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International Gay & Lesbian Review

Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China

by Bret Hinsch

Walter L. Williams: Walter L. Williams is Professor of Anthropology and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California, and Editor of the International Gay and Lesbian Review. An earlier version of this review first appeared in the Journal of Sex Research in 1993.

Within the last two decades an outpouring of studies have been done on homosexuality, yet the vast majority of them have been limited to the modern West. In the last few years, however, an increasingly impressive literature has begun to emerge on same-sex eroticism in other cultures. By expanding the boundaries, in seeing how different societies organize sexual variance, we can better understand the wide range of possibilities, and can transcend the limited vision of the contemporary West. The ignorance of many Americans and Europeans about worldwide same-sex love is not only ethnocentric, but it deprives many individuals of realistic and respectable role models which might be adapted from other cultures.

Bret Hinsch's historical study of same-sex love in China, from the ancient Zhou dynasty until the end of the Qing dynasty in the early twentieth century, is a recent example of this new and exciting scholarship. Hinsch is properly conscious of the limitations of his sources, which are focused mostly on the emperors' courts and the upper class, but he inventively uses court records on male prostitution, fiction, poetry, religious tracts, jokes, and philosophical treatises to learn about homosexuality among the common people in pre-modern China. He sensibly incorporates both “essentialist” and “social constructionist” perspectives of sexuality into his analysis. Essentialists have argued that certain individuals have an inborn, or essential, aspect of their character that makes them gender nonconformist and/or homosexually oriented. On the other hand, social constructionists argue that all people have a pansexual potential, which societies shape, or construct, in wildly divergent ways. The constructionist perspective is useful for understanding socially-approved forms of sexual and gender roles that a society encourages for the majority. And in fact, research has shown, the majority of individuals do conform to whatever sexual style their culture tells them is proper, no matter how divergent those behaviors might be. Thus, Hinsch found that, before 1900, the dominant social construction for males in China was bisexual. Most Chinese men did not see themselves as being divided into strict categories of “homosexuals” and “heterosexuals,” but evidenced a relaxed erotic attraction to both sexes. Wealthy married men or unmarried scholars often had a boy (ranging in age from as young as nine to as old as twenty-five years) as a concubine, or they patronized boy prostitutes. Chinese philosophers wrote that it was better for a boy to sell his body, as a favorite or a prostitute, than to languish in poverty. Prostitution/concubinage represented one of the few opportunities for lower class boys to raise their economic status and to support their parents comfortably. If a boy became a beloved of a wealthy older man, he was sometimes offered material wealth or political office when he matured. His patron/lover might even arrange a heterosexual marriage for him, and serve as best man at his wedding. Individuals who enjoyed male-male sex were not seen as distinct personality types, but merely partook of certain “passions.” These passions were termed “passions of the cut sleeve,” after the devotion shown by Emperor Ai (ruled 6 B.C.E. – 1 C.E.) who cut the sleeve off his shirt rather than disturb the sleep of his beloved boy lover Dong Xian. Another term was “passion of the half-eaten peach,” reflecting the consideration of Mizi Xia, the court favorite of the ruler Ling (534 – 493 B.C.E.), in giving a particularly delicious peach he had tasted to his beloved patron to eat. On the other hand, certain Chinese men were recognized as being “enthusiasts of male love,” and some kept lifelong male partners even if they were also married to a woman. More egalitarian male-male relationships also existed, in terms of fictive “elder brother/younger brother” couples. Still other males refused to marry heterosexually, and took on a more androgynous role, becoming like a wife to a masculine man. In the royal courts, many males did not marry, and they fit into court society as artists, servants, administrators, or favorites of the emperors. The social constructionist position does not account for why these individuals remained sexual nonconformists. In cases like this, Hinsch posits the essentialist view that they may have had inborn characteristics which oriented them toward homosexuality. Recent discoveries in the field of biology and genetics lend credence to this view. Hinsch convincingly argues that historical examples of such male love “enthusiasts” and those with same-sex “passions” passed down through written records and oral traditions, constituted a prominent Chinese homosexual tradition. These widely-known stories gave subsequent generations of homosexually-inclined males a sense of understanding of their feelings and desires. Moreover, this homosexual tradition not only acknowledged sexual attractions between males, but also emphasized romantic love and devotion. In a society characterized by arranged marriages, in which the bride and groom often did not even know each other before their wedding day, romantic involvements were often likely to be with a same-sex friend. While this is an important book, there are some weaknesses. The author should have given more acknowledgment and credit to the recent writings by a Hong Kong gay writer Xiaomingxiong, who published a history of homosexuality in China, written in Chinese but using many of the same sources, titled Zhongguo tongxingai shilu (Hong Kong, 1984). In his commentary, Hinsch surprisingly does not give much attention to eunuchs, and why they were considered particularly attractive as sexual partners for the emperors. Were they also considered attractive for other men as well? More needs to be written on this subject. Generally Hinsch writes