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GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 8.4 (2002) 435-467

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Eunuch Mandarins, Soldats Mamzelles, Effeminate Boys, and Graceless Women
French Colonial Constructions of Vietnamese Genders

Frank Proschan


Strollers: Two beings walk up the street, placidly, with tiny steps. They take each other by the hand and window-shop in every storefront. Their costume is bizarre, escaped from some comic opera. Red bands circle the calf, above the bare ankle and foot, with close-fitting pants and a billowing shirt from which hang two large red ribbons. The head, of which one sees only a black chignon, is topped with a small-brimmed red hat. Strange girls? Little savages on parade? But no, it is two infantrymen out strolling.

—Jean d'Estray, Pastels d'Asie

For French colonials encountering Vietnam a century ago, as for newspaper editor and essayist Jean d'Estray, few things were more disquieting than the physiognomy of the subject peoples, their comportment and costume, their hairstyles and beardlessness, their mien and demeanor. The Vietnamese, whether peasant or prince, pirate or patriot, paddy farmer or prostitute, simply did not conform to French notions of bodily propriety. French observers were troubled by Vietnamese faces that they perceived as impassive, that seemed to register neither pain nor pleasure but instead masked duplicitous sentiments. For one observer, such a visage was "a mask of vices and passions"; for another, it displayed "an expression of placid resignation and shrewd wariness truly characteristic of moral breakdown." 1 Everywhere they traveled in the country, the French colonials "could read in the [End Page 435] physiognomy of the indigenes a singular mélange of fear and curiosity, mockery, defiance, and even hate." 2 The French were discomfited in the deltas and urban areas, where humanity massed in teeming promiscuity, crowding streets and markets that had not yet been subjected to the discipline of metropolitan planners. 3 Above all, the colonials were confounded by the Vietnamese sex/gender system, in which virtually all of the signs that they took for natural and universal attributes distinguishing male from female were disrupted or inverted. The bodies of Vietnamese women, with "stocky and untapered trunk, indistinct waist, shoulders often large and square . . . and graceless bust," did not conform to French conceptions of the female body but seemed more like "the slender body of a young man [éphèbe] who has never known sumptuous maturity." 4 But if Vietnamese women lacked femininity, that deficit was more than compensated for in the bodies of Vietnamese men and in their techniques du corps. 5

In this essay I examine how French colonial observers constructed the Vietnamese male as androgynous, effeminate, hermaphroditic, impotent, and inverted and, conversely, the Vietnamese female as virile and hypersexualized. 6 There were, to be sure, competing masculine images of the robust pirate, the stolid peasant, the ferocious rebel, and the highland savage, but the predominant image was of the womanly man. 7 I consider four specific cases in which this image was drawn in great detail: the transgendered "hermaphrodites" of theatrical troupes; the "capons," or "eunuch mandarins," who served the Annamite court in its last days; boys, or house servants, an obligatory part of every colonial's household; and soldats mamzelles, or effeminate military troops. These instances can be considered limiting cases or extreme examples. It is crucial to emphasize, however, that from the French point of view effeminacy was nearly universal among Vietnamese men. Conversely, alongside the familiar image of the beautiful Annamite woman in the literature of amours exotiques, there existed a parallel one of the mannish woman.

During the century of French colonial domination in Indochina, soldiers and administrators, missionaries and novelists, journalists and politicians, all contributed to the construction of these complex, often contradictory, images of the subject peoples. In their broadest patterns these constructions coincide with the familiar processes of colonialism, exoticizing, and orientalism: the Asian male is typically effeminized, the Asian female is typically eroticized, and the Asian landscape becomes at once a site for Europeans to indulge in...


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