When Chinese director Zhang Yimou's latest blockbuster hit theaters here last month, it sparked just one topic of conversation, and a great deal of controversy.
The film's plot, aesthetics, and artistic ambitions, all those aspects of "Curse of the Golden Flower," were lost in a torrent of shocked comment on the eye-catching manner in which all the female characters' bosoms appear only a breath away from bursting out of their tightly laced bodices.
"A pile of steamed buns," fumed one establishment critic. A mother complained to China Daily newspaper that she had been obliged to repeatedly cover her 5-year-old son's eyes as they watched the movie. "I told him to do so with his own hands, but he wouldn't," she said.
The boy may have been wide-eyed with wonder at the unaccustomed sight of so much cleavage. But even as debate raged in the state-controlled media over whether the censor had been too lax, more evidence emerged pointing to the chasm that divides puritan official morality from real Chinese peoples' lives.
A survey of Beijing teens revealed that almost as many of them approve of living together before marriage as disapprove. And fewer than 1 in 5 of the girls said she would refuse outright if her boyfriend asked for sexual relations.
"The official ideology is still pretty much the same as it was in the late Maoist era" 30 years ago, says Jing Jun, a sociology professor at Beijing's Tsinghua University. "They haven't figured out young people at all."
Nor have young people necessarily figured themselves out, Professor Jing suggests, as they struggle to cope with massive social and economic changes they have seen in their short lifetimes. "The old era has gone, but the new ideology of making money ... leaves a vacuum of ideas regarding morality and behavior in a society changing so fast," he says.
Young Chinese don't seem to be taking much guidance from the official creed of "Socialist morality." The state's response to the tide of greed and lawlessness that has swept the country along with capitalism is enshrined in President Hu Jintao's "Eight Honors, Eight Disgraces," a set of platitudes such as "Be diligent; not indolent," or "Live plainly, struggle hard; do not wallow in luxuries or pleasures."