An illustrated Chinese elementary school textbook (珍爱生命-儿童性教育读本) has sparked debate on Sina Weibo because of its open way of approaching sexual education.
The book, published by Beijing Normal University, shows pictures of reproductive organs and of two people having sex. It also teaches children about sexual abuse, homosexuality (both of gays and lesbians), and gender equality.
The book initially came to public attention when a mother took a picture of her child’s book, where a woman says to a man: “Can you show me your penis?” The woman complained about the “graphic illustrations” on Chinese social media.
It soon led to netizens criticizing this new “explicit” way of teaching children about sex. But many people also objected to this criticism, arguing that this was an advanced move for China’s sexual education, that has been often criticized for lagging behind.
Besides dealing with homosexuality (a controversial topic in China), it also warns children for sexual harassment – not just of girls but also boys -, promotes single life as a personal choice, and tells children is it perfectly normal for men to take care of the household.
According to China’s News Service, the Beijing Normal University Publishing Group stated that the materials involved underwent strict scrutiny (“经严格审核”) before being published.
“The majority of people are heterosexual, but there are also some people who feel attracted to the same sex. This is a completely normal phenomenon.”
On Sina Weibo, a 20-year-old student of journalism named ‘Didi’ (@_滴滴打笛) strongly supported the book in a blog published on March 3. She condemned those criticizing the teaching material, saying: “Everyone knows sexual education in China is lagging behind, but when it finally takes a big step forward, people can only focus on ‘pornography’ and trifling matters.”
‘Didi’ explains how the book covers sexual education for children of various ages at elementary school level. For the younger students, it provides information about the external and internal structure of the male and female reproductive organs through its illustrations. By also covering other organs and body parts, the book helps to “normalize” discussion of the reproductive organs, Didi argues.
For children in higher grades, the book talks about menstruation, sexual intercourse, and other topics.
The concept of homosexuality is introduced at the highest levels; teaching children that homosexuality is a natural thing. An illustration shows two students asking their teacher about their two female neighbors who live together as a couple (image below).
“The majority of people are heterosexual, but there are also some people who feel attracted to the same sex. This is a completely normal phenomenon. We can’t discriminate against them,” the teacher says.
Although the contents of the books differ per grade, they all deal with how children can protect themselves against sexual abuse. The illustrations are not only focusing on abuse by adult men of girls, but also of adult men of boys, or adult women of girls, etc.
The books also focus on gender equality, explaining that men and women have equality on the job market and that all professions, it being a soldier or factory worker, can be pursued by both boys and girls.
Didi says: “I was moved to tears seeing this (..). For children, these textbooks are like a holy book, and when the teacher tells them that women can become police officers, that men can be nurses, it is such an encouragement for them. And when you explain children that homosexuality is normal and that they shouldn’t discriminate against it, it really is a step forward against discrimination.”
“How can you teach children sexual education without talking about sex?”
According to Didi, the book is now used as teaching material at (at least) 13 different educational institutions in Beijing.
Chinese state media outlet People’s Daily dedicated a Weibo post to the controversy over the book on March 4, reiteraring the statement of the publishing house that tells people that the clear illustrations help children to better understand sex. They also write that children are pure and unbiased, and that these drawings should not just be perceived with an “adult perspective” (“不能用成人的观点来看”).
Nevertheless, there are still many netizens who are upset and angered over the book, calling it “tasteless” and “vulgar.”
Some say the book is “pornographic”, and parents express worries that this book will negatively affect their children’s idea of what is ‘normal.’
But the majority of netizens are in favor of this new kind of sexual education and say that the book is “very good,” and that those who criticize it are “lacking integrity” themselves. “There’s just nothing wrong with this book,” many say.
“How can you teach children sexual education without talking about sex?”, others wonder: “If we don’t properly explain sex education to our children, it will only lead them in the wrong direction.”
“What a fantastic book,” one person writes: “It is important to teach children this, and to promote equality between men and women. Anyone who thinks of porn when seeing this is just obsessed with sex.”
