It is a consensus shared by Many scholars of Chinese cultural and gender histories that male-male sexual relationships during the late imperial period were often characterized by a fairly rigid hierarchy based on the differences of symbolic gender identity, social status, and age.2 That is, such a relationship often involved two men whose respective roles as the “active” (often the penetrator) and the “passive” (often the penetrated) were almost always clearly defined. Furthermore, this active/passive role differentiation paralleled closely the differentiation of the two men’s contrasting symbolic gender identities as masculine and feminine, as well as their respective social statuses as older and younger or socially powerful and socially weak.
This consensus is based on the fact that most of the available historical data from traditional Chinese sources suggest that male-male sexual relationships often took place between members of the social elite and their “junior” partners of lower social status, who were often servants/slaves, [End Page 312] catamites, male prostitutes, and male actors impersonating women onstage.3 The sheer lopsidedness in terms of status and power between the two parties involved in such a relationship often made it difficult to conceive of the two as two friends, even though friendship did not necessarily exclude hierarchy in traditional China.
The early Qing poet Chen Weisong’s (1625–82) celebrated affair with the servant/actor Xu Ziyun is a case in point.4 Xu was given to Chen as a favor by the famous literatus Mao Xiang (1611–93). Staying as a guest in Mao Xiang’s residence, Chen was once caught in a secret rendezvous with Xu. Instead of getting upset, Mao Xiang gave the boy to Chen as a token of his appreciation of Chen’s literary talent after the latter was able to compose one hundred poems on the theme of plum blossom within one night as requested. Mao Xiang later recalled, not without pride, that he was willing to give Chen his own servant boy because he was Chen’s best friend (zhiji).5 Here the catamite Xu was merely a “gift” in a friendly exchange between two elite friends, highlighting the important distinctions between a friend and a catamite: the latter could be a great lover but not a friend.6 Later Chen wrote numerous poems describing his love for Xu, and he invited many of his friends to contribute poems on a portrait of his lover that he had commissioned. It was said that eventually more than seventy individuals, many of them prominent cultural figures of his times, complied with his wishes, and, in the end, 160 poems were collected.7 Their romance became almost a legend in the world of letters of late seventeenth-century China.
Not everyone at that time was so responsive to Chen’s request for congratulatory poems on his romance with a young boy. Chen’s close friend Dong Yining (1625–64), for example, wrote to him to express his concerns. Dong found it understandable for Chen, a literatus long frustrated in his pursuit of career success, to have found comfort in such a sexual relationship with another man, something in which, Dong admitted, he himself had also previously indulged. But this lifestyle, he continued, should not be taken too [End Page 313] seriously, especially given the negative effect it might have on a man’s ability to produce a male offspring (Dong was referring to the fact that, though married for a long time, Chen had yet to have a son).8 In other words, according to Dong, no matter how deeply in love Chen thought himself to be, his affair with Xu could only be a temporary diversion, in much the same way that many frustrated men might turn to the pleasure quarters for relief for pent-up frustrations, implicitly comparing Xu to a female prostitute. A female prostitute, however, when married as a concubine, could actually be more “beneficial” because she might produce a son for him. Dong was offering Chen advice as a friend. Apparently, Dong did not consider Xu to be one of...