The World

In a Bind

China’s fledgling rope bondage community struggles to break free of censorship.

Huahua, a rope expert, ties a model in front of an audience.
Huahua ties a model in front of an audience at a public event in Tianjin, China.
Photo courtesy of Huahua

SHANGHAI—Head, shoulders, legs. Huahua leans into her subjects while she binds them, making sure to never let the rope go taut. Her shears—a safety precaution—rest on the floor nearby. She never rushes to the final pose. The slow precision builds anticipation; tight ropes maintain the intensity. When suspending someone from a hook mounted in the ceiling, she uses her full body as a counterweight to lift them up.

Huahua, who requested that only her first name be used in this piece, holds Wednesday night rope classes in the backroom of a sex shop on the fifth floor of an old French Concession building in Shanghai. The walls of the room are mirrors, casting the rigger (who ties) and the bunny (who’s tied) into an infinity loop, and the floors are padded with foam to deaden any falls.

Shanghai’s organized rope bondage community has sprung to life in the past two years, fostered by organizers like Huahua, and the class is a cautious foray out of the bedroom and into the open. Though quickly growing, the nascent community is small and has had to repeatedly contend not only with conventional social mores but also with the all-pervasive eye of the censor. Police have shut down events, social media app WeChat has banned chat groups, and websites have removed articles on the subject.

Many young Chinese citizens feel caught in a vice: Although they live in an increasingly sexually liberated world, their conservative and authoritarian government warily eyes sexual self-expression and organized underground communities.

Most of the Wednesday students are newcomers—foreign and local—and Huahua, who is ethnically Chinese but was raised in the United Kingdom, switches between Chinese and British-accented English as she teaches the ABCs of how to bind someone.

Some of the young learners are artists, interested in the aesthetics of rope; others are longtime BDSM practitioners. But many just come for a class or two to spice things up at home. Salons for the more-experienced rope players are held every other Friday. Huahua believes the routine and regularity are important: It’s hard to foster a community without it.

A woman suspended by rope in a private studio
Xiaoqian, a fitness instructor and rope expert, suspends her friend in a private studio in Shanghai.
Photo courtesy of Xiaoqian
A model being tied in a studio
Huahua ties a model in a private session at her Shanghai studio.
Photo courtesy of Huahua

Before 2017, most local bondage practitioners were self-taught, tying privately in their homes and relying on YouTube and Vimeo videos. The subculture is not welcomed on China’s internet. Articles and videos that depict bondage are often removed, so organizers tend to advertise rope-binding as more of an art form than a sexual practice. (Practitioners see it as both.) Huahua said that, when posting articles in Chinese, it’s wise to use the words rope art instead of bondage, and to post more conceptual instead of explicit photos.

The smaller, fractured community before 2017 was largely underground; secret workshops held in private apartments were only accessible by word-of-mouth invitations. Some other BDSM groups existed, but none were rope-specific, and very rarely did they organize public and openly kinky events.

“Tie-Up,” which was launched in August 2017, was Shanghai’s first regularly held public rope workshop. The organizer, an Italian named Davide, who requested that his last name not be printed, has lived in Shanghai for nearly a decade. He had first learned about rope several years earlier during a visit to Nevada’s Burning Man festival. After studying under professionals in Japan—the talent pool in China was scarce—he began organizing his own events in Shanghai.

Rope bondage is an erotic art form that involves restraining people for artistic or sexual purposes—or both. Riggers—those who tie—typically use visually intricate patterns to restrain their “bunnies.” Although literature and art forms throughout history are awash with erotic depictions of humans binding each other, Japan is largely to thank both for the popularity of modern-day bondage as well as its techniques, which have been exported across the world. The most well-known Japanese bondage terms kinbaku (tight binding) and shibari (to tie decoratively) evince the artistic-erotic duality of rope. Bondage communities are extremely active in Asian cities like Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Seoul, South Korea.

There was a strong appetite in Shanghai for Davide’s workshops, which allowed bondage practitioners to congregate, make friends, and hone their skills. About 40 people showed up the first night, half foreign and half Chinese.

“But then the Chinese people started to share it on social media and other Chinese people came and saw that this [kind of event] could be very public,” he says. “They didn’t have to be underground or cover their faces or whatever.” Other Chinese fetish communities that already existed in Shanghai—groups interested in latex, rubber, and whips—began tagging along to Davide’s events, and the community rapidly grew.

A bondage demonstration in front of an audience in Tianjin.
A public event in Tianjin.
Photo courtesy of Huahua

What was different from before was the public nature of the event organizing. Tie-Up was hosted at Roxie, a prominent lesbian bar in downtown Shanghai. Davide openly advertised his workshops on WeChat, China’s largest social messaging app.

The stated purpose of the workshops was to practice rope, but the meetings also provided a gathering space for all sorts of other Chinese fetish communities. Tie-Up’s size reached its peak in August 2018 at an event celebrating the group’s anniversary. Nearly 200 kinksters were in attendance.

But the glory was short-lived: Two months later, the group was first investigated by the police. Davide suspects that someone from the Tie-Up WeChat group, which had grown to nearly 400 people, reported Davide for sharing lewd content. The group was blocked.