clearly, but sometimes he confuses readers by using terms such as “transgendered” and “transgenerational.” For man-boy relationships, the term “intergenerational” is more widely used, but in some cases Hirsch's references cite lovers who are not that many years apart in age. “Transgendered” is not good to use, because it posits a Western dual gender system in which the only recognized genders are “men” and “women.” Hinsch seems confused about the idea of alternative genders, misinterpreting my book The Spirit and the Flesh (1986) by labeling the berdache as “a man who would dress as a woman and take on a female identity” (p. 12). This is wrong on several counts. Among American Indians and many other societies with berdache roles, a gender nonconformist, though he was biologically male, was not considered to be “a man.” Neither did a berdache “take on a female identity.” Instead, he held a berdache identity, which was distinct from the roles and identities of both men and women. And also, berdaches usually did not “dress as a woman,” but wore a mixture of both men's and women's clothing. The androgyny of berdaches, their differentness from both men and women, was what was important in this gender-mixing alternative gender role. Since Hinsch so fundamentally misunderstands the berdache role, I am distrustful of his interpretation of the Chinese sources relating to androgynous males. He consistently refers to them as “adopting female identity” (for example, see p. 126). My reading suggests that many of these androgynous males saw themselves not as “females” but as an alternative gender that is similar to a berdache. Given Hinsch's non-questioning acceptance of the Western dual gender system, we cannot know for sure how such relationships operated. There are other frustrations with this book. An appendix on lesbianism in China is tantalizingly brief, leaving the reader yearning to know more. Hirsch is correct to note that there are few written documents on sex between women, for several reasons: (1) Chinese females, from childhood into old age, did not have much freedom of movement to connect with other women beyond their local area, (2) few Chinese women were educated, and thus could not write down their experiences and feelings to communicate with others like literate men were doing, (3) Western visitors to China were almost all male, and they wrote little about affairs between women, and (4) any women who did have intimate relationships with other females would not be likely to share these intimacies with men. We can only guess about what might have occurred privately between a lady and her female servant, between female concubines in a harem, between a wife and her female in-laws, between female relatives, or among all-female occupational groupings like nuns and prostitutes. We desperately need more women researchers (preferably lesbian-identified) to interview elderly women and gather what remains of these private memories, before such knowledge is lost. Still, Hinsch does cite instances where relationships developed between concubines, and where a man's wife convinced him to take her female lover as his concubine or servant, so that the three of them could comfortably live together within the family structure. But he does not adequately expound upon the scholarship that has been done on the marriage resistance movement and the “Golden Orchid Associations” of female-female marriages in southern China. How these woman-woman marriages worked within the Confucian kinship system, and especially with the adoption of female children by such couples, has enormous implications regarding female homosexuality as an effective means of population control. What is most needed now is a history of both male and female homosexuality among twentieth century Chinese. Although Hinsch ends his text with the fall of the Qing dynasty, his Epilogue provides a movingly written and powerful critique of contemporary Chinese homophobia. He concludes that the easy acceptance of same-sex love began to change in China with the coming of the Manchu rulers, who reacted against the opulent libertine lifestyle of traditional Chinese civilization. But what really revolutionized Chinese sexual attitudes, Hinsch argues, was the impact of Europeans. By the early 1900s, Chinese “progressives” had become so impressed with Western science and technology that they slavishly adopted a mystical faith in the superiority of all things Western. Sexual variance was suppressed, in favor of Christian notions that the only purpose of sex was reproduction. Since Western medical and psychological sciences in the early 1900s saw homosexuality as “pathological,” China's traditional patterns of acceptance of same-sex love disappeared. Progressive scholars (employed by Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the People's Republic alike) deleted references to homosexuality in new translations of Chinese classical literature. They simplified the writing style, meaning that most literate Chinese could no longer read the classics in their original uncensored form. Thus, modern Chinese have been cut off from an important part of their heritage. It is a great irony, Hinsch writes, that some contemporary Chinese claim that homosexuality is “a decadent practice” only brought into China from the West. They are ignorant of the fact that what really was brought into China from the West was an intolerance for same-sex love. Given China's current concern for restricting population growth, it would make sense for the government to encourage lesbian and gay couples to pair up and adopt homeless children. Yet, such is the continuing impact of Western prejudice that many contemporary Chinese feel it necessary for everyone to marry heterosexually. They ignore the benefits to society that would occur if same-sex marriages were legalized. This book, together with a similar book on Japan, “The Love of the Samurai: A Thousand Years of Japanese Homosexuality” by Tsuneo Watanabe and Jun'ichi Iwata and translated by D.R. Roberts (London: Gay Men's Press, 1989. 158 pp.), may help to bring about a more accurate awareness among East Asian peoples that hatred of same-sex eroticism is a prejudice that is alien to their rich cultural heritage.

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