Mr and Mrs Guan had been married for no more than a few weeks when they began noticing Mr Guan's tendency to sweat profusely during sex. Both newlyweds were 28 years old, and had made love everyday since their wedding. Mr Guan's qi (or life energy) appeared to be at an all-time high. Relatives warned them not to overindulge in sex, echoing centuries of ancient wisdom that holds moderation as the key to longevity.
Ancient sex wisdom permeates centuries of Chinese history right from the beginnings of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770 BC-256 BC). These pearls have not been forgotten, though they are mostly offered as subtle tokens of advice from family members on subjects such as marriage and family planning. Chinese sex wisdom derives largely from Taoism, an ancient school of philosophy spelled out by Laozi in the 8th Century BC. Taoism stresses the necessary balance between the negative, lunar female yin and the positive, sun-like male yang to achieve optimum harmony and pleasure. The overwhelming characteristic of Chinese sex wisdom however is qi, largely attributed to the positive male yang. To this day, Chinese sex therapists and sexologists argue for some existing Taoist teachings, many advocating moderation as the key to a fulfilling sex life. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't.
According to Mrs Guan, Mr Guan originally abided by traditional practices, allowing sex to last a long time. "We'd have sex after long hours of foreplay. We always used to come together," she told Metropolitan. However, Mr Guan began fretting that his qi was decreasing due to perspiration. This helped kill their love life's momentum. The couple cut down to having sex once every three days, usually in their car, which they find more exciting. Lying together as they often do in their Volkswagen sedan, Mr and Mrs Guan paint a modern picture of the ancient concept wu wei, a unity of yin and yang suspended between heaven and Earth. Their balance however is secretly undermined by Mrs Guan's confession that worries about qi and other factors have bogged down their sex life and led to her faking orgasms to please her husband.
The Imperial garden located within the heart of the Forbidden City tells of a time when the emperor of China would leave his chamber at night, accompanied by a favored concubine to delight in pleasures of the flesh. The Taoist concept wu wei served then as an ethical guideline for achieving an optimum state in nature. Having sex outdoors was therefore not only a pleasant choice for the emperor but a moral one as well.
The struggle for privacy for couples in Beijing today means wu wei is still a relevant concept, especially in the shrubs and trees around university campuses.
In November 2012, Professor Peng Xiaohui, deputy secretary-general of the World Association of Chinese Sexologists and a professor at Central China Normal University in Wuhan, Hubei Province, delivered a lecture calling on Chinese universities to provide special outdoor areas or "cuddle zones" for students to share intimacy away from peers and college authorities. Going alfresco at night is still first choice among many Chinese college kids weary of being monitored in their dorms.
Metropolitan spoke to a handful of students from the Communication University of China about their experiences and the potential benefits of Peng's proposal.
A female graduate student says cuddle zones risk distracting students from their work. However, she says she and her boyfriend have learned to adapt to the scant privacy dorm life offers. She says the workarounds have made sex exciting, a payoff of their risky approach.
"I have sex about twice a week, normally in my boyfriend's car. It's far more exciting than in a bedroom. We've also stopped using condoms for the time being. It feels much better without," she says.
Hold your fire
Having sex without protection may sound foolhardy but not if done in accordance with Taoist teachings that champion restraint during intercourse. Taoist doctrine urges men to resist reaching orgasm during sex in order to economize on qi or energy. Sperm was thought to be a transformation of the blood that contained within it a man's essence or spirit. Building sperm count therefore was said to strengthen a man's qi and enrich his essence to ensure a longer, healthier life.
Withholding orgasm is not only a method for not getting a partner pregnant, but also for ensuring pregnancy. Some men will try to build up their qi before trying to have a child.
Mrs Zhou, a woman in her 40s, recalls that at the time she and her husband were attempting to conceive, "We heard it was better for a couple to hold off on sex for at least a month before trying for a baby. This means the husband must resist the urge to orgasm. His qi would therefore accumulate, and with it, his spirit will enrich the semen for when the time comes," says Mrs Zhou.
Not the qi all and end all
Professor Peng told Metropolitan that this is foolish. He said much of Taoist sex wisdom draws sensible conclusions, especially about the role of sex in maintaining harmony within the family. However, Peng does not agree with Taoist sexual health practices, saying that modern scientific knowledge discredits many of their founding ideas.
"Science tells us full well that sperm is not qi or essence. The idea that men should try not to release sperm is absurd. If sperm is not released regularly, it can lead to discomfort, or inflammation of the prostate gland," he says.
Peng says the advice to refrain from orgasm derives from ancient times, when men had multiple wives and would spare the energy to sleep with multiple partners to avoid jealousy among a harem.
"The role of qi is contrived here. Ancient Chinese sex wisdom even speaks of a man's strength increasing the more women he sleeps with. This was probably suspect even in ancient times to be honest," he says.
Even though the idea of qi might be bogus, the ability to hold your fire can still be beneficial to a satisfying sex life.
Dr Han Meiling, 41, a psychologist and sex therapist who works at Beijing Meiling Psychological Counseling Centre, says, "The most common problem I've noticed among my younger patients is an anxiety and confusion about sex. Many male patients find themselves reaching an orgasm too quickly, and feel ashamed when their female partners do not experience the same," she says.
Han says she believes modern science can benefit patients with practical tips and explanations of how to perform and enjoy sexual acts. However, she says ancient Chinese sex wisdom still has value in modern society, and science often only goes so far as to explain sex as a physical process. The roles of yin and yang still form the crucial concept of sex as a communicative act, one which tries to achieve unity and fulfills an emotional need.
"Qi is a cosmic vital energy that ensures our survival and links the universe together as a whole. Death disperses life, and qi is an accumulation of all life on Earth," she says.
Han says every person is born with their core qi potential, and has the job throughout life of sustaining it over time. Sex is just one way of doing so. Because sex is a unity of two individuals, she says, retaining the male qi can benefit both people. However, Han says male qi is not the only aspect of good sex that requires nurturing.
"Some of my clients say they experience problems where one partner reaches their climax, leaving the other feeling empty or inclined to fake orgasm. Yin and yang are co-dependant. They don't make sense on their own. Only when the two become a unity can they achieve harmony and experience endless joy and energy," she says.