'To predict the rise or fall of the nation, one should look at the physique of the race; to assess the future of the state, it is enough to examine the bedclothes of our youth,' proclaimed Yi Jiayue, a sociologist who favoured an 'anti-masturbation movement' and a forum on 'Masturbation among Students and the Future of the Chinese Republic'. Nationalist discourses introduced a polarity between a relatively independent individual, based on the idea of self-regulation, and the coercive intervention of civil society, justified in the name of the collective health of the nation. A conceptual link was established between the individual, the conjugal couple, the population as a whole and the state in which the power of the latter was founded upon the discipline of the former. Nowhere is this normative pressure more evident than in the medical debates on masturbation.
'Guard the body like a piece of jade; hold on to your aspirations as if they were gold' (shou shen ru yu zhi zhi ru jin) was a common saying in late imperial China, reflecting the neo-Confucian view of the body as a precious vessel which should be kept free from defilement. In seventeenth-century fiction, the economy of sperm became an important literary topic, based on a vocabulary of seminal capital (benqian), savings and spending in which frugality with money was compared to caution in the expenditure of semen. In popular literature, mythical monsters sucked dry hapless youths in their search for vivifying semen. The Buddhist term 'illegal ejaculation' (feifa chujing) and Daoist ideas about seminal retention and the nourishment of the brain also retained some credibility until the beginning of the twentieth century. Traditional terms and a more fashionable vocabulary derived from medical science became intermingled in early Republican China, underlining the fatal consequences of sexual indiscipline, as a succinct chapter on sexual hygiene in Dr Zhuang Weizhong's Questions and answers on the art of health (1934) illustrates:
Question: What is considered sexual abuse?
Answer: The excessive indulgence of sexual desire, the squandering of semen [jingxue, a classical medical term], be it through nocturnal emissions or through illegal emissions [feifa chujing, a Buddhist term], are all considered to constitute abuse.
Question: What are the consequences of the excessive use of sexual desire?
Answer: The consequences are sexual neurasthenia [xing shenjing shuairuo, a biomedical term], impotence, spermatorrhea, venereal diseases and the like.
Question: How many kinds of venereal diseases are there? What is harmful about them?
Answer: There are four kinds of venereal diseases: syphilis, gonorrhea and soft chancres, the last named being divided into a minor type which leads to disability and a major type which leads to death, sterility or the infection of offspring.
Question: What is the harm of diseases like sexual neurasthenia, impotence and spermatorrhea?
Answer: Dejection, the inability to have sexual relations and death.
Question: How should youth cherish sex?
Answer: They should preserve their body like jade, avoid any excitement and restrain their behaviour, and to preserve their health, the married couple should know how to restrain sexual desire.
The dangerous potential of sexuality - seen as a biological urge to be resisted - tested the social responsibility of the adolescent. Rationality and voluntary self-discipline became paramount. The medical distinction between 'involuntary depletions' and 'wilful masturbation' underlined the importance of self-regulation: 'Involuntary stimulation leading to an improper emission is called "hack and cut" (zhuofa), popularly called "masturbation" (shouyin); self-pollution during sleep is called "loose and leak" (yixie); it is also called "emission during a dream" (mengyi), or "losing essence" (yijing),' Yu Fengbin wrote in 1915. The pathogenesis of nocturnal emissions - already widespread in yangsheng medical texts of the late imperial period - highlighted the dominance of the mind over the body, where reason in a slumber could create havoc. 'The mind' was represented as a relatively independent entity which increased in strength with the advance of 'civilization'. Emphasis on the power of the mind, thought to indicate individual responsibility in the control over bodily fluids, was so important that many medical authorities failed to establish clear distinctions between physiological gonorrhea and voluntary discharges. Fear of pathological emissions, called 'spermatorrhea' (yijing) from the 1920s onwards, was perhaps the most obsessive theme of medical literature on sex in Republican China.
