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9 May 2013

Same-sex behaviour in ancient China differs from modern understanding: Richard Burger (Video)

Richard Burger, author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, explains in an interview that same-sex behaviour in ancient China differs from the modern understanding of homosexuality.

China View reports: "The Chinese history of homosexuality has undergone a dramatic trajectory. In contemporary China, homosexuality wasn't decriminalized until 1997. And in 2001, it was removed from being listed as a mental disease. But for centuries, China was more tolerant of same-sex love than nearly any other society, rivalled perhaps only by ancient Greece and Rome, according to Richard Burger, author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China. However, he says the same-sex behavior in ancient China differs from the modern understanding of homosexuality."

Burger, a former editor at a state-run newspaper in Beijing, says in the video interview: “We really can't compare the homosexual activities of ancient China with what we see in the West today. Same sex love was everywhere. It's documented; there are books written about it. The Han emperor had a scribe who kept a book detailing the emperor's male lovers. In the West, homosexuality is what your identity is. It’s who you are. In China, men were heterosexual, most of them. They had their wives and their families; having sex with men was just something that they did. It was a sign of prestige. It was a very common practice there were brothels, whorehouses where the men could find boys to be with. This really exploded in Beijing toward the end of the Qing dynasty. That's when we brought in the Beijing opera and all these acting groups had lots of young boys and they would dress up in women's clothing. They would oil their skin and make their skin soft and they would be the boys for the wealthier man and government figures.

“It wasn't just about sex and it was a sign of prestige. The boy is always of a lower social class than the man who's paying for his services and it was seen as a sign of your wealth that you could be seen with one of these expensive boys.”

An excerpt from Richard Burger's 2012 interview with Danwei, a site that focuses on research and analysis of Chinese media and the Internet:

What was the pre-modern Chinese attitude to homosexuality?

Burger: If people are going to be startled by anything in the book I think it might be the section on homosexuality in imperial China. For centuries it was widely practiced, mainly by the literati and ruling classes, though there is plenty of evidence of same-sex love between ordinary Chinese, even in the countryside. As long as these men married and had children, it was acceptable for them to carry on affairs with men outside the home. Many emperors kept male lovers along with their harems of concubines. Han Dynasty scribes actually catalogued the emperors’ male lovers. Homosexuality was not an identity, it was something men simply did for entertainment, and often to display their class privilege. They were not “gay” — they were married men who carried on with men for amusement and pleasure. With the advent of the Beijing opera and the inflow of “song boys” who performed them, male same sex love soared in the late 19th century as many middle and upper-class men sought the company of these effeminate young boys, who always played the passive role and often dressed in female clothing. This didn’t come to an end completely until the early twentieth century.

When did homsexuality become a crime of hooliganism? When was this changed? How has life changed for gays and lesbians in China over the last two decades?

Burger: Early in Mao’s rule homosexuality was labeled both a psychological disorder and an act of hooliganism. Most gays at the time had no idea there were millions like them, and believed something was wrong with them. Men could only meet other men in parks and public toilets, where they risked arrest. Punishments varied in different parts of China. Some men were charged a fine, others put in jail, and often they were ostracized in their danwei, where they lived the rest of their lives in stigmatization.

It was only in 1997 that homosexuality was decriminalized and four years later it was removed from the official list of mental illnesses. Gay bars opened in the early 1990s and gays in urban areas became part of a community. The days of parks and toilets as the only option was over. Nevertheless, gays still succumb to the pressure to marry — more than 80 percent do so — and are forced to live a life of secrecy. This is tragic both for them and for their spouse, whose needs cannot be fulfilled.

To read more, click here.


Reader's Comments

1. 2013-05-10 09:07  
Mao had a small pecker.
2. 2013-05-10 16:21  
3. 2013-05-10 18:44  
The better articles are the Related Articles... follow links above... Have read Burger's book... a bit flaccid ...
4. 2013-05-10 22:24  
What a horribly written article. Full of punctuation mistakes, spelling mistakes. Fridae needs proofreaders.
5. 2013-05-11 02:28  
Daophos are you the "Nazi" poofer, I mean proofer for the readers??? You got way to much time on your hands. Get a life or get a job proofreading. Don't try to put down people, be positive!!!
6. 2013-05-11 05:35  
I find it interesting that the history of same-sex love in China is not very different from what it was in the West, perhaps human nature is just that, a human phenomenon, the same universally
The Christian church in the West even encouraged same-sex love among its clergy in different periods to avoid financial claims from the progeny of heterosexual love. Saint Aelred of Rievaulx, a high-ranking English Cistercian abbot of the 12th century, had a male lover in his monastery, and wrote a treatise on the subject. In Christian circles he was noted for his sanctity and scholarship.
I think the contemporary difficulty with same-sex relationships began in the 19th century when sex itself became a public moral issue, and synonimous with identity and other debated issues.
7. 2013-05-11 10:08  
I agree with hardy2 too! It was not till the 19th century that the world went wacko over this. What had been normal and understood for thousands of years was suddenly attacked by governments and religions.

Just go to various areas of the United States and you will see people with a lot of religion and little intellect, talking endlessly about the sins of homosexuals.
Governments, religions,and peoples were quite comfortable with it all till that period in the 1850's. The repressive Victorians and their hidden pleasures. Remember the very strong influence of England in China at that time. This changed China so, basically leading in time to the collapse of the Monarchy in 1911.

So China is mending its ways, I just wish the USA could do as good a job. There are states in the USA that are controlled by inbred hillbillies who take every word in the bible as truth. Except all the stuff they do not care to read like Shellfish, slaves, murder, torture, and of course treating women like cattle. So they see gays as the devil incarnate.

Don't you just sense a little envy there? hmmmm?

So governments and religions have done their job. Now we are fighting back to have our rightful place at the table of human dignity.

The Ancients understood so much more than we do...We will never be on an intellectual par with them. What a joy it must have been then.
8. 2013-05-12 15:42  
Hardy2, it would be more correct- in the English context- to say the "rot" set in under Henry VIII: who accused monks, among others, of the sin of sodomy. This was one of the means he used to disolve the monasteries and get his hands on the money and lands. Capital punishment remained on the books, but juries were reluctant to convict- because of the death penalty, until the late nineteenth cenutry; when the law was "reformed" by reducing the penalities and conversly increasing the convictions.
9. 2013-05-13 19:33  
The article and the related articles linked are very informative , educated and like eye opener.As i know ,read in chinese and talk with my straight friends,homosexuality in china has been wide spread or at least tolarent in the society since she had the record of history.It was not considered an issue of human right,but people just practice it either for fun or for prestige as refered to.In the end, when they come of age they get married and give birth to the next bloodline,and it seems no one cares about it . one question lingering for long is how come the hypocritic started to use it against the sexuality? when is the culture tilted toward the immorality of smae sex hehaviors ,although people still act it, and why? They seem not conviencing to me yet.
10. 2013-05-17 10:28  
99% of the Chinese gays around me succumb to the pressures of family, friends and colleagues to marry, have a kid and live unhappily ever after... Let's just hope this changes soon!
11. 2013-05-25 15:44  
I feel sad for the countless millions of gay mainlanders who marry the opposite sex for a number of reasons other than what a hetrosexual couple marry for. They always ask me if I'm married after having some ' fun ' together and are surprised that I can remain single at my age. Despite the rapidly changing socities in which they find themselves living in, unfortunately the issue of marriage is quite unadvoidable for a whole lot of them. How also unfortunate for the women who are married to these gay men whose true identity are unknown to them.
I can only hope that for future generations of gays on the mainland, the right to love and be respected for their own choices will prevail in a changing landscape of equality and love.

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