28 May 2009

Book review: Obsession: Male Same-Sex Relations In China, 1900-1950

Nigel Collett reviews Wenqing Kang’s new book 'Obsession: Male Same-Sex Relations in China, 1900-1950' which spans the dissolution of the Qing Empire, the chaos of its successor regimes, the Guomingdang period and the war against Japan.

Obsession: Male Same-Sex Relations in China, 1900-1950
Author: Wenqing Kang
Published by the Hong Kong University Press, 2009
204 pages

In the debate about the views and practices of indigenous homosexualities before the advent of gay liberation and queer studies in the west coloured all of our views of what had gone before, the establishment of the situation that pertained in China in the recent past is clearly crucial. Post-colonial discourse is at last getting down to grasping pre-colonial history, and so is helping to set the framework for struggles to liberate sexual diversity in Asia. It is beginning to provide the knowledge that will help to set us free. To know what existed before the advent of western religions, legal systems and social prejudices muddied Asia’s waters, is crucial to persuading Asian decision makers that in dealing with sexual divergence they are not dealing with western contamination and that alternative local codes, often considerably more liberal than those of today, were natural to their societies. Wenqing Kang, Assistant Professor of History at Cleveland State University in the USA, has now contributed substantially to this growing body of knowledge with his new book Obsession: Male Same-Sex Relations in China, 1900-1950, covering the period spanning the dissolution of the Qing Empire, the chaos of its successor regimes, the Guomingdang period and the war against Japan.

Obsession: Male Same-Sex Relations in China, 1900-1950 can be purchased online at HKU Press for HKD395.00 / USD49.50 (Hardback) or HKD195.00 / USD27.95 (Paperback). 10% off for web orders.
Kang’s book, a slim and smart looking volume of 148 pages of text with full academic apparatus, is the second book to be published in Hong Kong University’s new ‘Queer Asia’ series, which kicked off last year with Helen Leung’s Undercurrents. It is the fruit of his doctoral dissertation at the University of California, so is inevitably written in customary scholarly fashion. Though without a good deal of the jargon that disfigures many works of queer theory (Kang is after all a historian), it is a work that requires concentration and careful reading. This is very much worth that effort as this book covers much new ground, reveals many hitherto untapped sources and propounds some key ideas which will help shape debate for a good many years to come.

After a very useful preface in which Kang describes in depth the traditional terms (and so beliefs and practices) used for same-sex relations in China, the book looks at four groups of writing that illuminate the debates and prejudices that swirled around the subject of homosexuality (tongxing'ai or tongxinglian'ai) during these fifty years. Firstly, Kan examines the introduction of scientific sexology and social Darwinism into China, mostly from the west (particularly from writings by the German Richard von Krafft-Ebing and the Englishmen Havelock Ellis and Edward Carpenter) but also from Japan. He discusses the way these ideas melded with traditional Chinese ways of looking at the subject and the debates that followed their arrival, particularly between two intellectuals, Yang Youtian, who saw homosexuality as a pathology, and Hu Qiuyaun, who promoted Carpenter’s ideas of universal love. Kang also looks here at the investigation of Chinese historical records by Pang Guangdan, who used Havelock Ellis’s work as a template to resolve ancient and modern ideas.

Japanese educated writers of the semi-decadent Creation Society form Kang’s second focus. Their novels challenged social norms and the more conservative (because these were seen to be more scientifically modern) views of the May Fourth writers. In a series of novels by writers like the influential Yu Dafu, and his disciples Huang Shenzhi and Ye Dinghuo, and in the autobiography of Guo Moruo, tales of same-sex love are sympathetically told in a way that both rejects the old view of same-sex relations as mostly physical and the attempts of the new sexologists to classify them medically, concentrating instead on the liberating effect of love. Kang finds the converse to this happy and short literary interlude in his third topic, the socially conservative writings of the vernacular tabloid press, whose reporters and commentators, as do those of the present, fastened on alarming, weird and graphically ugly gossip, court cases and society stories to sell their papers. Kang unearths much new information here, from papers like Shanghai’s Crystal (jingbao) and Tianjin’s Heavenly Wind (tianfengbao). In these, attacks on prominent figures were made in terms recalling the traditional terms used in Qing times to characterise same-sex relations pejoratively as between exploiting higher class men and exploited lower class boys. Columnists used their attacks on same-sex targets for wider purposes, too (recalling here the current use of attacks on the gay community by fundamentalists to win political power for conservative politicians), for instance attacking lesbianism (‘mirror rubbing’ or mojing) to hit at women’s education, which they saw in Confucian terms as rotting the fabric of the nation.