Masturbation was described as a bad habit (exi, huai xiguan) acquired by a weak mind like addiction to cigarettes and alcohol. If it was not given up (jiechu) at an early stage, addiction would set in, eventually leading to irreparable bodily harm. 'Bad habits' could gradually establish their ascendancy over the body and consume it from inside. The nerve cells through which habitual information was channelled gradually grew larger, and repetition implanted that information into the nervous system, which was thought to be particularly vulnerable during the years of adolescence. The idea of 'habits' - borrowed from psychological literature - contrasted ill-considered gestures to disciplined rationality. Since onanism was not the result of a congenital defect or a biological fault, the masturbator had the power to discipline his desires and to regain control over a transient fad, to overcome a vice acquired through a momentary aberration. The compulsive masturbator was a social outcast, recognisable by his pale and haggard features. Voluntary depletion not only threatened the body which the individual had inherited from his progenitors, but it was also a threat to the body of society. 'Habit', 'instinct' and 'impulse' were the terms opposed to 'reason' and 'reflection', and the absence of self-control indicated a breach of moral principles, which was far more dangerous. Exhaustion of spinal nerves, atrophy of sexual glands, decay of the digestive system, dysfunction of the bladder and decline of sight: describing the pathology of onanism, Yu Fengbin, president of the prestigious Chinese Medical Association from 1920 to 1922, associated criminality and masturbation by claiming that 'the most pitiable is the one who cannot exercice self-control. Those who commit crimes are people who cannot keep themselves under control. They are a nuisance to society and the state.' The booklet of scientific vulgarization entitled Growth of adolescents (1940) digressed at length on the control of seminal fluid, the maintenance of bodily rectitude and even the disciplining of emotions.
Spreading according to a clearly defined social geography, sexual deviancy was thought to characterize the new spaces of modernity where the 'lower classes' were packed, for instance army barracks and factories, all contaminated by collective masturbation (qunji shouyin). At the other end of the social scale, individual isolation was thought to lead to sexual abuse among children of rich households, an idea upheld by the use of popular sayings such as 'A person leading an idle life is given to evil'; literary clichés like 'to live in seclusion' (youju yishi) also interspersed the anti-masturbatory rhetoric. Vigilance became necessary: 'Without a long period of observation, it is not possible for parents and teachers to single out masturbators. Tell-tale signs are a pallid complexion, listlessness and bags under the eyes', wrote Li Baoliang in his Sex knowledge, published in 1937. The quest for solitude was interpreted as a pathological sign which required the intervention of the social group: 'There is not one masturbator who does not like solitude, so if a young man often gets excited at the idea of living in a room alone, masturbation may be suspected and parents as well as teachers should severely watch them.' The final step was to inspect bedding for suspicious stains.
Once the habit became established, the body took over, leaving the victim a passive spectator of his own depletion. As Yu Fengbin recalled:
The error of a moment may become the regret of a lifetime. As a child, I used to be careless and masturbate often. As an adult, I now regret this bitterly. [...] I have had constant nocturnal emissions. For some obscure reason, my condition has recently got worse. When I go to the toilet, semen actually seeps out with the urine. Since I have contracted this disease, my memory has gradually faded, my comprehension has degenerated and my vision is impaired.
Medical foundation of disciplinary injunctions, the pathological diagnosis of masturbation was as popular with the medical profession in China as in the West. Dr Yuan Guorong, an eminent specialist and prolific writer on spermatorrhea, admitted to having fallen victim to 'the habit' himself when young. Suffering from daily discharges at the age of fifteen, he described himself at the age of twenty-five as 'neurasthenic, sallow, worn to a shadow, dim-sighted, dizzy, suffering from lumbago, loss of memory, fits of terror and dullness of mind'. When he was reduced to skin and bone, life seemed to be slowly slipping through his fingers until he was finally cured by a medical master a few years later. Other recitals of symptoms claimed that masturbation eroded the memory, obstructed mental faculties and retarded physical development, eventually leading to early death (yaowang). First, the nervous system was affected: fatigue, palpitations, irregular blood circulation, indigestion and loss of appetite were some of the most obvious symptoms. Gradual decay of the nervous system impaired the normal functioning of the brain, leading to insanity and hypochondria. 'They may feel elated at one point, dejected at another. Most of them are restless and frightened at the idea of disease. They suffer from irrational terror at the slightest feeling of unhappiness. They are afraid of boarding a train, walking through busy streets, going up high buildings and entering dark places': the city, a site of modernity beset with dangerous temptations, could lead to a sense of alienation and to sexual transgressions. According to Dr Li Yongnian, who wrote in the journal Healthy Life, self-abuse resulted in exhaustion of the nerves in the spinal column, atrophy of the sex glands, collapse of the digestive system, malfunctioning of the bladder and worsening of eyesight - among other symptoms. The outcome was death, the untimely extinction of life after a long process of dissipation: according to a 'famous Beijing physician', Zhang Jingsheng claimed, some young persons whom he treated could have died as the result of a suicidal obsession with their reproductive organs. Solitary pleasures led to death, that of the individual and of the species. Medical advertisements, instrumental in transforming discursive formations into actual practice, became an area where representations of masturbatory depletion were put to commercial use. Thriving on a medical discourse which represented masturbation as a threat to the individual and the future health of the species, newspapers carried advertisements for medicines preventing nocturnal discharges, while loss of semen, publicised as 'the common failing of unmarried youth', could be cured with 'tablets for the brain and the kidneys' (naoshending). As in Victorian England, quack doctors manipulated contemporary medical terminology for their own purposes, contributing to the spread of modernizing notions of human agency, causality and individual responsibility.
