Archives: Richard Burger

With the recent US Supreme Court decision in United States v. Windsor, holding the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional, the writing is pretty much on the wall that gay marriage will be legal in all or most of the United States within five to ten years. But what about China? How does China view gays and gay marriage?  Is gay marriage in its future?

For answers to these questions, I turned to my friend and fellow blogger Richard Burger. Richard is the force behind the Peking Duck blog, which blog has produced around 5,000 posts since 2002!  I turned to Richard because he authored the critically acclaimed book “Behind the Red Door: Sex in China,” examining China’s sexual history and its sexual present. Here is Richard’s post on homosexuality in China:

It was only in 1997 that homosexuality was decriminalized in China and a little more than a decade ago since it was removed from the list of mental illnesses. The dark years of complete stigmatization of homosexuality under Mao, the practice of which was punishable by prison time, had finally lifted, and China’s cosmopolitan cities like Beijing and Shanghai now boast robust LGBT communities, complete with support groups, bars and an array of gay meeting places. In 2009 a male couple held a symbolic wedding in public not far from Tiananmen Square, and China Daily splashed the photo of the two men in a passionate embrace across its pages. Other symbolic gay and lesbian weddings have been held across the country and have been covered positively by the Chinese media. Spectators have gathered to watch the “weddings,” applauding and wishing the couples well. It makes one wonder, is China ready for gay marriage? Could it possibly approve of gay marriage across the country before the US does?

The short answer is no. For all the new freedoms and tolerance, homosexuality remains stigmatized throughout most of the country, partly because, as Fei Wang points out, it clashes with the long-held belief in China that children must marry and continue the family line by bearing offspring.  Very few Chinese gays come out to their families, who cannot imagine their children not marrying. Many Chinese may now feel comfortable with gay marriage — but only as long as it’s not their own family member getting married. Outspoken sexologist Li Yinhe says an estimated 80 percent of gay men and women will engage in heterosexual marriage, a national tragedy that speaks to just how far China has to go before its gay population feels independent of a stigma that goes back several generations. It means that 80 percent of China’s approximately 40 million gays will have to live a lie. This is just as tragic for the heterosexual spouse as for their gay partner. Women known as “homowives” (tongqi) wonder why they can’t arouse their husbands, making them feel there is something wrong with them. (There are now support groups for “homowives,” encouraging them to maintain their dignity, and often to get a divorce.) Lesbians, too, must feign sexual pleasure, always denying who they really are.

Thousands of Chinese gays have come up with a creative solution to meet their parents’ demands that they marry, while holding on to their gay lifestyle: it is becoming increasingly popular for gay men to marry lesbian women. This allows both spouses to satisfy their families’ annoying questions as to when they’re getting married. Then, they live separate lives, melting into the anonymity of the city with their parents and siblings never knowing the truth. There is actually a yoga studio in Shanghai that holds a party every month where gay men and women can “shop” for a spouse. It’s an imperfect solution and it’s sad they have to go to such lengths, but it’s far better than marrying and having to pretend you care about a spouse who doesn’t interest you.

China’s attitudes toward gays is generally one of live and let live. As a country that is largely atheist, there is no religious notion of homosexuality being a sin or immoral. There is no “gay bashing” and nothing like the Westboro Baptist Church crashing funerals and declaring
that “God hates fags.” Most gays in China’s cosmopolitan cities live anonymous lives; they blend into society and don’t broadcast their sexuality. Gay men rarely hold hands in public, but if they did most people probably wouldn’t notice. (Until relatively recently it was not uncommon to see straight male friends walking down the street holding hands.) Heterosexual girls in China hold hands all the time, so lesbians don’t have anything to fear if they do the same. Straight men often walk with their arm around their male friends’ shoulder, so gays do the same with no one lifting an eye. Because most gays in China keep their sexuality to themselves, and perhaps to their circle of close friends, there’s little prejudice against them in the workplace where they are for the most part invisible. Most younger, well-educated Chinese understand that gay people are simply born that way, and that they have no choice in the matter. If an employer or colleagues found their coworker was gay, the attitude would most likely be one of indifference, especially in the larger cities.

China is creeping toward greater tolerance, but it will take several generations before gay marriage is approved by the state (if it ever is). Li Yinhe has been an outspoken advocate for the cause for years, and has urged her colleagues at the China Academy of Social Sciences to press for such legislation. The result, she wrote in a blog post a few years ago, was that higher-ups in the government told her to “shut up”: the topic was completely off the table. But look at how far China has come in just 15 years in accepting gays as fellow human beings. As younger generations replace the old, and as Confucian notions of family and filial piety grow more distant, China may well at some point accept gay marriage. It just won’t be any time soon.

Looking back at China’s history, one sees a great irony in Chinese perceptions of same-sex love. As Steven Jiang points out, homosexuality was once not only tolerated in China but celebrated. In the Han dynasty scribes kept a record of the emperor’s male lovers and even as late as the Qing dynasty the literati (and more than one Qing emperor) carried on affairs with young men, especially at the time when Beijing Opera came to Beijing and a flood of young actors, all male, came to perform. For the literati who enjoyed having sex with men these were the golden years, and male brothels in Beijing engaged in serious competition with their female counterparts. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that nearly all of the men seeking the favors of young men were married and had children. Homosexuality was not an identity: it was something that was done for amusement, and as long as the patrons met their familial obligations it was seen as acceptable. China’s shift from one of the most open societies for gays (or at least for gay men) to one of the most restrictive in so little time is an astonishing story. Now the pendulum is swinging in the other direction. China may not be headed back to the days of the Han dynasty, but it is well on the path to offering its millions of gays the possibility of greater tolerance and freedom of expression.

