The Libertine's Friend: Homosexuality and Masculinity in Late Imperial China

The Libertine's Friend: Homosexuality and Masculinity in Late Imperial China

by Giovanni Vitiello

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Delving into three hundred years of Chinese literature, from the mid-sixteenth century to the mid-nineteenth, The Libertine’s Friend uncovers the complex and fascinating history of male homosexual and homosocial relations in the late imperial era. Drawing particularly on overlooked works of pornographic fiction, Giovanni Vitiello offers a frank exploration of the importance of same-sex love and eroticism to the evolution of masculinity in China.

Vitiello’s story unfolds chronologically, beginning with the earliest sources on homoeroticism in pre-imperial China and concluding with a look at developments in the twentieth century. Along the way, he identifies a number of recurring characters—for example, the libertine scholar, the chivalric hero, and the lustful monk—and sheds light on a set of key issues, including the social and legal boundaries that regulated sex between men, the rise of male prostitution, and the aesthetics of male beauty. Drawing on this trove of material, Vitiello presents a historical outline of changing notions of male homosexuality in China, revealing the integral part that same-sex desire has played in its culture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226857954
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 07/15/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 312
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Giovanni Vitiello is associate professor of Chinese at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa.

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Homosexuality and Masculinity in Late Imperial China


Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-85792-3

Chapter One

Male Beauty

In the late imperial sources, a number of factors align to distinguish the ideal boy from his adult pursuer. These factors—which involve age, social status, and gender and sexual roles—fundamentally confirm the gap between men and boys when it comes to homoerotic relations and desire found in the pre-imperial sources reviewed in the introduction. Normative homosexual relations during this period involved one of the partners being a teenager, as young as twelve and as old as twenty, ideally sixteen sui—roughly fifteen years old. The age gap corresponds to a disparity in social stations, with the boy typically belonging to the class of "vile people"—like servants, actors, or prostitutes—rather than being a member of the "decent folk" like his pursuer. Age and class have, in turn, an effect on gender, with the boy being as a result feminized to some degree, and carry an attendant distribution of sexual roles according to which the boy is meant to strictly play the sexually receptive role in anal intercourse. There was no such thing in late imperial China (or in classical China, for that matter) as a category covering both the desire of a man for a boy and that of a boy for a man, something similar to what we might call today "male homosexual desire." In addition to the literary lexicon of classical China, in Ming and Qing sources we find a new, more or less vernacular vocabulary of male-male relations, which reflects the sexual culture of people hailing from a wider variety of social positions. A review of some of these key terms should help clarify the conceptualization of homoerotic desire and the connoisseurial criteria of male beauty current during the late imperial period.


The basic notion operating in the sexual culture of antiquity, that a man may be attracted to male as well as to female beauty, survives in the late imperial period. That is to say, that adolescent boys, like women, are legitimate objects of male sexual desire. This relationship is exemplified at the syntactic level by the fact that the expressions "male beauty" (nanse) and "female beauty" (nüse) can be both preceded by verbs such as "to be fond of" (hao), "to desire/crave" (tan), "to admire/desire" (ITLμITL), "to like/enjoy" (xi) and the like, in order to describe the two potential directions of male sexual desire (the only conceivable subject of these verbs being a male one). The most common way to express a taste for sex with boys is thus the phrase "to be fond of male beauty" (hao nanse), which corresponds to "to be fond of female beauty" (hao nüse). A common synonym of "male beauty" is "male charms" (nanfeng), where the character meaning "male" (nan) is often replaced with the homophonous one for "south," in a ubiquitous pun whose implications I will discuss later in this chapter. Both these terms may be used to form the expressions "the way of male beauty" (nanse yidao) and "the way of male charms" (nanfeng yidao), respectively, which sum up male homoerotic desire and sexual practices. A synonym of these expressions is "the way of catamites" (longyang yidao), which like them may also be translated as "the way of sex with boys." Finally, a more literal reference to the "ways" of sexual intercourse is represented by terms such as "the dry route" (or "land route," hanlu) and "the wet route" (or "waterways," shuilu), referring to sodomy (usually) with boys and vaginal intercourse, respectively.

