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Career Climax

Renowned as a pioneer of sexology, Pan Suiming talks with NewsChina about his extensive academic career, his research on China’s underground sex industry and the evolving attitudes toward sexuality

By Li Jing Updated Feb.1

The Trail of Wind (2023)

Existence and Absurdity: A Survey of China’s Underground Sex Industry (1999)

People often fail to realize that our sexual lives are heavily influenced by socially constructed preconceptions. Society quietly instills notions of obscenity, ugliness and immorality as we mature. Many people’s greatest regret in life is not a lack of indulgence in lust, but rather the absence of blissful, carefree and ecstatic sexual experiences.”  

These words were penned by Pan Suiming, one of China’s most esteemed sexologists, in his latest Chinese-language book The Trail of Wind.  

The 73-year-old founder and former dean of the Institute of Sexuality and Gender at the Department of Sociology at the Renmin University of China in Beijing has made groundbreaking contributions to the field: He trailblazed the first sex-related courses in Chinese colleges during the mid-1980s, surveyed the gay communities of four major cities in 1992, conducted field research into the country’s sex industry, and carried out four unprecedented nationwide surveys on people’s changing attitudes toward sex over a span of 15 years.  

In his autobiography The Trail of Wind released in September, Pan encapsulates his research since the 1980s, and his recent observations and thoughts.  

Sexual discourse has long been taboo in China’s public sphere, and sexology continues to remain on the fringes of the country’s social sciences. “Perhaps only an unorthodox student who hadn’t received any academic training before like me would be crazy enough to study sex. Formally trained students would never risk their careers to set foot in such a field,” Pan told NewsChina.  

He addresses the importance of the study of sex in his latest book, where Pan writes it represents “the convergence and interpenetration of various disciplines, offering humans the key to unlocking the deepest secrets of self-knowledge.”  

Social Research on Methods: Quantitative and Qualitative Sociological Studies in Chinese Contexts (2023)

The Change of Sex: The Sexual Life of Chinese People in the 21st Century (2013)

Born in 1950 into a family of civil servants, Pan Suiming experienced a significant upheaval in his early life. At 9, his father was politically persecuted during the Anti-Rightist Campaign (1957-1959) and subjected to unfair treatment. Like many urban teenagers during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Pan became a “sent-down youth,” assigned to work on a farm in China’s northeastern province of Heilongjiang.  

On the farm, the only sex-related material Pan encountered were local folk songs with implicit sexual innuendos. “That was my first sex course,” he said.  

Despite his rough academic start, Pan enrolled in Northeast Normal University in Changchun, Jilin Province to study ancient and medieval world history in 1981. The college boasted an impressive collection of Western and English-language books, to which Pan was given access as a post-graduate student. It was during this time that he first came across scholarly works on sexual culture and customs, sparking his interest in the field.  

As a father to an infant, Pan believed he already had a reasonable understanding of sex. However, the texts he encountered in the early 1980s drastically altered his perception and career. One that left a profound impact on him was Sexual Life of Primitive People (1921) by German anthropologist Hans Fehlinger. “Its descriptions of the diverse range of human sexual behaviors exceeded my wildest imagination,” he said.  

Pan began jotting down notes on cards for a secondary research project. These cards, totaling 5,100, became the foundation for his first book, Mysterious Fire: Sociological History of Sex (1988). Unfortunately, the meticulously collected cards, sealed in a plastic bag, disappeared from his home after a thief mistook it for a sack of money. “That might be the first time I taught someone about sex,” Pan joked.  

As Renmin University’s newest history lecturer in 1985, Pan took on his first groundbreaking endeavor – introducing an undergraduate history course on sex and sexuality. Mindful of avoiding any potential offense, he carefully chose the course title: “The Development of Foreign Sexual Concepts.”  

The course stirred up controversy from the outset. Certain faculty members and school administrators disapproved, and forced Pan to cancel it within a month of its launch. Some of his earliest students criticized him as “brazen-faced.” Faced with such opposition, Pan contemplated giving up. However, Li Wenhai, dean of the history department, openly praised the course in front of the entire faculty and encouraged Pan to continue.  

As the years passed, Pan’s sexology course increased in popularity, and it was opened to all students as a general course. Pan dedicated nearly two decades to teaching sex and sexuality at the university. “The students who have taken my course already outnumber the disciples of Confucius,” Pan wrote in The Trail of Wind.  

‘Many Called Me Papa’
Pan’s second achievement was even more daring. In 1997, he embarked on extensive field research on the underground sex industry in South China’s Guangdong Province. He visited beauty salons, karaoke bars, bathhouses and massage parlors, where he engaged in deep conversations with sex workers over the course of several months.  

To fully grasp their reality, Pan emphasized the importance of natural conversations rather than simply asking questions. “You couldn’t pretend to be a customer. That would be meaningless, because if you did, all you would get were professional performances,” Pan said.  

Pan discovered that these women, who led monotonous lives within a confined world, were primarily concerned with whether a person would harm them or not. Initially uninterested in his research or its purpose, they gradually opened up to Pan, sharing stories about their relationships, family, children and their innermost thoughts and feelings.  

Due to the age gap, they regarded him as a mentor. “Many called me ‘papa.’ Some even called me ‘grandpapa,’” he told NewsChina.  

