Thursday, June 16, 2011

Prostitution in China: Implications on Modernity

25 April 2011
Printer-Friendly Version

A dialogue on nationalism emerged with the May Fourth Movement (1915-1921), attempting to identify weaknesses infringing China’s path towards modernity. Intellectuals of the time, notably Liang Qichao, came to the conclusion that the individual character of the Chinese was to blame. Earlier reforms made by the Self-Strengthening Movement sought institutional changes, primarily surrounding the examination system and the corrupted bureaucracy. Reforming individuality, however, posed a remarkably unprecedented task. Unlike established institutions which shared defined links with the state, Chinese personality had to become institutionalized first. One approach was an emphasis on physical fitness, which held that a fit society brought national strength. Furthermore, nationalists blamed depreciating morality for bringing backwardness to China. This essay will critique state efforts to reform morality in search for modernity, through the lens of prostitution. The widespread prostitution in Republican China had critics question whether society or the individual was at fault. These attitudes would come to dictate how local governments institutionalized prostitution, in attempt to restore order. My goal is to present government intervention of prostitution as a means of defining modernity.

May Fourth intellectuals and foreign Christian groups frequently linked prostitution to national decay, calling for its prohibition. “Daughter of the Brothels,” a May Forth publication, has a fictional courtesan attest: “Popular courtesans can be counted as representative of a debt group [...] In other words, they add to the burden of the nation’s citizens” (Hershatter 1997, 259).1 Here the author relates prostitution in financial language, and even mentions the “pressure on the Ministry of Finance.”1 Since national ‘strength’ is commonly measured in fiscal responsibly, labeling courtesans as “debt” conveys properties of weakness. Not surprisingly, Christian missionaries expressed their disapproval of the practice. Titled “What the Chinese in Shanghai Ought to Know,” Huang Renjing, a Christian, provides his commentary:
Famous persons from all over the country go to brothels. They are the leaders of our people. [...] I hope that our people will learn from the Westerners, not go to brothels, and forbid prostitution. It is impossible to catch up with the Westerners. The reason they developed from barbarism to civilization at this speed is that most of them do not go to brothels.      (Hershatter 1994, 160)2
Interestingly, Huang does not reference Christian morals but instead appeals to China’s progression compared to Western countries. He suggests that China should abolish prostitution to follow the Westerners’ path from “barbarism to civilization.” As I will later explain, local governments rejected similar foreign influences towards prohibition of prostitution - simply because it was foreign.

Contrary to Huang’s association of brothels and “barbarism,” the growing presence of prostitution parallels a shift towards urbanity. Prostitution in the southwestern city of Kunming, for instance, boomed after the 1910 opening of a French railway to Hanoi.3As business poured into the city, brothels opened up in vicinity of the railway station and market centers. “Courtesans and streetwalkers alike faced competition from ‘modern’ [sic] institutions,” Hershatter notes, “such as tour guide agencies, massage parlors, and dance halls”(Hershatter 1994, 148). The brothels, too, were instrumental in spurring business in Kunming, as I will elaborate in a later section. Moreover, the brothel setting required sophistication suited for urban culture: “It also included the ineffable art of self-presentation [...] he [the client] avoided ridicule by the group of courtesans who observed him in the brothel” (Hershatter 1994, 154). Higher-end brothels would also included a banquet room for wealthy men and officials. These gatherings, known as peijiu4, mimicked the culture of a restaurant, which is also an indicator of urbanity.

With a shift of towards modernization, prostitutes were categorized in a hierarchical system, with a change in terminology ensuing. Among elite circles, junu became the acceptable term for a female prostitute, replacing the old mingji term for a ‘famous prostitute’.5 In the new urban environment, groupings of prostitutes diverged into the upper-class courtesan, and the lower-class streetwalker. The courtesan had brothel affiliations, and occasionally appeared in tabloids generally known as the “mosquito press”.5 These newspapers were “literature for pleasure”5 per se, with descriptions of courtesans to lure clients. Streetwalkers, on the other hand, were assumed to have been kidnapped and later forced into prostitution by abusive madams. Because of their lower status streetwalkers were naturally believed to carry a higher rate of venereal diseases, isolating them as a target in policing street prostitution.

