‘The Impotence Epidemic: Men’s Medicine and Sexual Desire in Contemporary China’ by Everett Yuehong Zhang (Duke University Press, 2016).

impotenceThe Impotence Epidemic: Men’s Medicine and Sexual Desire in Contemporary China is a poignant account of the mutable public attitudes towards sexuality in post-Mao China. Through an intense ethnological study, Everett Yuehong Zhang focuses on the social effects of globalization and production of various desires in post socialist China.

The author deftly deals with the issue of male impotence’s effects on the sexual and reproductive identities in China. He argues that the impotence epidemic became a vector for the ‘contagion of individualized desire’ and a need to lead a better ethical and sexual life.

Throughout the book, Zhang challenges the dominating theory that sees impotence as a derivative of a ‘neurovascular event’. Instead he tries to relate impotence to broader socio-cultural conditions and changes in post-Mao era. He argues that it was the need for exploring and sharing lived experiences that propelled people to seek medical advice and led to an increased visibility of impotence. Zhang is efficacious in bringing out the dichotomy between de-mystifying impotence and deciphering the ‘epidemic’ through extensive case studies.

The book is divided into two parts: the first four chapters expose many myths and establish the reasons for the impotence epidemic in China. The second part of the book is about recording the expressions of desire through ethical self-regulation and finding ways of sexual fulfillment that cultivate longevity and enhance the overall quality of life.

In the first part, Zhang draws the reader into a stimulating account of Maoist China where individual desire (sexual and otherwise) was discouraged. The Cultural Revolution had politicized and moralized the act of an erection as the ‘desire for individual sexual pleasure (which) was regarded as antithetical to the collective ethos of revolution’ (p.42). Furthermore, he argues that in the Maoist regime seeking medical help for impotence was seen as an indulgence. In the post socialist era, this stigma was removed and seeking medical advice from experts was aided by multiple medical treatment options.

Zhang explores the various effects of a historical transition from the Maoist collectivism to the post socialist globalized China that was still dealing with the aftermath of the socio- economic alterations this transition had wrought in their public and private lives. He argues that one of the effects of this transition was to promote the ‘desire to desire’ and we could even call the impotence epidemic ‘a contagion of desire’ (p.15).

The narratives of Zhang’s interviewees bring forth the bleak side of the Maoist regime where social status, family origin and situation of the work unit determined the compatibility of two partners. The position of physical and emotional attraction, interests and love were contingent upon ‘go-between’ or matchmakers. In many cases such a system formed the underpinnings of an unhappy marital scenario and later impotency.

The state’s intrusion in the employees’ private lives led to a peculiar form of sexual repression that was institutionalized by the structures prevalent in the centralized Chinese society. The state frowned upon ‘any other form of sexual activity outside the context of institutionally sanctioned heterosexual unions’ (p.53). As people had no outlet for the sexually repressed desires, it frequently led to physical and emotional dysfunction in a large section of Chinese men.

Furthermore, through his insightful case studies, he highlights the disintegration between desire and erection, which loaded the body with multiple frustrations that prevented it from building intercorporeal intimacy (p.80). This lacuna between desire and its actual realization was furthered by the Maoist state policy that percolated to an individual level and colored all aspects of their life from marriage to sex to reproduction. The individual impotence was reflected in the body politic of the whole nation. In the post-socialist era, the socio-political and economic changes ‘cured’ some individuals and transformed the nation’s state of mind.

Zhang argues that in the post socialist era, giving voice to the word ‘impotence’ in public became a way to expose and critique the inadequacy of the old system and the ‘injustice experienced in its transformation […] as the restructuring of the economy also restructured the body, potency and sexuality (p.91). The hold of the argument is based on the links between the impotent body and the incompetent (enterprise) body, in other words, the economic layoffs affected the physical well being of the individual.

He debunks the theory of the ‘Crisis of Masculinity’, which argues that increasing sexual desire of the Chinese women caused impotence in their male counterparts. Instead Zhang proposes the concept of “sexual intercorporeality”, which looks at the sexual intimacy that results from the understanding and compatibility between two bodies. Several social forces affect male impotency, which in turn affects male and female interactions.

Through meticulous case studies, Zhang argues that more often than not, women did not give priority to their own sexual pleasure and were more interested in other qualities from their partners than the ability for vaginal penetration. He terms this as ‘alternative sexual intercorporeality’ (p. 130). He delinks the oft-cited connection between reproduction and the need to cure impotence.

In the second part of the book, Zhang has brought the traditional Chinese medicine and western biomedicine together in his narrative. He explores the effects of the advent of nanke (men’s medicine) that brought a two-fold transformation in attitude towards impotence. On one hand, it allowed patients to openly seek medical treatment for their condition. On the other hand, it shifted the attention from reproduction to fulfillment of sexual desires.

A thought-provoking discussion ensues with the unenthusiastic response to the introduction of Viagra in the substantial Chinese market. The desires produced as a part of the globalized world were in opposition to Yangsheng, a system of maintaining physical and sexual health, which has been part of the everyday Chinese life.

Zhang shows that most Chinese men had access to both herbal and biomedical remedies. Their readiness to employ both forms stem from the difference in western and Chinese understanding of impotence. The former saw it as a technical problem, which can be solved by psychological counseling, or biomedical fixes like Viagra. The latter saw the loss of potency as a loss of one’s overall vitality. The combination satisfied the immediate need for sexual release and in the long term cultivated potency and an ethically regulated sexual life. He terms this conciliation as the ethos of cosmopolitanism […] in the 21st century—multiplicity, plurality, and vitality (see pp.196-197).

By connecting the events in and outside China, Zhang shows a wholesome picture of a rapidly transforming Chinese society. All the cases and concepts reinforce the major argument that impotence was not a neurovascular phenomenon but it was ‘also a social, familial event and in intercorporeal, gendered event’ (p.131). The book is a welcome contribution to the emerging body of valuable work that explores male reproductive identities and modalities through multidisciplinary approaches. The book is valuable for researchers, experts and scholars trying to pursue multidimensional methodological studies that superbly combine history, anthropology, ethnography and medical studies.

Reviewed by Sonia Wigh, a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (India). Her research focuses on the history of sexuality and body in medieval India. Her M. Phil dissertation was on ‘Patronage, Power and Sexuality: A Study of the Language of Biharilal and Mir Jafar Zattali’. She is currently an editorial assistant with Studies in History (Sage Publications). She has previously taught at the Hindu College, University of Delhi.

 Correspondence to Sonia Wigh.


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