BEIJING — When Chinese director Zhang Yimou's latest blockbuster hit theaters here last month, it sparked just one topic of conversation, and a great deal of controversy.
The film's plot, aesthetics, and artistic ambitions, all those aspects of "Curse of the Golden Flower," were lost in a torrent of shocked comment on the eye-catching manner in which all the female characters' bosoms appear only a breath away from bursting out of their tightly laced bodices.
"A pile of steamed buns," fumed one establishment critic. A mother complained to China Daily newspaper that she had been obliged to repeatedly cover her 5-year-old son's eyes as they watched the movie. "I told him to do so with his own hands, but he wouldn't," she said.
The boy may have been wide-eyed with wonder at the unaccustomed sight of so much cleavage. But even as debate raged in the state-controlled media over whether the censor had been too lax, more evidence emerged pointing to the chasm that divides puritan official morality from real Chinese peoples' lives.
A survey of Beijing teens revealed that almost as many of them approve of living together before marriage as disapprove. And fewer than 1 in 5 of the girls said she would refuse outright if her boyfriend asked for sexual relations.
"The official ideology is still pretty much the same as it was in the late Maoist era" 30 years ago, says Jing Jun, a sociology professor at Beijing's Tsinghua University. "They haven't figured out young people at all."
Nor have young people necessarily figured themselves out, Professor Jing suggests, as they struggle to cope with massive social and economic changes they have seen in their short lifetimes. "The old era has gone, but the new ideology of making money ... leaves a vacuum of ideas regarding morality and behavior in a society changing so fast," he says.
Young Chinese don't seem to be taking much guidance from the official creed of "Socialist morality." The state's response to the tide of greed and lawlessness that has swept the country along with capitalism is enshrined in President Hu Jintao's "Eight Honors, Eight Disgraces," a set of platitudes such as "Be diligent; not indolent," or "Live plainly, struggle hard; do not wallow in luxuries or pleasures."
These dicta translate into the sort of rules that went into effect Feb. 1, obliging Chinese TV stations in prime time to screen only "ethically inspiring" series, in the words of Wang Weiping, an official with the government's broadcast watchdog, quoted by the official Xinhua news agency. Previous regulations have demanded that Chinese soap operas not depict extramarital affairs, and that reality TV shows promote "favorable morality."
While officialdom fiddles with such efforts to improve the nation's morals, a syphilis epidemic is raging throughout the country.
A study published last month found the disease had rocketed to 5.7 cases per 100,000 in 2005 after having been virtually eradicated 12 years earlier.
"Changing social practices such as people experimenting with sex at earlier ages and before marriage," along with "a cultural climate that favors reemergence of prostitution" are behind the epidemic says the study, written by Chinese and US public health experts.
The problem is compounded by the fact that it is hard to talk about in China, where sex is a taboo subject for most adults.
Mr. Zhang, who burst onto the international film scene with "Hero," puts the scandal surrounding his latest movie down to this reticence. "Only because traditionally sex is a forbidden area to Chinese people is this aspect of the movie under discussion a lot now," he told the daily Metro Express.
"But young people today know a lot, and I don't think they will concentrate on those breasts," he added.
Young people do indeed know "a lot more than their parents think they know" says Zhang Meimei, a sex-education expert at Beijing's Capital Normal University.
"And as China has adopted Western economic and social reforms, people have begun to try learning from Western attitudes to sex," she adds. "Our job is to find a balance between traditional Chinese repression and overly open Western attitudes, to give the new generation clear guidelines on how to make their choices."
The main obstacles, says Dr. Zhang, "come from parents, who fear that knowledge about sex leads to practice, which would interfere with their childrens' studies."
Those fears are perhaps grounded. While "traditional Chinese attitudes to virginity are still very strong among parents, they are not so strong among kids anymore," Zhang says.
A lot more has changed over the past two decades, points out Jing. China's divorce rate has almost tripled since 1980; in a country where prostitution was virtually unknown 25 years ago some 4 million women prostitute themselves today, according to some estimates. Many of them are among the 1.18 million registered drug addicts – a fraction of the real number of addicts.
"All this adds up," says Jing. "You reflect on the figures and you know this society is experiencing a lot."
Official morality has not kept pace with those experiences. If the well-filled bodices in "Curse of the Golden Flower" seem daring to Chinese eyes it is because China has no film ratings system: everything shown is meant to be acceptable to youngsters.
"The time is not ripe for China to institute a ratings system," says Yin Hong, a film critic and deputy head of Tsinghua University's Journalism School.
Partly that is because of the difficulty of agreeing on where the lines should be drawn for different categories of film. But mainly it is because a ratings system would permit at least some films to use explicit language and nudity, and those are simply beyond the official pale.
The fuss surrounding Zhang Yimou's latest film does not surprise Zhang Meimei, the sex educator. "It's a typical example of traditional Chinese concepts bumping up against Western ideas of freedom," she says.
"But I don't think it will lead to anything negative," she adds. "At least people are talking about these questions publicly for once. That's better than silence."