China’s Red Light Districts: Past and Present

China isn’t the first place in Asia that you will associate with prostitution even with Hong Kong and Macau thrown into the mix.

However, the country has a long association with the sex profession even if it differs to the western evolution of the trade.

In fact, despite the fact that prostitution is illegal in (most of) China, there are plenty of red light districts to be found, even in rural locations.

The most famous of these red light districts can be found in the bigger cities.

In this guide, we take a look at the history of the red light district and prostitution in China as well as reviewing some of China’s red light districts.

China: A History of Prostitution

To understand the evolution of modern day (and the place of historical) red light districts in China, we need to first understand the history of prostitution in the country.

Dating back to Ancient China, prostitution, for a long time, was not only legal but was a respected profession, The Chinese character for the word prostitute (ji) is more closely linked to performance than it has sex. Much like the Japanese equivalents of Geishas and Oirans, China’s original prostitutes were offering more than what was between their legs.

The original and ultimate escorts, these companions were highly prized for their charm, intelligence and skill, providing men with singing, dancing, poetry and music.

hong kong red light district china
One big red light district, prostitution is legal in Hong Kong. Image via Flickr.

Chinese wives were expected to perform dutiful roles to their husbands and were not expected to provide much more than legitimate children and to run efficient homes.

By the same token, concubines were merely expected to pleasure their lovers on demand.

In general, women were not educated and men were happy for them to remain virtuous in their ignorance. However, men also craved women who were intellectual who could provide them with something more than just duty and obedience.

Prostitutes became an exception to the rule and most were not only highly skilled entertainers but had been educated to a high level; able to match the intelligence of scholars, aristocrats and officials of the period.

In the Tang Dynasty, education went even further, with prostitutes attending a conservatory style school with literary drinking games being part of their ‘finishing’.

Brothels would run feasts to entertain large numbers of high ranking men with prostitutes entertaining individuals but not encouraged to have sex, rather sex would happen at the consent of the girl.

The element of surety removed, men would be more aroused by the thought of conquering one of these prized girls and thus ensuring a higher price on the girls who didn’t ‘put out’.

More than a slight contradiction to our current understanding of prostitution, once a girl began a sexual relationship, she would usually only entertain one gentleman at a time.

Again, perhaps in direct contrast to today’s world of paying for sex, the best prostitutes were not those that were the most attractive but those with the keenest mind and highest skills in entertaining.

However, the role of the prostitute was not to continue in this vein and by the time of the Qing Dynasty, the noble talents of the profession had been gradually declining and so too had public perception.

Eventually, a law was passed that made visiting prostitutes illegal and the art of prostitution, as it once was, fell into decline.

Interestingly, visiting male prostitutes was not illegal during this period and there were many red light districts where male homosexuality was fashionable, even among the rich and high ranking members of China’s society.

Often associated with the theater or the opera, these male prostitutes had good social status.

chinese prostitute red light districts
Chinese courtesan circa 1875. Image via Wikimedia.

As the Qing Dynasty began to give way to the Republic of China at the turn of the twentieth century, female prostitutes had once again become a regular sight in China’s red light areas and punishments were less severe for those found breaking the laws.

It wasn’t until the Communist Party of China took power in 1949 that prostitution (for both men and women) became outlawed once more. The government at the time reported that it had eradicated the country of prostitution by 1960.

Since the 1980s as government control loosened its grip on many areas of society, prostitution (though still illegal) has risen to become more of a tolerated and prominent feature of modern China. The major cities have red light areas that are more familiar to the visiting western tourist as well as in more rural locations.

Considered a major economic tributary, prostitution (as in many countries) incorporates both legitimate trade such as the fronting business of massage parlors and ‘brothels’ but is also linked to government corruption as well as organised crime.

Red light areas in China incorporate uniquely Asian adult entertainment venues such as karaoke bars and beauty salons where sex can be found for sale.

prostitution china red light districts
Though illegal, prostitution is tolerated in some cities. Image via Wikimedia.

Red Light Districts in China

Sex in Shanghai

The largest city in China with a population of around 24.15 million (roughly the same as that of Australia), Shanghai is the world’s most populous city.

In an area of 210 townships, it is little wonder that Shanghai is home to many of China’s biggest red light districts.

Caojiadu, Shanghai

Granted special status by the government, Caojiadu incorporates more than just street prostitution with adult entertainment found across the area.

The malls are teeming with prostitutes who will sniff you out before you spot them and you will have no problem finding a girl for a quickie or overnighter.