The parallelism between expressions for male sexual desire for women and boys thus points at a fundamental equivalence between the two forms of beauty from the perspective of an adult male subject. Moreover, the two directions of a man's desire are generally not thought to be mutually exclusive, nor fixed or tied to a specific sexual identity. In other words, all men are considered to be potentially sensitive to male beauty, and indeed the libertine of pornographic fiction generally is attracted to and sexually involved with both women and boys. It is therefore not unusual at all to find such a character, like, for example, the protagonist of the mid-seventeenth-century novel The Carnal Prayer Mat (Rou putuan), introduced as someone who "was fond of female beauty and male charms alike." In a story from the slightly earlier collection A Different Fragrance (Bie you xiang), a portrait is provided of rich libertine lads who, in significant symmetry, spend their time "seeking beautiful maids" and "filling up 'rear-yards.'" And the scenario does not change if we move to erotic fiction from the following century. Thus in Nonsense we read of a man who "craved women's beauty and desired male charms too," and of another who had a wife and two concubines and was yet "also exceedingly fond of male charms."

The list could go on. Countless examples from late imperial literature (and not necessarily erotic fiction, or even fiction for that matter) feature a man who is attracted to both women and boys. Men from certain geographic areas are reputed to be especially sensitive to both varieties of sensual stimulation, while others are famous for being partial to male beauty, as we shall see. But local sexual customs notwithstanding, male bisexual desire is generally taken for granted as a natural impulse. Bisexuality is sometimes metaphorically rendered as "going both south and north," where the two directions correspond to male and female respectively, a development of the homophonous pun between "male" and "south" (both pronounced nan) that, with a leap beyond homophony and by virtue of symmetry, establishes a correspondence between "north" and women as well. In a germane fashion, statements in reference to the entertainment business also emphasize the evaluation of male beauty as an alternative and at once standing in a complementary relation to women's beauty. In the early Qing pornographic novel Heaven of Apricot Flowers (Xinghua tian), for example, we read that the Double-Five Festival, the day of the dragon boats' competitions, is the time when people "bring courtesans to pass them the cup, and take along boys to assist them with the goblet." In his memoir Dreamy Remembrances of Tao'an (Tao'an mengyi), Zhang Dai, who nonchalantly and proudly listed his fondness for beautiful pages among his inalienable idiosyncrasies in a brilliant self-obituary, also refers to taking along both women and boys as escorts during outings. Slight variations aside, what the sources, fictional or otherwise, establish is the equivalence between male and female beauty and their legitimacy as objects of a man's sexual desire. The libertine, in particular, does not need to choose one and discard the other. In fact, to qualify as a libertine at all, he ought not to. As a top-margin critical jotting in Wang Jide's late sixteenth-century play The Male Queen (Nan wanghou) succinctly puts it: "For a long time bewitching catamites (longyang) have striven for the favor of emperors; since antiquity, it has been this way for a thousand years—only the man who does not make a distinction between male and female can be considered a true libertine (fengliu)."

The naturalness of male sexual desire for both women and boys is far from being a novel notion of the late imperial period. The Confucian classic Mencius (Meng Zi), dating to the fourth-century BC, states that "the desire for food and sex is natural (shi se xing ye)." Note that the word for sex (se) here is neutral and does not specify the gender of the object of desire (nor that of the desiring subject for that matter, though most likely implied to be male). To be more precise, the statement is attributed to Gaozi, who plays Mencius's opponent in a debate on human nature and morality, for which reason Mencius cannot but object to the implications of his idea, that is, that all natural desires are ethically proper. Yet, it is significant that in the same chapter Mencius himself, in order to make the point that beauty and sex appeal are objective, mentions Feng Zidu, a legendary male beauty of antiquity, arguing that "those who don't appreciate the gracefulness of Zidu do not have eyes." It is telling that about two thousand years later, Li Yu on one occasion joins the two statements as if one were a commentary on the other, and elsewhere, in a discussion about the beloved as a medicine against melancholy, he mentions three categories: wives and concubines, catamites and male favorites, and close friends. Likewise, late imperial moralistic tracts, the so-called ledgers of merit and demerit, consistently warn men against surrounding themselves with beautiful pages and, clearly in line with the Mencius statement, claim that it is impossible to resist temptation when a "Zidu" is in the room—"How could one shut one's eyes?"