While prostitution was a much older practice, the nature of the work ties closely with the rickshaw pullers of Beijing. Lao She, writing Camel Xiangzi or Rickshaw Boy, provides a grim portrait of individualism, in wake of the Communist Party’s rise. The protagonist, Hsiang Tzu, leaves the countryside for the city, noting: “The only friend he had was this ancient city. This city gave him everything. Even starving here was better than starving in the country” (Lao 31).6 Lao She depicts Hsiang as one who illusions his individuality despite being dependent off of the city’s ‘safety-net,’ which included abusive rickshaw tycoons. In a similar manner, women enter into prostitution as a result of economic circumstances. Both prostitutes and rickshaw pullers are unskilled, therefore employment at a factory would be highly unlikely.7 After being detained for unlicensed prostitution, Zhang Xiuying told the police: “I was definitely not tricked or forced into becoming a prostitute, but actually was driven to it by family poverty. The above is the truth. I ask for understanding in your judgement of this case and will feel very lucky” (Hershatter 1994, 168). Zhang’s story presents the individual choice behind entering such occupation. While Lao’s objective was to portray a selfishness behind Hsiang, both were ‘forced’ economically. Furthermore, Hershatter remarks that courtesans also were disowned by their family before entering prostitution. Once the courtesan gained economic power, it is common that she would try to reunite with her family - under the story that she was kidnapped.

The final similarity between a rickshaw puller and a prostitute lies in the dehumanizing aspect of the work. As for Hsiang, being a puller was to assume the same status as an animal, for hauling cargo was usually the task given to animals. “He wanted to sit down and cry for a while,” Lao writes, “He had a strong body, a patient disposition, ambition, yet he allowed people to treat like a pig or a dog.” While this language is less relative to the high-class courtesan, it is applicable to the commodification of streetwalkers. Commentator Mu Hua describes the sex industry as such: “The supply of prostitutes matches male sexual needs, leading to even greater inflation in the market of human flesh.”8 By using ‘supply-and-demand’ terminology of commodity goods, Mu’s statement extracts all humanity from the sex industry. Despite having greater individual freedom than the streetwalker, the courtesan suffers from commodification. This following excerpt from May Fourth literature in fiction calls for a realization of injustice: “I hope that the two-hundred million women compatriots can become politically awakened and do all we can to liberate ourselves, rather than waiting for men to liberate us.”8

While some critics believed prostitution undercut humanity, most municipal authorities across Republican China continued to accepted it as a reality of urbanism. Major cities, including Shanghai, Tianjin, and Nanjing, regulated and taxed prostitution. These cities adopted the gongchang, or official prostitution, system where regulations, taxes and health inspections were relatively minimal. Such initiatives were made to reduce venereal disease, curb madam abuses, remove streetwalkers, concentrate brothels into zones, establish “rehabilitation” clinics, collect tax revenue - but more significantly, restore the notion of ‘order.’  “The calls for reform and new measures for social control helped change views toward prostitution,” Sue Gronewold describes, “It was now considered an evil, a ‘social pathology’ to be controlled, not by laymen or by Christians appealing to moral instincts” (Gronewold 83).9 Unlike the Self-Strengthing movement, which relied on voluntary adherence towards Confucian dogma , regulation of prostitution would institutionalize social customs using state policies. Each method used to govern this vice provides a glimpse on the shifting attitudes of modernity.

The national model of gongchang regulation was utilized by Shanghai, beginning in 1920. As a former treaty port, the influence from international concession residents brought a dynamic debate on Shanghai prostitution. Foreign concern on the matter came as early as 1869, when Dr. Alex Jamieson reported on the various health hazards facing the International Settlement.10 Further European pressure incited the opening of a lock hospital in 1877, dedicated to the medical examination of prostitutes. Moral objections were expressed by the predominately-Christian Europeans within the concessions, since taxpayer funds were directed to the hospital. “There was one test for a Christian man by which he could tell whether he ought to support an undertaking and that was, Could he ask the blessing of God on it?” asked one taxpayer, “ Could any one ask that blessing on a scheme countenancing and protecting fornication, in fact making provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof?” (Hershatter 1992, 147).10 Despite such objections, examinations for venereal disease continued. Brothels in Shanghai had not yet been regulated, leaving net losses towards the municipal budgets in order to fund the hospital. These examinations, however, laid the foundations for state intervention of prostitution.

