Smoking Hot Advertising: China’s Sexual Liberation, From Cigarettes to Lelo Rabbits

Let’s talk revolution — and not the one you might be thinking of, insert [wink]. Sex sells, we can see that in advertising worldwide, from West to East, from the tame print ad to that, ehm, unabashed social media post. But in pre-Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) China, the same principle seemingly applied. From 1930 to 2020, we dive into the archives and reveal the revolutions.


Time for some sexual exploration. First take a look at the iconic Shanghai calendar posters from a bygone era and how sexuality was used to create lust and lure for Western products and ideals.

Then, eye up the current advertising landscape, splashing across urban scenery what we refer to as having a second stab at sexual revolution in the Middle Kingdom, as well as those foreign brands who are betting big on China’s sexy market. 

Last, but not least, add a zest of that growing appetite for sex toys which nowadays helps drive this sexual revolution we are witnessing. 

Come hither!

1930s Shanghai Glam Squad: The Calendar Girls

Widespread in opulent Shanghai during the early 20th century, calendar posters (月份牌) were printed advertisements promoting new products, a way of “selling happiness” en masse.

1930s Shanghai was a cosmopolitan metropolis, complete with foreign concessions and a trading port, new products were regularly flooding China’s opening economy, hence, the need to advertise.

Mainly used for promoting tobacco, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals, they slowly disappeared in 1949 when the Communist Party took rule.

Not unlike print advertisements today, the ads were sexualized. A reoccurring theme of that slim, smiling woman, usually in a well-fitting qipao, was the standard form for the posters. Smoking was regarded as the mark of a modern woman at the time, inspired by Western ideals, so the posters often advertised foreign imported brands.


The woman in focus (in the above-seen ad) wears a floral, feminine qipao hugging the curves of her body, with an opening at the leg to reveal her lace underskirt. Legs, inevitably crossed, cigarette in one hand, she smiles happily in the setting of a traditional Chinese garden.

The above advert for Three Cats Virginia Cigarettes is so overtly sexualized, the glamourous model in question is reminiscent of an American pin-up girl. Her small waist, skimpy clothing, (wedge)heeled shoes, and elegant hairstyle ooze 1930s Shanghai glamour. What’s more, the model in question seems to have Western facial features; a rounded face, pale skin, and double-fold eyelids.

It seems these posters were not just promoting the product, but a new standard of beauty for Chinese women.

As Shanghai became more synchronized with the Western world, the calendar posters did too, promoting sexual liberation as the women confidently reveal their bodies. Nevertheless, this liberation soon came to an end, as the rise to ultimate power of the Communist Party in 1949 meant art production was institutionalized and new rules forced art to correspond with the newly-embraced political and social ideals.


The Roaring Twenties 2.0: Redefining Sexy

Flash-forward to 2020 and the sexual revolution continues as the country is gradually redefining what it means to be “sexy”. The announcement of Chinese film actress Zhou Dongyu (周冬雨) as Victoria Secret’s (VS) new brand ambassador came in April 2020.

The American lingerie label is looking to reshape its image, enlisting the high-profile actress in hope of a sales surge in the very lucrative Asian market. Actress Zhou, 28, best known in the East for movies such as “Under the Hawthorn Tree”, has broken the VS tradition of using only models to advertise their lingerie and loungewear.

“I’m not ‘sexy’ as conventionally defined,” Zhou tells the camera in her VS promo video, “I define sexiness as being comfortable, non-conformist, and expressing [oneself] in a natural state. It should be we who define sexiness, not we who are defined.”

Actress Zhou Dongyu (周冬雨) for Victoria’s Secret.
Actress Zhou Dongyu (周冬雨) for Victoria’s Secret.

Generally speaking, the subsequent Sina Weibo hashtag #周冬雨成维密大中华区代言人#, which reads as much as “Zhou Dongyu is the new VS spokesperson for China, received a 95 percent 赞 (“thumbs up” in Chinese) rating on the platform. Many Chinese netizens hailed the breaking down of  “sexy” stereotypes, leaning towards a more homely, loungy style, no-frills, and fringes, and many agreed with Zhou’s winged words of ambassadorial wisdom: Self = Sexy.

Under the hashtag “Sexy Is This” on Weibo, then, the brand definitely got netizens mulling over what ‘sexiness’ means. It seems Victoria’s Secret is beginning to dull-down the overtly sexual campaigns (that never really worked in China anyway) and Zhou’s role will help to promote the idea that Chinese women can define sexy, on their own terms.

One Weibo-user added, “to change the style of the past, to redefine the traditional sense of sexy. As a charm that resonates with others, sexiness is never external, only rooted in a comfortable state of self – the atmosphere is there, the feeling is right, sexiness comes naturally.” Another chimed in, “VS has stated that opting for Zhou was designed to break down stereotypes about sexiness and add more vivid notes to it. The natural state of your body makes you feel sexy.”

Actress Zhou Dongyu (周冬雨) for Victoria’s Secret.
Actress Zhou Dongyu (周冬雨) for Victoria’s Secret.

Kind, obedient and cute have typically been qualities desired by Chinese women, but at 5′ 3″, ambassadors like Zhou are redefining what it means to be “sexy”. In a promotional video, fresh-faced and natural-looking Zhou claims that sexiness is about “being comfortable”. Zhou’s message resonates with the idea that lingerie is about feeling good in your own body and we should all value self-worth over sex appeal.

With VS betting big on the Chinese market, the body positive movement seems to be slowly but surely gaining momentum. Only time will tell if their new celeb endorsement will spike or lulling sales in the Middle Kingdom.


The Rise of Sex Toys

Sex toys in China have gradually become a modern accessory to a fashionable and liberated lifestyle, though, they have actually existed in the East for centuries. According to researchers, sex toys were at the disposal of sexually discontented concubines 2,000 something years ago. Yet their use was forced into an underground one after the Cultural Revolution and ideas of sexual liberation were pushed aside as China focused on collectivism.

A growing appetite for sex toys now helps to drive this sexual revolution we are witnessing. In fact, sex toys are so ubiquitous that they are readily available at the counter of convenience stores like Family Mart, sitting right next to your grab-and-go basics like chewing gum and condoms. Handy, huh?

Lelo is the world’s leading “luxury pleasure object”, aka sex toys, company. The group began in Stockholm in 2003 and as the company grew in the 2000s, the team moved to Shanghai. With the changing sexual landscape in China, Lelo’s presence in the country is pretty significant.

Another big brand (like VS) thriving in the Middle Kingdom but presenting sexuality as pleasurable and personal instead of just functional — baby-making.


China’s sex toy market in 2018 amounted to 350 billion RMB and that figure remains on the rise, as owning luxury adult toys is no longer a taboo. With a “freer” society comes a freer attitude towards sex, pleasure, and relationships. Freedom for all be the rallying call, so to speak.

China’s sexual landscape is always changing. In the last few decades, China’s attitudes towards sex have become more liberal, as a modern-day revolution roves on. Billboards of half-nude men and women are a frequent sight in first-tier cities, luxury sex toys are also readily available throughout the country.

China is no stranger to sexual advertising, as the 30s calendar girls prove, but our most recent revolution moves away from the idea that the concept of “sexy” is one certain, unattainable image and instead is shifting towards “sexy” equaling being comfortable and confident in your own skin.

Sex is, once again, beginning to become a marker of self-identity, liberation, and enjoyment.

Welcome to China’s second sexual revolution.















Written by Emily Aspinall
Edited by Elsbeth van Paridon
Featured image: Copyright belongs to Fair Dealing, 2018
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Copyright@China Under The Radar, 2020. All rights reserved

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