From 1998 to 2010, Pan and his team conducted field research in 23 red-light districts, conducting interviews with 1,132 sex workers, 239 madams and pimps, and 212 clients. He subsequently published eight influential books on China’s sex industry, including Existence and Absurdity: A Survey of China’s Underground Sex Industry (1999), Subsistence and Experience: Investigation on an Underground Red-light District (2000) and I’m on the Spot: A Field Survey Note on Sex Sociology (2017).  

Through this decade-spanning research, Pan formulated conclusions that challenge public stereotypes about sex workers. In his classes, he often asked his students: “What is the biggest risk [for a male researcher] conducting field research in red-light districts?” Common responses included concerns of being blackmailed, scammed or even seduced. Only once did a young male student provide the answer he was looking for – the greatest danger is that “the sex workers will very likely fall in love with you.”  

Pan told NewsChina that most sex workers are never treated as equals by men, let alone respected. In many instances, they would shed tears simply from having a decent conversation with an understanding researcher free from bias. “In their world, even their fathers or brothers never treat them as equals like this,” Pan said.  

In 2007, Pan introduced the theory of “subjective constructionism” based on his extensive research on sex workers and the country’s sex industry. Previous studies had often treated sex workers as objects to be observed by researchers rather than dynamic individuals who actively construct their own lives and environments. Pan emphasized that they possess their own voice and agency to freely speak about their true feelings and inner desires to actively shape their lives and influence their surroundings.  

“If I hadn’t engaged in communication with them for such an extended period, I wouldn’t have been able to discover and comprehend the essence of ‘subjective constructionism,’” Pan told NewsChina.  

He highlighted the importance for researchers in any humanities or social sciences discipline to first understand this subjective agency. “Subjects have the capacity to construct their own identities and the world around them,” Pan said.  

‘Historic Opportunity’ 
Pan said that he was fortunate to catch “a historic opportunity.” China’s transition from a planned economy during the reform and opening-up policy, which launched in 1978, brought about significant social changes.  

Over the four decades since then, China witnessed significant shifts in values regarding sex, love and marriage. However, few could accurately express to what extent. Most are limited to speculation based on their personal experiences, observations of others, and the internet.  

Pan and his team conducted quantitative surveys on the changes in Chinese people’s sexual values and behaviors from 2000 to 2015, offering concrete statistics to further shed light on these issues.  

Pan and his research team at Renmin University completed four random sampling surveys in 2000, 2006, 2010 and 2015. For better historical comparison, the surveys used the same sampling method, questionnaire and locations. Each survey interviewed 5,000 respondents aged 18 to 61 from 25 provinces and municipalities, with an equal distribution of males and females. In total, the four surveys contained 23,147 samples.  

The results yielded interesting findings. In 2000, 23 percent of married men admitted to having extramarital affairs, a number that significantly increased to nearly 60 percent in 2015. Similarly, the percentage of married women engaging in extramarital affairs rose from less than 10 percent in 2000 to 33 percent in 2015.  

Additionally, Pan’s statistics show a growing trend among young Chinese who choose to remain single or embrace a celibate lifestyle. In 2000, among the interviewed group aged 27-35, only 2.5 percent of men and 0.7 percent of women reported never having engaged in sexual activity. In 2015, the number increased to nearly 12 percent of men, five times the figure in 2000. Similarly, the number of celibate women increased 14-fold, with nearly 10 percent reporting no sexual experience. Pan speculated that if a similar survey were conducted in 2020, these numbers would double those of 2015.  

Some critics argue that Pan’s studies lack explanations for the observed trends, describing the “what” without providing the “why.” Others have criticized his work for lacking “metaphysical reflection.”  

Pan acknowledges his drawbacks and limitations as a scholar. “My academic training was inconsistent. I didn’t do an undergrad degree. I was a middle school graduate who went directly to a post-graduate history program. After that, I didn’t pursue a doctorate.”  

He admits to not reading the work of Sigmund Freud until his post-graduate studies, and his disinterest in Freudian theories like the Oedipus complex or the Jungian Electra complex.  

“I always felt the Freud complexes were so pretentious,” Pan said.  

According to Pan, Han Chinese culture lacks a written “philosophy of sex,” something he hopes later generations can achieve.  

“Han culture has dealt with the issues of sex in an excessively secular and private way. […] The Taoist philosophy of yin (femininity) and yang (masculinity) is overly general and vague, and cannot influence people’s specific opinions and values on sex. To better understand sex, it is of great necessity to have a ‘philosophy of sex.’ But since I am not inclined toward philosophical thinking, I hope the younger generations will further develop these aspects of sexual studies,” Pan told NewsChina.  

Despite the concerns over falling birth rates in China, sex sociology generally remains a marginalized discipline. Pan has yet to receive any academic prizes or social honors. “Even within Chinese sociology, studying sex is considered interesting but not important,” Pan said. 
In 2012, Pan faced penalties for allegedly “swindling State scientific funds” for failing to provide formal invoices for payments made during interviews with sex workers. He was eventually demoted and forced to retire early. Some sympathized with Pan, explaining that it is almost impossible for researchers who interview sex workers to obtain formal invoices, as the transactions are typically conducted informally to protect the workers’ anonymity. Pan retired from his position as dean of the Institute of Sexuality and Gender in 2013.  

Pan has largely withdrawn from the intellectual community and rarely gives public lectures. But he continues to observe and study the evolving landscape of sex in Chinese society, documenting his new observations and thoughts in his latest book.  

“The Trail of Wind, as the title suggests, is a fleeting gust of wind from a past era. I have documented the traces left by that fleeting wind to prove its existence. As for the present and the future, I have no words to offer,” Pan said. 

Pan Suiming