David Mungello. Western Queers in China: Flight to the Land of Oz. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2012. 212 pp. IBSN 978-1-4422-1556-6 (hardcover).
This book represents a new thematic departure in LGBT/Queer research within Chinese Studies. It focuses not on Chinese people, but on Western male homosexual/queer visitors in China, mainly from the late nineteenth century until the early/mid-twentieth century. By means of vivid but not romanticised biographical sketches, Mungello’s book may contribute towards widening the sphere of discourse about LGBT/Queer history in China.
The introduction explains Mungello’s epistemologically humble methodological approach to the book. The author candidly recognises the evidential problems inherent to the kind of project he is undertaking, given the distance in time, the necessarily secretive behaviour of some men he researched for the book, and the loyalty of Mungello’s informants to their friends or relatives.
The text concerns “flights” of queer men to China, away from homophobic crackdowns in the West. In Chapter One, “Flight to the Land of Oz,” Mungello deftly illustrates a variety of characters. These include aristocrats such as Count August von Platen; middle class men like Vincenz Hundhausen; men of letters, such as the poet Harold Witter Bynner; scholars such as Josef Schedel.
Chapter Two, “The Exotic Appeal of Chinese Boy-Actors,” speaks of men who had a fixation with the young males who played Chinese opera roles; the dan. Mungello carefully contextualises the cult of dan, paying attention to changes in the social status of dan in imperial and Republican China. He provides accounts of Solié de Morant and Harold Aceton, whose literary writings idealised the dan. The hierarchical, intergenerational aspects of the cult of dan might provoke the reader’s concern regarding unequal power dynamics in Western-Chinese homoeroticism. Mungello does not theorise in detail this question of power asymmetry, perhaps because of the historical/group-biographical focus of the book; but I believe this may be a fruitful future line of enquiry.
Chapter 3, “Establishing Friendships in Imperial China,” concerns the rumours and innuendo of sexual impropriety surrounding Catholic missionaries in China. Mungello portrays the lives of individuals, e.g. the famous Adam Schall von Bell, while the chapter is also concerned with the Church’s strategies in relation to the risks of scandal and abuse. The tone is measured and non-sensationalist.
Chapter Four, “Establishing Friendships in Post-1911 China,” is an account of the shifting political and social landscape after the 1911 Xinhai Revolution and 1949 Communist Revolution. Mungello contrasts the toleration/tolerance shown to queer Westerners in China pre-1949 with the post-1949 condemnation of both Western and Chinese homosexuality. Yet, in China, Rewi Alley gained the prestigious status of an “internationalist,” even into the relatively homophobic Maoist period. But the diffident writer Somerset Maugham is portrayed as a self-effacing figure, almost appearing to serve as a foil to the vibrant Alley. This implicit contrast between the two men is in keeping with Mungello’s emphasis on the individuality of the men he discusses.
Chapter Five, “Establishing Intellectual Connections with China,” focuses on two possibly closeted early scholars of China: Marius De Groot, a “pioneer in the development of ethnographic Sinology” (p. 76), and the Sinologist and renowned translator Arthur Waley. Even if both scholars might have been affected by a necessity to remain closeted, two other China scholars in this chapter, Howard Wechsler and Marston Edwin Anderson, had to bear the double burden of closeting and the AIDS crisis. Wechsler and Anderson were born later than De Groot and Waley, and died under tragic circumstances, in the traumatic period between the outbreak of AIDS in 1980 and the invention of highly-active antiretroviral treatment (HAART) in 1996.
In Chapter Six, “The Re-Orientation of Western Aesthetics,” Mungello emphasises the link between intellectual and aesthetic fascination with China and the role of homoeroticism in the “Chinese exotic” in France. As an example of this exotic, he presents the novelist Victor Segalen and his novel “René Leys.”
The epilogue directs the reader’s attention to the tragic constraints faced by the men presented in this book; but via moderate pathos, rather than morbid romanticism. The protagonists were exiles from a society where misunderstanding and revulsion in relation to homosexuality were not deemed objectionable, yet homosexuality itself was. These 23 men were all different individuals sharing a bond that was defensive rather than offensive.
Mungello has succeeded in vividly, empathetically and convincingly characterising a wide array of queer men, while acknowledging any gaps or uncertainties in the evidence. The book is a lucid, focused and coherent study on an under-researched topic, and deserves special respect for its broadening of the focus of LGBT/Queer research within Chinese Studies.
However, while it is acceptable for this book to focus primarily on Western men themselves, other perspectives would be possible. Mungello does strive to contextualise the biographical sketches by speaking of changes in gender representation and regulation in China, e.g. in relation to the dan cult and the 1949 revolutionary transition. But future studies might wish to theorise more explicitly the often inegalitarian dynamics of interaction between Western and Chinese queer males, such as those related to the dan cult or to literary idealisations. This might facilitate comprehension of strategies of self-assertion and of representation/self-representation among Chinese queer males in various historical periods.
(Jonathan Ferguson, King’s College London)