Thursday, January 26, 2012

Westerners and Homosexuality in Asian

Recently, I was discussing with a close friend of mine, who happens to be of Chinese descent, about homosexuality in China. He told me that one of the interesting cultural views about homosexuality in Asia is that some non-western cultures, such as China, sometimes demonize homosexuality as an import of the West, and thus attack it from a nationalistic view. It happens in Asia and Africa -has mental contortionist's outlook that seems bizarre by our standards -- but basically, it's if you like to be the receptive partner, then you are gay; but if you are a guy who is the active partner, then you are not considered gay.

What I found most interesting about this exchange is that in most non-western cultures, homosexuality is seen as an import from the West. The truth is that it is not the homosexuality that is an import from the West, but the homophobia that is the imported idea.

Early western observers, such as the Jesuit Matthew Ricci long noted the acceptance of homosexuality in China, but could do little to change it. In modern China, however, homosexuality is looked down on. Part of the reason for this was the huge impact made by the West from the 19th century on. After the impact of Buddhism, Western Science is the outside cultural force with the most impact on Chinese culture. Until recent years the full weight of this science depicted homosexuality as abnormal and evil.

Here is one British official's view from 1806 [from John Barrow, Travels in China, (London: 1806)]:
The commission of this detestable and unnatural act is attended with so little sense of shame, or feelings of delicacy that many of the first officers of the state seemed to make no hesitation in publicly avowing it. Each of these officers is constantly attended by his pipe-bearer, who is generally a handsome boy, from fourteen to eighteen yaers of age, and is always well dressed.
Europeans, and the British especially (during the 19th century, the British were a major influence in China), brought the unnatural idea that homosexuality is wrong.  The eurocentric view of the world saw their way as the only legitimate way.  Countries which have been greatly influenced or ruled by the the British Empire currently have some of the harshest anti-sodomy laws.

An interesting caveat to this discussion is that in Vietnam, which had been a French colony, homosexual men are seen as good luck charms.  I found this out from a friend of mine who is from Vietnam and used to each year invite all of her friends over for a traditional Tet (Vietnamese Chinese New Year) dinner.  She was always particular fond of me because she knew I was gay and believed that by being there, I would bring good luck and great fortune to her family.  I think it worked.  Her husband who I went to graduate school with now has a prestigious job at a well-respected university's Vietnam studies center.

5 comments:

tamayn said...

I remember reading a really interesting book about homosexuality in medieval Japan. It was quite fascinating. Apparently even up to a certain point, it was common to see straight males holding hands in certain Asian countries.

tamayn said...

Something else I found while trawling the internet. http://rictornorton.co.uk/intro.htm

fan of casey said...

Joe: In China, the social pressure is great to marry and have a kid -- not only because it's the norm, it's also the source of family support for the future, where the kid is expected to take care of the parents as they age.

So many end up having face saving marriages -- but live secret gay lives.

From the little I've read, these expectations are similar in India as well.

Governments often use the excuse "evil import of the West" as a way to undermining of adoption of things that threaten nationalistic intentions.

Europeans ideas, often encouraged via religion certainly can explain some of the homophobia but not all. China remains largely buddhist and confucian -- so religion alone cannot account for the homophobia that exists.

If one were a chinese scholar, this would make an interesting thesis topic.

Mack said...

I tend to agree with Fan of Casey. Often the West, while has much to be blamed for can't be blamed for everything. I've heard the arguments, both that homosexuality and homophobia are Western exports. The former is clearly impossible, the latter is unlikely. Wherever there are people who do not conform, there will be fear of those who do not conform.

I think cultures can take the heat for their own phobias.

fan of casey said...

Joe: I think there is not one simple answer why LGBT rights in China clearly are a good 20-30 years behind the U.S.; and the U.S. is behind Europe. Repressive communist rule until the 80s allowed the government to also maintain social antagonism towards LGBT rights, in addition to historic social pressures and religious influences.

But with modernization in China starting in the 90s, more personal freedoms were allowed -- altho by our standards the political freedoms have not kept pace with the economic ones.

It is interesting the role that technology will have in spreading more dissent in China with the proliferation of cell phones and the internet there, altho communication and media is still subject to government control.