Semen was a capital which had to be carefully managed in the interests of the nation and future generations. It was said that masturbation caused impotence and premature ejaculation, and in the latter the seed was sterile. An alarmist rhetoric described how the genital organs could decompose from within. Although a superficial examination would not show them to be any different from those of a normal person, the testicles of the masturbator could shrink or become clogged with stale sperm, while the urethra could suffer from inflammation. Semen itself disintegrated: 'The secretions inherent to the testes gradually decrease, the spermatozoa also diminish in quantity, the semen becomes thinner in consistency and often contains underdeveloped and weak spermatozoa. This type of spermatozoon is abnormally transparent and has an impaired power of movement, it has no feeling, it lacks vitality and dies quickly, its membrane is shortened, the head is small, the whole body is bent as if it had been snapped, and it has a curled tail.' A sterile sexual practice, masturbation caused permanent infertility and deprived the nation from man's most precious contribution.
Medical literature focused on internal physiological mechanisms, urging the adolescent to monitor his bodily functions closely. Accumulation of smegma under the foreskin, constipation leading to intestinal pressure, excessive bed-covering and unusual postures - all caused slight increases in temperature that could only stir up the 'sexual instincts'. Constipation, medical literature often stressed, was an excitant, with the proximity of excrement to the sexual organs causing increased heat. A new regime of table manners also found its place in medical discourses against masturbation: at school and at home, the defiling hand should be kept on the table. 'Sleeping flat on one's back or on one's front are ill-considered positions. Those who frequently have nocturnal emissions should sleep on one side with both legs slightly bent. Those who are inclined to sleep on their back could tie a towel around the waist with the knot at the back, which will waken them whenever they turn over on to the back. One will thus gradually acquire the habit of sleeping on the side.' In reply to the letter of a reader who was tormented by the evil habit, one periodical advised tying the hands to the sides of the bed at night. Yu Fengbin suggested that the patient should cool the restive organ with cotton-wool soaked in cold water. A last resort was to immerse the penis into a glass of cold water. Although many of these prescriptions clearly reflected older theories of 'cold heat', new representations of the body located sources of energy within the body. Cold water, it was believed, would invigorate the body, activating hidden energies. More radical was the leather sheath lined with stings on the inside: it should cover the organ at night and would force any unsolicited erection to detumesce immediately. The popular Home medicine prescribed a medication based on potassium bromide to counteract nocturnal emissions and masturbation.
