In this column, Sex in Our Strange World, sex historian Dr. Kate Lister of Leeds Trinity University, explores the ways in which people from around the globe approach love, sex, and marriage.
It's difficult to know precisely how many people practice Taoism in China today, but evidence of the West's fascination with this ancient religion is all around us. From Tai Chi classes to Yin Yang necklaces and Feng Shui for Dummies, it seems we're quite happy to help ourselves - especially where Taoist sex is concerned.
Type 'Taoist sex' into any search engine and you will be greeted with an array of books, websites, courses, retreats, and practitioners all promising you not only the best sex you've ever had, but also improved health, longer life, and happiness galore. What's the secret? Well, if you're a man, it all comes down to not cumming at all.
"No Taoist worth their sex salt would dream of rolling off and asking a woman if she came"
Taoists around the world practice non-ejaculation during sex in the belief that this will fire up energy reserves in their body and make them better lovers. If you are someone who is rather keen on rounding off a spot of how's your father in the customary manner, this approach may seem utterly bizarre, but retention of semen is one of the founding principles of Taoist sexual practice.
Female orgasms, on the other hand, are thought to be spiritually energising, rather than draining. No Taoist worth their sex salt would dream of rolling off and asking a woman if she came, because her orgasm is actively sought, rather than an afterthought.
Many of the ancient Taoist masters write about sex between a man and a woman as if it is a battle which the man will only win if he can give his partner an orgasm, whilst controlling his own. The eighth-century True Manual of the Perfected Equalization writes "In the Taoist master's sexual battle to give a woman an orgasm while avoiding ejaculation, his enemy is woman... he should keep himself under control, his mind as detached as if it were floating in the azure sky, his body sunk into nothingness".
"Modern science doesn't recommend men cork up their cum, but there is a lot to be said for slowing down"
Taoist sex techniques are based on fang shu, or fang zhong shu, which translates to 'inside the bedchamber', and was developed by Chinese sex wizards during, or even before, the Han dynasty (200BC-220AD). To understand why Taoists feel it is so important men keep their sauce in the bottle, you need to know something about Yin and Yang. Fang shu teaches that the masculine energy ( yang) and the feminine energy ( yin) replenish one another through sex, and that this then creates jing, a powerful sexual energy.
What's more, semen is regarded as a fluid that contains a lot of jing. In fact, the word jing (精) is synonymous with semen in China today, and it needs to stay in the body if it's going to nourish the brain in a process called huan jing pu lau. Should a chap lose his dilberry, he has effectively sprung a jing leak and once lost it is incredibly difficult to get back. But, what's even more worrying is that this precious energy can be absorbed by a partner and used to strengthen their own jing - a kind of spermicidal finders-keepers.
To really get your jing going, you need to be having a lot of sex, with as many different people as possible. The famous physician Sun Simiao (581-682AD) wrote that men should be working towards taking on ten partners in a single night without spilling a drop of jing juice if they are to remain in optimum health. The Classic of Su Nu (c. 200-500 AD) goes one better and suggests that ten rounds of belly-bashing without an ejaculation will make a man immortal.
"One act without emission makes the ch'i strong. Two acts without emission makes the hearing acute and the vision clear. Three acts without emission makes all ailments disappear. Four acts without emission and the "five spirits" are all at peace. Five acts without emission makes the pulse full and relaxed. Six acts without emission strengthens the waist and back. Seven acts without emission gives power to the buttocks and thigh. Eight acts without emission causes the whole body to be radiant. Nine acts without emission and one will enjoy unlimited longevity. Ten acts without emission and one attains the realm of the immortals."
Such teachings have fascinated the West for hundreds of years, and have been eagerly adopted by neo-Taoist and Tantra groups around the world today. But, our obsession with Taoist sex says far more about us than it does about the Chinese traditions being appropriated.
Ian Johnson is a Beijing-based writer, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of religious persecution in China. He is also the author of The Souls of China: the Return of Religion After Mao, so it's fair to say that he is man who knows a thing or two about Taoism in China today. And because everyone likes to receive unsolicited emails about sperm, I contacted him to ask him if Taoist practice in China was as preoccupied with ejaculation and sex as it is in the West.
He explained: "The emphasis on sexual cultivation in the West is symptomatic for how exploration of foreign cultures often says more about the explorer than the explored. While Chinese do talk about sexual cultivation, it's an infinitesimally small portion of the overall discussion and the overall body of material. In other words, it's not really that important in the Chinese tradition. But sex is important in our culture, so it's not surprising that we mine ancient traditions to see what they say about it."
So, Taoists in China do view sex as important, and many practice self-control around orgasm, but sex is actually a very small part of their practice. It's the Western rendering of Taoist tradition that has emphasized the sex part.
Ian went on: "So it's not inaccurate to say that Chinese cultivation calls on the man (and woman) not to spray around their fluids indiscriminately, but it's just not a focal point of practice, probably because it was always a given in traditional culture that restraint in all aspects of life was paramount.
"As a warning of the perils of this, one always had the demise of the rakish hero Ximen Qing in The Golden Lotus, who dies after one mega-ejaculation so exhausts him that rigor mortis sets in on his penis and his lover has to be lifted off his permanently, and fatally, engorged member. Needless to say, he dies."
So, there's that.
Contrary to poor old Ximen Qing's experience, in 2014 researchers from Harvard University found that " men who ejaculated 21 or more times a month enjoyed a 31% lower risk of prostate cancer ". So, it turns out that ejaculation is actually very good for you. But, it's not all bad news for Taoist teachings. Taoist techniques around orgasm control are now being used in Western medicine to treat men suffering from premature ejaculation.
Ancient Taoist texts contain a great deal of advice to men on how to control orgasm, ranging from breathing and focus techniques, through to head movements, fist clenching, and applying pressure on the scrotum and chattering your teeth. Research carried out in 2016 found that premature ejaculation sufferers who practiced these techniques for four weeks, saw a 'dramatic' improvement in their sexual longevity. These techniques really do work. Hurrah!
Taoists in China may be slightly bemused by the West's sexual homage to their ancient practices, but we really can learn a lot about being better lovers from Taoism. While both myself and modern science don't recommend men cork up their cum, there is a lot to be said for slowing down, enjoying the ride rather than being focused on the finish, viewing your partner's pleasure as being part of your own, and understanding good sex as being integral to good health, good wellbeing and good spiritual practice.Dr Kate Lister is a sex historian, author and lecturer at Leeds Trinity University. She also runs the blog Whores of Yore. Keep up with her on Twitter.