Studies of Homosexuality Volume 3 Introduction

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[3/10/92] [vol. 3: Asian Studies]



The varying sexual customs of Asian peoples have fascinated Europeans at least since Herodotus described the mores of the wide ranging Persian empire in the fifth century B.C. After the triumph of Christianity in the Roman empire eight centuries later, however, an ideological curtain fell between Christian Europe (and its Byzantine outposts) and heathen Asia. From the seventh century onward, the Christians faced an aggressively expanding Muslim world, seen as Christendom's arch enemy. Christian propagandists pointed to Muslim tolerance for the abominable sin of sodomy as one of the justifications for the series of Crusades and other wars against first the Arabs and then the Ottoman Turks, whose European expansion reached its apogee in the sixteenth century. Lurid tales of the fates of Christian boys at the hands of lustful Turks circulated for centuries.

Beginning with the Portuguese maritime explorations of the sixteenth century, traders and missionaries went further afield, to India, China, and Japan. The reports they sent back to Europe expressed surprise and horror not just at the prevalence of homosexuality they found in these lands, but even more at the failure of these ancient and highly cultivated civilizations even to condemn it. In the mid-sixteenth century Francis Xavier expressed his shock at the Japanese attitude: "they acknowledge it openly," he wrote. "This evil, furthermore, is so public, so clear to all . . . and they are so used to seeing it that they are neither depressed nor horrified." In similar vein, the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci wrote of the Chinese around 1610: "That which most shows the misery of these people is that no less than the natural lusts they practice unnatural ones that reverse the order of things: and this is neither forbidden by law, nor thought to be illicit, nor even a cause for shame. It is spoken of in public, and practiced everywhere, without there being anyone to prevent it." As Jonathan D. Spence has shown, Ricci documented Peking "streets full of" boy prostitutes who doubled as entertainers and were "made up with rouge like women." The Italian cleric tried to persuade the Chinese to repent by having them publish a print of Lot and the men of Sodom along with a text warning of total destruction for "perverse lusts," then rewrote the Sixth Commandment. Later missionaries, teachers, and European government officials (in areas they colonized) followed his example, with mixed results. There was, for the missionaries, a silver lining to be found in this dark cloud of sin: it confirmed their own sense of moral superiority to the "degenerate East."

Rise of Asian Studies

Over the two centuries which followed Ricci, European horror slowly became intertwined with fascination for the exotic Orient. In 1787 the affinities between Sanskrit, the classical language of northern India, and Greek and Latin emerged from comparative philology, leading to a nineteenth century European spurt of interest in things Indian, the so called "Oriental Renaissance." Arabic studies became prominent after the construction of the Suez Canal in the 1860s and the British takeover of Egypt in 1883; the decline of Ottoman power at that time led to a more objective approach to Islamic studies. Chinese culture became fashionable in Europe in the eighteenth century, when Confucius was revered by the Enlightenment. Yet major efforts at serious scholar¬ship did not get underway until after the Opium War (1839 42), when the intricacies of the history of the Chinese language began to be understood. Studies of Japan were stimulated more by American interest, following the 1853 54 mission of Commodore Matthew C. Perry, which opened up the Land of the Rising Sun to visitors for the first time since the Tokugawa shogunate expelled the Jesuits. Trade relations made Japanese prints available in the West, where they ignited a rage for "Japonisme" in the visual arts.

Indian studies have flourished virtually without interruption, aided by a large English speaking native intellectual class trained in British style schools; Chinese studies suffered a serious break with the 1949 Communist revolution in that country, but regained momentum in the 1970s; Japanese studies received a boost after General Douglas McArthur occupied the islands in 1945 and have grown in response to the spread of Japanese economic influence. Starting with the beatniks of the 1950s, Zen and later other forms of Eastern mysticism obtained a major foothold in the American counterculture and then infiltrated the main¬stream. Islam grew in the United States through immigration and conversion until by 1990 it vied with Judaism as the second largest religion in the USA. The Hindu and Buddhist communities in North America are also rapidly expanding.

