Inventor rues unmade bed


CHANGSHA, China - The way Fang Yaolun sees it, his problems began when the workers at the factory realized what they were building for him.

Fang, a self-taught engineer and inventor with 15 patents, came up with an innovative idea for a product not long after his divorce in 1995: an adjustable bed whose design, he believed, would aid sex and exercise.

The bed would be a high-tech Craftmatic for the Kama Sutra set. With an expected price tag of more than $5,000, it is targeted at a fast-growing sector, the millions of urban Chinese with money to burn.

Even though people have the money to buy such a product, it's unclear whether tradition-bound Chinese are ready to accept it. When workers at a state-owned factory in this provincial capital in central China realized last month exactly what kind of bed they were making for Fang, they sent the prototype back to him in pieces.

"The head of the manufacturing division is about to retire," says Fang, 47. "He said to me, 'I'm in my late 50s. I've never sung at a karaoke bar. I've never had a foot bath. I've never gone to a massage parlor, and I don't want to end my career with this sex bed.'"

Fang's bed is the kind of invention that might raise eyebrows in any country, but his troubles here suggest the particularly delicate and complex nature of Communist China's rapid social transformation.

"[Fang's] bed still can't be accepted as a proper and graceful product," says Li Yinhe, a scholar in Beijing who has written extensively on sexuality. The private lives of Chinese have leaped well beyond traditional mores, she said, but ultimately, "Chinese culture is a shame culture. Anything considered shameful will not be accepted."

That Fang could propose such a product without fear of official reprisal is a remarkable change from a quarter-century ago, when China emerged from the shadows of the Cultural Revolution and opened up to the world. Since then, the government has allowed enterprising business people to test new ideas in the name of market reforms.

According to Fang, nervous factory officials had asked friends at the regional Public Security Bureau what they thought about his newfangled bed: "The response was, now it's a market economy, so we don't encourage this type of thing, but we won't suppress it."

But the factory's refusal to finish manufacturing the prototype has put Fang in a bind. He is having to assemble the bed on his own, and he is hoping to find someone else willing to manufacture it.

Having sold a furniture company seven years ago for about $9,000, he is devoting all his time to the bed venture and feels financial pressure to make it a success.

With its 400-pound iron frame, hydraulic controls and a mass of wiring, the unfinished prototype seems more torture device than pleasure bed, a touch more Marquis de Sade than Dr. Ruth. When the mattress is in place and the levers are set to the user's liking, said Fang, a touch of an electronic keypad will maneuver the bed into any of dozens of positions.

"I didn't think it would be an issue," he says. "People have sex in different positions anyway. This bed just makes it easier."

Fang said he dreamed up the bed not as an aid to amorous couples but as a therapeutic treatment for his strained neck. With his broad, metal-rimmed spectacles, conservative business attire and the meticulous bearing of an engineer, he does not look the part of a person who would gamble his future on a sex bed.

A native of this city of 1.3 million, Fang says he has been a tinkerer since childhood, when he disassembled clocks and put them back together. His father, a mechanical worker, apparently shared his son's interest.

"At that time I was quite amazed by magnets, two opposite polarities and very dramatic power," Fang says. "I was thinking of making a perpetual motion machine."'

The perpetual motion machine never quite worked, and Fang's first breakthrough come late in his 11-year career at a hydroelectric plant in the region, where he started as a 19-year- old apprentice in 1974.

Tinkering at home in 1983, Fang spent a month's salary - $15 - on his first invention: a device that would automatically detect water leaks at the power plant and trigger a pump to get rid of any overflow.

The device saved thousands of hours of labor; workers previously had to stay through the night to watch for leaks and pump out the water.

He left the plant in 1985 to work on another invention, a bag that would sound an alarm if it was stolen. Though the product never succeeded in the marketplace, he sold the patent to a local state-owned company for about $1,500, a small fortune at the time, and started his own furniture company.

Now he is pursuing his new passion with a singular determination. He spent two weeks in a local hospital, pretending he had an acute ear problem, so that he could study how the hospital's best adjustable bed worked:

"That one is quite complicated. I wanted to see if that design was similar to mine. It was completely different, and that bed is very expensive."

Fang has five patents on his bed, with two more pending. To demonstrate the benefits of the bed's various positions, he has drawn explicit computer illustrations - with captions to match - that leave nothing to the imagination.

"We shouldn't look at these for too long," Fang says sheepishly, scrolling through the diagrams on his desktop computer. "There could be more positions, but I'm reluctant to draw them because then it would be seen as only a sex bed."

The division chief at the National University of Defense Technology factory could not be reached for comment on the decision to halt assembly of the bed. But despite the factory's reaction, Fang says he thought his bed could be accepted by the marketplace because mores are changing.

"We had traditions in the old days. Women had to bind their feet. Men had braids," he says. "Women have undone the bindings on their feet, the men have cut their braids - and women wear less and less. Even people's language and vocabulary are expanding."

Li, the sexuality scholar, says tradition still holds sway, even if people's actions sometime suggest otherwise. She describes a "gap between behavior and ideology."

"Having sex before marriage is very common nowadays, while it is still condemned by traditional morality. Also, prostitution is very rampant, though there are many crackdowns on it every year. Moreover, there are now a great number of pornographic [films] around in the underground market," she says.

But because Fang's bed would be marketed in the open, she said, "The forces of traditional culture would reject it."

Fang remains confident that potential customers will recognize the health benefits of a good love life. But he is realistic that he might face challenges in getting the bed to market, so he has decided to alter his strategy.

"There is a big challenge, which is the gap between the bed and tradition," he says. "So now I've decided to stop focusing on the sex part. The main focus should be on health."

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