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.