Heterosexual and homosexual desire are thus not thought to contradict one another, but to potentially arise in the same individual. It is conceivable that a man's sexual desire would be directed "exclusively" (zhuan) toward either boys or women, but more often it is a matter of degree—a man may be "extremely" (ji) fond of one or the other, or "overwhelmingly" or "addictively" (ku) so. An especially pronounced craze for one of the two varieties of beauty may be typically described as a "weakness" (bing, maobing) or as a mildly obsessive "idyosyncratic passion/ natural inclination/ fondness/ weakness" (pi'ai, pixing, pihao, pibing). Although these terms tend to qualify an excessive fondness for boys, this does not mean that they imply a pathological assessment of homoerotic desire. In fact, they can also be used to describe an equally crazed and one-sided heterosexual proclivity, or just a generic obsession for sex. Thus, in a story from the seventeenth-century collection The Flowers-Carrying Boat (Zai hua chuan), a character is said to be excessively fond of women, and the word "weakness" (maobing) is used. And in the eighteenth-century erotic novel Coarse Stories from the Fief of Zhulin (Zhulin yeshi), a nobleman is again said to have a "weakness"—that is, "he covets lewdness and is fond of sex." We might recall in this regard that particularly in late Ming literati culture, obsessions are deemed a desirable trait, if not a distinctive requirement for a sophisticated scholar and connoisseur, who in turn is expected to understand and respect any idiosyncratic taste in others. One example is Zhang Dai's apology of his good friend Qi Zhixiang's obsession for boy entertainers. As a true connoisseur, Zhang praises Qi's singer-escort Abao, likening him to an olive—which tastes bland at first but then has its unpredictably unique flavor come back—and expresses admiration for his friend's casting aside his wife as simply "as one takes off one's shoes," so as to be only in the company of his favorite boy.

A prominent sexual inclination toward boys, it is often implied, is a natural trait of one's personality. Such a "weakness" is constitutive of a person from the very early stages of his development, if not even from before his birth. As we shall see in greater detail in chapter 3, one of the stock characters of pornographic fiction is a man exclusively interested in boys, who is endowed with a beautiful wife whom he is willing to trade for homosexual sex. Such a character typically recognizes and reflects on his having always had the same sexual taste, a fact that he (and others) understand as part of his very identity. In Nonsense we encounter a man who has shredded his patrimony to chase after boys; he is said to "having been crazy about boys since he was a child." Occasionally we also encounter the notion that a propensity for boys even precedes birth and is therefore defined as a "congenital weakness" (taili bing) or, more literally, residing in someone since he was in his mother's womb. In a story from the late Ming homoerotic collection Forgotten Stories of Catamites (longyang yishi), we are presented with a queer case of genetics where the behavioral information passes from a cross-dressing mother to her gender-ambiguous son. The term "congenital weakness" is similarly used in a story from another late Ming collection, Even Rocks Would Agree (shi dian tou), to explain the extraordinary beauty of a boy "resembling his mother for nine parts and his father for one." In a related (albeit most likely fanciful) vein, the conspicuous presence of homosexuality in a certain locality is attributed to its geomantic (fengshui) circumstances. A critical jotting in Nonsense offers an explanation of this sort for the high concentration of male prostitutes in Kunshan, arguing that its people's sexual inclination toward the "dry route" is a reaction to the fact that their ancestors were buried in water.

