Little Emperors and Material Girls: a book on sex and dating in China

Jemimah Steinfeld, Literature Festival Manager, shares her thoughts on the biggest books of 2015

Jemimah Steinfeld, Literature Festival Manager, shares her thoughts on the best books of 2015

Little Emperors and Material Girls: a book on sex and dating in China

06 June 2015

By Naomi Canton

What is it like being an unmarried single career woman in China? How easy is it to ‘come out’? Do couples engage in premarital sex? What are the dating and love lives of young urban Chinese like? These are among the themes covered in Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival Manager Jemimah Steinfeld’s debut book Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and Youth in Modern China.

Steinfeld discussed the book at an Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival post-Festival event held at Leeds Big Bookend last weekend. The nonfiction book, published by by I.B.Tauris, had its UK launch at Asia House on 5 March.

The book is a series of interviews with urban Chinese youth talking about their love lives, sex lives and dating and aims to “open up the world of urban modern young China to the West,” Steinfeld said.

Explaining why she focused on the urban middle classes in China, and not the rural or urban poor, who are in the majority, she said: “There is a wonderful book called Factory Girls [by Leslie T. Chang] which gives you a great insight into factory workers, the working classes and poor Chinese. What you don’t hear that much about is the average person in the emerging middle classes and what their lives are like,” she added.

The characters in the book include a Chinese pick-up artist; someone trying to make it in the Chinese rock world who is starting his own online sex toy store; a woman in the first-ever all female punk band – China’s answer to Pussy Riot – who sings in English (to avoid censorship); various gay Chinese people exploring how acceptable ‘being out’ is in China; and a prominent Chinese sex blogger (who has since been banned).


Jemimah Steinfeld signs her book at its launch which was held at Asia House on 5 March

“Generally gay people in China don’t come out. Most are married in straight relationships. A lot of parents may know their son or daughter is gay but they make them get married to save face. Homosexuality is not accepted in China yet. I also interviewed a mistress as infidelity is rife in China. Plenty of wives know their husbands are having affairs but they accept it as part of business culture and it is seen as the way to get ahead,” Steinfeld added.

Some of the characters in Steinfeld’s book she already knew, others she searched out through her contacts. Apart from the celebrities, she concealed their real identities.

So where does the title come from?  ‘Little Emperors’ is a term used in China to describe young urban men, the offspring of the one-child policy, who are the apple of their parents’ eyes, totally spoilt and pampered and lavished with clothes and toys, Steinfeld said.

Meanwhile ‘Material Girls’ refers to young urban Chinese women who are materialistic, who aspire to fame, money and fortune above moral values, and whose lives are also centred on themselves. Both are decried in Chinese media.

“There were already a huge amount of books on the white guy or girl in China topic and I think the readership has moved beyond that and I also think it’s a bit crass – there is an ‘Edward Said orientalism’ to it,” Steinfeld said, relaxing over a coffee at The Marylebone Hotel, before heading off to Leeds.

“I believe people in the West have a genuine desire to understand China. They want to know what the Chinese youth is thinking and what is going on. There is interest from business in this too. There are 300 million young people in China and people want to know what drives them and what their tastes are.  The only stories people get in the West about China are about pollution, censorship, free speech and human rights. The most famous Chinese person in the West is Ai Weiwei,” Steinfeld added.

So, at the age of 22, straight out of university she got on a plane and went to China for the first time.

“I read History at Bristol University, but there was no Chinese element to my History degree, so I felt like there was a gap in my knowledge,” she said.

She had written for her university student newspaper and had had a love life and dating column on her school publication.

It was 2006. Most of her friends were looking for jobs in London, but she jetted off to Shanghai and got an internship on lifestyle and entertainment magazine Shanghai Talk.

“I was not interested in China per se at that time but just fancied a bit of an adventure,” she said.

She said found the atmosphere in Shanghai “electric.”

“It was probably like how New York was in the 50s and 60s. In London people complain about their jobs but six months on they haven’t done anything about it; whereas in China then would move on and everyone was so enthusiastic. Everyone was doing something interesting in China then!” she said.