As a ‘legalized’ red light district, charges here are higher than you would find elsewhere in the city with rates starting at around $65 but the sky is the limit depending on where you go, who you choose and what you are after. Plenty to keep you occupied for a night out in the city.

Nang Yang Lu, Shanghai

One of the more well known red light areas in Shanghai, Nang Yang Lu is really only famous for a handful of venues including the Manhattan Club.

Foreigner friendly and a busy club, the prices you will pay aren’t the cheapest around and you can also expect a hefty bar tab on top.

Shanghai pudong red light district
Home to over 24 million people, there are several red light districts in Shanghai including a legal one. Image via Flickr.

Fengzhuang Road, Shanghai

Situated in the west of the city, Fengzhuang is one of the newest red light areas and is in a strategic location that does not attract a great deal of police attention.

You can pay a lot more for overnight service but not many of the ladies who work this area seem inclined to offer this. A busy location, there are plenty of hookers to choose from.

Xianan Road, Shanghai

A low-rent area of the city and located in the Pudong district, Xianan Road is a popular place for locals due to the cheap prices.

Don’t expect more than a perfunctory service and certainly don’t plan to spend much time here unless you are in the company of a local. You can pay around $7-$15 for a blowjob and a bit more for full service.

The key here is you get what you pay for so the girls won’t blow you away (even if they will blow you).

New Railroad Station, Shanghai

Though more of a spot for picking up a street hooker than a red light area with entertainment options, New Railroad Station has long had an association with prostitution.

There are a couple of shops around that provide additional services including a blowjob bar in Datong Road.

Qibao, Shanghai

Situated in the southwest of the city, Qibao is a relatively small red light area but is growing with new businesses opening regularly most seeming only to improve the entertainment options for locals and tourists.

Sex in Beijing

China’s capital city of Beijing is another colossal metropolis and is home to around 21.5 million people.

Once again, the city has a good deal of red light areas; the biggest of which is a stand out favorite for all the right reasons.

Dashilan, Beijing

A red light area for over 600 years, the district around Dashilan is an absolute treasure trove of old and new establishments set up to entertain adults.

The historical region known as Bada Hutong is perhaps the most famous red light area. With its warren of alleys and lanes, this unassuming area was once home to many hundreds of whorehouses servicing the great and the good of Beijing during the Ming Dynasty, Qing Dynasty and even into the period of the Republic of China.

During the days when prostitution was illegal, it was male prostitutes that worked here. Though today Bada Hutong is mainly an historical reminder of the heydays of bawdy houses in the city, the surrounding area of Dashilan is still alive and kicking to service the appetites of locals and tourists.

Once home to opium dens as well as brothels, Dashilan still has salons, bars and street walkers.

dashilan red light district beijing china
Dashilan is a hot spot for entertainment in Beijing where you can still find street hookers. Image via Flickr.

Sex in Guangdong

Formerly known as Canton, this province in the south east of China is home to plenty of cities and towns and is one of the most visited regions in the country.

Dongguan, Guangdong

Dubbed China’s sin city, Dongguan has suffered a bit of a fall from grace after attempts to shut down the prostitution industry that was once rife here.

Despite closing more than 2000 venues in 2014, including saunas, KTVs and massage parlors the area is still home to a good many migrant and domestic sex workers.

As is common with a lot of former red light districts, much of the sex trade run in Dongguan has moved online but with an estimated 300,000 escorts working in the city, a lot of them will take to the streets to get business.

Shenzhen, Guangdong

Xiang Xi Cun in the Luohu area of the city of Shenzen is a popular red light district that attracts a lot of street walkers as well as pimps operating for the areas many brothels.

shenzhen red light district china
Girls in a barber shop in Shenzhen. Image via Wikimedia.

Sex in Hong Kong

Only returned by the British to China in 1997, Hong Kong is run under special administration; acknowledging its unique stature where East meets West.

The city has a long history with the sex trade and you can pretty much pick up sex anywhere in Hong Kong. However, the Wan Chai area is certainly one of the most famous red light areas on the main island of Hong Kong.

With one woman brothels, massage parlours, KTVs (see how they work) and saunas, you can choose from a wide range of sexual services at a variety of rates.

The Fuji building is one of the largest brothels where you can simply walk up and select the services of any of the girls available. You can find out more about the Wan Chai red light district by reading our guide here.

Sex in Macau

Another region of China with special administrative status, Macau is one big red light area with brothels, massage parlors and strip clubs common across the area.

You can pick up street hookers or prostitutes at the casinos and has been dubbed ‘pleasure island’ by many tourists looking for some thrills in China. You can find out more about what Macau has to offer by reading our guide here.

Featured image via Flickr.