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Opening Up

Youth Sex Culture and Market Reform in Shanghai

From teen dating to public displays of affection, from the "fishing girls" and "big moneys" that wander discos in search of romance to the changing shape of sex in the Chinese city, this is a book like no other. James Farrer immerses himself in the vibrant nightlife of Shanghai, draws on individual and group interviews with Chinese youth, as well as recent changes in popular media, and considers how sexual culture has changed in China since its shift to a more market-based economy.

More and more men and women in China these days are having sex before marriage, creating a new youth sex culture based on romance, leisure, and free choice. The Chinese themselves describe these changes as an "opening up" in response to foreign influences and increased Westernization. Farrer explores these changes by tracing the basic elements in talk about sex and sexuality in Shanghai. He then shows how Chinese youth act out the sometimes-contradictory meanings of sex in the new market society. For Farrer, sexuality is a lens through which we can see how China imagines and understands itself in the wake of increased globalization. Through personal storytelling, neighborhood gossip, and games of seduction, young men and women in Shanghai balance pragmatism with romance, lust with love, and seriousness with play, collectively constructing and individually coping with a new culture based on market principles. With its provocative glimpse into the sex lives of young Chinese, then, Opening Up offers something even greater: a thoughtful consideration of China as it continues to develop into an economic superpower.


“Farrer’s book, with its first-hand data and careful analysis focused on sexual cultures among unmarried urban youth, unofficial public culture, and interactions in daily life and leisure, contributes to an emerging literature on sex and love in contemporary China. . . . It is an invaluable resource on sexual culture in contemporary China for students and general readers as well as for specialists in sexual and gender studies.”

Xin Huang, | Archives of Sexual Behavior

“This is a fine and nuanced study of sexuality in one Chinese city that offers much food for thought for studies of sexuality in general. Not the least of the book’s virtues is Farrer’s writing, which is infused with eloquent sensitivity to and compassion for the ways in which his subjects strive to cope with the sexual challenges of a dizzying rush to modernity.”

Arie Darlie | Journal of the History of Sexuality

“A ground-breaking ethnography. [Farrer’s} detailed descriptions of the talk and the behaviour of young Shanghainese make this a valuable contribution to our understanding of contemporary China.”

Robert L. Moore | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“Anyone interested in Chinese society will wish to engage in a dialogue with this book. It makes a truly valuable contribution by returning our attention to the relationship between moral codes, performance and behaviour. In so doing, Farrer has produced a conceptual framework that enables us to begin to talk about the changes and continuities that are part of urban China’s social landscape. For anyone intrigued by contemporary China this is a must-read.”

William Jankowiak | China Journal

“I enjoyed very much reading this extraordinary book with such rich and deep ethnographic data, yet Farrer’s stories are not comforting stories, but ‘images of fragmented worlds of consumption, romantic nostalgia, professional success, and small pleasures.’”

Travis Kong | Sexualities

“As an analysis of the sexual culture of Shanghai youth in the second half of the nineties, Farrer’s book is revealing and persuasive. . . . A sophisticated and compelling analysis of youth sex culture in Shanghai and a striking example of the urban ethnography that can be done in the PRC.”

Beverley Hooper | Journal of Asian Studies

“This refreshing ethnographic study explores the new youth sex culture being created in contemporary Shanghai as it shifts to a market-based economy. Farrer immerses himself in the city’s vibrant nightlife, conducts individual and group interviews, and examines popular media to provide a provocative glimpse of the sex lives of young Chinese. For Farrer, sex is a lens through which we can understand how China imagines and understands itself in the wake of globalization. Students of Chinese anthropology, media and culture will find this a fascinating study. . . . The reader gains a refreshing sense of the textures of everyday life in one part of free-wheeling China and a good understanding of the social impact of China’s remarkable ongoing transformation.”

Alan Searl | Asian Affairs

“Farrer’s volume marks a new page in studying Chinese sexuality, courtship, marriage, family and gender relations. . . . Using a wide range of informants, interviews and magazine stories, he closely relates the recently developed sexual freedom to the rapid development of the market economy. . . . A necessary addition to Chinese studies in general and the research of Chinese sexual culture, gender, marriage and the family in particular.”

Pacific Affairs

"Farrer’s study can contribute not only to the studies of urban sexual culture, but his study also indirectly reflects the influences of the social changes in China since 1978 on the general moral values of the Chinese people."

Sexuality and Culture

Table of Contents


Sex and the Market

1Opening Up
And Other Stories

High and Low

Big and Small

4True Stories
From Romance to Irony

5Talking Friends
For Love and for Fun

Good and Memorable

Purity of Purpose

8Making Love
And Talking about It

Dance and Sex

Methodological Appendix




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