Book Review: The Libertine’s Friend

Trigger warning for discussions of sex with underage men and references to rape.

Further book reviews happen! This one is about The Libertine’s Friend: Homosexuality and Masculinity in Late Imperial China. Basically, the author analyzes late Ming to late Qing erotic, romantic, and other fiction to come to conclusions about how homoeroticism and visions of masculinity worked in, well, late Imperial China.

I am very much Not The Target Audience for this book, because everything I know about China can be summed up as Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and the imperial examinations. Given my lack of obsessive interest in late Imperial China, I occasionally had to force myself through it; while it was very well-researched and rich in detail, I think it’s better for people who are already interested in China, as opposed to those of us who have long-standing and passionate romances with ancient Greece and Rome. This is definitely not an introductory book to the subject of sexuality in imperial China.

Nevertheless, I have Thoughts, which will be happening below the cut.

First of all, what IS it with people and pederasty? I used to think it was just a weird Greek thing that the Romans stole because they were thieving bastards like that, but other cultures keep independently developing the “let’s fuck teenage boys!” notion. The late Imperial Chinese even developed similar complexes to the Romans, such as the idea of being anally penetrated as degrading/unmanly, the taboo around homosexual relationships with adults, and the tendency of penetratees to be of a lower class than penetrators. Are teenage boys that attractive to straight men?

You know, you never see people who go on about how in The Past sexuality was far better and that we need to return to the old gender roles that exist because Evolution talking about their attraction to Justin Bieber and how in a perfect world they’d be allowed to fuck teenagers. (Note: the fucking of teenagers, of any gender, is rape! Particularly when, as in late imperial China, many of the teenage boys were sex workers coerced into sex! I am not seriously suggesting that we return to institutionalized pederasty, any more than I suggest that we should return to institutionalized marital rape, or any of the other horrific sex practices certain cultures have developed. Just, y’know, that it’s interesting.)

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is the examination of the different archetypes of masculinity that developed from the late Ming to late Qing dynasties. Essentially, in late Imperial China there were two primary archetypes of masculinity: the Confucian scholar and the chivalric hero. The Confucian scholar was an intellectual who got excellent scores on his imperial examinations; he had filial piety and an excellent aesthetic appreciation of poetry, music, art, and sexual partners. The chivalric hero was courageous, strong, and skilled in battle; while he often had a wife, his primary emotional relationship (one which was occasionally depicted as sexual) was with men. Pornography also developed a third archetype, the libertine, who was basically the Confucian scholar archetype, except with more getting laid and accumulation of harems (a common trope in this porn– the libertine’s friend who anally rapes the libertine and then lets him borrow his wife– gives the book its title).

The chivalric hero is fairly similar to one of Western culture’s primary ideals of masculinity: the violent dude who Does Heroic Things and Saves People. The Confucian scholar, however, is an interesting archetype of masculinity to me, simply because he probably would have been called a fag by most Americans. While the Confucian scholar archetype does have its own version of the Success Myth (after all, you hardly qualify as the archetype if you don’t do well on your examinations), it also is substantially different from anything we would call masculine.

The Confucian scholar archetype and the chivalric hero end up hybridized into the “Confucian knight-errant” character; the author theorizes that the Confucian scholar had become too feminized, and that combining him with the chivalric hero allowed him to become more masculine while simultaneously preserving the erudition and aesthetic discernment characteristic of the Confucian scholar. Anxiety over how well men fit into the male gender role, perhaps?

Another thing I find interesting is how much late Imperial China valued male-male friendship. In modern American culture, male-male friendship tends to be devalued: strong emotional bonds between men tend to be seen as gay. Of course, the valuing of male-male friendship is pretty clearly a result of misogyny (since no women are the equals of the men)– nevertheless, a platonic/homoerotic male-male friendship as one of, if not the, most important emotional connections in a person’s life is something that I appreciate.

NOW TRENDING ON GMP TV

Super Villain or Not, Parenting Paranoia Ensues
The Garbage Man Explains Happiness
How To Not Suck At Dating

Premium Membership, The Good Men Project

About ozyfrantz

Ozy Frantz is a student at a well-respected Hippie College in the United States. Zie bases most of zir life decisions on Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, and identifies more closely with Pinkie Pie than is probably necessary. Ozy can be contacted at [email protected] or on Twitter as @ozyfrantz. Writing is presently Ozy's primary means of support, so to tip the blogger, click here.

Comments

  1. This article speaks about a similar practice occurring in our current times…it brought up some similar thoughts/observations/questions about attraction, commodification of sex, the link between poverty and exploitation, and the complexities of human sexuality. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/sep/12/dancing-boys-afghanistan

  2. If modern American culture devalued male-male friendship, then how do you explain the prevelance of modern war movies, buddy-cop films and sitcoms?