Scholarly examination of homosexuality in the Orient began in 1886, when Sir Richard Burton published his translation of the Thousand Nights and a Night with a lengthy appended "Terminal Essay" containing 42 pages on pederasty, outlining his theory of a "Sotadic Zone" where "the Vice is popular and endemic." This zone, according to Burton, embraced the entire Muslim world as well as China, Indochina, Japan, and Central Asia, though not Hindu areas of India. Burton's interest developed after his exposure to pederasty while a British colonial official in what is today Pakistan.

The nineteenth century also witnessed the rise, which has continued to the present day, of "sexual tourism" by homosexual Europeans in search of a more tolerant clime than they found at home; literati began their exploration in the Maghreb region of Arabic North Africa, where Oscar Wilde, André Gide, and others gathered. In recent decades this tourist activity has expanded from the Maghreb to the Asian countries of the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka.

The reports of modern travelers have helped to compensate for a certain reticence on the part of academic scholars to examine Asian sexuality. Many believe that Asian civilizations must be treated holistically, that is to say that one should not study, say, Chinese literature, painting, and science separately, but as components of Chinese culture as a whole. This approach, sometimes known as the area studies method, has undoubted benefits, but can cause "sensitive" topics such as sexuality to be understressed. Today a new generation of scholars, including Bret Hinsch and Paul Gordon Schalow, is seeking to remedy this neglect.

Contemporary Significance

Studies of the civilizations of Asia have become vitally important to the West as the globe becomes more integra¬ted and these nations gain more and more influence over world affairs, reflecting their large proportion of the human population. Cultural impact on the West has lagged behind economic and political might, but is still palpable and apparently accelerating.

The study of homosexuality in these countries takes on added significance because we see in them civilizations which escaped the homophobia and censorship of homosexual expression fostered by Christianity in the West, at least until European colonialism took hold (as it did with a vengeance in India and to a markedly diminished extent in China and elsewhere). Islamic homophobia is a more complex phenomenon, full of loopholes. Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Shinto, the other great religions of Asia, lack significant homophobic traditions.

In addition, Asia allows us to examine types of homosexuality other than the mutual androphilia (adult adult usually reciprocal relations between theoretically equal-status partners who both identify with the same gender) which dominates European and American discussions, in living cultures and with long literary and artistic traditions. Islamic cultures have fostered the practice of pederasty; Hindu India has been more familiar with the gender differentiated model, while the nations of East Asia have long known a mixture of these two, with the age differentiated type dominant over most of their histories, though declining relative to the gender differentiated model in the twentieth century.

The student of Asian patterns of homosexuality may also wish to consult the companion Garland volume on Anthropology for preliterate Asian societies.

The Islamic World

Islam extends in a broad belt across Asia, from the Straits of Bosporus in Turkey to Java in Indonesia, encompassing a wide variety of cultures and styles. Apart from Islam itself, this far flung collection of peoples also holds in common a preference for pederasty with passive boys up to age 15 as the mode of male homosexual expression. Scholars have yet to establish a causal connection between these two commonalities. There appears also to be a small supplementary culture of gender-differentiated homosexuality. Both types have in common the notion that any "normal" male can take the penetrative role (only) in same-sex activities without stigma.

Islamic law and tradition tend to relate sexuality to the maintenance of the social order rather than taking the Judeo Christian approach of treating it as a matter of individual morality. Public reputation and the avoidance of shameful scandal are the primary concerns, not private behavior. Punishment for homosexual acts is capital in theory, but usually nonexistent in practice, for the shari'a requires that four adult male Muslims of unblemished character must swear to being eyewitnesses to the physical act itself for conviction to be possible, and boys are not liable. Furthermore, if an accuser fails to produce the difficult requisite proof, he himself is subject to 80 lashes. The police are not concerned with private behavior, but the full weight of Islamic opinion would descend on those who, on the model of the gay liberationists of the West, would seek to make "homosexuality" (above all, adult men taking passive roles) publicly respectable. Also rife is the belief, imported from the West, that homosexuality is incompatible with modernization—or conversely, that it is part and parcel of a "decadence" that is corroding Europe; both these motives seem to have been at work in the promulgation of anti¬homosexual laws in North African countries that, as French protectorates, lacked them under colonial tutelage.