The influx of soldiers fighting World War I left Shanghai with higher rates of venereal disease, amplifying the debate on prostitution.11 Arising political pressure left the Municipal Council to consider regulation, even by means of taxation. Jamieson expressed the impracticality of abolition: “attempts to abolish this form of vice can never prove successful, and therefore that [sic] rational men will direct their energies towards limiting the extent and lessening the severity of the inevitable effects” (Hershatter 1992, 149). Investigations on the “vice conditions”12 were commissioned by the Ratepayers’ Meeting of 1919, which concluded that immediate abolition would be ineffective. Instead, the proposition made to the Municipal Council, was to implement a licencing system to brothels, with a long-term objective of eliminating them. Here, licenses would be distributed and every year one-fifth would be revoked, randomly. This aimed to gradually curb prostitution in five years, and would additionally put an end state-funded medical examinations. Prostitutes, forced out of the brothels, would ideally use the support of “escape” charity missions, such as the Door of Hope.12

The Municipal Council, perhaps entertaining the thought of potential tax revenue, opposed the commission’s five-year plan of abolition. Reactions were once again incited, from Chinese Christians and the nationalists. While making references to morality, abolitionists linked prostitution to China’s weaknesses on the world stage. As one Christian remarked: “The amount of money wasted in Shanghai on prostitution in half a year is enough to redeem the railroads which have been mortgaged to the Japanese” (Hershatter 1994, 160). Financial value is attributed to prostitution, similar to the earlier comparison of national debt made in “Daughter of the Brothels.”In addition, Hershatter cites this nationalist argument:
Another commented that Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese war, fought mostly on Chinese territory in Manchuria, was attributable to the fact that 80 to 90 percent of the Japanese soldiers had had no contact with prostitutes.  (Hershatter 1994, 160)
Both the Christian and nationalist critics suggest a correlation, if not causation, between prostitution and China’s failure. With further persuasion from influential groups, notably the Moral Welfare Committee, the Municipal Council agreed to the five-year plan.

As the first cycle of licences were revoked, a sudden backlash came from a surprising sector: the shopkeepers. A petition was sent to the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce, which argued that upper-class brothels served business interests. “First class brothels serve as places of meeting and entertainment of prominent merchants and gentry, these house are very different from second and/or low class bawdy houses,” reinforcing that, “first class brothels have a great deal to do in the matter of promoting the prosperity and development of local commerce” (Hershatter 1992, 158). Although the Chamber of Commerce endorsed it and forwarded it to the Municipal Council,13 authorities continued to revoke licenses. While brothels closed their doors, prostitution certainly ensued, as the Deputy Commissioner of Police attests:
Brothels in the strictly legal sense [were disappearing...] but if the aim of the Council was the abolition of prostitutes or the suppression of prostitution or the improvement of public morality, then, of course, the measures adopted by them at the instance of the Rate-payers have been a failure.   (Hershatter 1992, 164)
Prostitutes who had once worked for the brothels now turned to the street, resorting to aggressive solicitation. Not only did prostitution become uncontrollable on the streets, conditions for the sex worker worsened as they became dependent on pimps. Lastly, mandatory medical examinations could not have been enforced, adding to the spread of venereal disease. By 1925, after all the licenses had been removed, it was clear that the policy had been a failure. Abolition may, in a sense, had been a mistake, but it was perhaps too late to restore it.12 As veteran policeman recalls, “prostitution has increased to such an extent that it is no longer a question of unlicensed brothels, but rather a deliberate commercial enterprise” (Hershatter 1992, 166).