After the six month internship she got a job writing for an economic magazine Shanghai Business Review and she also wrote the ‘Going Out’ chapter of Explorer Shanghai.

A year later, in 2007, she returned to the UK to work for the History Channel. “But I never got China out of my system,” she admitted.

“It’s a fascinating place where you see history unfold before you, so it was great for someone like me with a History major.  There is so much energy – and so much happens there; even just cycling to the office something might happen, there might be a protest. China has a high number of protests,” she explained.

“Chinese people love protesting, although it’s often at a very local level about local issues such as a landlord hiking up the rent. There are other times when you cycle past the most bling cars ever – like illuminous gold shiny Range Rovers next to a rickshaw driver.The smells are quite addictive and I love the food you get there which you can’t get in the UK.

“I think Chinese people have a similar sense of humour to British people and I was put on a massive pedestal being a young blonde girl so I always got into the best bars and clubs and all these great parties,” she added.

She enrolled on a Chinese Studies MA at SOAS, which covered sex, youth, gender, identity and literature during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

“So that helped me understand the parents of the people that I interviewed in my book,” she said.

Continually fascinated by China, she returned to live in Beijing in 2011 and worked as a copy editor and reporter on The Global Times, an English-language Chinese newspaper, whilst also freelancing for and The Huffington Post from China. At The Global Times she contributed regularly to a weekly love life column covering dating trends in China. But 15 months later she returned to live in London again.

“One of the main drivers became the pollution,” she said. “The masks are painful to wear and not particularly useful – they grip your face,” she said.

“I had a really expensive one that I wore if cycling or running. In the end people give up and stop wearing them,” she explained.

“I was getting headaches and you would hear these stories about how living in Beijing brought people’s life expectancy down by five and a half years or that some expat there got cancer. It’s a difficult city to live in and to be honest I wanted to find someone to date,” she added, admitting that though she had dated Chinese men, it had not worked out and the problem with dating expats was that there was a limited pool.

“The kinds of expats I met in Beijing were very interesting and engaged in China – that was less so in Shanghai where you got a lot of bankers and lawyers who had been sent there but who had less interest in China,” she said.

She returned to the UK aged 29 worried she had become ‘leftover woman’ (sheng nu in Chinese – a term used to describe any single career woman aged 27 or above who is not married, usually derided in the Chinese media. A ‘leftover woman’ appears in her book.)

But before long she was commissioned to write her first book.

Back in London in 2012 she contacted I. B. Tauris to see if they had vacancies. “I got an email two days later from Tomasz Hoskins who said: ‘Have you considered writing a book because we are looking at young fresh perspectives coming out of China?’”

They met up and she told him that Chinese youth and sexual movements were of most interest to her. She gave him a proposed table of contents and characters and it was commissioned. She started researching the book in June 2012 and made two further research trips to China based on an advance from the publisher.  She submitted it in 2013.

book jacketJemimah

Steinfeld said her book was aimed at young people interested in China, Westerners and those people studying gender studies.

“I think sex gives you an insight into a whole culture and you can find out about a huge number of other things,” she said.

In partnership with the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival and the Business Confucius Institute, University of Leeds, Steinfeld spoke about her debut book Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and Youth in Modern China at Leeds Big Bookend on Saturday, 6 June.

Leeds-based writer Sunjeev Sahota also gave a talk at Leeds Big Bookend on 6 June in partnership with the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival on his latest and second novel The Year of the Runaways (published June 2015), which tells the story of 13 young men who live in a house in Sheffield, each in flight from India and in desperate search of a new life. Sahota shot to fame with his first novel Ours are the Streets published in 2011. In 2013 he was included in the Granta magazine list of the 20 most promising British novelists. He was in conversation with Dr Katy Shaw.

To read stories, watch videos and listen to audio from the various sessions from the 2015 Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival click here.

Come and listen to Hyeonseo Lee, who escaped North Korea at the age of 17 talk about her memoir The Girl with Seven Names (published 2 July 2015) on Wednesday, 1 July. She will provide extraordinary insight into the lives of North Koreans generally, on top of telling her own incredible story. For more information click here.