Islamic mores are concerned with gender role (an adult male being required to remain in the insertor position) rather than with "sexual orientation," a European concept. For most Muslims, "homosexuality" refers only to passive behavior on the part of an adult male, and that is considered debasing and dishonoring, being the assumption of a feminine role. (This, of course, reflects the low status of women in Islamic cultures.) See Unni Wikan's article, included herein.

Lesbianism has hardly evoked comment in the Muslim world, appearing in print mainly as a feature of harems, but since many women are secluded, one cannot deduce a low level of incidence from the literary neglect.

Of all Islamic peoples, the Turks have had the most formidable reputation for pederasty, a practice which has played a prominent role in court and literary life since the thirteenth century. Following the example of Bayezid I (1360 1403), who sent his soldiers to search the newly conquered lands for boys for his harem, pederasty spread among soldiers, government officials, and the aristocracy generally. European boys from 8 to 16 were considered especially desirable slaves. When Ottoman expansion was halted, the Sultan instituted a "child tax" in his European domains, agents carrying off boys between 7 and 9 for training; the Turks abolished this pederastic tax in the latter seventeenth century. Slave traders continued to supply European boys for Istanbul's famous boy brothels and for the Turkish rulers. Some of these boys were able to achieve positions of power later in life. The Ottoman army was also known for the practice of raping captured enemy soldiers, an example of dominance-enforcement homosexuality; its most famous victim was T. E. Lawrence ("of Arabia").

Androphilia and the gay rights movement appear to be making inroads in modern, European influenced Istanbul, but whether this trend is spreading into the bulk of Asian Turkey remains to be seen. See Jonathan Drake's article, included.

Pre Islamic Persia demonstrated both homosexuality and the extreme homophobia of the Zoroastrian religion, but after the Muslim conquest of 637, the tolerant Islamic attitude gradually prevailed, and many Persian poets extolled boy love. See articles by Minoo S. Southgate and Annemarie Schimmel, included herein. The Khomeini revolution of 1979, however, unleashed in Iran a campaign of persecution, including numerous executions, against those labeled "homosexuals," even while prominent members of the new government continued to practice pederasty.

Afghanistan has long been known as a stronghold of pederasty, while modern Pakistan has inherited the general Islamic tradition. Karachi, the chief city of Pakistan, has been famous since Burton's time for its boy brothels, which Burton said outnumbered those for women.

In the Islamic areas of Indonesia, the Muslim establishment has become less tolerant in recent decades, responding to Western criticism, but popular acceptance is widespread. In addition to the pederastic type, gender differentiated homosexuality involving transvestites with "normal" men, as well as an incipient androphilic subculture, are visible. See Justus M. van der Kroef's article, included herein.


Homosexual practices were known to classic and medieval Indian civilizations, but the British effectively imported their homophobia after their conquest of the country in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and have left behind not only continued (though rarely enforced) criminal sanctions for males, but a taboo against public discussion of homosexuality. Hindu mythology contains numerous instances of androgyny on the part of the deities, one of Shiva's major forms being Ardhanarshvara, the right side male, the left female, and the Kamasutra accords a chapter to fellatio by "eunuchs," most likely a translator's euphemism, since castration is foreign to Hinduism. Two Hindu sects, the Hijras and the Sakhibhavas, have been characterized by sacred gender reversal and homosexual prostitution, which takes the gender differentiated form with "normal" Indian males; see Serena Nanda's article, included herein. All Indians other than those who become "holy men" (sannysin) must in practice marry and procreate, and privacy is rare, but the culture encourages close emotional bonding and physical affection between male friends while discouraging premarital heterosexual social life, and the prevalence of boarding schools and late arranged marriage ages would seem to encourage situational homosexuality. While India lacks any developed aspects of a gay subculture, furtive contact points exist in the major cities, and an upper-middle-class-based subculture seems to be coalescing in Bombay.

