Sex Education in China After the Open Door Policy

By Peng Baiwen (Michael)

Table of Contents

1.    Introduction

2.    Before the Open Door Policy

3.    Key Sex Education Policies After Open Door Policy

4.    Problems with Sex Education and Social Consequences After Open Door Policy

5.    Conclusion

6.    References

7.    About the Author

1.    Introduction

The International Conference on Population and Development Program of Action affirms that the path to sustainable development is based on five pillars, one of which is good health with recognition of the centrality of sexual and reproductive health (United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), n/d). In other words, sexual and reproductive health is essential to achieving sustainable development. Sex education, therefore, plays an irreplaceable role in facilitating sustainable development. Sex education, according to Mehlman-Petrzela (2010), is curricula that consist of social hygiene, courtship, marriage, pregnancy, sexuality and contraception, sexually transmitted diseases (STD), and other topics. 

This entry focuses on sex education in China with its population of 138 million (National Bureau of Statistics of China, 2016). The entry tracesthe development of China’s sex education from the 1920s to the present day with an emphasis on the period after theOpen Door Policy, which boosted China’s economy to a great extent and imported foreign cultures that liberated people’s minds. Such liberation, which is manifested in liberal attitudes towards sex, became problematic in the context of inadequatesex education (see Li et al., 2009). Itis argued that inadequate sex education is threatening Chinese population and the country’s pursuit of achieving sustainable development (UNFPA, n/d). 

In the following sections, background information is provided on the Open Door Policyand the provisionof sex education before the Open Door Policy. After that, sex education policies after the Open Door Policy, challenges with sex education in the 21stcentury, and resultant social consequences are discussed. By examining sex education in China over the last century and presenting current social problems related to sex education, the author seeks to inspire readers who can then build on this entry and develop means to enhance the current state of sex education in China to facilitate sustainable development.

2.     Before the Open Door Policy

China underwent economic depression during the Cultural Revolution(1966-1975). In response to this, in 1978 China’s Open Door Policy was created (Quach and Anderson, 2008). As an economic policy, by importing foreign technology and sciences, it helped alleviate poverty across the country and provided access to better employment as well as goods and services (Deci, 1996). In addition, improved living conditions were accompanied by the import of an ‘influx’ of foreign cultures (Quach and Anderson, 2005) which demystified sexuality, which was taboo during Culture Revolution (Honig, 2003). This enabled sex education and science to overcome long-standing barriers and keep up with modern times (Zhu et al., 2005).

Sex education in 1920s played a ‘modernizing role,’ as revolutionaries such as Liang Qicha saw it as a means to ‘improve population quality, strengthen the Chinese race and liberate the country from its state of semi-colonialism’ (as cited in Aresu, 2009, p. 533). Knowledge on sex was mainly provided by family (mothers in particular) and schools were used tocomplement family sex education (Liang, 2000). However, despite the lofty goals, sex education at the time was a ‘completely normative fantasy’, because it didn’t trickle down to the general public and remained accessible only to the elite (Aresu, 2009, p. 534). During the 1950s, sex education was recognized as a method to ‘do away with deep-rooted taboos and superstitions’ (Aresu, 2009, p. 535), a change reflected by a speech by Premier Zhou Enlai delivered in 1963. This speech also signified that young people’s interest in sex-related issues was legitimized. However, only a limited number of schools launched sex education curriculum, because of a general attitude to sex as forbidden, and a fear that sex education was a potential threat to young people’s moral integrity (Aresu, 2009; Song, 2010; Yao, 1992). During the Cultural Revolution, discussion of sex was considered ‘bourgeois and hence taboo’ (Honig, 2003, p. 143). In such an atmosphere, there was little room for sex education to flourish, as evidenced by Aresu (2009), who argues that ‘the Cultural Revolution silenced official and unofficial discourses on sex education’ (p. 535).

3.     Key Sex Education Policies After theOpen Door Policy

‘The structure and themes of many sex education discourses [in the 1980s] have resembled aspects of those in the 1920s’ (Aresu, 2009, p. 536), a period of time when, as previously mentioned, sexual knowledge and the science of sex were emphasized. In this period of time, the theme of sex education shifted from birth control (jieyu) which originated from 1950s, to sexual health (xingjiankang) (Zhang, 2015). Zhu et al. (2005) divide policymaking regarding sex education after the Open Door Policy into several stages. The first is 1978-1987, a period when adolescents’ sexual rights were protected and paid attention to, yet sex education was not initiated. The first legislation regarding sex education was the Middle School Syllabus for Physiological Hygiene (Trial Draft)issued in 1978. This syllabus pointed out that emphasis should be placed on puberty hygiene, deferred child birth (wanyu), and family planning. 