Very similar prescriptions, of course, can be found in the medical literature published in Europe during the nineteenth century. The persistent panic about the medical consequences of masturbation, which appeared in the wake of the publication of De l'onanisme by the Swiss physician Tissot in 1758, is well documented by historians and has been described in great detail. The second half of the nineteenth century in particular was marked by growing numbers of respected specialists who lent their prestige to the campaign against masturbation. The extent to which the solitary vice was taken seriously is demonstrated by the remedies some medical men prescribed, including mechanical restraints and metal contrivances. Yet even in that half-century of medical terror about the potentially fatal consequences of self-abuse, no unanimity or consensus existed among physicians. As early as 1881, moreover, some prominent medical voices denied observing any ill effects following upon masturbation. A new perspective on masturbation appeared in the early twentieth century, and sex educators disseminated a far less gruesome view of the outcome of masturbation. Many writers even claimed that it was a relatively harmless practice, and denounced instead the guilt induced by old scaremongering myths. After the 1920s, masturbation was sometimes advocated in print as an occasional hygienic outlet. One of the first to explode contemporary medical myths about onanism, Havelock Ellis radically criticized the received wisdom in his Auto-Erotism, part of his Studies in the Psychology of Sex published in 1899. Tellingly, his view of masturbation had virtually no influence in Republican China, although he was undoubtedly the most popular foreign writer on sexual matters in that country. Few voices opposed the macabre imagination of those who crusaded against the evil habit. Cheng Hao, an isolated author who suggested that masturbation could 'eliminate excess secretions' and 'calm the sexual nerves', was lambasted by the medical fraternity: even 'spiritual masturbation' (jingshen shouyin), it was argued, could cause physiological damage. If the right to individual pleasure was never recognized, sex and procreation were conflated in medical discourses which represented masturbation as a sterile deviation which had to be eradicated.
Control of the body was also expressed in a reconceptualization of bodily postures. Broadly similar to developments in modern Europe, shifts in representations of the body and the comparison of the human organism to a machine brought about a revolution in postures in China. Gestures and postures were to be reformed, since physical uprightness was thought to be equivalent to moral rectitude. A good posture and balance, it was argued, would improve the national spirit: the body and the country both had to be steeled in face of the enemy. At home and at school, the reluctant child was increasingly forced to stand up, sit up and straighten up. Numerous 'health guides for youth' carefully introduced young readers to the new gestures: the head thrown up, the chest thrown out, the stomach drawn in. A strict upright posture was prescribed to youngsters under the Guomindang's New Life Movement in the 1930s, and today it is still the characteristic way in which young party members are portrayed in communist propaganda. On the other hand, a bearing which denoted indolence was attacked and every effort was made to correct slovenly gestures: these became the marks of physical degeneration and spiritual decay. Lack of discipline in a person's posture was condemned, and laziness was a social evil. The reformer Jiang Zhiyou (1866-1929), also author of an influential Inquiry into the Chinese race, propagated the new discoveries on the 'disease of laziness' in Liang Qichao's New People's Journal at the turn of the century; Gan Yonglong expatiated on the same 'disease'. After 1900 there was an emphasis on physical training and martial vigour, and this ranged from Luo Zhenyu's recommendation to turn Confucian temples into physical training centres to Mao Zedong's writings on physical exercice.
The latter was thought to cultivate a sense of discipline, to tire the body into submission, and to eliminate excess fluids in the form of sweat. These prescriptions were of course designed for the wealthier social formations of the big cities; farmers hardly needed to add to the physical hardship they already endured. The consumption of alcohol and cigarettes was also discouraged, as both were believed to have aphrodisiac effects. Dietary habits were important. Zhang Dianjie wrote: 'Food with stimulants should be given up. For example tea, coffee, chocolate and cocoa all contain salt of a toxic nature. They can impede digestion, harm the brain, overstimulate the liver and kidneys and dilate the blood vessels. Thus, it is best to eliminate them entirely.' In the opinion of this more traditionally inclined medical writer, for whom diet was essential, keeping the sexual drive under control was like 'riding a wild horse which wants to kick'; in order to force the 'devil of desire' to retreat, moderation in eating was crucial. Using terms derived from traditional medicine, he inveighed against the use of salt, which was thought to increase the production of body fluids and to cause diarrhoea. The consumption of new products like coffee and chocolate, which symbolized an allegiance to modernity, could only increase the pressure of seminal fluid in a body already deregulated by evil habits. Other authors advised against eating excessive quantities of meat, which was claimed to arouse sexual appetite. Young people were counselled to consume milk, eggs, fruit and a little fish - which must have seemed like a feast in times when famine regularly swept the countryside. Reading habits were also vital in the containment of evil: literature of high quality gave nourishment to the mind, and produced a fiery and upright temperament which would 'keep bestial instincts under the control of the higher faculties'. Reason was contrasted to temptation, the mind opposed the flesh, and force of will would rule the lower instincts. Good literature and good company were encouraged, and young people were urged to ignore coarse language and vulgar jokes. The presence of edifying portraits of national heroes on the walls would instil a sense of restraint into the young man, while the Confucian values of frugality, hard work, modesty in dress and the separation of sexes would keep lustful thoughts at bay. A few minutes sitting quietly (jingzuo, a Buddhist term) could cause improper thoughts to evaporate. In the adolescent, dress, diet, gestures, manners, emotions, speech, and thought were all to be disciplined for the building of 'character' (xingge).