The Philippines

As a predominantly Christian (Catholic) nation, albeit with a substantial Muslim minority, the Philippines is unique in Asia, sporting a wide variety of modes of homosexuality rather than the usual dominance of one model. Becoming a Spanish colony in the mid sixteenth century, the islands were subject to the Inquisition, which put a number of "sodomites" to death. Christian homophobia never took root, however, leaving the Philippines with a reputation as one of the most tolerant nations on earth. Both gender and age differentiated homosexuality are widespread, often in combination, with the former most common. Male identified adult exclusive homosexuals are also known, though few of these are androphilic. See Don V. Hart's article, included herein. Lesbianism is more visible in the Philippines than elsewhere in Asia, apparently following a gender differentiated model in which the male identified lesbian pairs up with a heterosexual female.

Male prostitution is very widespread among older heterosexual boys and young men, who form most of the partners (often as "kept boys") of the homosexual men, taking the penetrative role in an instance of the ephebophilic type of homosexuality. See Lamberto C. Nery's article, included herein. The town of Pagsanjan has assumed a prominent place on the maps of pedophilic "sexual tourists" who have found the pre pubic local boys as well as their parents to be hospitable.


China boasts a longer continuous recorded history of male homosexuality than any other nation. Documentation of homosexual behavior begins with the later rulers of the Eastern Zhou dynasty (722 221 B.C.). At this time bisexual behavior was apparently common and the Chinese considered it normal, an attitude that persisted until the twentieth century. Courts of the Western Han dynasty (206 B.C. 9 A.D.) revolved around either homosexual or bisexual emperors. In the Song dynasty (960 1280), the literary record broadens and descriptions of the numerous boy brothels abound. T he Ming dynasty (1368 1644) saw a flowering of homoerotic literature and art, including (apparently) the mysterious first history of Chinese homosexuality, the Records of the Cut Sleeve. See the article by Fang fu Ruan and Yung mei Tsai, included herein. A form of same sex marriage developed in Fujian province at this time. Neo Confucian concern with family stability brought about the first repression of homosexuality under the Kang Xi emperor (r. 1662 1723), but its effects were limited and transient. (There is some indication of hostility to homosexuality among the Manchus before their conquest of China.) See M. J. Meijer's article, included herein.

Chinese homosexuality was rarely egalitarian, but emphasized differences of age or (less commonly) gender identification, reflected in a dichotomy of sexual roles; the younger and the effeminate were the passive recipients. As in other pederastic traditions, the expectation was that boys would change roles as they reached adulthood. The gender differentiated type is known mostly among actors. Boy prostitution was very common. The Chinese considered lesbian¬ism an unrelated phenomenon, attested in literature only since the Ming dynasty, but lesbian marriages occurred in nineteenth century Guangzhou province. The norm was for virtually all Chinese to marry as adults and raise children, whatever their sexual life may have been.

The twentieth century witnessed dramatic changes in Chinese attitudes which had persisted for millennia; linguistic changes cut Chinese readers off from their classical homoerotic tradition, while Chinese social and political reformers imported Western science uncritically, including conceptual schemes of "the homosexual personality" and homosexual pathology. The native tradition languished and, in an ironic reversal, authorities condemned homosexuality as a recent import from the "decadent West." The Communist regime adopted European Marxist views of homosexuality as "bourgeois immorality" and sent homosexuals to labor camps for "re education." Nevertheless, small gay subcultures have begun to form in major cities since the end of the Maoist period. Taiwan has also been the site of a developing subculture which is beginning to enter into public awareness. On lesbianism in modern Hong Kong, see F. Lieh Mak's article, included herein.


Ancient Korea maintained a female cross dressing shamanistic tradition. Elite male youth known as hwarang seem also to have been involved in shamanism; from about 350 onward the hwarang became an austerely trained military elite, probably bound by homoerotic loyalties. See Richard Rutt's article, included herein. The Korean theater was all male, and Namsadang troupes seem to have been homosexual communes, divided between "butches" and "queens;" see Young Ja Kim's article, included herein.

In modern times, with Christian influence growing, the mass media have been hostile, the gender differentiated model has persisted, and the government of South Korea has used the AIDS crisis as an excuse to harass an emerging gay movement.


