BEIJING -- When the titillating Hollywood film, "The Bridges of Madison County," opened here, one in 10 Beijingers lined up for a peek. Unable to resist temptation, Zhao Weihong joined the crowd, expecting a steamy account of love, sex and passion.
What he saw disappointed him.
"The story is simply about an extramarital affair," Mr. Zhao said. "In China nowadays, this isn't a big deal."
Indeed it isn't. Adultery, taboo 20 years ago and frowned upon 10 years ago, is now widely accepted, part of a radical change over the past two decades in Chinese attitudes toward marriage and sex.
In China's big cities, attitudes are being influenced by developed countries, with premarital and extramarital sex becoming an accepted, if not always a condoned, part of life.
In the countryside, Communist-era Puritanism is also being replaced, but with more traditional practices -- which means accepting polygamy and prostitution.
Above it all, the Communist Party tries to maintain some semblance of its old morality, going to extreme measures -- including, ironically, sex hot lines and sex clinics -- to save the 1950s-American-style marriage that it champions.
Few people seem to be listening; divorces are up, and so is prostitution, accompanied by a seemingly inevitable rise in AIDS cases.
The change over the past two decades has been so complete that it is sometimes easy to forget how conservative China used to be.
When founding father Mao Tse-tung was alive, sex was seen as a necessary evil. Sexuality was strongly discouraged, and people were forced to wear androgynous military-style uniforms. Adultery and premarital sex were sometimes punished with long sentences in labor camps.
But that era, which ended about 20 years ago, paved the way for today's sexual revolution because it destroyed traditional values and conditioned people to say one thing and do another. That state of moral ambiguity has survived.
"There is a moral chaos, where people don't know what's right or wrong," said James Farrer, a Fulbright scholar researching sexual behavior in China. "The first lesson people learn is never to tell the truth in public, but to do whatever you can get away with."
On top of this shaky moral foundation are two more obvious trends that started in the late 1970s. First came a strict birth-control policy, which demystified sex and made birth control, as well as abortions, cheap and easy to obtain.
Then came a loosening of the moral code. The 1980 marriage law made a lack of love grounds for divorce, while popular fiction talked of the importance of love -- and eventually even sex, in marriage. It was a short step from love being important in marriage to a lack of love in marriage justifying relationships outside marriage, Mr. Farrer said.
'Bridges' is a hit
This makes "The Bridges of Madison County," which sold 1.3 million tickets last weekend, a perfect fit for China's current moral melee.
Actress Meryl Streep plays the bored wife of a farmer. While her husband and their children are away for a few days, a photographer, played by Clint Eastwood, turns up. The two fall in love and have a passionate affair, but the wife decides not to run away because she doesn't want to abandon her children or her decent, if boring, husband.
China's film czars picked the film as one of 10 Hollywood films to be shown this year. After cutting a few steamy scenes, the movie was released along with a barrage of publicity in the government-run press and television.
The movie was hailed, not as a risque breakthrough, but for its moral message: While acknowledging the near-inevitability of adultery, government commentaries said the farmer's wife set a good example to Chinese couples by sticking with her husband.
"It was a sweet story," said Yu Zhihong, a 35-year-old accountant and mother after seeing the film. "It's every woman's fantasy to have such a passionate love."
Divorce rate spirals
Many Chinese couples are finding out that even the movie's moral standards -- have an affair but stay married -- are hard to follow. The number of divorces in China rose last year for the first time to over 1 million. The rate, 1.75 per 1,000, is still much lower than in the United States, where it's 4.6 per 1,000. But it has been rising 10 percent or more a year.
Affairs have become relatively common. Cities such as Beijing and Shanghai have hundreds of ballroom dance halls, where everyone is married but almost no one brings along a mate. Many go for the exercise, but surveys show that affairs are common among a third of the dancers.
In the countryside, wealthy farmers and businessmen sometimes keep concubines and visit prostitutes regularly. In the prosperous coastal city of Shenzhen, populated largely by migrated farmers, small city districts are given over to concubines, or "second wives" as they are euphemistically known.
The Communist Party has tried to breach the gap, acknowledging that many couples have affairs because they have a miserable sex life. Many big cities have sex hot lines or sex paraphernalia shops.
In the suburbs of Tianjin, for example, farmer Xiao Xueju opened a factory producing sex-help products after seeing them discussed on television.
"I came in from the fields and saw them being discussed and I thought, 'I can make this as well!' " Mr. Xiao said. He did, and now has a profitable sideline business catering to China's new openness.
Reasons vs. morality
Shorn of Communist morality, Chinese are reverting to practical measures of moral behavior, said Pan Shuiming, a professor of sexology at People's University.
"They aren't so moralistic, they tend to judge you by the reason for your behavior. If you have a good reason, it's acceptable," he said.
A good reason, for example, would be a husband's impotence or cruelty, or a wife's unwillingness to have sex.
And, of course, love figures prominently.
"The official morality is still that everything is forbidden. In practice, a lot is allowed, and developing somewhere between the two is the new moral standard, namely that it's OK if it's for love," said Mr. Farrer.
Still unclear, however, is what sort of moral standard will ultimately prevail, especially once these urban trends are transferred to the countryside -- as researchers assume will happen over time through the mass media.
It could be the serial monogamy practiced in the United States, where one is supposed to be faithful in marriage but able to bail out almost at will. Or, it could be the adultery widely practiced in Hong Kong and Taiwan, where couples stay married for life but fool around a lot on the side.
Constraints to breakups
The growing divorce rate implies that an American model may be developing, but Dr. Pan points out many constraints on divorce. For one, housing is scarce and often controlled by the government, making it hard for couples to split. Another is that family pressures are often great, with in-laws sometimes living with the family or, when living apart, raising the children.
This makes it likely that divorces will never match the high percentage in the United States. Instead, loveless relationships will continue while the partners seek fulfillment outside.
In such cases, Chinese are not only sympathetic to affairs but see them as necessary. Mr. Farrer tells the story of a meeting he had with a group of Chinese sociologists who asked him his opinion on adultery. He said he didn't think it was healthy and that couples should stay faithful.
Assuming that marriages can't provide the affection humans need and that Mr. Farrer was condemning couples to a lifetime of loneliness, one of the researchers turned to him and said: "No affairs allowed? Mr. Farrer, how cruel you are."
Pub Date: 4/28/96