Image: Paintings at museum
Eugene Hoshiko  /  AP
A visitor looks at a series of ancient Chinese paintings featuring the act of lovemaking at the Chinese Sexual Culture Museum in Shanghai.
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updated 12/15/2003 2:56:31 PM ET 2003-12-15T19:56:31

It's all there, artistically displayed on fans, bronzes and ceramics and in phallic forms sculpted in crude stone or precious jade: more than 6,000 years of human sexuality in the world's most populous nation.

Liu Dalin, 71-year-old founder and curator of the Chinese Sexual Culture Museum, has made it a mission to reintroduce his country's ancient culture of sexuality to generations brought up in more prudish communist times.

But after years of struggling to keep his private museum afloat, Liu is packing up his collection of 3,700 erotic toys, icons and other sex paraphernalia and moving to the countryside.

Liu, a retired Shanghai University professor and noted sociologist, says he was done in by a lack of official support.

"Over the past 15 years we have had more than 100,000 visitors. None of them said it was bad. Not one. They all felt it was very respectful, and to be admired," Liu said.

"But some bureaucrats fear that the topic of sex is dangerous," he said in an interview at his museum, in a nondescript office building far from popular tourism and shopping routes.

Given the anything-goes reputation of Shanghai's booming nightlife and easy access to online pornography, it's hard to imagine a museum, even one about sex, having much shock value here.

A two-story Esprit poster on Nanjing Road shows bare-bellied teens in ardent embrace. On nearby Shanxi Road, a white-uniformed clerk presides over a sex shop displaying a wide array of products in its windows. Just down the street is a sex-education office. Last spring, the city began airing "Hot Ladies" — its own version of "Sex and the City."

The sex industry is thriving as never before. As with elsewhere in Asia, men say finding a barbershop that actually offers haircuts rather than more personal services can be a challenge. Premarital sex, and resulting unwanted pregnancies, are increasingly common.

Ambivalence about sexuality
But after decades of repression and anti-smut campaigns, China's rediscovery of its sexuality is accompanied by great ambivalence.

Last month, Beijing's first "sex culture" exhibition was shut down after only one day, even after officials forced its organizer, sexual therapist Ma Xiaonian, to remove some sexually explicit exhibits and to bar visitors younger than 18.

The official reason was safety concerns due to an unexpectedly high number of visitors. But state-run media cited staff at the government-run family planning organization in charge of the venue as saying senior officials feared some visitors might "misunderstand" the displays.

"Sex Still a Dirty Word in China," the People's Daily, the staid Communist Party newspaper, said on its Web site.

For Liu, the move is his second. He set up shop in 1999 in a prime location, the upscale shopping district of Nanjing Rd., but had to move two years later when local officials barred him from using the character for "sex" on a sign.

"They said the character for 'sex' was ugly," he said.

The sign at the current out-of-the-way location now includes "xing," (pronounced "sing") the word for "sex" in standard Chinese. It's an ideograph that combines the symbols for "heart" and for "life."

But only a few dozen visitors a day turn up. He can barely afford his monthly rent of close to $4,000, and he says officials thwarted his efforts to get the museum certified as a tourism site.

City officials declined comment, saying the museum's situation was a "private matter."

A fresh start?
Liu spent 20 years in the army and another 12 as a factory worker, before becoming a sex researcher and collector. he says he's looking forward to a fresh start when his museum opens in April in Tongli, a scenic canal city about 60 miles northwest of Shanghai.

The local government is giving him rent-free space in a 100-year-old courtyard-style building spending thousands of dollars on renovations.

"I won't have to scrape to survive, it will be a great relief," Liu says. "I can display my whole collection. And the garden will have space for sculptures."

Liu says the town expects the museum to be a tourist attraction. But Tongli officials sounded uncomfortable when asked about it.

"A museum is a museum. A scenic spot is a scenic spot," said the mayor's secretary, who gave only his surname, Li. "Tongli is certainly not treating the Sex Museum as a tourism destination."

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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