Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 15, September 18, 2012


The Predicament of Bare Branches’ Sexuality

Quanbao Jiang
Institute for Population and Development Studies
Xi'an Jiaotong University (China)
recluse_jqb at 126.com

Jesús J. Sánchez-Barricarte
Carlos III University of Madrid (Spain)
jesusjavier.sanchez at uc3m.es

This work is jointly supported by the Project of National Social Science Foundation of China (09XSH005), the 985-3 Project of Xi’an Jiotong University and the Project CSO2009-11883/SOCI of the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation.

Correspondence with: Prof. Jesús J. Sánchez-Barricarte
Departamento de Ciencia Política y Sociología
Despacho 7.0.39
Universidad Carlos III de Madrid
C/. Madrid, 126
28903 Getafe (Madrid) SPAIN



The sexuality of bare branches in China is a neglected but very important issue, as there is estimated to be 30 to 40 million bare branches. In this explorative study, we first depict the traits of bare branches, including their sexual poverty. Then we introduce their sexual channels, such as extramarital affairs and commercial sex. We explore the effect of this group on the spread of STDs in China and how this group may affect the development of sex industry in China. Being illegal for sex industry in China, bare branches face a predicament for their sexual activities.



China’s strong preferences for boys and low social status of a woman have led to discrimination against girls, gender imbalance and relative shortage of females. Currently and in the future, there are and will be a large number of males unable to find a spouse. They are forced to be single and become “guanggun”, or literately bare branches. The definition of bare branch refers to a male in a countryside area who is not married or remains single involuntarily. They have neither set up their own family nor have any offspring like a bare branch, creating a dismal impression of loneliness. Though bare branches have been a problem in China, research shows that from 2010, the number and proportion of males in China will increase much more quickly (Jiang et al., 2011). China will experience serious male marriage pressures, the phenomenon of which will start from 2010. The number of excess males will continue to rise within a certain period. The excess population of 20 to 49 year olds will exceed 20 million in 2015, 30 million in 2025, 40 million in 2035 and 44 million in approximately 2040. Between 2020 and 2050, about 15% of males will not be able to find a spouse (Chen, 2004). In China, it is traditional for females to change their fate through marriages. Generally speaking, they tend to choose a man with a higher social status than themselves for marriage. The majority of males who fail to get married belong to the lowest class in the social ladder. The lowest social stratum in China will have a bare branch class of approximately 40 to 50 million people.

Presently, the gender imbalance and relative shortage of females, due to women getting married and leaving areas where they live, causes the population of unmarried males to be usually concentrated in the countryside, especially in poverty stricken rural areas. A pattern is emerging, in which the phenomenon of bare branches being located in scattered areas is being replaced by them being found in concentrated areas. Many bare branch villages have now appeared. Those villages with relatively more bare branches tend to be poorer and have a lower per capita income with harsher economic and living conditions. The environment is such that it cannot provide powerful economic support for youth marriages. The heavy concentration of a very sizable number of bare branches has caused problems in people finding partners and getting married. This also leads to sexual deprivation. As sexual desire is a basic human drive a person will seek other means to satisfy such a desire if it is not met. In Chinese contexts, though there are many means of sexual outlets, marriage is still the dominant and generally acceptable way for satisfying one’s sexual desire (Jiang and Li, 2009). With an increase in excess males, there is increasing competition for those seeking marriages, which results in an increase of marriages such as child bride, mercenary marriage, marriage by exchange, or even levirate marriage, a type of marriage in which the brother of a deceased man is obliged to marry his brother's widow, and the widow is obliged to marry her deceased husband's brother. Furthermore, extramarital activities, such as adultery and prostitution, have also arisen. What is striking is that a market for rural prostitution has appeared. All this has accelerated the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, which also seems to provide a reason for the existence and legalization of the sex industry.

