Interesting: History of Homosexuality and Tolerance/Intolerance in China: an email exchange between a Fellow Faculty Member (FFM) and me:
The Chinese view on polygamy was notoriously different from the Christian West’s — the more concubines the merrier — so I’d be surprised if they didn’t perceive homosexuality as a natural taste, as variable as food preferences.
FFM sent me an email asking about the Chinese view of homosexuality because Singapore has a very intolerant official policy on it. Some of my students asked about this after class or in class, so I’m sharing it. Here’s the whole (slightly edited) email conversation.
[A friend] and i were discussing the Singapore policies regarding gays and wondered if they had any root in classical Chinese thinking, Confucianism, etc.
I’m looking for a parallel to the Old Testament Christianity roots for that bias–wondered if you could shed some light, as our resident China expert.
Can’t say I know SG’s gay policies beyond recalling having read that gay bars are illegal, etc.
Pure speculation, but it seems safe to say that Confucian family values–in which no sons equals no lineage and the end of the family line–would at least discourage not marrying and reproducing, since there’s no greater shame than not passing the name to the next generation.
Note that does not mean homosexuality is necessarily condemned in and of itself. The Chinese are and have been notoriously silent on sexuality throughout their history (at least in their literature), but this again seems to be a reflection of the need to project a proper decorum by keeping such private matters private.
I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that homosexuality is conceived of in a way entirely different from our own traditions’ connotations of sin and abomination. The Chinese view on polygamy is notoriously different–the more concubines the merrier–so I’d be surprised if they didn’t perceive homosexuality as a natural taste, like food preferences.
It’s one of the many areas I’ve yet to explore (I find the contrasts of Eastern and Western gender norms — especially the masculine ones — more interesting, and sexuality seems a subset of that in my eyes). But I can offer you a book I got a couple years ago on the topic of homosexuality in traditional China (lesbianism, I just noticed, is treated in the appendix), but I haven’t read it. If you do browse it, I’d love to hear what you learn.
Sorry to be of so little help.
Clay, this was a useful source.
The bottom line seems to be that there was a long history of deep tolerance for homosexuality, even extending to marriage and property rights.
Not surprisingly, there were varying accommodations to ‘gayness,’ including at least one period when adolescent boys regularly took lovers and then moved on to hetero behavior when it was time to have a family.
There is strong evidence for Puyi of the Qing dynasty being openly gay, so the author makes note that the behavior ran from top to bottom of society.
Enter the West:
The missionaries, sailors (!) and merchants were all revolted by the acceptance of sodomy (male-male sex) that they saw, and so started to campaign against it.
Ultimately, these laws got some traction and acceptance in conjunction with local intolerance of the excesses of the Ming dynasty.
By 1912 or so, the tradition and tolerance was disappearing quickly.
The author notes that the current laws in Taiwan, HK and PRC have roots not in Marxism but rather as secularized versions of Leviticus (one of the books of Moses in the Hebrew Bible/Christian Old Testament) and (Late Medieval Christian theologian) Thomas Aquinas.
Ironically, the PRC now blames the West for importing sordid western values into China, ‘causing’ homosexuality.
Vague local laws against hooliganism and outrageous acts are used to keep the gay population in line, and like Singapore, the Chinese maintain that the overall percentage of gayness in Chinese is much lower than the worldwide population.
Thanks for the insight, my summary then is:
1. Western laws reviling gayness were imported during the colonial period.
2. They gained force in the revolt against the excesses of the Ming dynasty.
3. PRC political spin blames (recent, post-Christian) Western exhortations of tolerance for gayness as ‘degraded imports of the West’.
–All contribute to anti-gay bias in the region.
So: China tolerated homosexuality until the West came 500 years ago and imposed its Christian views. China then started discriminating. Now that the West is abandoning its Christian discrimination against gays, it’s criticizing China’s intolerance–which China largely got earlier….from the West. Weird.