  3. Good review! I would be interested in your thoughts on some of the books on Lincoln. Lincoln had some strong male friendships, and unfortunately the standard reaction has been to say OMG HE WAS REALLY GAY. A lot of bisexual erasure seems to come from a sort of sexual version of the “One Drop Rule,” in which a single homosexual activity trumps any relations with women. I’ve always argued, for example, that Oscar Wilde was bisexual rather than gay.

  4. ^ It is explained because the characters in those works ‘redeem’ their masculinity by being violent, misogynistic or homophobic.

  5. IDiom – I think it’s more a matter of undervaluing emotional/physical intimacy in male/male relationships, rather than the relationships in and of themselves. Straight men genuinely caring for each other and expressing that care in a way that’s inadequately rugged/stoic/whatever is usually played for cheap laughs, in my experience.

    I’m reminded of the scene in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure where Bill is relieved to discover that Ted didn’t die when he fell down the stairs. They embrace each other, then immediately pull away and call each other “F*g!” in unison.

  6. My (admittedly partial) understanding of Imperial China suggests that there was more to the Confucian scholar than being a pious intellectual — in a way that challenges your conclusion that the scholars were “substantially different from anything we would call masculine.” The point of their examinations, which were incredibly taxing both intellectually and physically, was that the top scorers got the opportunity to become high-ranking dynastic bureaucrats. That’s a gig that came with money, property, and influence. What could be more masculine than that?

    It is hard not to see a few elements of a parallel between the Confucian scholars’ model of masculinity and American politicians’ model of masculinity. Our politicians are for the most part highly educated (making them, from a hypermasculine perspective, effete snobs), they play golf (instead of football, a real man’s game), they spend their time shaking hands (instead of working with their hands), and so on — but they’re the ones with power, so that’s all right and they still count as Men. I expect it was the same for Confucian scholars. It’s true, though, that our pols spend a lot of time during election season going out and knocking back beers in public to prove their masculinity, so there may be something to the Confucian knight-errant theory.

  7. “the fucking of teenagers, of any gender, is rape!” Seriously? Even in the USA it’s legal to have sex with eighteen-year-olds, right? In Sweden, where I live, the age limit is fifteen. When I was twenty I had a brief sexual relationship with a sixteen-year-old. Does that make me a rapist?

  8. “Are teenage boys that attractive to straight men?”

    Before testosterone hits, and sometimes even after, boys can look a lot like girls.

    see Andrej Pejic

    “The late Imperial Chinese even developed similar complexes to the Romans, such as the idea of being anally penetrated as degrading/unmanly, the taboo around homosexual relationships with adults, and the tendency of penetratees to be of a lower class than penetrators.”

    I think it’s a military thing, from back when defeat and rape were closely linked. Not raping defeated enemies seems to be a recent thing. Romans associated being penetrated with defeat, and thus submissiveness.

    We see the same attitude today in american prisons. Apparently a lot of inmates don’t consider a man gay if he penetrates another, but if he is penetrated then they consider him gay. This goes for rapists and rapees as well, with the usual victim-blaming.

  9. Monkey: A lot of bisexual erasure seems to come from a sort of sexual version of the “One Drop Rule,” in which a single homosexual activity trumps any relations with women. I’ve always argued, for example, that Oscar Wilde was bisexual rather than gay.

    Monkey, I said that a few years ago, here: http://daisysdeadair.blogspot.com/2007/08/bisexual-invisibility.html

    My exact words, “one drop rule”–great minds think alike!

    (/partial derail)

  10. The attempts at bisexual erasure, to me at least, indicate a great reluctance to accept bisexual males. I have a hunch this might tie back to the allowance of men to have these relationships, in that so long as you’re the top you’re okay but being the bottom of a relationship is not okay somehow.

  11. Since most living ape species (and indeed, most social mammals across the board) tend to use sex or sexually-symbolic postures to establish dominance/submission, it’s possible that there’s a hint of the old, “I’m in charge, therefore I penetrate you!” idea left in the human subconscious, and that it’s still working its way out of our system.

    This would explain the difference in perception between “pitching” and “catching” in homosexual anal intercourse, and why high-class adult men, in so many ancient societies, forced themselves on lower-class teenage boys. The man would be on a higher place in the pecking order because of his age and socioeconomic status, and so would sexually “dominate” his social “inferiors.”

    Sadly, there’s no way to prove that this is actually the reason for any of it, although it does make a lot of sense. Either that, or I’ve read too much Desmond Morris.

  12. A lot of bisexual erasure seems to come from a sort of sexual version of the “One Drop Rule,” in which a single homosexual activity trumps any relations with women. I’ve always argued, for example, that Oscar Wilde was bisexual rather than gay.