Although the impact which excess males have on social and economic development has drawn some attention (Hudson and den Boer, 2004; Edlund et al., 2007; Ebenstein and Sharygin, 2009; Das Gupta et al., 2010; Wei and Zhang, 2011), not enough research into the effect they have on sexually transmitted diseases and on the sex industry has been carried out. This article studies sexual channels for bare branches and their impact on sexually transmitted diseases and the sex industry. The article is divided into four parts. It begins by analysing overall characteristics associated with bare branches, which include traits relating to sexual poverty followed by an introduction of sexual channels for bare branches. These include various types of active marriage efforts, masturbation, homosexual activities and prostitution. The article then examines the impact bare branches have on sexually transmitted diseases in the country and analyses their effects on China’s sex industry before presenting a discussion and conclusions.

Traits of bare branches

In rural areas, the bare branch problem, by and large, accompanies poverty, economic instability and low social status.

In China’s 2010 census, amongst the male population with no education (illiteracy), 49.42 % for the age group 30 to 34, 43.58% for the 35-39 age group, 39.00% for the 40-44 age group, and 35.67 % for the 45-49 age group remained single, whereas for people with high school education, the percentages are 12.12 percent, 4.90 percent, 2.44 percent and 1.41 percent for corresponding age groups respectively (PCO, 2012). A survey into single men conducted in 2008 in the countryside in Anhui province discovered that 9.6% of unmarried males were illiterates. However, such a percentage deceased to only 1.2% amongst married men (Zhang, 2012). In China’s highly competitive marriage market, those who with little education, and thus usually at the bottom of social strata, are at disadvantage to get married (Jiang and Sánchez-Barricarte, 2012)

A research carried out in 2004 in Shanxi and Jilin provinces found that  interviewed bare branches, who have lost the hope to get married,  rarely did any work and enjoyed drinking and fishing all day long (Mo, 2005). The data from the research carried out in Anhui province in 2008 shows that the proportion of single men who are migrant workers is far less than married men. At present, most of the income in rural areas comes from migrant workers. As such, it is very easy for them to fall into poverty. They become the new poverty class. As a result of their own poverty and weak status, single men are unable to get married. In addition, once they join the ranks of bare branches, due to a lack of female care in their lives, they become psychologically depressed and suffer from prejudices of other people. They do not have much savings. The result of all this is that single men lack personal goals or pursuits. Even if they are engaged in production work, their only goal is to keep their body and soul together. Very often, they fall into a vicious cycle of being poor, being single and being poorer (Jiang and Sánchez-Barricarte, 2012).

With regard to physical health, a study of single men carried out in 2007 in Henan province indicated that 20% of bare branches were either physically or mentally disabled. Furthermore, approximately 20% of them have various kinds of chronic diseases (Wei et al., 2008). It is expected that being disabled may increase the probability of failing to get married, and without an event history, we can not tell the causality between being unhealthy and being unmarried, but an analysis into marriage and health situations of rural males over the age of 30 years old shows that unmarried groups have markedly poorer health than married groups (Das Gupta et al., 2010).

Problems caused by trying to get married mean that bare branches usually have psychological gaps and are influenced by psychological suggestions. A study of bare branches carried out in 2008 in Anhui province shows that single men, on the one hand, are faced with different kinds of pressure. Firstly, they are unable to enjoy a normal married family life, though they long for it. Secondly, attention and efforts given by parents with regard to their children’s marriage problems impose heavy psychological burden on bare branches. Finally, unintentional or intentional laughter, inappropriate comments and behaviour, or even compassion by others in the community can make them feel deeply hurt, discriminated or excluded (Wei et al., 2008). On the other hand, a lack of family warmth and comfort from the most intimate relationship enjoyed between spouses make it impossible for unmarried males above the normal matrimonial age to express their emotions. Such a situation makes them feel even more depressed psychologically (Li et al., 2009). Many bare branches feel that life is distressful and unfair. The way for them to get rid of such emotions is primarily to resort to alcohol and to find prostitutes (Wei and Li, 2012).

Sexual Channels

A marriage enables a man to have his own family as well as having a legitimate and stable sexual channel. In addition, it makes it possible for a man to have his own children to produce descendents. However, Chinese society finds it hard to accept the sexual activities of those males, e.g., bare branches, who are unable to get married, as well as the fact that they will not have descendents. In reality, on the one hand, a bare branch tries his best to get married. He may even go as far as to borrow money from loan sharks to purchase a wife. On the other hand, those who really are unable to get married satisfy their sexual needs by having affairs with married women and by using prostitutes.

