GUANGZHOU, CHINA With her kinked, dyed hair, white pumps, pink handbag and matching pink cellphone, Li Li doesn't fit anyone's picture of a dissident.But in her own, odd way, she is one -- a sexual dissident, challenging the government's prudish views and speaking for a new generation of Chinese women who are giving free rein to their desires.
When she wrote about bedding a famous rock star last year, adding him to her tally of more than 70 lovers, she became the talk of China's youth. A popular website that picked up the confession (from her private weblog, Love Letters Before Dying) saw its number of visitors rise to 30 million a day from 20 million.
Unamused, the government banned her confessional novel, Ashes Of Love, for its "extremely depraved moral quality."
Under pressure, Ms. Li had to stop posting anecdotes about her sex life on the Internet and leave her job writing for a lifestyle magazine in Guangzhou, a booming southeastern metropolis.
But if authorities hoped to control her, they have failed miserably. She continues to chronicle her encounters with men she meets in bars, through friends, over the Internet and on public transit, running up her number of lovers to nearly 100.
"The government thinks that sex is dirty. I don't," says the rail-thin, birdlike 26-year-old, who goes by the pen name Mu Zimei. "It's just a way to get in touch with other people, express myself and have some fun."
More and more Chinese seem to agree. Ms. Li is in the vanguard of a sexual revolution sweeping urban China. Though few can match her numbers, millions of people in the once strait-laced society are having multiple lovers, one-night stands and extramarital affairs.
China's Family Planning Agency found that only 30 per cent of Chinese are virgins when they marry, down from 84 per cent in the late 1980s. Hospitals report a sharp rise in the number of women having DNA tests to check the paternity of their babies, a sign that marital infidelity is on the rise.
Like so many things here, sexual mores have changed with breathtaking speed. Pollster Victor Yuan says China's sexual revolution is happening faster and going further than the one that swept Western countries in the 1960s and 1970s.
Just 10 years ago, there was no such thing as a sex shop in China. Now, Beijing alone has an estimated 2,000, four times the number of McDonald's restaurants in all of China. Known as "adult health" centres, they supply everything from nipple clamps to "penis-enlargement spray" to Vigorous Dragon vibrators.
"People have been in the dark about sex for generations," Ms. Li says, drawing on a Player's Light in a hotel bar. "Now, they are curious. They want to know everything and do everything."
She had sex for the first time at the age of 21, choosing her partner carefully from three "candidates." The encounter led to an abortion. Now, she always practises safe sex.
Since then, her lovers have included couples and married men. She has never had a steady boyfriend for more than three months. "Love and sex are not the same thing," she says. "You should be able to have sex and still have your freedom."
While most people like to get to know someone before sleeping with them, she says, "for me it's the reverse: I like to begin in bed, and then decide whether we have something in common."
When a Chinese journalist once asked how much time she could spare for an interview, she replied: "Let's have sex. The longer you last, the longer you'll have to interview me." (He declined.)
Until quite recently, comments like that were heresy in China.
In historical times, views about sex were liberal. One of China's more famous literary works is an erotic novel, The Golden Lotus, published more than 300 years ago. But the Communist Revolution of 1949 brought a wave of Puritanism.
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.
We felt like old friends at our first meeting, and we were both straightforward. He took the bundle of bedding from me very gallantly. He skillfully put the ticking cover over the mattress and made the bed, like a long-time bachelor who handles his home proficiently and independently. I would have been touched by this kind of intimacy and care, if this were not just a one-night stand.
However, we were not that passionate -- we both had a tacit understanding of what we expected to happen. . . . He often guided me by saying, "Don't kiss my most sensitive parts so quickly. Kiss my ears first, then my nipples, my thighs. Look, aren't my legs handsome? . . ."
I almost burst out laughing. This should have been something ecstatic, fascinating, overwhelming -- instead it was more like a business transaction.
The first time he came, the ticking cover got soiled. We removed it, and started again. But there was always something wrong, as we inflexibly continued making the "love" in which neither of us believed.
Enough of that for now, I decided, and gave up. I asked about his overseas bachelor life: "How did you satisfy your sex life in Canada?"
"There are many émigré Chinese families in Canada. The husbands have to commute several times a year between Canada and China to handle business, while their wives either go to school or work in Canada. These wives are vulnerable to loneliness. They often go out to dance. That's how I became their companion."
"Always with lonesome wives?"
"Of course not. The Chinese circles there have organized various associations and some clubs for singles. Parties are often held."
"Not so obvious. Usually, a classified ad of 'Party for Singles' is run in the media, and people would come to participate in the activities. Sometimes they play 'Key Party' . . . "
-- Translation by Betty and Saiman Hui.
How's China's sex life?
Compare Chinese attitudes to Canadians' views:
Percentage that are happy with their sex life:
Percentage that have faked an orgasm:
Percentage that have tried handcuffs/bondage:
Percentage that would risk sex with a new partner who refused to wear a condom:
According to the London Observer, the top-selling DVD in Chinese stores last year was Sex and the City.
The percentage of China's men and women who agree that same-sex partnerships should be granted the same status as man-woman marriages:
Men - 39%
Women - 50%
30% of condoms manufactured in China are considered unsafe.
The percentage of each country's people that thinks monogamy is the natural state for human beings:
China - 70%
United States - 57%
France - 44%
Germany - 40%
China manufactures 70% of the world's sex toys.
SOURCES: THE STATE BUREAU OF QUALITY AND TECHNICAL SUPERVISION, THE 2003/04 DUREX GLOBAL SEX SURVEY OF 34 COUNTRIES, EURO RSCG, IRISH TIMES, SHANGHAI STAR.
TRISH McALASTER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL