The Impotence Epidemic

Men's Medicine and Sexual Desire in Contemporary China

The Impotence Epidemic

Critical Global Health: Evidence, Efficacy, Ethnography

More about this series

Book Pages: 304 Illustrations: 18 photographs Published: March 2015

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Asian Studies > East Asia, Medicine and Health > Medical Humanities

Since the 1990s China has seen a dramatic increase in the number of men seeking treatment for impotence. Everett Yuehong Zhang argues in The Impotence Epidemic that this trend represents changing public attitudes about sexuality in an increasingly globalized China. In this ethnography he shifts discussions of impotence as a purely neurovascular phenomenon to a social one. Zhang contextualizes impotence within the social changes brought by recent economic reform and through the production of various desires in post-Maoist China. Based on interviews with 350 men and their partners from Beijing and Chengdu, and concerned with de-mystifying and de-stigmatizing impotence, Zhang suggests that the impotence epidemic represents not just trauma and suffering, but also a contagion of individualized desire and an affirmation for living a full life. For Zhang, studying male impotence in China is one way to comprehend the unique experience of Chinese modernity.


"[A] welcome contribution to the emerging body of valuable work that explores male reproductive identities and modalities through multidisciplinary approaches. The book is valuable for researchers, experts and scholars trying to pursue multidimensional methodological studies that superbly combine history, anthropology, ethnography and medical studies." — Sonia Wigh, Centre for Medical Humanities

"The many life stories of trauma and unhappiness resulting from real or imagined sexual impotence presented here are often touching and depressing, but Everett Zhang has managed to skilfully weave these individual cases to produce an overall picture of men and women seeking ways to satisfy their desires rather than accepting their lot. . .. I applaud the optimistic and thoughtful tone he has adopted, and I fully recommend the book to anyone interested in China or how human beings cope with misfortune. ...[T]he topic is not a joyous one, but the book is a pleasure to read and I have no doubt it will be cited for years to come." — Kam Louie, The China Quarterly

"[A] beautifully written and intellectually stimulating ethnography on a controversial topic that few anthropologists have examined. ... Drawing on rich ethnographic data, well-structured methodologies, and insightful interpretations of China’s recent social changes, Zhang debunks many popular and scholarly stereotypes about male impotence. ... I would strongly recommend this book to scholars and students who are interested in medical anthropology, health, sexuality, gender, modernization, and Chinese studies." — Xia Zhang, Anthropological Quarterly

"Written in a clear and lucid manner, The Impotence Epidemic is suitable for courses in medical pluralism, the anthropology of the body, and gender and sexuality in Chinese culture." — Howard Chiang, Medical Anthropology Quarterly

"Zhang’s ability to weave the history of these complicated periods into his study on impotence in a manner accessible to both Chinese specialists and non-specialists alike is a particular strength of the book.... Zhang’s work is an important contribution to our understanding of the study of masculinity, sexuality, medicine and social policy in contemporary China."  — Melissa S. Dale, Social History of Medicine

"Ethnographically engaging and rich, this book contributes to the anthropological debates on health, sexuality and medicine.... [T]his book will be welcomed by a wide array of scholars interested in topics such as gender, sexual desires, impotence and Chinese medicine in China and beyond." — Tiantian Zheng, The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology

"One of Zhang’s greatest contributions is his ability to open up the lives and bodily experiences of those who lived through many different moments in Chinese history to readers. Overall, Zhang’s cases, and his interpretation of them through psychoanalytic and anthropological texts, give new insight on intimacy in China from the 1950s forward. Zhang shows how kin relations, sexual practices, and medical conditions, diagnoses, and treatments have been reconfigured in expected and unexpected ways. Furthermore, the book asks readers to consider that China’s tumultuous history—its fleeting pleasures and its reoccurring traumas—not only exist in the memory but also in the flesh." — Janelle Lamoreaux, Current Anthropology

"The Impotence Epimidec offers a nuanced, sensitive, and powerful ethnographic analysis of impotence in contemporary China.... It will be of interest to scholars who focus on ethics and morality, gender and sexuality, body and society, modernity, the interplay between traditional Chinese medicine and biomedicine, and China’s postsocialist transformation." — Jie Yang, American Anthropologist

"In so short a review it is impossible to give a full account of the many nuanced and compelling arguments that Zhang makes in his sophisticated and insightful book. Those interested in medical history, gender studies, and anthropology are certain to find it very interesting, but its greatest contribution is to the history of contemporary China itself." — Andrew Schonebaum, Bulletin of the History of Medicine

"An unprecedented in-depth examination of men's changing sexuality in modern China and a powerful deconstruction of impotence as mere biological dysfunction. . . . The author's skill in straightforward application of theory and gifted narration of a wide range of case studies complement each other to show that sexuality is necessarily intercorporeal, always already about one's relations to others and being-in-the-world. . . . This was a meticulously crafted book, and a thoroughly enjoyable read." — Mollie Gossage, Anthropology Book Forum

"An excellent case of medical anthropology. . . .Zhang’s ethnography about the impotence epidemic provides rich data and insightful analysis . . . and it furthers our understanding of the complexity and dynamics of post-Mao transformation." — Yujing Zhu, East Asian Science, Technology and Society

“Taking on the difficult task of investigating the often stigmatized and unmentionable part of private life, Zhang has rendered his observations of an interviews with about 350 patients and/or their partners and two dozen doctors of TCM and biomedicine in Beijing and Chengdu into touching narratives that are intricately woven with insightful analysis. . . . Beautifully written.”
  — Dongxin Zou, China Review International

"Based on over 10 years of field research and writing by a greatly sensitive and skilled ethnographer who himself grew up in China, The Impotence Epidemic tells the story of contemporary China, from the Maoist era to the present, through the Chinese medicine conception of the lived body and popular Chinese understandings of how masculinity, sexual desire, and performance act as embodied metaphors of key cultural tensions and crises. Theoretically and ethnographically rich. A remarkable achievement!" — Arthur Kleinman, coauthor of The Ground Between: Anthropologists Engage Philosophy

"Everett Yuehong Zhang's ethnography about impotence is a tour de force. Repressed during the Cultural Revolution, sexual desire is today enhanced by doctors of nanke (men’s medicine) who use an eclectic mix of herbal medicine and Viagra. By embedding the experience of impotence in specific historical, social, and political moments, with moveable moral implications, this sensitive subject can no longer be thought of simply as a failed 'neurovascular event.' — Margaret Lock, coauthor of Beyond the Body Proper: Reading the Anthropology of Material Life


Availability: In stock
Price: $27.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Everett Yuehong Zhang is Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies and Anthropology at Princeton University. He is the co-editor of Governance of Life in Chinese Moral Experience: The Quest for an Adequate Life, and co-author of Deep China: The Moral Life of the Person.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: The Impotence Epidemic in China 1

Part I: Society and the State

1. The Birth of Nanke (Men's Medicine) 29

2. Sexual Repression 51

3. One Thousand Bodies of Impotence 71

4. Impotence, Family, and Women 101

Part II: Potency and Life

5. The Loss of Jing (Seminal Essence) and the Revival of Yangsheng (the Cultivation of Life) 135

6. Bushen (Nourishing the Kidney), Shugan (Smoothing out the Liver), or Taking the Great Brother (Viagra) 166

7. Potency Is Fullness of Life 198

Conclusion: "If Shen (the Kidney) Is Strong, Life Is Good" 221

Notes 229

References 251

Index 277
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing
Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5856-5 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5844-2
Publicity material