While Shanghai experimented with a “license-and-eliminate” policy, other regions in China took a diversity of approaches. Guangdong is an outlier since it imposed regulations at the provincial level, and taxed heavily. What made Guangdong especially different is that each transaction was taxed, in contrast to a single license fee. “While a simple license tax might act primarily as a form of harassment or as a way to keep track of the number of brothels,” Remick explains, “Guangdong’s method had the potential to become a big moneymaker” (Remick 2003, 50).13 Shanghai’s license fee revenues barely supported its enforcement, but Guandong’s taxation supported an array of public programs, not just the police force. The two cases had completely separate ideologies on the matter: Shanghai’s objective was to ultimately abolish prostitution and Guandong found the vice as an untapped source of revenue. The potential for revenue can be proven by the use of hired tax farmers, who were independently contracted to cover large geographical areas - which was unpractical for a limited bureaucracy. Guandong’s prostitution tax was a “process so institutionalized and regularized that the province issued strict regulations about the process of bidding for the tax-farming contracts” (Remick 2003, 52).

The pressing question that needs to be asked is why Guangdong pursued heavy taxation and regulation, while other provinces did not. Similar to the rest of the country, Guangdong faced local opposition on the basis of civil morality. “When the marchers petitioned the mayor to ban prostitution,” notes Remick, “[the mayor] replied that while he agreed with their principles, practically speaking it was impossible to ban prostitution because the city needed the tax revenues, particularly to maintain public order” (Remick 2003, 59). This statement suggests that the reasoning behind the tax was primarily for fiscal purposes, as it was vital in funding the capital’s Guangzhou Handicrafts Factory.15 The mayor, however, does also allude to the necessity of maintaining “public order.”Unlike Shanghai's abolitionist strategy, Guangdong authorities were able to consolidate prostitution to brothels which can be regulated - allowing regulation to improve the treatment and health of courtesans.

The provincial tax imposed by Guangdong was certainly stringent compared to the national model, however the city of Kunming was arguably unsurpassed in its regulation of prostitution. Beginning in 1873, official licensing of brothels was introduced in Kunming. It had the financial propose of supporting Qing forces throughout the aftermath of the Wenxiu Muslim uprising.16 The brothels were zoned between the the city’s army garrison and commercial centers. By 1911, the Xinhai Revolution brought social disorder and subsequently spurred widespread prostitution.17 This incited the military governor to announce a ban on prostitution altogether, which was promptly overturned. As Remick describes: “By the end officials decided that a ban was impractical since, in their eyes, the main ‘cause’ of prostitution was women’s economic need, a problem that they could not solve immediately” (Remick 2007, 429). Closely understood by officials in Shanghai and Guangdong, Kunming authorities had to develop alternative policies to institutionalize prostitution.

Kunming took a remarkably unique approach in 1912 by adopting a monopoly of brothels, a system which became known as jiyaun (ji meaning “gather together” and yuan meaning “garden”),16 Here, brothels were forced to register to become state-run enterprises - all consolidated within a walled area, outside of the city. Any streetwalker who was arrested was sent to the jiyaun, where she would be placed into a changliao16 group under a madam. Madams would act as the intermediary liaison between the prostitutes and the bureaucracy, holding duties to collect taxes and enforce weekly medical examinations. Prostitutes had to reside inside the jiyaun and could not leave any longer than four hours during the day. Customers purchased an entrance ticket at the door, rather than paying directly to the prostitute.

As in the previous cases, the Kunming jiyaun had its share of opposition - particularly from the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). Petitions were given to the provincial government, demanding to “abolish official prostitution by establishing a factory” (Remick 2007, 434). This proposition would conflict with the earlier statement made by Kunming officials, which argued that a prostitute’s economic circumstance changes too gradually for abolitionist policies. Additionally, governor Cai ignored the petition altogether since it was endorsed by the foreign YMCA. The reply from the Civil Affairs Department recognized that “the only reasonable solution was to move all registered and unregistered prostitutes into the jiyuan, not to show support for prostitution, but to control it” (Remick 2007, 435). The police also argued that existing rescue homes were available to train prostitutes for factory labor.

By 1914, political power had changed hands with the mandate to close the jiyuan “in defense of public morals.”17A deadline was set to close the doors of the jiyuan, with prostitutes required to checkout under the custody of either her relatives or a prospective husband. Upon exiting, the prostitutes listed their intended occupations - leaving data showing that more than a half would stay at home, while the remainder listed needlework or textile production.17A deadline was also given for marriage; if a marriage was not arranged, the Kunming administration would do so on the former-prostitute's behalf. Heavy penalties were enforced if prostitution was caught - convicted men would be sent to the Industrial School while women served a tenure at the newly established Self-Renewal Office.