Research carried out over a two year period through qualitative interviews between October 2007 and November 2009 in Anhui, Shanxi, Fujian, Henan, Guangdong and Zhejiang has found that rural bare branches could also find regular sexual partners by usually having affairs with married women whose husbands work away from home. They can stay with some pretty women by spending 20 to 30 Yuan or giving them something, such as goods or clothes. A small percentage of the unmarried males above the normal matrimonial age are homosexuals. There is a growing trend of homosexuality amongst unmarried males, who have fixed meeting places for homosexual activities. Rape also takes place from time to time. In some areas, there are practices of incestuous relationships and wife sharing. Living an unmarried life makes bare branches  not only find it difficult to satisfy their sexual needs, but also force them to face the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases as a result of having more commercial sexual activities, more sexual partners and unprotected sexual relationships (Wei and Li, 2012).


Those males who are disadvantaged in terms of having marriages are likely to lower their standard, consciously or unconsciously, when choosing their potential marriage partners so as to increase the possibility of finding a suitable spouse. People at the bottom of the social ladder do not have any particular preferences when they choose a potential spouse as a result of pressure to get married. They are victims of marriage pressure which men face. They may not be able to get married for the time being or forever. Some of them have no other choices but to marry disabled people (Mo, 2005).

China used to have a tradition whereby men purchased women to use them as servants or concubines. Some people even today regard wife purchase as an understandable and acceptable practice. With the occurrence of “groups of bare branches” and “villages of bare branches”, a potential market for women is emerging. Instances of abduction and trafficking of women are on the increase. Most of these trafficked women come from poor areas. They are sold to those areas where there is a shortage of women. In certain areas, village administrators and grassroots government employees consider sale of women to be a kind of assistance to unmarried males. Purchased brides contribute to the solution of the problem of getting unmarried men to have their wives. It can help not only to reduce the number of bare branches, but also maintain law and order in the area. One village administrator has said that it is a good thing to have girls no matter how they are obtained. There are not enough girls in our village, and there are many men who cannot find wives. Some villagers have raised money themselves to find wives, and such a practice has helped to solve our problem (Pan, 2002). Apart from woman trafficking within China, some brides who have been sold as brides come from China’s neighbouring countries such as Vietnam and North Korea through trafficking. This has damaged China’s image in the international community.

Case 1 “Helping” a Girl Enter Her Bridal Chamber – Two Peasant Women Committing a Rape

In 1993, Jin, a bare branch, spent 2200 Yuan and purchased from a human trafficker a girl named Zhang, who was a native woman from Sichuan province with an intention to have her as his “wife”. On the date of the “wedding ceremony”, Zhang, who was only 17 at the time, cried and refused to enter her “bridal chamber”. Many villagers gathered outside the house as spectators. Seeing what was happening, Li Longqun and Wang Zhanghua helped to push her to the bed by holding her legs, which enabled Jin to rape the girl. In September, 2003, Jin was convicted of rape and woman trafficking by the court and was sentence to 10 years in prison. Wang Zhanghua, who was “very helpful” during the incident and who was 60 years old now was also sentenced to 3 years in prison for her part in the rape. Li Longqun fled and hid herself after the incident and was captured in January, 2004. She was sentenced to 4 years in prison (Wang and Ding, 2004).

Under the circumstance that there is a gender imbalance, many types of marriages have now re-emerged, such as marriage of exchange, marriage purchase, child brides and wife rental. Such a trend is growing rapidly, which destabilises families. In the traditional Chinese society, parents regard marrying off their children as their important responsibility. Many families explore every avenue, but they often become victims of fraud. There are instances of marriage fraud in all the rural towns and villages visited by researchers. Most fraud victims are bare branches, who often fall prey to the trick of finding them brides from Yunan, Guizhou and Sichuan provinces. Some men have even been deceived twice or three times. Some wives from other areas run away after one or two days. Some even run away after they have given birth to children. Being deceived hurts those men above the normal matrimonial age and damages their family financial situations (Wei and Li, 2012).

