While the bulk of the equipment is destined for export, a growing share is now
being sold domestically, to a population that has never had as much money and
freedom to experiment.
Thanks to a sharply expanding economy and the liberalisation of many aspects of
private life, attitudes towards sex have undergone a sea change.
During the cultural revolution men and woman were often segregated, overt
sexuality in dress or behaviour was frowned on, and kissing in public could
Today, conservative values remain strong in the countryside, but in the cities
young people canoodle openly on park benches and try out the alternative sexual
behaviour they see on the internet and on pirated western DVDs.
A survey by the Family Planning Agency found that almost 70% of Chinese were
not virgins when they married, compared with 16% at the end of the 1980s.
Prostitution, the target of a fierce and successful crackdown during the Mao
Zedong era, is once again a huge business. In places like Shenzhen, brothels
are so tolerated by the authorities that street upon street of massage parlours
and karaoke bars display a selection of girls in their shop windows.
On weekends, gay and lesbian bars, once unimaginable, draw packed crowds in
Shanghai, Guangzhou and other large cities throughout China.
The sex toy industry is also going from strength to strength. In Beijing, it
was not until 1993 that the first adult health retailer, as such outlets are
euphemistically named, opened. Now the capital is estimated to have 2,000 such
Most of the early establishments were dowdy and staffed by matrons in white
laboratory coats, offering potency pills to a largely male clientele. But
increasing competition is pushing retailers to be more imaginative in their
presentation. Public advertising is forbidden, but managers are displaying a
more colourful array of products on their shelves and expressing a wider range
of ideas about their role.
"I feel my business is standing on the front lines of a sexual revolution,"
Meng Yu, who runs the G-Spot, told the domestic media. "I believe all adults
have the same right to enjoy sexual pleasure. There should be no difference
between the orient and the west on this point."
But achieving recognition has been a hard slog. Before he was able to open
Shaki in 1995, the owner, Fang Hong, said it took him years to acquire the
necessary permits from 36 different government agencies. His business, which
has since grown at the rate of more than 20% per year, now employs 300 people
during the peak season before Christmas.
At the company's factory in the People Love Technology Park in Shenzhen,
products are tailored to meet the different demands of major buyers in Japan
and the US.
Casting an expert eye over a range of blow-up dolls, he said westerners
preferred large realistic figures with lipstick and wigs, while his Asian
customers tended towards petite inflatables with cartoon faces. "I think Asians
emphasise the fantasy element of play, while westerners think more in terms of
realism and utilisation," he said.
Given China's 1.3 billion population, he said domestic sales were relatively
small, but were growing fast.
At a sex toy fair last year in Shanghai, the organisers estimated that the
business was already worth 100 bn renminbi (£6.6bn) and expanding at the rate
of 30% per year.
"It takes time for people to accept such toys," said Mr Fang. "But Chinese
people are like any other human beings. When consumption levels rise, so does
the interest in things like this. I think Chinese people are having more fun."
Sociologists, health workers and sexologists all agree that China is becoming
more promiscuous, although sex education at schools and universities is
rudimentary or non-existent.
According to a 2004 study quoted in the People's Daily, only 21% of Chinese men
knew where to find the clitoris. Last year the most rapid increase in new HIV
cases was among teenagers, many of whom were unaware of how the disease was
Among China's most notorious bedroom activists is the blogger Mu Zimei, whose
online revelations about 70 lovers, many married or famous, became so popular
that the authorities shut her site down, because they saw it as a threat to
social morality. But Mu Zimei (real name Li Li) said woman were leading the
trend towards not only more sex, but more pleasure.
"Traditionally, the sexual role of Chinese women was too passive. But now they
take the initiative. Sex is no longer only for reproduction. Women regard it as
a source of pleasure, so they put more emphasis on the quality of their sex
In its industrialised form, however, excessive sex does have its drawbacks. At
the Shaki factory, there is no excited talk about sexual revolution, nor even
the slightest titillation or shocked giggles. The workers labour in near
silence for eight hours a day for £50-£66 per month, knocking out so many cheap
thrills for the world that they become numb to what they are doing.
"For the first few days, this job felt a bit strange," said one woman. "But
after that you forget what you're holding. It becomes just another object."
Additional reporting by Huang Lisha