Since the country began to move towards a market economy in 1978, the economy of China has grown prodigiously. The average rate of eight percent a year is unprecedented. One thing that often does not grow, however, is penises. In one survey that went viral in 2014, almost half of respondents reported erectile dysfunction (ED). It came to be referred to as “the contagion.”
Since nanke – men’s medicine – emerged as a new field of Chinese medicine in the 1980s, the increase in the number of Chinese men seeking treatment for impotence has left the country’s economic growth rate far behind. Viagra made its debut in 2000, although its cost puts it out of reach of most Chinese men who instead resort to traditional Chinese medicine, a billion-dollar industry that is employed by the state medical system.
Everett Yuehong Zhang, Princeton University’s Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies, has studied ED for about 15 years and wrote a book on the subject, The Impotence Epidemic: Men’s Medicine and Sexual Desire in Contemporary China. Back in 1999, he was in a television studio in Beijing to appear on a programme about ED along with three prominent urologists. The lines were jammed. One camera operator turned to Zhang and blurted out, “ED is becoming an epidemic!” Zhang believes ED is no recent problem – it’s just now receiving more attention. But then, China’s startling economic growth and the accompanying pollution has been ongoing for more than three decades.
One possible reason for widespread erectile dysfunction in China is arsenic contamination, a known cause. A report by the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology that was published in the journal, Science, told how 19.6 million people in China could be at risk.
In the news recently has been the village of Heshan in Hunan province, which housed many mines and chemical plants until they were shut down in 2011 owing to the pollution they generated. Heshan is one of many of what have come to be known as cancer villages. Its population is around 1,500, and 157 died of cancer in the two decades leading to 2010 while another 190 were living with the condition. 71-year-old retired mechanic, Xiong Demin, and his wife both have cancer. He formerly worked at a mine and his wife washed clothes in a nearby polluted river. He declared, “She and I wake up every day just to await death. There is nothing we can do. There is no hope.” 200 locals tested positive for arsenic poisoning at one hospital last year.
19.6 million out of 1.4 billion isn’t much. However, the link only recently became known. As it was put in the abstract of one study, Risk of Erectile Dysfunction Induced by Arsenic Exposure through Well Water Consumption in Taiwan, “the relationship between arsenic exposure and ED has seldom been evaluated.” Given the filth that emanates from China with its breakneck economy, might pollution be to blame for even more lost hard-ons? Pollution is already known to have damaged the quality of Chinese men’s sperm.
Timothy Chilman used to work in IT. Once, in Sydney, he was turned down for a job because he was “too flamboyant” (“Someone who wears green tartan suspenders to a job interview probably isn’t going to fit in here”). Timothy then became an English teacher. University students in Bangkok complained that he was “too enthusiastic” and company students in Prague complained that he was “too theatrical.”