The school books are also sold through Amazon, with the publication dates of various books ranging from 2013 to 2016. According to Baidu, a first edition of the book was published in April of 2011. The 48-page book, targeted at children in the age group of 7-10, includes the chapters “Understanding your own body”, “Understanding the body of the opposite sex”, “Don’t expose yourself in public places”, “Reproduction”, “Take good care of yourself”, “Stay away from dangerous places.” Besides the chapters related to sexual education, it also has chapters that teach children about personal hygiene, washing their hands, and brushing their teeth.
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“The End of an Era”? – Beijing Bookworm Closes Its Doors
The Bookworm Beijing, at Nansanlitun Road, is a bookshop, library, bar, restaurant and events space that has become a center of cultural exchange for Beijing’s foreign community since 2005.
The location is a beating heart of Beijing’s literary world; a place where writers, journalists, students, diplomats, academics, and all kinds of people – both foreign and Chinese – come together to exchange knowledge, read, and sit down for a glass of wine.
Today, the Bookworm announced its sudden closure via WeChat, writing:
“It is with heavy hearts that we are forced to announce the impending closure of The Bookworm Beijing after 14 wonderful years in Courtyard No. 4 off SouthSanlitun Road. Despite our best efforts, we appear to have fallen prey to the ongoing cleanup of “illegal structures”, and we have not been able to secure an extension of our lease.”
The announcement further says that the location will be forced to suspend operations “most probably” as of Monday, November 11, and that the Bookworm will attempt to reorganize and find a new location.
News of the Bookworm’s closing has been becoming a topic of conversation on various social media sites from WeChat to Twitter and Weibo.
Famous Chinese journalist and author Luo Changping (罗昌平) writes on Weibo: “The Bookworm is forced to close! It used to be next door to my former office, and it was once like my living room. Sigh.”
Shanghai comedian Storm Xu called the closure of the Beijing Bookworm “the end of an era,” saying he looks back on many good memories there.
“They had many events, good food, special books; I used to go there a few times per year,” one person writes. “This really is so sad,” other Weibo users respond.
There are also various Weibo commenters who also mention that news of Bookworm’s closing comes just a day after the news that publisher of magazine-books and online bookseller Duku Books (读库) is forced to close its Beijing warehouse for the sixth time.
Over the past decade, many popular venues in Beijing have been forced to close their doors or relocate. Beijing hangouts such as Bed Bar, Salud, Vineyard Cafe, 2 Kolegas, Jiangjinjiuba, Mao Livehouse, Hercules, Aperativo, The Bridge Cafe, Great Leap Brewery Sanlitun, Jing-A Taproom 1949, and many others have all been closed over the past years.
Nightlife hotspot Sanlitun bar street was demolished and bricked up in 2017 as part of the mission of the city management to gentrify the area.
The demolishment of “illegal structures” in the city has been an ongoing effort of the local government for years. These efforts became especially visible in late 2017 when people in Beijing’s Daxing area faced a large-scale evacuation campaign after a big fire broke out there on November 18, killing 19 people.
The large-scale evacuation campaign was also expanded to other areas of Beijing in a campaign by the municipal authorities aimed at unlicensed developments to target “illegal structures” and “buildings with potential fire hazards.”
But many people on Weibo and WeChat questioned if the campaign was actually more about politics than about safety concerns – something that was strongly refuted by state media outlets at the time.
These questions will remain unanswered, also for the Bookworm. Is its closure really about closing down an “illegal structure,” or are there more politically-motivated considerations playing a role here? On Weibo, some commenters say the location is closed down for being a home of free discussions and “free thinking,” while others say that no matter what the place is, the building’s safety and legal status is what matters here.
Perhaps the future will tell. We surely hope the Bookworm will soon pop up and open its doors in another location very soon.
Those who are interested can support the Bookworm by coming by and buying books, which will be heavily discounted, until November 11.
By Manya Koetse
Images: Bookworm images by The Bookworm, edited by What’s on Weibo.
Sanlitun Image: Might have been taken by Manya in Beijing 2017, but we’re not 100% sure so let us know if we’re mistaken.
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Nineteen Eighty-Four Turns 70: Orwellian China and Orwell in China
“We still need independent, courageous thinkers like George Orwell. We still need 1984.”
