Conspicuously Curvacious Tianjin, China

(Wrote this when we lived in Tianjin, saved it for a rainy day.)

Believe it or not, there actually is a cultural angle to this; it’s not just about ogling scandalous public depictions of women.

Earthquake Memorial
Behold! Tianjin’s public celebration of curvacious (foreign?) women in windswept, soaking wet, clingy dresses who like to pose as if they’re on the cover of trashy women’s fashion magazines– er, I mean– memorial to the Chinese mothers who suffered in the devastating Tangshan earthquake in 1976 that killed over 200,000 people:

I pass this earthquake memorial on Nanjing Rd. every day on my way to work. It’s one of three statues; the other two are what you’d expect: a baby-rescuing soldier and a worker. The exaggerated woman is conspicuously… not so historically accurate.

Ever since I first noticed this memorial I’ve been taking a second look at the public statues I come across. There are statues of women all over town, and except for a larger-than-life soft porn series of Rodin knock-off statues along the Hǎihé near Liberation Bridge, exceptionally (read: unnaturally) proportioned nudes in the Italian concession area, and a random nude holding a hoolahoop in the middle of a roundabout (no idea what that’s about), most of them aren’t supposed to be sexual, or at least you wouldn’t expect them to be sexual. But– well, you be the judge.

Nankai University
What is the first thing this statue makes you think of?

And be honest; don’t say Moses and the 10 Commandments.

This not-Moses-and-the-10-Commandments statue is at Nankai University.

Tianjin University
This next statue is inside the main entrance of Tianjin University:

It commemorates the school’s centennial anniversary and I assume it’s supposed to be celebrating women’s education, but she’s not only exceptionally — oh what’s the Chinese word… 丰满, it’s also — how can I put this delicately… unnecessarily detailed?

This is the opposite of the Communist statue depictions of women, like at the memorial near Tianjin’s Liberation Bridge (right). Gender equality is part of the message, but equality in the traditional Communist images essentially means desexualization/masculinization, with short hair and form-obscuring army uniforms. Of course, masculinizing women in the name of gender equality certainly isn’t unique to China, and conflicting public images of women are found in Mao-era China, too. (For more about Mao-era depictions of women see: Iron Women and Foxy Ladies.)

Neighbourhood elementary school
Even across the street from our apartment complex, this elementary school teacher (right) has apparently just been swimming in the Haihe, in her clothes.

Sex in China
China sends extreme, conflicting signals about sexuality. I realize that the statues in these photos aren’t necessarily extreme (especially compared to the previously mentioned soft porn statues). But they are examples of sexualization/objectification where you don’t expect it: of earthquake victims, monuments to women’s education/advancement, primary school teachers. What I’m trying to highlight is Tianjin’s seemingly split-personality when it comes to sexuality. Many social norms are still far more conservative than what you’d see or hear in the average the U.S. or Canadian public space, yet at the same time in other areas public sexuality and sexual behaviour seem more liberal and tolerant. Depending on where you look, China can have less or more public sexuality than the post-Sexual Revolution, pornified West.

Our old apartment building had a “massage parlour” on one side and a kindergarten on the other, which was right next to a KTV bar and bathhouse — both with prostitutes — which was down the street from a sex toy shop. And we lived in a pretty nice part of town. It seems like every three or four block radius in residential areas will have at least one sex toy shop and no shortage of places hiding prostitution in plain sight. If I went to the top floor with a sling shot I could probably hit a trashy massage parlour.

But parents and teachers and young couples can’t talk about it. When sex is in the textbooks, teachers often tell the students to read it at home, and it’s never discussed in class. Even in Bright Future classes (the foreigner-led, explicit sex ed initiative at Tianjin University), we’ve seen students often switch to English for uncomfortable words when speaking or writing. (For more about Bright Future see: Sex, drugs, and Tianjin University students.) One of a few big reasons Chinese premarital pregnancy and abortion rates are so high that Chinese non-resident and new immigrant populations skew their host countries’ abortion rates is because old taboos against explicitly acknowledging sexuality and sexual behaviour hinder attempts to directly address or educate regarding those behaviours. In other words: people are kept dangerously ignorant about sexual basics, they aren’t called out on their flagrant, irresponsible behaviour, and (girls especially) lack options, skills and vocabulary for resisting when pressured for sex they don’t want to have.

It makes sense to me that these extremes of flagrant behaviour and non-acknowledgement — of sexualizing earthquake memorials and elementary school teachers but avoiding sex ed in the home and classroom — counter-intuitively exist side-by-side, but it’s still sometimes surprising to see them in close contrast.

More about sexuality in China:

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