I just finished reading Troy Parfitt’s book, Why China Will Never Rule the World, and as I always do when I finish a China book, I read other reviews before writing my own  And as Peking Duck has done previously, he has convinced me not to really bother.

Here’s the problem. I realize that no matter what I do, Peking Duck’s review will be better than mine. More importantly, his review will better express my own feelings on the book than my own. So instead of a full-on review, I will just summarize my impressions and implore you to go to Peking Duck for more depth.

I wanted to like Why China Will Never Rule the World because I am sick of reading things that just assume China’s world domination, but my biggest issue with this book is its supreme confidence that China will not succeed and its view that there is nothing in China worthy of admiration: 

The problem is that Parfitt can find practically nothing in China that he admires. In most cities he sees squalor, drudgery, poverty and backwardness. Now, those things certainly exist in many Chinese cities, but there is much more to China than that. Parfitt seems to seek out and dwell on the negative. He has some nice things to say about Nanjing (it’s “pleasant” and “attractive”) as well as Xiamen, where he enjoys visiting the island, but the praise is lukewarm at best and is totally drowned out by his hostility toward the PRC. He finds nothing to admire in Qingdao (quite the contrary), and says of Hangzhou that “it wasn’t beautiful at all when I went there.”

I too take issue with this perception of China. Just by way of a very small example, I go to Qingdao at least twice a year and I really like the place. Good people. Great food (at great prices). Great views. Clean air. Cool old German buildings. Beaches. Great hotels. Easy to get around.  Surprisingly good cultural scene. And, contrary to Parfitt’s assertions throughout the book, taxi drivers who know where they are going. I go to expecting to like it and I do. If i went there with a view towards deconstructing it, I am quite sure my views on it would be different.

I also take issue with Parfitt’s thesis that not only does today’s China have nothing to offer the world,  yesterday’s China never accomplished anything much either. Again, Peking Duck covers this extremely well

Along with Lu Xun, one of the author’s heroes is Bo Yang, the Nationalist Party member who believed China’s only path to greatness was to embrace Western civilization and who wrote The Ugly Chinaman and the Crisis of Chinese Culture to stake his claim. In one of the most outspoken parts of the book, Parfitt delves into Bo’s worldview.

Chinese history is not glorious at all, he argues, but rather thousands of years of uninterrupted warfare, carnage, violence, oppression, mayhem and misery…. Crucially, he points out that the Chinese notion of a harmonious society revolves around the quote-unquote harmonious relationship between inferiors and superiors. Beyond that, harmony does not exist… Bo Yang goes on to argue that China has contributed virtually nothing to civilization. He characterizes the Cultural Revolution as entirely normal; the Tiananmen Square Incident as “back to normal.”

It’s hardly surprising that Bo Yang is Parfitt’s hero — this is coming from the mouth of a Chinese intellectual, not an obnoxious foreigner, and it’s much harder to dismiss it as “anti-China” propaganda.

All of this makes for compelling and thought-provoking reading, mainly because Parfitt makes his argument so well. For all my irritation with his negative tone and broad generalizations, there were definitely many times when I found myself agreeing with him, especially about education and propaganda and the lack of eagerness to embrace meaningful change.

As I was reading this book, I found myself doing something I pretty much never do; I kept wondering about the motivations of the author and what what in his own life had caused him to see things the way he did. I kept wondering what it was that had caused the Parfitt to see China so unremittingly negatively and what motivated his need to besmirch it so. How much of Parfitt’s views are based on his mind-set going in and how much are based on an objective analysis? I go places expecting and wanting to like them and so I usually do. Parfitt seemed to go to China to prove how horrible it is and his own preconceptions gave him exactly what he sought. 

Though I read this book looking forward to China getting criticized and though I found myself constantly nodding along with the incidents Parfitt describes so well, it ended up frustrating me with its lack of balance and objectivity. I both expected and wanted it to take strong positions, but I also wanted it to at least acknowledge “opposing” facts.

But should you read it? I will again quote Peking Duck:

I suspect you’re wondering why I’d bother to write such a long review of a book like this, and why you should ever bother to read it. The answer is, as I said at the beginning, that Parfitt has done an amazing job in collecting and tying together hundreds of great anecdotes, combined with a good deal of history and political analysis, to create a highly readable and even enjoyable book, despite the parts that caused my blood pressure to rise. I actually think you would find it worth the time (I finished all 400+ pages in two days), and you’d definitely find yourself laughing at his trials and tribulations in China. A most interesting experience. I’m glad I read it.

I agree.

Why China Will Never Rule The World is one of the best and most enthralling books I did not like. It is not coming out until September, but I would really love to hear what you think.

UPDATE: Mark’s China Blog just came out with a superb, though 99.99999% crticial review of the book. To put it bluntly, Mark HATED it:

Saying all of that, Why China Will Never Rule the World is one of the most ridiculous books I’ve ever read.

Whatever positives can be found in the book are more than offset by the hostility and one-sidedness Paritt shows towards China. Parfitt doesn’t get close to a nuanced view of China even once in his book. Parfitt hates traveling and living in China, shows a sociopathic disdain for Chinese people, and loathes everything about the country’s culture and history. Written without the slightest hint of balance, Parfitt’s book reads like Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and Jung Chang’s Mao: The Unknown Story, two of the most unenjoyable books I’ve encountered.

After struggling through Parfitt’s 400-page diatribe, I give Why China Will Never Rule the World a resounding two thumbs down and cannot recommend avoiding it highly enough.