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Several years ago, when I was working in a very rural university, I hosted a group of college graduates from the United States. They were invited to visit with the students, and one of them became very popular with the girls in class. He always had more attention than any of the others, perhaps because he was incredibly friendly, had a bright smile, and was by most accounts handsome. However, what the fawning girls didn’t notice was that my friend was gay.
So after a week or so of having girls ask for his QQ number, I asked if he would be willing to host a very special English corner. Even though it was specifically in my contract that I was not to challenge traditional Chinese ideas about homosexuality* (which Richard Burger would point out, are actually a new construction), I decided that the students would find such a conversation interesting and hoped that it would expand their world view.
So after closing the doors and the windows, my friend explained to fifty students from rural China what it meant to be a gay man in the United States. He wasn’t quite sure what their reaction would be, but it was far more supportive than either one of us had expected. The students didn’t seem to understand why anyone would care. The questions focused mostly on how his family reacted, and several students wondered whether or not I was scared to be friends with a gay man. One girl after the session, who clearly didn’t quite get it, slipped him a note telling him how attractive he was and gave him her number just in case he wasn’t really gay.
Several hours later I received a text from a student who had grown up in the countryside asking if he could meet with my friend and I. That night he told us a truth about himself that he had never admitted to another person, that he too was homosexual. He said it was something he had always known, but had been too afraid to say out loud. That was until he heard a story that sounded so much like his own.
My friend, who was leaving the next day, worked frantically with this student to try and come up with some sort of plan. They knew it was too risky for him to come out to his classmates even though it meant suffering through another two years of people wondering where his girlfriend was, and his only hope was to move to a big city like Shanghai or better yet, overseas. The student though was far more realistic, he said, “I should just marry a woman, it would be too hard for my family to accept a gay son.” None of us tried to deny the fact that homosexuality is not tolerated in rural China, but we also didn’t want him (and his wife) to live that lie.
As Richard Burger details competently in his book, Behind the Red Door, attitudes towards homosexuality are changing quickly in China and this seems to be supported (not everywhere), but not when it comes to one’s own family. The sentiment seems to be “why would I care if someone in another family is gay?” but there’s a markedly different attitude if it is their relative. As my student lamented, “My parents want me to have kids, and I should just make them happy.” To which my friend replied, “But what about your happiness?”
I’m glad to say several years later my student has given up the notion that his parents’ desires for his life trump who he is.
*This part of the contract was not from my church, we believe that all people are created by God as they are.
When I heard that Richard Burger, of The Peking Duck, had written a book about sex in China, I expected it to be a somewhat scandalous introduction to the topic (he had told me that it wasn’t meant for China experts). However, I found Behind the Red Door: Sex in China to be an incredibly thorough exploration of sex and sexuality in China. He covers almost every aspect– dating, marriage, prostitution, concubines, homosexuality, pornography, sex shops – and each in a way that considers the past and present and avoids easy answers.
The only gripe I had with the book was when Burger chastised the missionaries of the past for bringing their close minded western views on homosexuality.
He highlights a passage from a Jesuit writing in 1610:
“That which shows the misery of these people is that no less than the natural lusts they practice unnatural ones that reverse the order of things: and this is neither forbidden by law or thought to be illicit, or even a cause of shame. It is spoken of in public and practiced everywhere, without there being anyone to prevent it…”
Richard uses this to prove his broader point that homosexuality is condemned in the West based on religious views, but in China was practiced freely until missionaries interfered saying, “Chinese passing by on the street would most likely have viewed the male prostitutes as providing entertainment that harmed no one.” However Richard writes just a few pages later to say that of the male prostitutes “the most prized were those between 12 and 14 years of age,” and that, “unlike concubines who were often treated as family members, catamites (male prostitutes) were often discarded like an old shoe, and many became beggars who took on the most menial jobs and died in poverty.”
So perhaps the monk was shocked not only by the homosexuality, but also the society’s complicit acceptance of child prostitution. However, his coverage of the modern day struggle within Chinese society over the issue of homosexuality seems to be spot on, and is worth the price of the book on its own.
He also seems to struggle with how to best present the seeming contradiction that Victorian attitudes toward sex ended China’s sexual freedom, but that it is now western openness that has contributed to China’s sexual re-liberalization. Richard though does bring this point out toward the end of the book.
With that out of the way, I would like to say that I very much enjoyed this book, and found scores of new information about attitudes towards sex in ancient China, as well as several interesting anecdotes about more current events. I was also very pleased to find that Richard’s book avoided the ChinaSMACK approach to some of the topics, meaning that he relied more on personal conversations and news accounts than translated comments from Chinese message boards (although not entirely).
I feel that this gives a much more accurate view of what’s really going on than simply focusing on the most outrageous events. Furthermore, Richard’s style, which has been honed over his years of blogging, reads very well, despite the amount of information crammed into every page.