Masturbation and homosexual activities

Due to their inabilities to get married, bare branches have suffered, to a relatively great extent, from enjoying a normal sex life. Masturbation plays alternative role in substituting a sexual partner, and has become one of the main ways to satisfy their physiological needs (Zhang et al., 2009). The masturbation frequency of unmarried males is twice as high as those who are married (Li et al., 2010). The percentage of homosexual activities amongst unmarried males is 17.2, which is markedly higher than of that among married males. Over 60% of homosexual activities are carried out without using any protective measures (Yang et al., 2011).

Having Illicit Affairs with Married Women

The existence of many bare branches is having a negative impact on normal married relationships, to some extent. They try to compensate their unmarried life by having illicit affairs. Such a practice makes it difficult to stop sexual relationships which take place outside marriages.

In a rural area in Guizhou province, a villager had a suspicion that his wife was having an affair with a single man in the same village. He pretended that he had something to do in town and left the village. At 2:00 am that evening, he and his brothers suddenly went to his house and caught her wife’s lover. They escorted the bare branch to the house of the communist party secretary of the village. During the Chinese New Year period, the village committee would organise all the bare branches in the village to come together to study the Chinese laws such as the “Marriage Law” and “Criminal Law” (Chen, 2007). In some villages, one can find migrant workers who have left their villages to work elsewhere from many households. There are many bare branches in these villages. Some husbands and wives either have left their villages together as migrant workers, or one of them feels uncomfortable to work as a migrant worker elsewhere even if he would like to do. He has to stay at home so as not to give those single men any chances (Li and Xu, 2007). In some places in Shanxi province, due to the existence of a large number of single men, promiscuity has taken place in some villages. In some places in Henan province, wives who have stayed at home while their husbands work elsewhere as migrant workers have formed extramarital relationships with bare branches. Such a phenomenon has a big destabilising effect on married families in those communities (Luo, 2008).

In some places, those men who cannot get married can publically have sexual relationships with married women. They stay in their houses at night or women come to stay overnight in their houses. They give all their income to the families of those women to help with their living expenses. Such a practice is called “taking a second unofficial husband”. A male in such a relationship gets a woman’s care and satisfies his sexual needs by selling his labour. With an increase in the number of bare branches, marriage problems caused by finding spouses can increase the regional phenomenon of such labour (Mo, 2005).


As people's attitude towards sex is becoming more and more open, the public’s perception of prostitution as a crime has decreased, and the effect of judicial control has reduced. Prostitution has increased rapidly, and it is spreading to a very wide area. Many bare branches are unable to get married. As a result, they are likely to be engaged in the illegal sex trade.

In some of the rural areas in Jinlin province, the older a single man gets, the fewer hopes he has in getting married. As a consequence, they try to entertain themselves through smoking and drinking. Some bare branches frequent song parlours, and 60% of their annual income is spent there (looking for prostitutes) (Mo, 2005). A study carried out in Anhui province in 2008 shows that a bare branch has a variety of sexual partners due to the fact that he does not have a fixed partner who is legally and socially accepted. Bare branches are more likely to have sexual relationships with sex workers (Zhang et al., 2009). This group of bare branches, huge in their numbers, has created a “sex trade market” in the countryside. Underground prostitution trade in the countryside near some counties is booming. Because of low fees, bare branches on a low income are able to afford these prostitution services. Such services are a big temptation to unmarried men (Jiang and Li, 2009)

In multi-ethnic China, the sexual deprivation problem in the rural Han area has moved to ethnic minority regions. In Yunnan’s south western mountainous regions where many ethnic minority people live, such as those of Lahu, Wa, Niha and Lisu origins, the ratio of young men to young women ranges from 4:1 to 10:1. There is a serious gender imbalance problem. The social problem caused by a reduction in female numbers occurred as early as the 1980s (Ma, 2006). In the remote Miao villages in western Hunan province where there is a serious gender imbalance problem, where local girls have moved out of the area after they have got married, and where there is a serious outflow of potential brides, many villages have almost been turned into bare branch villages. Several dozen female villagers provide sexual services for those out of about a thousand bare branches who can afford a service charge. Many pretty and kind-hearted wives give away their “intercourse rights”, which should have belonged to their husbands, in exchange for the remaining money which these women use to supplement their income to look after the young and the old in their families, after those bare branches have purchased their daily necessities. Those bare branches can thus enjoy themselves and have their basic human needs satisfied. Prostitution fee ranges from about 20 to 30 Yuan each session. Those who cannot afford the charge can look at live sessions through a small hole in the wall at a reduced rate of one Yuan per session. Zhang, a 68-year-old bare branch, walks a long distance to sell a duck just to have his sexual needs fulfilled (Laoyu, 2011).

