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08.31.2006

So You Want To Be A China Sex Blogger

Sometime this May there appeared a weblog called Sex in Shanghai, detailing the adventures of a British expatriate seducing various ex-students from his English classes. The blogger, who called himself chinabounder, was in his mid-thirties and had been living in China for five years. His sexual experience prior to moving to China had been limited to one long-term relationship, but after initially shacking up with a woman in Shenzhen he had decided to take full advantage of his new circumstances and start increasing his bedpost notch count in earnest.

He was not the first Western guy to treat China as his own personal sexual buffet. To put it in the D&D terms that many of the guys who benefit most from the effect will readily understand, living in China gives you +4 attractiveness. The love handles (metaphorically) shrink, the hairline advances, teeth straighten, previously soupy eyes blaze with a new rakish light. You are in a country where people actually *choose* to have brown hair. You find that things that are off-putting back home have magically transformed into positive attributes in your new environment. You're a computer programmer? You're quiet and like to read? You live with your parents? You never drink? You are sexually inexperienced?

HEARTTHROB!

And not only do your most pedestrian habits and opinions take on the shine of the exotic, but you'll find that expectations of you as a Western man have been conditioned by American movies, American television shows, and whispered stories about minor Casanovas like chinabounder. You're halfway to James Bond before you even step off the plane.

Most guys are able to take this in stride (so this is what it feels like to be a woman!), but there is always the small minority of men who find themselves up at one in the morning, writing blog posts entitled Undressing Tingting.

'Sex in Shanghai' started with big aspirations. It was to supposed to be a pornographic Notes From the Underground (you had the sense that the author wanted someone to call his journal 'unflinching'). Between lurid descriptions of how sore he was making his various conquests there were David Brent-like interludes of introspection when our hero would peer into the spiritual abyss (glancing from the corner of his eye to make sure we noticed), and sigh over his inability to ever truly love. Behold, reader, the noble heart of Man!

Grappling daily with his conscience, Chinabounder unfortunately neglected to grapple with his writing style. As his taste for windy political and social commentary grew stronger, the site began to sound less like the confessions of a soulful libertine and more like Penthouse Forum as interpreted by Rush Limbaugh. Chinabounder found the Chinese press servile, Chinese men undersexed and passive, Chinese society paternalistic, the Communist Party a criminal gerontocracy, the city of Shanghai a loosely-disguised group of peasants, and he was not afraid of interrupting the sexy bits to go on and on and on and on about it.

Less forgivably, he was careless about hiding the identity of his lovers. These were women who never dreamed that their most intimate moments and words would find themselves on one of the most popular sex journals in China. While their names were changed, many details of the encounters were not, and the long verbatim chat transcripts and text messages chinabounder posted were simply mortifying. Where was the admirable, unflinching honesty in letting other people read your lovers' email? So I had no sympathy when the inevitable happened.

Chinese censorship is a bit of a creaky machine. There is no master blacklist of sites that are disallowed; instead, service providers are supposed to use their own good judgement about what hurts China. Naturally this leads everyone to err massively on the side of safety, but still the political mood has its ebbs and flows, and the list of blocked sites grows and shrinks accordingly.

A few days ago, Blogspot sites were taken off the banned list, and then it became a matter of time before someone with a Chinese audience found that weblog.

The lucky winner was Zhang Jiehai, a nutty professor of social sciences at a university in Shanghai who might charitably be said to have some issues regarding foreigners dating Chinese women. When Zhang visited chinabounder's site, he became very, very upset and decided to alert the Chinese Internet to what this 'piece of garbage' was up to in Shanghai. His lengthy post (translated in full at EastSouthNorthWest) was a call to arms to all patriotic, red-blooded Chinese 'netizens' to ensure that chinabounder was expelled from China. Zhang's jeremiad ended with a two point plan:

Phase One (From today to early September)

"During this phase, will various compatriot netizens please send this essay to all your friends via email and then ask your friends to send to all their friends? After sending this out five times, this may reach everyone who owns a computer in China. Through the forums and blogs, we will let more people (especially Chinese women) know about this affair. Since the affair occurred within the universities, we ask that this to be posted at all the university BBS's in Shanghai.

Only letting all the Chinese women know about this affair can have a truly educational effect. By reducing the number of that kind of Chinese women, we can destroy this kind of ugly foreigners. Otherwise, we get rid of one piece of garbage but many more pieces of garbage will come.

Phase Two (Early September to Mid September)

We let the Shanghai (and even the national) media pay attention to this affair and apply pressure to the relevant departments in Shanghai. With sufficient pressure, I believe that this piece of garbage can be kicked out of China. My goal is to kick him out of China before National Day! [Oct 1]"

Chinabounder responded almost instantly with an angry rebuttal that did his prose no favors. But events were moving quickly; Chinese readers had decided to skip straight to Phase Two of Zhang's plan. A Blogspot site called whoischinabounder was launched, with the goal of unmasking chinabounder's true identity based on details culled from his blog posts. This site was so successful that by the first day they had already found three of him, with signs that more were to come. English teachers in Shanghai had reason to be nervous.

By August 29th, after a massive spike in traffic, chinabounder closed his weblog. By August 30th, the story had hit many of the major mainland and Hong Kong websites. One of my posts from 2002 is titled 'sex in shanghai', and you can see the spike in collateral search hits that accompanied the kerfuffle:

As of today, Zhang's weblog post (in Chinese) has received almost 100,000 hits, and the story is spinning into one of the predictable storms that race across the Chinese internet. With its perfect blend of sex, politics, race and the inevitable Japan angle (one of chinabounder's rants ridiculed the anti-Japanese obsession here), the story looks ready to become a smash hit.

Net culture in China works a bit the way television media works in the States. People fix on one or two big stories of the day, and these get a national audience. There is also a tradition of online vigilantism in cases where someone has done something particularly vile - had an extramarital affair within the World of Warcraft online game, for example - and people will readily mobilize to defend good morals and the national honor. Chinabounder's case, which hits the trifecta of national pride, sex and Japan hatred, will be interesting to follow.

In autocratic and authoritarian countries there are often folk tales that involve someone with a grievance making his way past evil advisers and local powerful people to get to the benevolent but unaware monarch to seek redress. This is a universal theme - bypassing the Sherrif of Nottingham, reaching the tsar, telling your woes to Comrade Stalin, whomever - implying that justice can always prevail. The internet has added an interesting populist twist to this. Tell your story convincingly, and online heroes will take up your cause and fix your problem. In China, these 'heroes' take the form of stalkers who will work hard to track down and harass the offending party. This is the fate likely to befall chinabounder.

So now we have two sides - an unappetizing sexual taxidermist and a nationalist, racist mob whose response seems pretty evenly divided between blaming the dissolute sluts who allow this kind of shame to descend on their homeland and calling for the head of the filthy foreigner teachers who abuse their station. The only hero of the story is the indefatigable Roland Soong, author of the EastSouthWestNorth weblog, who makes it his mission to translate a river of material from the Chinese language press (mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwanese) into English every day. Having worked for a while as a short-notice translator, I can't begin to understand how he can find the time and energy to translate so much material, let alone provide context and very balanced commentary, but there it is. For anyone who wants to learn more about online culture in China without speaking the language his blog is a superb resource.

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