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'The government thinks sex is dirty. I don't'

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Maoist China deemed adultery illegal and premarital sex unacceptable. A woman who walked down the street with the top button of her shirt undone was considered "loose." Male and female college students sat on opposite sides of the classroom and were discouraged from even holding hands.

One Beijing woman now in her 40s said that when her boyfriend started making advances when she was 18, she had no idea what was happening. "What is sex?" she asked another young woman. "Just keep your belt tight," advised her friend.

"People were not supposed to talk about sex, think about sex and especially enjoy sex," says Ma Xiaonan, who practises sexual medicine at a Beijing hospital.

Now, he goes on radio once a week to answer listeners' questions about masturbation, erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation and a host of other once-forbidden topics. More than 2,000 patients visit his clinic every year.

Official China is still nervous about open discussion of sex. Explicit sex manuals are banned, condom ads rare. Sex education as it is known in the West does not exist in Chinese schools, a problem in a country with a rising AIDS rate.

But with sex, as with so many fields, officials have less and less control over what people do in private. Many people now own their own apartments and work for private or foreign-owned companies. That means they are beyond the reach of the busybodies in neighbourhood block committees and work units who used to tattle on adulterers and unmarried lovers.

The growing numbers of private cars have provided a new trysting place for lovers, while the proliferation of cellphones and Internet chat rooms has made meeting partners easier.

"Nowadays, nobody's watching, so people are having all sorts of experiences," says Chen Chen, 31, an unemployed Beijing office worker who is divorcing her husband and moving in with her Finnish boyfriend. "Relationships are just like McDonald's or Kentucky Fried Chicken -- you rush in and rush out."

Her friend Yu Ping, 25, says she has "just two" boyfriends at present, both rock musicians. "I can't stay with one guy for too long," she adds, giggling. "I get bored."

Neither is shocked by Ms. Li's sexual adventuring. "Some people thought she was crazy," Ms. Chen says. "But what she's doing is not that unusual. She's just the one who's talking about it openly."

Li Li herself says her promiscuity is less a matter of lust than of self-expression. More liberated intellectual than sex kitten, she says she uses her sexual experiences as fodder for her writing.

This fall, she will be in Germany to judge a "best blogs" competition and promote her new book of diaries, Posthumous Love Letter. She is also writing a column for a Hong Kong newspaper, where she writes on topics ranging from picking up men and how to manage sex on a bus to the meaning of love.

"For me, it's an exploration," she says, "a voyage of discovery." And she plans to continue it, no matter what the government says.

'How did you satisfy your sex life in Canada?'

An excerpt from a typical column by Li Li, under her pen name Mu Zimei, posted to her Web diary on May 9, 2003:

What would you do if you were single, worked overtime till 3:30 a.m., your mind blanked out, and you suddenly felt thirsty? All the bars have closed by this time and your usual sex partners have all turned off their cellphones. And you have brought back from the laundry a bundle of clean bed sheets, pillow slips and comforter. Better to have someone to make the bed -- what would you do?

I knew what to do. I got on-line, entered a chat room and quickly clicked on the icon of a man named "A Chinese of Foreign Nationality."

"Want to do it?" I asked.

"Okay!" he said.

"Why use such an awkward name?"

"I finished my MBA in Canada, and have lived there for eight years. Just returned to China recently."


"Here is my photo. See, I'm a handsome man."

He sounded confident. In three minutes, we decided to meet. A very efficient process.

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