Prostitution certainly emerged all over the city in consequence, bringing Kunming locals to believe that it was “more harmful to public morals because it was no longer zoned into one area of the city.”18 Furthermore, reopening the jiyuan would “aid in separating the good from bad (bie liangyou).”18More significantly, the tone of the debate surrounded national humiliation in response to extraterritoriality rights protecting prostitution. Observers wrote how “the foreign restaurants near the train station served a meeting places for the prostitutes and their clients ‘relying on the protection of foreigners and disgracing the national body.’”18 This impacted the Kunming administration deeply, for it depicted the limitations the government faced due to foreign concessions.

Officials reached a decision to reintroduce the jiyuan system in 1923, however the monopoly would be handed to the private sector. This “Households Under Surveillance”18 approach was still highly regulated by the local government, hence the policy’s name. The jiyuan was also brought closer to the center of the city, by walling off an entire street. The decision to mimic a red light district was to please commercial interests, for business owners were among the voices calling for its reopening. Due to mismanagement, the state once again assumed complete control of it in the following months. The jiyuan continued in providing sex services and generating state revenues until the Japanese occupation in 1941.

While state regulations of the sex industry varied by region, criticism surrounded the question of China’s path to modernity - with a nationalist undertone. Hershatter reflects on the changing perceptions of prostitution in the context of modernity:
Although I cannot yet attempt a detailed account of those commentaries, even a preliminary perusal of the 1930s literature turns up a striking shift in the way intellectuals positioned prostitution in China. While still treated as a serious social problem with specific local features, it had moved from a maker of China’s cultural failings and national weakness to a sign of China’s participation in universal human history.  (Hershatter 1994, 164).
Among the accounts of Shanghai, Guangdong, and Kunming, local officials embraced and institutionalized what had been regarded as a cultural vice. In the words of Hershatter, municipal efforts to confront prostitution, understood as “China’s cultural failings,” had been reversed in the pursuit of ‘modernity.’

Works Cited:

  1. Hershatter, Gail. Dangerous Pleasures: Prostitution and Modernity in Twentieth-Century Shanghai. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
  2. Hershatter, Gail. “Modernizing Sex, Sexing Modernity: Prostitution in Early Twentieth-Century Shanghai.” Engendering China. Ed. Christina Gilmartin, Gail Hershatter, Lisa Rofel, Tyrene White. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994.
  3. Remick, Elizabeth J. “Police-Run Brothels in Republican Kunming.” Modern China. Vol. 33, No. 4 (Oct 2007). Sage Publications. pp. 423-461.
  4. Remick. Modern China.(2007). pp. 432.
  5. Hershatter. Engendering China. pp. 149.
  6. Lao She. Rickshaw. Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii, 1979.
  7. Hershatter. Engendering China. pp. 162.
  8. Hershatter. Dangerous Pleasures. pp 261
  9. Gronewold, Sue. Beautiful Merchandise: Prostitution in China 1860-1936. New York: The Haworth Press, 1982.
  10. Hershatter, Gail. “Regulating Sex in Shanghai: The Reform of Prostitution in 1920 and 1951.” Shanghai Sojourners. Ed. Frederic Wakeman, Jr. and Wen-hsin Yeh. Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, 1992.
  11. Hershatter. Shanghai Sojourners. pp. 150.
  12. Hershatter. Shanghai Sojourners. pp. 156-166.
  13. Remick, Elizabeth J. “Prostitution Taxes and Local State Building in Republican China.” Modern China. Vol. 29, No. 1 (Jan 2003). pp. 38-70.
  14. Remick. Modern China. (2003). pp. 53.
  15. Remick. Modern China. (2007). pp. 426-427.
  16. Remick. Modern China. (2007). pp. 429-433.
  17. Remick. Modern China. (2007). pp. 438-440.
  18. Remick. Modern China. (2007). pp. 441-444.

No comments:

Post a Comment