The same week, police showed up at Roxie. They left without charging anyone after the bar owner showed them the footage of consensual, nonsexual rope play—under Section 301 of China’s Criminal Law, “assembling a crowd to engage in promiscuous activities” carries a sentence of up to five years in prison—but the police firmly advised that Roxie cease holding these kinds of events.

Davide decided to lay low and not host events for a while.

In February, the police appeared again, this time visiting Davide. They wanted to know about an event he had held in September the year before. A woman had posted to her WeChat artistic photos from the workshop that made it look more sexually explicit than it really had been.

After Davide explained what had happened, the police suggested once again that he stop holding these events. A gentle but firm warning. After a hiatus, Davide has returned to the scene and begun hosting monthly workshops again.

BDSM and bondage are not illegal per se, but China’s laws are vague, and wording like “public promiscuity” in Section 301 of the criminal code can be interpreted in many ways. And it often pays to be overly cautious in a country where people deemed as unsavory are routinely put away, normally under some vague existing law like “disturbing public order.”

Xiaoqian, not her real name, is another fixture of the Shanghai rope community. Born and raised in a remote part of the country, Xiaoqian lives and works in Shanghai as a fitness instructor.

“They can make a law for you to go to jail,” Xiaoqian told me after I asked if it was illegal to organize nonsexual rope bondage events. “That’s just how the law in China works.”

This perhaps explains why, during Davide’s several-month hiatus from holding Tie-Up, no one in his several-hundred-strong rope community stepped in to take over leading the group.

“I thought that if there was a crackdown that somebody else would do something, because it’s much easier for Chinese to organize these events, because they don’t have a visa problem or language barriers,” he says. But nobody did. And yet when Davide reopened the doors to Tie-Up in April, the entire community flooded back in. “They were waiting for me to do it again, actually,” he says.

This reluctance makes sense. For someone like Xiaoqian, a local, the threat of the government is much more serious than it is to foreigners like Huahua or Davide. She says, “I think the main concern is that no Chinese people want to take responsibility to build up a community. The consequences could be very severe. You could lose your freedom.” Davide himself mentioned during an interview that the biggest threat he faced as a foreigner organizing rope bondage was a revoked work visa, which didn’t particularly scare him.

That’s also why Xiaoqian is careful where she publishes her lifestyle. She only posts pictures on Instagram, out of reach of the Chinese censors. (The platform is officially blocked in China, but many access it using VPNs.) She worries that posting on WeChat could somehow negatively affect her in the future. Even though it’s impossible to fully avoid, Xiaoqian tries where possible to minimize governance surveillance.

Huahua and a model in Tianjin.
Huahua and a model in Tianjin.
Photo courtesy of Huahua
Huahua, rope expert, demonstrates a tie.
Huahua demonstrates a tie during a bondage class in her Shanghai studio.
Photo courtesy of Huahua

Xiaoqian always looks over her shoulder when she attends events. “I always have this voice in my head; like, if it’s too loud, if it’s too wild, you’ve got to leave early. I’m always worried about the noises that could potentially attract cops or police, or get reported.” She says this makes her feel anxious, like she can’t just relax and enjoy herself.

Still, some are taking the plunge, and not just in expat-heavy Shanghai. Across China, some small bondage groups have popped up. In Tianjin, a city southeast of Beijing, a group called 815, which declined to be interviewed for this piece, regularly hosts public rope events. 815 is a registered business that applies for police permits before every workshop—you need to receive a license in China for any sort of organized gathering, like performances—and pays taxes on the tickets it sells. The group’s advertising focuses much more on the artistic side of rope. 815 has also had problems with the police, but Davide suspects that it is mostly left alone since it applies for permits and is a publicly registered entity.

Another veteran of the country’s rope community, who goes by the name “Crazy,” is credited by many I interviewed for this piece as China’s first rope master. Active since the 1990s, he lives in Beijing with his submissive, who always refers to him “Master.” Crazy is a friendly old man who has been practicing rope for decades. He’s thrilled by the recent surge of interest in rope even though he himself never organizes public events. Crazy only ties in private.

But besides some outliers like 815 and Crazy, the majority of the country’s rope community is based out of Shanghai. Those who aren’t, like Ben from Jiangxi province and Will from Nanjing, both of whom are local Chinese, make the trip to attend Davide’s workshops. There is clearly a lot of interest in bondage—Huahua’s classes, which I attended several times, are always full. Some of Davide’s workshops have drawn hundreds of people.

A semi-suspended model in Huahua's studio.
Huahua semi-suspends a model in her Shanghai studio.
Photo courtesy of Huahua

In private, the community is thriving. Many of Davide’s students have set up suspension points at their homes to tie their partners. But in terms of public events, many members of the community, like Xiaoqian, feel spooked by the police visits. Asked how the community is doing now, Davide says, “It’s back to being more underground.”

Like everywhere else, people in China are kinky and curious. They are drawn to rope for its aesthetics and its sexuality, but they are also bound by a police state that crushes any free expression it deems a threat.