This was apparent to him in the first line of the children’s basic Confucian text, the Three Character Classic (re zhi chu, xing ben shan, xing xiang jin, xi xiang yuan 人之初性本善性相近習相遠 ). It was clear to his reviewer, Zhou Zuoren, as it should be to anyone familiar with classical Chinese, that before the twentieth century, xing referred not to ‘sex’ at all, but to ‘human nature’ (pp. 91-92).

How did xing 性 become equal to ‘sex’, and when? Through careful detective work, Leon Rocha reveals what previous scholars of sex and gender in China have failed to explain: at some point in the late 1910s and early 1920s ‘xing’ was fully and decisively imbued with the meaning of sex while retaining its earlier connotations. Rocha’s magnificent opening chapter of lexicographical detective work, in the tradition of Raymond Williams’Keywords (London: Croom Helm, 1976) and Lydia Liu’s Translingual Practice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) is followed by three chapters that suggest that the prolific and controversial publications of Zhang Jingsheng ( 張競生 , 1888-1970), derided by his New Culture contemporaries as “Dr. Sex,” had more than a little to do with this decisive linguistic shift making ‘sex’ and ‘human nature’ synonymous, and thus normalized.

In chapter 1, Rocha demonstrates that classical Chinese had numerous words to describe sex, from the obscene (yin 淫 and its many variations), to a host of euphemistic terms (pp. 70-92). If the late Qing intellectual Tan Sitong attempted to rehabilitate a positive connotation for yin (pp. 77-78), Rocha’s May Fourth intellectuals wanted to start fresh with the Japanese return graphic loan of xing and new ‘scientific’ (rather than euphemistic) terms for specific sexual acts. Clearly Rocha delights in taking his readers on a tour through a long list of terms for the sex act, and there is plenty here to titillate. But Rocha does far more than tell a story of xing and Zhang to arouse our (scholarly) appetite for May Fourth sex gossip and intellectual mudslinging (but see chapter 4, especially pp. 256-263).

This is one of a new crop of dissertations and books slowly revolutionizing the study of modern China, moving the field away from the search for Chinese exceptionalism and toward seeing China’s place in the global exchange of (scientific) ideas: “This thesis is concerned with the transnational stratosphere of ideas, with the circulation and transport of knowledge, using Zhang as our point of anchorage,” (p. 64). The May Fourth New Culture period was an era of global war and revolution when many intellectuals drew close connections between science, sex, aesthetics and eugenics. Social Darwinism dominated the trans-Atlantic intellectual discourse, which Zhang rerouted through his chosen name (jingsheng 競生, “ competition for survival”) and in his life’s work of writing, translating, teaching and publishing, whether based at Peking University or in Shanghai’s Culture District.

For Zhang, reforming sex in China was the most important part of the New Culture. Zhang’s positive eugenics theories (as compared with negative eugenics of forced sterilizations as practiced in North America) saw proper matchmaking and lovemaking as the key to a strong Chinese race. Proper foreplay between heterosexual couples would ensure simultaneous orgasm and the release of the female’s “third kind of fluid,” ensuring racially strong children (pp. 146-152; 159-160). These ideas paralleled those of Marie Stopes and even D. H. Lawrence (pp. 147-152). Rocha sees a ‘chiasma’ as Euro-American modernist intellectuals looked for signs of life outside of science’s instrumental rationality (Zhang’s position), while Zhang’s enemies in the 1923 Science and Philosophy of Life Debate argued to expurge all remnants of mysticism, painting his work with the same brush as the conservatives (pp. 152-159).

Zhang’s utopian aesthetic ideas for family and sex were fleshed out in his books of “mind-boggling” bricolage published in the mid-1920s (chapter 3). Parisian shopping arcades and transplanted mardi gras reproduced the world in an aesthetically-perfect Beijing, while daily German breakfasts and annual beauty pageants ensured superior people led his new society, micro-governed by the Ministry of National Strength.

The science of sex, on the other hand, was to be found in detailed sex histories. In chapter 2, Rocha analyses and contextualizes Zhang Jingsheng’s popular and controversial bookSex Histories. Zhang, a Ph.D. from Lyons in sociology, professor of philosophy at Peking University, and director of the 1923 social survey on Chinese customs, now put his extensive sociological experience to use in discovering Chinese sexual customs. “Sexual Knowledge,” Zhang argued, “is more important than any other” (p. 122). In February of 1926 Zhang took out an advertisement in a popular Beijing newspaper, “Come on! Give us your detailed sex histories!” (pp. 121-123). From two hundred responses, Zhang published seven sex stories, along with his commentary. The book was an enormous success, and attempts to ban it only increased demand. Its very popularity, however, sowed the seeds of its demise, and that of its author. Friends and colleagues turned against him, including Zhou Zuoren and Hu Shi. Zhang escaped to Shanghai where he set up a small publishing house and journal which failed due to frequent raids and regular obscenity “fines” by officials (chapter 4). Zhang and his Sex Histories became bywords for degeneracy.

Would xing have become ‘naturalized’ as ‘sex’ without Zhang? Probably. But along the way Rocha demonstrates that the rise of a transnational discourse and practice of science as scientia sexualis is crucial to our understanding modern China. That Zhang was considered a failure troubles Rocha not at all. In fact, historians of science argue that the study of failures can be more revealing the study of successes. Leon Rocha’s dissertation both challenges existing work on sexuality and science in modern China, while also opening new territory for future scholarship in the field.


Major Sources:

The Collected Works of Zhang Jingsheng (1998)
Sex Histories (1990 [1926])
Aesthetic Outlook of Life (1924)
Method of Organization of an Aesthetic Society (1925)

Dissertation Stats:

Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, 2010. 327 pp. Supervisors: John Forrester and Susan Daruvala.

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