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.