Methods of establishing a diagnosis for female masturbation also appeared in medical journals. The signs of defilement by hand were thought to be lassitude, facial pallor, premature wrinkling, expressionless eyes and digestive problems; the woman who masturbated suffered from increased leucorrhea and from painful periods. Masturbation could also cause uncontrolled growth of the clitoris, a sign of physical degeneration which brought the female a step closer to the hermaphrodite, a monstrous form of masculinization which disturbed gender boundaries. Unlike some Western countries, however, the campaign against female masturbation never reached the stage where strait-jackets, handcuffs and specially designed underwear were used to keep the patient under control. But the reason for this paucity in China of debates on female masturbation was not so much a lack of interest in female deviation, or a degree of tolerance towards it, but the relative lack of personal status granted to adolescent girls. As we have seen in the earlier chapters, women were rarely recognized as active sexual agents. Sexuality was a male drive which needed a male type of discipline.
The actual incidence of auto-erotism in Republican China can only remain a matter for conjecture. One might speculate that the rising number of single men in the inner cities, the institutionalization of boarding schools for higher education, the multiplication of dormitories not only in schools, but also in the army and at factories, the postponement of the age of marriage, the decrease in the social acceptability of prostitution and the high incidence of venereal disease are some of the factors which may have contributed to an increase of solitary sexual indulgence. Research carried out by Zhou Tiaoyang in 1931 among university students in Beijing pointed at a rate of 86%, although social pressure and internalized notions of guilt must have influenced the figures downwards. A few years earlier, an American woman physician remarked on the frequency of masturbation at boarding schools and on the fact that the practice aroused no sense of shame, although her comments are clearly part of a disciplinary discourse which cannot be taken at face value. The extent to which individual practices were transformed by medical discourses is also a matter for speculation. At first, normative pressures would have been internalized by the generation of students who went through the new educational system set up after the fall of the empire. New notions of sexual discipline, however, may have combined with a more tolerant set of informal customs in the early Republic, thus increasing awkwardness and anxiety among students. Sinking, a tale written by Yu Dafu about a student in Japan who relieved his sexual urges by masturbation, connected the idea of a 'weak nation' with his own condition as a 'weakling'. This novelette struck a sympathetic chord with many students, who represented Yu Dafu as the embodiment of a contemporary malaise (shidaibing). The subject of this autobiographical story, who was described as paranoid, believed that people were always staring at him, a symptom which seems to have been shared by other alienated students of that era. Every time the protagonist 'sinned' (ethical and medical terms mingle), he would 'go to the library to look up references on the subject' to find that all books condemned the practice as 'harmful'. Although this type of circumstantial evidence makes it impossible to draw any satisfactory conclusions about the transformation of sexual practices by discursive formations, historical changes in sexual behaviour are clearly a terrain which deserve to be fully investigated.
If real sexual practices are often beyond the realm of the historian, there is ample evidence to suggest that the fear of wasting caused by loss of semen may be common to a large number of social groups. We have highlighted the continuities between traditional notions of seminal depletion and biomedical concepts of masturbation in Republican China, but spermatorrheic aetiologies can also be found in other contemporary societies. Between Tissot's famous medical work on onanism and the beliefs of a small Indian village near Bihar, Alain Bottéro has found a surprising overlap of diagnosis and symptomatology as well as conceptual analogies concerning the physiology of semen. As he has convincingly demonstrated, different cultures agree in considering the loss of seminal fluid to be a primary cause of disease: semen as the elixir of longevity and the warrant of vitality is a widely shared belief which cannot be confined to modernity alone.