The book’s final section examines changes in the publicly expressed views of the ancient opera practice of liaisons between rich patrons and boy singers taking young female roles (dan), showing how earlier favourable accounts slowly gave ground before more western concepts of homosexuality and a perceived need, one that became ever more pressing as the Japanese war progressed, to strengthen the sinews of the nation by rooting out the weak and effeminate, as well as to show foreigners a stronger face. Kang discusses here the way in which opera super star Mei Lanfang and many others felt, and complied with, the need to ‘clean up’ their act, in the process destroying at least the public acclaim for dan practices which had existed since the Ming dynasty.

Kang concludes that the pressures of modernity, felt in all areas by a China facing up to the 20th Century at a time of grave national emergency, impinged negatively on the way same-sex relationships were seen, so that when the Communists took over in 1949, much of the prudish and puritanical backlash which has hitherto been associated with them had already commenced. This is a persuasive thesis, but it is not one that is fully proved in this book. Kang’s concentration on a rather limited number of primary sources (though it has to be said that he has surveyed the entire secondary field) does not provide him a wide enough evidential base to justify his conclusion.

One fault of this book (and it is one common to many academic monographs of this type) is that the wider context of the discussion is largely absent. One needs a very good knowledge of Chinese history to make sense of this account. For instance, the growing conservative pressures that in the thirties and forties swamped the Weimar like freedoms of the twenties have to be placed against the gradual imposition of political and social repression by the Guomingdang, a party that based many of its ideas on the sorts of eugenic, racial and social theories being deployed at the time elsewhere, for instance by the Nazis. Deliberate nation building campaigns drove out dissidents of any sort as Chiang Kaishek (Jiang Jieshi, who gets only one mention in the entire text) tightened the screws of party control. Communist views of same-sex relations are not elucidated. Similarly, reference to international developments in views of homosexuality, particularly in Europe, where the French and German examples would show many interesting parallels in the period, would have placed this discussion in its historical frame.

And, of course, Kang is looking here at writers and their views, so not at actual practice; discrepancies, perhaps in the dan issue, are possible between the two, but of this we are left largely unaware. Even in the literary world, we are left somewhat at sea; a guide to the overall shape of Chinese literature and journalism at the time would have allowed the reader to give due weight to the subjects chosen. For the general reader, for instance, discussion of where the Creation Society fitted into the Chinese literary scene would have helped assess its significance. ‘Mandarin Duck’ and ‘Butterfly’ writers get a mention but not an explanation, ‘May Fourth’ writers only slightly more. Were there links between the writers and works studied by Kang? Were they aware of each other and what was their interaction? We remain unsure.

A certain mechanicalness affects this book, both in the way it analyses its subject matter and in its rather dry style (and some photos would have been very much appreciated; discussing the most famously beautiful male courtesan in Shanghai, Zhong Xueqin, without showing us his face is provocative!). Human sensibilities seem to have washed out in the detergent of queer theory. This is not just a matter of style. At times, it leads Kang to adopt some less convincing conclusions than he might have reached had he struck out a little more from his beaten queer path. For instance, it is surely relevant to ask how many of the Creation Society writers were themselves gay? Was this a chapter of the ‘homintern' (a portmanteau of Homosexual International)? One is left to guess. More importantly, the customs surrounding the dan are well described but their emotional and spiritual setting is rather absent. Wu Cuncun, in her look at the same subject in the previous century (Homoerotic Sensibilities in Late Imperial China), is better here, recognising the ‘aesthetic predisposition’ that allowed the rise of the custom out of Ming libertinism and pursuit of the ‘stylishness and prestige’ associated with ‘pretty and bright’ singer boys, and its development into the full blown adoration the literati patrons lavished on their dan in the late Qing, something most closely akin to gay New York’s addiction to opera and its worship of divine divas. Kang is also rather inclined to squeeze Chinese views and practices into western queer theory models (Sedgwick’s analysis of the conceptual incoherence of the internal contradiction of gender separatism and gender transitivity, for instance, which Kang does not convincingly relate to the Chinese sources). He does not always fit the square western peg into the round Chinese hole.

These criticisms aside, for the reader seriously interested in the history of Chinese views of same-sex relations, Kang’s Obsession is a volume that will need to be read and will form an important element in future discussion of this hugely important topic. It is a very welcome addition to the subject and proof that Hong Kong University Press’s ‘Queer Asia’ series is doing what it set out to do, to increase knowledge and to stimulate debate.

Obsession: Male Same-Sex Relations in China, 1900-1950 can be purchased online at HKU Press for HKD395.00 / USD49.50 (Hardback) or HKD195.00 / USD27.95 (Paperback). 10% off for web orders.