The second stage spans from 1988 to 1993. Zhu et al. (2005) argue that in this stage schools were required by law to teach adolescents classes on sex physiology, sex psychology, and sex morality. The emphasis on sex morality was meant to ensure that sex education was employed ‘as a means of maintaining social stability’ (Aresu, 2009, p. 536) at a time when sex-related crimes increased. Aresu (2009) believes that 1988 was a milestone, because in that year ‘preliminary stages of preparation [for sex education] ended’ (p. 537), and two important documents regarding sex education were issued: Notification on the Development of Adolescent Education in the Middle Schoolsand Regulations for Work on Hygiene in Schools. The former required that schools function as the major channel for imparting knowledge about sexuality and that sex education be officially incorporated into the middle school curricula nationwide. Therefore, sex education was formalized and granted an official status. The latter prescribed that knowledge about sexuality be taught in universities. In the following years several other legislation actions were established including Law of the People's Republic of China on the Protection of the Minors(1990) which laid a legal foundation for sex education in schools (Zhu et al., 2005). According to Zhu et al. (2005) the second stage marks the beginning of the development of sex education policies, one aspect of legislation that had been widely ignored since the Cultural Revolution. However, despite all efforts, there was no clear syllabus for sex education. Also, as Aresu (2009) observes, implementation of sex education was slow, and therefore the goals of the 1988 Notificationwere largely not achieved, which he attributes to ‘a lack of financial resources and little coordination on a national level’ (p. 537).

The next stage as proposed by Aresu (2009) commences in the second half of 1990s, when HIV/AIDS become a public concern. It was estimated that in 2000, there were about 30 thousand Chinese people with AIDS (Kaufman and Jing, 2002). The situation stimulated ‘a more coordinated and systematic development of middle school sex education programmes’ (Aresu, 2009, p. 537). A relevant policies is Medium and Long Term Planning for HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control in China (1998~2010)(Zhu et al., 2005). Also, in this period of time, Program of Action of the International Conference on Population and Developmentwas issued, which had a great impact on policymaking regarding population issues in China (Zhu et al., 2005). In response to the Program, a milestone law, Population and Family Planning Law of the People's Republic of Chinawas issued in 2002, guaranteeing the rights and possibility of young people to receive sex education (Zhu et al., 2005). In addition, there were two key occasions where specific definitions of ‘comprehensive sex education’ were proposed: The First Asian Academic Conference on Sex Education, and the Sino-British Conference on Sex Education for Adolescents, held in Beijing in August 2001 and February 2002 respectively. However, noticeably, safe sex was not taken as a component of ‘comprehensive sex education’ because self-discipline and sexual morality were emphasized at the time (Aresu, 2009, p. 538).

4.     Problems with Sex Education and Social Consequences After the Open Door Policy

As Song (2015) points out, schools are still reluctant to provide sex education despite the government’s requirement. This is probably because the educational system only places emphasis on curricular subjects that are assessed in entrance exams. Therefore, class time devoted to sex education, as far as entrance exam score is concerned, is useless. In fact, as Lin et al. (2011) argue, sex education in China does not inform students of sex-related issues; instead, it aims to protect young people when they are physically and psychological vulnerable, by teaching only physiological and biological courses. In addition, teachers of these courses are mostly not professionally trained to deliver sex-related courses. These flaws of sex education in China, among others, bring forward negative social consequences: unintended pregnancies (and resulting abortion) and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Flaws of China’s sex education are magnified in the post-reform era thanks to rapid economic development and the wide use of the Internet. According to Xu and Cheng (2008) the significant improvement in diet and nutritional status brought about by economic reforms has led to earlier sexual maturation. And this sexual ‘pre-maturation’, as Li et al. (2009) observe, ‘has led adolescents into an earlier exploration of their sexuality through a range of sexuality-related behaviors, including viewing pornography, masturbating, and having their first non-coital and coital sexual contact’ (p. 470). In addition, with the popularity of the Internet, young people have easier access to sexual information than in the past (Li et al., 2009; Song, 2015; Zhang, Li, & Shah, 2007), which accelerates sexual maturation to some extent. 