“Big Brother is Watching You” is the sentence that people around the world have come to know through the novel 1984 or Nineteen Eighty-Four, that turned 70 this week.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is a novel about a nightmare future in the year 1984. It takes place in a totalitarian state where the Party is central to people’s everyday lives and where propaganda, surveillance, misinformation, and manipulation of the past are ubiquitous.
The book revolves around Winston Smith, a citizen of London, Oceania, who works at Minitrue (Ministry of Truth) and who secretly hates the society he lives in with its all-controlling Party, the ‘Big Brother’ leader, and the Thought Police.
Smith is critical of the workings of the Party and the lies it imposes, which then pass into history and become ‘truth’; as the Party slogan goes: “Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”
There is probably no other country in the world that has been described as “Orwellian” in English-language media as often as China has over the past few years. According to Google Trends, ‘China’ currently is one of the most related topics people in the US are searching for when they type in the word ‘Orwellian’ on the search engine.
The topic recently most associated with Orwell’s novel is that of China’s Social Credit System. In October of 2018, US Vice President Mike Pence addressed China’s nascent Social Credit System in a speech on China, calling it “an Orwellian system premised on controlling virtually every facet of human life” (Whitehouse.gov).
Since then, George Orwell and Nineteen Eighty-Four have been used more often to describe developments in China.
‘Orwellian’ and ‘China’ come up with more than 28,000 results in Google News alone, the term often being used with any PRC news that relates to technology, government control, and propaganda.
Ironically, many of the news reports addressing ‘Orwellian China’ and its Social Credit System (SCS) are, in the Orwellian tradition, spreading misinformation themselves, conflating different issues or presenting speculation as fact – see some examples of speculative reporting on the SCS in this list.
But also when reporting on China’s growing mass camera surveillance, the Xinjiang internment camps, the launch of the ‘Study Xi, Strengthen China’ [Xuexi Qiangguo] app, or the increasing use of facial recognition, the comparison to George Orwell’s 1949 classic is everywhere in the English language media world today.
一九八四: Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in China
For a country that is labeled ‘Orwellian’ so often, it is perhaps surprising that Nineteen Eighty-Four is actually not censored or banned in the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Since the first PRC edition of the novel was published in 1979, it has become a famous and well-read work that is available for purchase in Chinese or English in all big bookstores in Chinese cities or online via e-commerce sites as Taobao.com.
The famous sentence “Big Brother is Watching You” translates to “Lǎo dàgē zài zhùshìzhe nǐ” (“老大哥在注视着你”) in Mandarin, and often pops up on social media, together with terms such as “doublethink” (shuāngchóng sīxiǎng, 双重思想) or “Thought Police” (sīxiǎng jǐngchá 思想警察).
On Douban, an influential web portal that allows users to rate and review books, films, etc, various editions of Nineteen Eighty-Four (most of them translated by Dong Leshan 董乐山) have been rated with a 9.3 or higher by thousands of web users.
“I like this book, it’s just a bit too dark for me,” some reviewers write, with others just saying the book is “very scary,” or seeing some resemblance with the classic works of Chinese authors such as Wang Xiaobo or Lu Xun.
WeChat blog Vopoenix recently stressed the importance of Nineteen Eighty-Four, writing that the novel is not anti-socialism per se: “What Orwell really opposes is fascism, totalitarianism, and nationalism (..), what he really supports is political democracy and social justice.”
70 years later, totalitarianism still has not disappeared, the blog writes: “(..) instead, it has evolved with the times in a more secret way (..). We still need independent, keen and courageous thinkers like George Orwell. We still need 1984.”
One Douban reviewer writes about their thoughts after reading Nineteen Eighty-Four, saying: “What scares me is that sometimes people will ridicule North Korea for being so shut off from the world, but what about us? We’re like frogs at the bottom of a well, but the scary thing is, we don’t even know we’re in the well.”
“Just a work of fiction to Chinese”?
Public sentiments about the 70-year-old Nineteen Eighty-Four novel bearing a resemblance to (present-day) China are seemingly growing stronger on Chinese social media recently. The book appears in online comments and discussions on a daily basis.