    From what I can tell, the rule works like this: cock is so inherently disgusting and degrading, that the only reason someon would associate with one is if they couldn’t get off on the clearly superior boobies. Hence, a bisexual man is secretly gay and just pretending, and a bisexual woman is just pretending to like women to titilate men.

  13. Daisy deadhead: I was going to call it the “One Cock Rule,” but I thought it might be a little crass ;)

  14. @ Leum

    I agree, that scenario seems to be the most common and basic mentality involving sex with men. The narrative seems to run that bisexual men are just gay and in denial; bisexual women are just straight but want attention. There’s also notes of there being some sort of societally feared drug-like addictiveness to cock, though. I can’t count the number of a raped straight stories involving gay women, and raped gay stories involving straight men that I’ve read or seen. The male/male scenario seems to be maybe *the* most common slash/yaoi plot, and I’ve even heard real-life accounts of the male/female version. That’s about the only way I can mentally reconcile the religious notion that homosexuality is some sort of resistable temptation to sin.

    The one drop rule also seems very strongly tied into the concept of man as success object. One failure and you’re just not a man anymore – no redemption, no return. In this version receiving a cock is just another way to fail, but being the pitcher is no failure at all. It may even be a higher form of success since your strong/rich enough to push your masculinity on someone that everyone knows shouldn’t want it.

  15. Daisy deadhead: I was going to call it the “one cock rule” but I thought that might be a little crass :) I also realize that leAves out bi women, but I’ve observed that no women are more visible, if not accepted.

    Interestingly, I read a column which pointed out that referring to Lady Gaga as a “queer ally” erased her bisexuality.

  16. Even in the USA it’s legal to have sex with eighteen-year-olds, right?

    Actually the age of consent is generally 16. Some States have an age of 18. NY is 17 but next door in Jersey and Conn. it is 16.

  17. Thanks for the info Levon. So, once again, what’s the basis for claiming that all sex with teenagers is rape? Are people unable to consent until they’re twenty?

  18. I was thinking of “teenagers” in the sense of “high school students.” I’m going to go out on a limb that, barring extreme circumstances (the proverbial 19-year-old and 17-year-old), an adult fucking a high school student is at the very least damn creepy, and probably rape.

  19. First of all, what IS it with people and pederasty?

    I figure it’s something similar to people’s obsessions with determining whether famous dead people were gay.

  20. And would you believe I wrote that comment before I saw the others?

  21. Ozy, I was thinking about it, and I’ll admit to being a bit of a creep at the time for having a sexual affair with someone that young. I even mentally called myself a creep AT THE TIME. But I can’t see how I could have been raping her, since she was the one who initiated the whole affair. And I do think you’re old enough at sixteen to actually want to have sex with somebody.

  22. BlackHumor says:

    I agree with the guy with the long Swedish name (sorry, no way I’m going to be able to spell that). Teenagers, at least the ones in high school, can totally consent to sex. Or at least, they can consent to sex if there’s not a significant power gap; a teacher having sex with high school students is still totally rape, but (for example) I know a guy who dated a 19-year-old college student when he was 15 and he was pretty clearly into her.

  23. That’s the name I use on Swedish blogs… I should have picked a new one getting here perhaps, but didn’t think about it. ;-)
    I’m a woman btw.

  24. First of all, what IS it with people and pederasty? I used to think it was just a weird Greek thing that the Romans stole because they were thieving bastards like that, but other cultures keep independently developing the “let’s fuck teenage boys!” notion.

    I think it might have something to do with preserving “proper manly dominance” while enabling romantic and sexual relationships between men (who, in many misogynist societies, are the only ones educated, taken seriously, and treated as people by men—when women are uneducated, socially isolated, and treated like objects or property, that doesn’t produce much common ground for a relationship based on shared interests and mutual respect, hence the multitude of male-love defenders calling it a better/truer/more noble relationship than what is between a man and a woman).

    If two adult, equal-status men have a relationship in such a society, there might be some issue with one of them being penetrated. It would be seen as an insult to one’s masculinity when masculinity is defined by doing the penetrating. But if there is some rank difference between the two—if one is not yet adult, say, or if one is a servant or slave—then that takes care of it; the one being penetrated doesn’t lose masculinity because masculinity can be defined differently in the context of youth or service; with the boy, especially, it is easier to resolve the cognitive dissonance by saying it is youth, rather insufficient manliness, that is the reason he takes the “passive” role, and just like all other men, he will become a penetrator when he grows up.

    It’s so common among societies because it’s the easiest of all ways to resolve male privilege and male dominance with the dual roles of anal sex.

Speak Your Mind

*