5.    Conclusion

Sex education in China was emphasized by modernizing elites in the 1920s who saw it as a means to strengthen population health; however, such importance diminished from the 1950s to the late 1970. Noticeably, during the Cultural Revolution, anything related to sex was forbidden from public discussion, with no mention of sex education in schools. In the late 1970s, with the promulgation of the Open Door Policy, the importance of sex education regained attention, although it was not high on the government’s agenda until the late 1990s, when AIDS cases increased rapidly in China. After the Open Door Policy, Chinese society has been undergoing tremendous changes, including changes in attitudes towards sex, improved nutrition, and use of the Internet. Young people now hold a relatively liberal view towards sex and consequently, without proper sex education, more and more cases of sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancy are reported. In addition, the Internet contributes to easy access to sexual information. Flawed sex education is threatening Chinese population, whose importance to achieving sustainable development is undeniable (UNFPA, n/d). Therefore, the government and educators should pay more attention to this field and make efforts in teacher education, curriculum reform, etc.

6.    References

Aresu, A. (2009). Sex Education in Modern and Contemporary China: Interrupted Debates Across the Last Century. International Journal of Educational Development, 29(5), 532-541. doi: 10.1016/j.ijedudev.2009.04.010

Deci, Z. (1996). The Open Door Policy and Urban Development in China. Habitat International20(4), 525-529.

Honig, E. (2003). Socialist Sex: The Cultural Revolution Revisited. Modern China, 29(2), 143-175. doi: 10.1177/0097700402250735

Kaufman, J., & Jing, J. (2002). China and AIDS-The Time to Act is Now. Science296(5577), 2339-2340.

Li, L., King, M. E., & Winter, S. (2009). Sexuality Education in China: The Conflict between Reality and Ideology. Asia Pacific Journal of Education, 29(4), 469-480. doi: 10.1080/02188790903309066

Liang, J. (2000). Sex Education in the Period of the May-Fourth Movement. The Journal of Shanxi Teachers University, Social Science Edition, 27(3), 89-93.

Lin, S. S., Liu, L., Jiang, L.L. and Huang, X.R. (2011). Six Decades’ Sexuality Education: An Exploration in the Darkness and Embarrassment. Southern People Weekly, 29, 74-76.

Mehlman-Petrzela, N. (2010). Sex Education. In T. C. Hunt & C. James, (Eds.).The Encyclopedia of Educational Reform and Dissent(pp. 821-825). SAGE Publications.

National Bureau of Statistics of China. (2016). National Population as of 2016. Retrieved from

Quach, A.S., & Anderson, E. A. (2008). Implications of China's Open-Door Policy for Families: A Family Impact Analysis. Journal of Family Issues29(8), 1089-1103.

Song, S. (2010). Mortality Consequences of the 1959–1961 Great Leap Forward Famine in China: Debilitation, Selection, and Mortality Crossovers. Social Science & Medicine, 71(3), 551-558.

Song, Y. (2015). The Sexuality Education and Attitudes of College Students in China. Health Education, 115(1), 93-104. doi: 10.1108/HE-01-2014-0002

United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). (n/d). The Five Themes of Population & Development. Retrieved from

Xu, J., & Cheng, L. (2008). Awareness and Usage of Emergency Contraception among Teenagers Seeking Abortion: A Shanghai Survey. European Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 141(2), 143-146. doi: 10.1016/j.ejogrb.2008.08.002

Yao, P. (1992). The Study and Practice of Adolescent Sex Education in China. Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences Papers, 4, 443-456

Zhang, L., Li, X., & Shah, I. H. (2007). Where do Chinese Adolescents Obtain Knowledge of Sex? Implications for Sex Education in China. Health Education, 107(4), 351-363. doi: 10.1108/09654280710759269

Zhang, Q.H. (2015). Sex Education for Teenagers Since the Establishment of China and Implications. Technology, Economy and Market, 12, 165

Zhu, G.R., Gi, C.Y., Yi,W., & Ma, L. (2005).Review of China’s Policy on Sex Education. Chinese Journal of Human Sexuality, 14(3), 1-15  

About the Author

Peng Baiwen (Michael)

MEd, The University of Hong Kong