Sexually Transmitted Diseases

In China, sexually transmitted diseases (STD) have now become a serious public health issue. HIV, as the worst of all, has been spread to a wide area and has an ever growing impact on society. The official figures for 2008 – 2011 released by the Government show that those who have been infected by HIV have been increasing at a rate of 18% to 20% annually.

Generally speaking, bare branches in the countryside have a poor understanding of STD and do not know how to prevent diseases from spreading. A study carried out in 2008 in Anhui province shows that unmarried males are more likely to have unprotected sexual encounters with sex workers, and this makes it possible for HIV/STI to spread (Zhang et al., 2009). Bare branch groups, huge in their numbers, have created many “sex trade markets” in the countryside. Charges are low in these markets, and they attract many bare branches. Poor hygiene environment and lack of sexual knowledge have contributed to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, especially the spread of AIDS (Jiang and Li, 2009). In a poor rural Yunnan village, many bare branches spend their time walking around doing nothing. If they have money, they will spend it on drinking, gambling and prostitution. Excessive alcohol consumption has already made lots of young bare branches mentally dull and physically weak. Many of them have contracted sexually transmitted diseases as a result of their coming into contact with prostitutes. Some of them have even suffered from multiple infections (Li and Xu, 2007). As bare branches belong to the high risk group likely to catch STD, bare branch groups and sex workers have an important  impact on future spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases in China (Tucker et al., 2005; Ebenstein and Sharygin, 2012).

If the infection rate keeps increasing amongst sex workers, AIDS will spread to the general public. In China, many people are concerned that the disease will very quickly spread to general people. The principal transmission channel is through heterosexual activities (Kaufman and Jing, 2002). A short-term forecast of HIV infections (if there are no policy interventions) puts the figure at somewhere between 10 million and 20 million people (United Nations Team Group on HIV/AIDS in China, 2002; Morrison and Gill, 2003). Of course, sex behaviors will be very important determinants of HIV spread in China’s future (Ren et al., 2009). Macro-modeling after taking into account the characteristics of gender imbalance and sex amongst single males and sex workers shows the HIV infection rate will increase rapidly, even though different scholars have obtained different results (Merli et al., 2006; Hertog and Merli, 2007; Merli et al., 2009; Ebenstein and Sharygin. 2009; Tucker and Wang, 2009).

Legalization of the Sex Industry?

Although the sex industry is outlawed in China, it is actually very developed in the country and is present in virtually every corner of the country. China has become one of the countries in the world which has the largest number of prostitutes. Prostitution has developed into a profitable business in the market economy.

Low end sexual services are thriving in the areas where there is a concentration of rural migrant workers with a highly developed sex industry chain. A study of a village within a city in Xi’an in Shanxi province in 2009 shows that although there are only a dozen streets in the village, there are over 20,000 migrant workers from the countryside, and 600 female sex workers. Different kinds of small groups have been allocated various streets and run the show there. Prostitutes belong to different groups. They work hard every day, but they only earn about 20-30 Yuan each time they provide a service. Half of their earnings go to those in charge (Wei and Li, 2012).

Supply of prostitution services depends on availability of demand. If sexual needs are to be met, the large number of bare branches will certainly lead to a large expansion of the sex industry (Hesketh and Zhu, 2006). Although the economic situation of bare branches is such that it limits their consumption capabilities and makes it impossible for them to become main consumers of prostitution services, if there are a large number of bare branches in a particular area, they will form a potential and huge market in need of sexual services, which can be used, to some extent, as an excuse for the need for and expansion of the sex industry in the area (Mo, 2005).