Japanese society has never known religious homophobia, but the Confucian emphasis on marriage and procreating the family line continues to exert a dominant influence. Adult adoption has been one way of meeting this requirement, but bisexual lifestyles have been more general. The gender differentiated type of homosexuality dominates today, though pederasty (shudo) has had a long history. Discretion and privacy are emphasized, and Western androphilia is recent, though increasing, so that little in the way of a gay movement has developed. Gay publications, however, are widespread; gay bars and bathhouses exist in most major cities, and male prostitution is legal. In recent years, fear of AIDS has prompted some hostility toward male extramarital sex, but lesbians remain free from this association.

Literary treatment of homosexuality has a long history in Japan, going back at least to the eighth century, when writers described loves between young male courtiers. From the eleventh century onward, the context appears pederastic. Buddhist monks commonly had affairs with their boy acolytes, chigo who ranged in age from about ten to seventeen, and who played the passive role in anal intercourse only; see Margaret Childs' article, included herein.

The samurai also had anal relationships with their pages, wakashu who in contrast to the chigo ranged in age between thirteen and nineteen (sometimes even older than twen¬ty). The prolific Ihara Saikaku (1642 1693) appears to have directed The Great Mirror of Male Love to an exclusively homosexual audience. A number of the shoguns who ruled medieval Japan are known to have had love affairs with boys. Homosexuality involving chigo also played a key role in Japanese theater, which helped popularize it in the countryside. By the beginning of the sixteenth century two forms were recognized: love of shonin (the chigo of old) and love of wakashu (now preferably "big, husky boys" from 17 to 23, and thus an example of ephebophilia). Later there was some amalgamation of these categories in the popular mind.

After the Meiji Restoration (1868), when Japan undertook a vigorous modernization campaign, the country's rulers imported European attitudes of disapproval of homosexuality, even outlawing the behavior in 1873, though with a penalty of only 90 days imprisonment. After 1883 the ban applied only to sex with boys under 16. The new rulers suppressed pederasty along with the samurai, so that it dropped out of public sight by 1910. Nevertheless, the schools and universities remained centers of homosexual activity. The major lasting effect of the Meiji repression seems to have been the creation of conditions more favorable to a separate homosexual identity and the growth of androphilia.

Literary depictions of lesbianism have been rare, though not so uncommon in woodblock prints from the seventeenth century onward.


DeMartino, Gianni, and Arno Schmitt, Kleine Schriften zu zwischenmännlicher Sexualität und Erotik in der muslimischen Gesellschaft, Berlin: Schmitt, 1985.

Hinsch, Bret, Passions of the Cut Sleeve: A History of the Male Homosexual Tradition in China, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Hiratsuka Ryosen, Nihon ni okeru nanshoku no kenkyu, Tokyo: Ningen no Kagakusha Shuppan Jigyabu, 1983.

Iwata Jun'ichi, Honcho nanshoku ko, Tokyo: 1973; ibid, Nanshokubunken shoshi, Tokyo: 1973.

Murray, Stephen O., ed., Oceanic Homosexualities, New York: Garland Publications, 1992.

Saikaku, Ihara, The Great Mirror of Male Love, trans. and intro. by Paul Gordon Schalow, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990 (originally published 1687).

Samshasha (Xiaomingxiang), Zhongguo tongxingai shilu, Hong Kong: Pink Triangle Press, 1985.

Schmitt, Arno, and Jehoeda Sofer, ed., Sexuality and Eroticism Among Males in Moslem Societies, New York: Harrington Park Press, 1992.

Spence, Jonathan D., The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, New York: Viking, 1984.

Watanabe, Tsuneo, and Jun'ichi Iwata, trans. by D. R. Roberts, The Love of the Samurai: A Thousand Years of Japanese Homosexuality, London: GMP Publishers, 1989 (originally published 1987).

Wei hsing shih kuan ch'i chu, Chung kuo t'ung huing luan mi shih, Hong Kong: Chai you chu pan she, 1964, 2 vols.

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