But even though deeply rooted in one's nature, sexual preference is perceived as fluid rather than fixed and capable of being altered, if not even reversed. An example of such an extreme case is the man in a story from the The Flowers-Carrying Boat, who "was all his life extremely fond of catamites." He nevertheless ends up falling in love with a woman disguised as a eunuch, whom he at first thinks a boy and (following an established trope) sodomizes one day by taking advantage of "his" intoxicated state. After he discovers the "eunuch's" real gender, his supposedly exclusive homosexual proclivity is no longer mentioned; it is obvious that even a strong "natural inclination" is not irreversible. From most erotic narratives emerges the notion that a fondness for women does not exclude sexual attraction for boys, who are moreover in the main appreciated for their feminine beauty. This explains both the libertine's bisexuality and a male's substitution of sex with boys when women are (temporarily) unavailable. Thus, apart from the relatively rare cases of a unidirectional disposition toward boys, we mostly encounter characters who are attracted to women yet have sex with boys out of erotic curiosity or for reasons of expediency. Libertine young men may typically travel with a young "sex attendant" (nongchen, or "sex boy," nongtong), as a source of relief during their sometimes frustrating heteroerotic enterprises, as it is, for example, the case with the protagonist of The Carnal Prayer Mat, or that of a story from A Different Fragrance, where an explanation for the technical term "sex attendant" is offered. In these cases, sex with boys functions as a substitute for the implicitly more desirable yet unavailable sex with women; on this same principle is predicated the ubiquitous association between homosexuality and the monastery. In a story from ling Mengchu's 1628 collection Slapping the Table in Amazement (Pai'an jingqi), for example, a culinary metaphor drives home the idea of a hierarchy of sexualities based on the gender of the object of desire. For the criminal monk at the center of this detective plot, said to "go both south and north" (nanbei qilai), boys are a way to quench hunger—like a "steamed bun" (mantou), which cannot be compared with a real "meal" (fan). Such an argument clearly privileges heterosexuality, a point the narrator further emphasizes by underscoring the lack of mutual pleasure in sex between men and by suggesting that only men with scarce stamina resort to boys, being unable to satisfy the more demanding women. A similar theory is echoed in a slightly later story from Li Yu's collection Silent Operas (Wu sheng xi), which starts by contrasting "the business of male charms" (nanfeng yishi) and "the way of man and woman" (nannü yidao), and establishes only the latter as natural in terms of physical complementarity, mutual pleasure, and reproductive capacity, while considering the former justifiable only in the case of necessity—precisely, that is, as a substitute. To this narrator the fact that men of means crave boys more than women is simply a puzzling mystery. Writing a few decades earlier, in a similar vein the late Ming literatus shen Defu, while registering the unprecedented popularity of male beauty and prostitution in his time and acknowledging its historical roots, still finds the phenomenon inexplicable. In his view, sex with boys is understandable only in the case of prisoners, monks, travelers, or pirates—in other words, people who have no choice but to use boys as a substitute for the only truly appropriate sexual partners, women. In line with this argument, shen mentions the abolition of "official courtesans" (guanji) and the prohibition for the officials to frequent courtesans in the capital city as the reason why they are forced to avail themselves of the services of boy entertainers in Beijing. Similarly astonished by the popularity of male sexual entertainment is shen's contemporary Xie Zhaozhe. While again aware of the historical pedigree of male love and its geographic ubiquity, and well informed about the connoisseurial criteria of male beauty, Xie still finds that the elite craze for boys has reached ridiculous excesses; as he puts it, "It is as if the whole country had gone crazy!"


Excerpted from THE LIBERTINE'S FRIEND by GIOVANNI VITIELLO Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents



1. Male Beauty

2. Friendship and Love

3. Libertine Masculinity

4. Hybrid Heroes

5. The Male Romance






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