As a matter of fact, prostitution is regarded as normal by many interviewees. Research carried out over a two year period through qualitative interviews between October 2007 and November 2009 in Anhui, Shanxi, Fujian, Henan, Guangdong and Zhejiang has found that a majority of bare branches have visited prostitutes. They can readily voice such frank admissions. Married men who have come to work in cities as migrant workers without their wives are de facto bare branches. They also visit prostitutes on a regular basis and consider their actions as quite normal in “satisfying normal needs of a man”. They often discuss such issues amongst themselves and recommend their friends to visit those song parlours which offer good value for money (Wei and Li, 2012). Such behaviours can often be understood by others. A village cadre in Jilin province once said, “Young people with some money often go to song parlours in the town. Those without money but want women just gather around these parlours and wonder where they can find some money so that they can also have a go. What can they do? They are not married. Frankly, thanks to these parlours, these young and dynamic men can have a place to satisfy their needs. Otherwise, what can they do? If they are not allowed to use prostitutes, what can they do? They want women, and the only way for them at present is to use prostitutes. Although such a practice is illegal, they are also normal men. They have their normal physiological needs. Without using prostitutes, what else can they use? ” (Mo, 2005)

The “Valencia Declaration on Sexual Rights” at the XIII World Congress of Sexology in Valencia (Spain) in 1997 states that sexual rights are universal human rights based on the inherent freedom, dignity, and equality of all human beings. The sexual rights must be recognized, promoted, respected, and defended by all societies through all means. This involves the right for individual decisions and behaviours about intimacy as long as they do not intrude on the sexual rights of others (Li, 2004). In light of this, some scholars have suggested that China should legalize the sex industry. One of their reasons is that due to intense competition in society, there will be some men who have no money, no social status, no sexual partners and no families. Their sexual needs should also be met, and sexual rights be respected. Legalization of the sex industry can provide them with a way for them to satisfy their needs (Li, 2004; Song, 2004).

However, it is not feasible, at present, to legalise the sex industry in China for the following reasons: prostitution damages healthy social conduct as well as social order. It violates moral feelings held by a sizable number of people. Traditionally, the right to sexual intercourse results only from a marriage, which means that only a married couple can have sex. Sex outside a marriage goes against the social norm and should be condemned. Law has to be drafted by taking into account people’s moral feelings. Such feelings are formed over a long period of time and have a deep cultural root. They have, to a large extent, an impact on the drafting and the implementation of the law; still, allowing “red light districts” to exist will not completely put an end to underground prostitution. Neither can it solve the social problem of female prostitution in any real way or prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. On the contrary a perceived disadvantage of open and decriminalized sex work is that it might increase the incentives for women to enter sex work, thus accelerate the spread of HIV (Yu et al., 2009).

Conclusions and Discussions

Bare branches who are of sexually active age will resort to all kinds of means to try to get married. This leads to an increase in extramarital activities, and increases crime in society. Mercenary marriages and criminal activities such as woman abduction and trafficking have re-emerged. In order to find outlets for sexual release, some bare branches would carry out homosexual activities, commit adulteries or use prostitutes. Unable to get married, they go to “red light districts” to look for ways to satisfy their sexual needs. This increases the risk of spreading sexually transmitted diseases, stimulates the development of the sex industry and causes different social problems, such as increases in crime as a result of conflicts between prostitutes and their clients, and worse security situation.

The sexual rights are one of the fundamental human rights. However, under the current circumstances in China, since it is next to impossible to legalise the sex industry, how can millions of bare branches in China have their sexual rights met at present as well as dozens of years ahead?

Yu Jingzhong, a famous expert in agriculture, believes that the generation of bare branches constitute the majority of migrant workers. A series of problems from sexual repression to sexual conflicts, from sexually transmitted diseases (including AIDS) to sexual crimes can arise. At present, China has the largest migrant population in the world. If there is a marriage crisis, a variety of serious problems can occur (Bao, 2006).

In this article, we depict the traits of bare branches and their sexual outlet, how they accelerate the spread of STDs and the development of sex industry. Our finding is useful for intervention and prevention of STDs spread. As so many bare branches may use low end sexual service, it would be important to educate bare branches and low end sex workers of protected sex service and intervene in this industry. Our study is a qualitative one, but more surveys and quantitative research are needed for further understanding of this group.


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