Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 14, November 2006

Wu Cuncun

Homoerotic Sensibilities in Late Imperial China

London, New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004, 232 pages;
ISBN: 0-415-33474-8 (cloth) 70.00

reviewed by Mark McLelland

  1. How times change. As Chris Berry notes in his Foreword to Wu Cuncun's exploration of five centuries of Chinese literati's celebration of the pleasures to be found in the company of boys:

      Today, a network of wealthy and socially privileged men exchanging e-mails extolling the beauties of cross-dressed adolescent 'boys' and the pleasures of paid sex with them would be hunted down ruthlessly by the vice cops and exposed in the tabloid press, regardless of the refined literary quality of their musings (p. x).

  2. Given the politically sensitive nature of the class- and age-based same-sex interactions taking place among this subculture, it should come as no surprise that Chinese scholars, as well as Chinese Studies academics working in the west, have largely avoided addressing China's long history of homosexuality. Indeed, Chris Berry observes that '"homosexuality" is positioned rhetorically in China today as something that started somewhere else' (p. x), quite an achievement given China's rich literary tradition of male-male love. Western scholars, too, have supported this illusion. Wu points out how Robert van Gulik, who researched and published widely on Chinese eroticism in the 1950s and 60s, 'deliberately re-interpreted obvious examples of homoeroticism in heterosexual terms', his seeming motivation being 'to protect China from what may have been perceived as a moral slur' (p. 19).
  3. Given this reticence, Wu notes that few scholars have been inclined to address some of the more difficult theoretical questions arising from the particular ways in which male-male sexual encounters were understood in China and the manner in which this understanding diverged from notions of 'perversion' apparent in the west. Indeed, until very recently there was no category of 'perversion' in Chinese medicine and, much like Japan prior to the Meiji period (1868-1912), it cannot 'be assumed that female homosexuality and male homosexuality [were] in any way understood as being related phenomena' (p. 21). Consequently, as Wu argues, it is necessary to view 'sexualities as cultural systems' (p. 26) and to be aware of the tendency to import characteristically modern, western approaches, driven, as they are 'by assumptions of psychopathology' (p. 26) and 'the compulsion to explain homosexuality' (p. 27; emphasis in the original). Wu attempts to sidestep these dangers through conducting her analysis 'through the lens of "sensibility"' (p. 26), by which she means an attempt to describe the cultural flows and practices that constituted cultural capital among a highly privileged and refined class of elite male scholars and literati (some members of which also comprised the minor nobility and governing class).
  4. Wu notes that the cultural elite in the late Ming period (1368-1644) were particularly well informed about sexual techniques which they discussed extensively both in person and in illustrated manuscripts 'openly and without shame' (p. 36). This discourse was conspicuous for its celebration of both homo- as well as hetero-eroticism. Indeed, among certain sections of the literati, there developed the notion that homoeroticism (that is male homoeroticism, female homoeroticism seems not to have been discussed) was 'more romantic, stimulating and even purer than heteroeroticism' (p. 37). Accordingly, prose and poetic narratives of boy love circulated among this elite as a kind of cultural capital. Although the structures supporting the practice of male homoeroticism changed during the next dynasty, the Qing (1644-1911), Wu finds that 'the literary and philosophical world surrounding homoeroticism reveals a long lasting and culturally significant sensibility' that flourished in the late Ming, and that 'would evolve and flourish even further under the Qing' (p. 37; emphasis in the original).
  5. What kind of people comprised this literary elite? Wu points out that the literati were men of the upper classes who had gained prestige and power through success in the imperial examination system or who had gained the attention and respect of their peers via other modes of cultural 'performance' such as literary and artistic achievement (p. 58). Many were the sons of local nobility and had little need to seek paid employment, preferring instead to display their status through their command of cultural capital. Although the literati were not politically the most powerful force within China, they were 'culturally the most influential group within the Chinese elite and therefore Chinese society as a whole' (p. 60) and the homoerotic 'sensibility' or 'disposition' popular among them had considerable influence on patterns of taste outside their circles. Thus, while their attitudes and behaviours would have meant little to the vast majority of the peasant population, in elite, governing circles, they exercised considerable cultural capital.
  6. The 'boys' who were the objects of literati discourse (and sexual practice) were, however, from the lowest rungs of society and 'were accorded very low status and had no rights' (p. 56). Although their fortunes might have risen for a time in accordance with their personal skill and beauty, there was no 'role' for them in Chinese society 'beyond the gratification of male sexual desire' (p. 56). During the late Ming, these boys tended to be household servants and song-boys and the homoerotic relationships between them and the literati were viewed as an aspect of the master-servant relationship. However, during the Qing, male homoeroticism was increasingly discussed in relation to the boy actors of the Beijing opera, and association with these boys, particularly the more renowned among them, became for many literati, 'a fashion statement' (p. 67) at a time when government regulations made it difficult for officials to be seen publicly disporting themselves with female courtesans (p. 74).
  7. Wu importantly observes that in the context of Qing China, sexual 'morality' was a matter of male-female relations and the regulation of sexuality was really about regulating women's sexual behaviour (in particular, preserving or disposing of their chastity); consequently, 'what men did with other men could mean only comparatively little in terms of the social morality of the time' (p. 74). However, she is careful not to give the impression that the oft-repeated prohibitions on consorting with female courtesans somehow 'caused' the popularity of boy actors. Wu inquires, 'Can we hope to reduce a sensibility that developed and extended across several centuries to a few determinants found in political, economic or social forces?' (p. 114). She notes how male homoeroticism was not the result of heterosexual privation (after all there was no limit on these pleasures if pursued privately) but rather was 'supported by a broad sensibility that included art, theatre, poetry and other expressions of literati taste' (p. 115).
  8. However, despite the rhetorical refinement in terms of which the discourse of male homoeroticism was structured, the boys who were the objects of this discourse often led pitiable lives and 'in some ways it was their pitifulness that made them attractive' (p. 117). These boys 'were circulated within a cultural system where their misery was not allowed to become apparent without at the same time being romanticized' (p. 117). Wu observes that an empathic identification with the misery of their subordinates was not available to the elite men who traded in the boys' favours. China, at the time, like many traditional societies, saw different categories of people as being fundamentally unequal and the boy actors were born to their fate. We have no access to testimony from the boy actors outside of the highly scripted and rhetorical representations circulated among the cultured elite.
  9. Homoerotic Sensibilities in Late Imperial China is an accomplished work, carefully crafted and executed, full of insights and, at times, compassion. Wu skillfully opens up a lost world in which 'there was little disagreement that the beauty of young boys was an eternal aesthetic ideal' (p. 2), where 'feminized boys were considered fascinatingly romantic' (p. 4) and in which 'female homosexual behaviour [was] rarely mentioned or recognized' (p. 7). Through describing the alterity of this 'cultural system', Wu reinforces the queer insight that sexual behaviours cannot be theorised outside the cultural contexts that inform them.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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