“I finished reading the book today,” one Weibo commenter writes: “The biggest thought I had is: this book is very suitable for Chinese people to read.”
“I can now imagine what those ten years were like,” one Douban user posts, referring to the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
“Nineteen Eighty-Four is the first satirical book I’ve read that comes close to the situation in China. If you read it, you’ll know what I mean,” another reader writes.
Different from English-language (social) media, Chinese commenters are not mentioning the book in relation to the country’s Social Credit System at all, but in relation to the heightened censorship that China has recently been seeing in light of the China-US trade war, the Tiananmen anniversary, and the Hong Kong protests.
One Weibo blogger writing a critique about the growing “bizarreness” of the “elephant in the room” (referring to all those big China-related issues that cannot be discussed on social media due to censorship) attracted the attention of Chinese netizens earlier this week (see the full translation of post here).
Many commenters spoke about the Weibo post in relation to Nineteen Eighty-Four, especially when the post addressing the censorship was censored itself.
Others also wrote that it seemed “like a miracle” that the book was not banned in China, and some suggested it might still happen in the future.
“It will be forbidden very soon,” one Weibo commenter speculates.
“The future is becoming more difficult, really,” one netizen recently wrote: “It’s nearing 1984 (一九八四), and [we] might not be able to see it later.”
But, in Chinese online media, Nineteen Eighty-Four is by no means only mentioned in relation to China. There are also those blogs or news articles that mention the Orwellian aspects of the story of Edward Snowden, or connect Orwell to Trump’s America.
In late 2018, state tabloid Global Times denounced the ubiquitous Western media reports on “Orwellian China.” Author Yu Jincui wrote:
“Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is a classic to Westerners, but it is just a work of fiction to Chinese and they are fed up with Orwellian style preaching from Western elites. This kind of conversation will lead nowhere.”
But many netizens do not agree with the fictional part. “Nineteen Eighty-Four is not a work of fiction, it is a record of our future,” one Weibo user writes.
“Is Big Brother watching me?” others wonder.
“The first time I read it, I just read it,” another Douban user says: “The second time I read it, I really started to understand. Here’s to George Orwell!”
Despite all speculation on social media, there are no indications that Nineteen Eighty-Four will be banned from China any time soon.
For now, even 70 years after its first publication and 40 years after its first Chinese translation, readers in the People’s Republic can continue to devour and discuss Orwell’s classic work and the mirror it holds up to present-day China, America, Europe, and the world today.
PS: Some recommended reading on Social Credit in English:
* Creemers, Rogier. 2018. “China’s Social Credit System: An Evolving Practice of Control.”May 9. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3175792.
* Daum, Jeremy. 2017. “China through a glass, darkly.” China Law Translate, Dec 24 https://www.chinalawtranslate.com/seeing-chinese-social-credit-through-a-glass-darkly/?lang=en [24.5.18].
* Daum, Jeremy. 2017. “Giving Credit 2: Carrots and Sticks.” China Law Translate, Dec 15 https://www.chinalawtranslate.com/giving-credit-2-carrots-and-sticks/?lang=en [27.5.18].
* Horsley, Jamie. 2018. “China’s Orwellian Social Credit Score Isn’t Real.” Foreign Policy, Nov 16 https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/11/16/chinas-orwellian-social-credit-score-isnt-real/ [10.6.19].
* Koetse, Manya. 2018. “Insights into the Social Credit System on Chinese Online Media vs Its Portrayal in Western Media.” What’s on Weibo, Oct 30 https://www.whatsonweibo.com/insights-into-the-social-credit-system-on-chinese-online-media-and-stark-contrasts-to-western-media-approaches/
* Koetse, Manya. 2018. “Open Sesame: Social Credit in China as Gate to Punitive Measures and Personal Perks.” What’s on Weibo, May 27 https://www.whatsonweibo.com/open-sesame-social-credit-in-china-as-gate-to-punitive-measures-and-personal-perks/.
* Kostka, Genia. 2018. “China’s Social Credit Systems and Public Opinion: Explaining High Levels of Approval” SSRN, July 23. Available at https://ssrn.com/abstract=3215138 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3215138 [29.10.18].
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