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A Weibo post made by a mother from Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, recently went viral for showing pages from her primary school-age son's new sex education textbook. "Oh boy, you are growing taller," a middle-aged woman in one of the book's cartoon illustrations tells a little boy, adding "now pull down your pants and let me see if your penis is growing too?"

The book series, called Cherish Life, contains extremely graphic drawings (pictured below) depicting male and female genitals and shows how adult couples have sexual intercourse. The books were published by Beijing Normal University following approval by education and medical experts.

The books were intended to be used in Chinese public schools for children aged 6 to 12. The above quote was taken from a section designed to teach children to protect themselves from abuse.

Based on the International Technical Guidance on Sexuality developed by UNESCO in 2009, the new Chinese series contains 12 books covering family and friends, life and skills, gender and rights, body development, sex and healthy habits, and sex & reproduction.

However the explicit dialogue and graphic illustrations of genitals and sexual intercourse have shocked many Chinese parents, especially those of the post-1980s and under generations who did not receive much if any sex education while growing up.

As a result of the recent controversy, the book has been pulled from public school classrooms, which in turn spawned a heated online debate about the state of sex education in China, where traditional parents and teachers are prudent about informing youth about sex.

While many Chinese netizens are referring to the book as pornographic and obscene, a number of more open-minded citizens and parents have praised the Cherish Life series as a great leap for China's sex education and an opportunity to catch up with Western civilization, where sex ed is the established norm.



Western perspectives

To glean some insight into the Western perspective of this sensitive subject matter, the Global Times recently chased down some foreigners seen strolling around Shanghai, showed pages and illustrations from the book series, then asked them for their opinions.

Most of the foreigners we interviewed agreed that it is important for China to have a textbook like this, but some argued that showing it to kids in the earliest years of primary school is probably too early.

"I do think that, for grade 1 or 2, this might be a little graphic. I started my sexual education in grade 5 or 6. We had similar books like this," Rene (below) from Austria said.

"I think it's super important, especially in China. What I learn from my friends here is that people don't know much about this topic from school," he added.

Laurence (below) from France also agreed that the book is educational, especially in China. "It will help you to understand more about conception and protecting yourself from disease or getting pregnant," she said, adding that the pictures might be too startling for 7-year-olds and would be better to wait closer to puberty age.

Nothing shameful

China's lack of sex education has been accused by local and world leaders of resulting in a growing number of HIV infections through sexual intercourse as well as the country's high abortion rate caused by unwanted pregnancies.

According to official statistics released by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention in 2016, sex has become the primary method of HIV infections in China, accounting for over 90 percent.

China's National Health and Family Planning Commission revealed that about 13 million abortions are carried out in the country annually. Of those, 62 percent are performed on women aged between 20 and 29, most of whom are single.

"But you don't have to teach kids about that when they are 6 years old," Patrick (below) from Germany, a father of two, said. "In my country it starts from grade 5 in the school."

Some interviewed foreigners, however, believe that it is important for children to receive sexual education at grade 1, as there is nothing shameful about children discovering their bodies.

Gil (below) from Canada, a father of a 2-year-old child, said it is healthy for kids to talk about such things. He said he'd prefer his child someday learn in a responsible way from an adult, "instead of just chatting among other kids and laughing about it."

"It's not to teach them to have sex in primary school. It's just to teach them about how their body works. Just basic biology," he added.

Phoebe (below) from the US believes it is important to learn about sexual health at a young age. "If you wait till the sixth grade, when it becomes stigmatized, you don't take it seriously."

"Everyone just made fun of it in my (sixth-grade) class because it was already like a taboo topic and no one wanted to talk about it," she said.

"If you start learning about it when you are young, then you can fully absorb everything and take your body more seriously and understand it better."

After looking at the illustrations in Cherish Life, Phoebe did not think they were too graphic. "Everybody has those body parts. It's important to know you have those same parts, so seeing them drawn on a page isn't going to be a problem," she said.

Might as well educate them

Phoebe also expects that the reason so many Chinese parents and teachers want the book pulled from classrooms is due to their own sheltered upbringing. "They didn't have any sex-ed growing up themselves, so that's why they don't understand it.

"But in our contemporary culture," she added, "kids are seeing it anyway, so might as well educate them in school rather than just seeing it online and not knowing what's going on," she said.

Whereas the average Chinese parents would dodge questions such as "where do I come from," foreign parents seem to believe that it is the parents' responsibility to teach their children everything about sex.

"Whether it's about sex or whether it's about politics or whether it's about history, a child will pick up ideas from somewhere," said Lee (above) from the US, who is raising a son in Shanghai.

Lee said that Chinese parents more than other nationalities are reluctant to be able to talk about sex directly with their own children and thus he hopes that material like the Cherish Life series will encourage Chinese parents to get more involved.

"In the fifth grade, we talked about sex and the same topics in this book: what body parts a boy has and what parts a girl has," Lee recalled. "I think the pictures (in Cherish Life) are fine. They are a bit too cartoonish, even."

Bonnie (below) from the US, who has two boys, 30 and 28, concurs. "Such sexual education is good. Sex-ed in the US has been around for probably a good 30 years."

Photos: Chen Xia/GT and CFP

She recalled that, when her sons were growing up, American schools taught students how to avoid being molested by adults, which the Cherish Life series also covers. "I would say Chinese parents are a little bit reserved," she said.