A Gay Novel From China

So I am going through the bookshelves in this apartment, and I find an English-language book titled "Silent Opera."  Hmm, I think, how could an opera be silent?  I am perplexed.  I look at the name of the author.  Li Yu?  Who?  I've never heard of him before.  I read the biography.  Li Yu (1610/1611-1680) is the author of The Carnal Prayer Mat.  Ah, I know that book, as would any hot-blooded teenage Chinese boy with raging hormones.  But, of course, when I read it, the listed author was not Li Yu but a pseudonym; besides, I wasn't reading the book to improve my mind.

So what is in this particular book?  More of the same?  I read the introduction.  There are six translated short stories, and the introduction contains this summary:

Li Yu never based his stories on existing anecdotes, as his contemporaries did.  His themes were more socially daring than theirs -- in some cases, they were even shocking.  He set out to overturn the conventional moral themes, especially those celebrated in literature.  The first story translated here turns the traditional romance -- in which the brilliant and beautiful couple find and marry each other -- on its head.  The second story boldly asserts that the most dangerous kind of official is the incorruptible one . The third shows us an illiterate peasant woman outwitting her captors with Odyssean guile.  The fourth transfers the traditional moral themes of chaste widowhood and selfless child-raising to a homosexual context.  The fifth is a mocking treatment -- mocking because it takes it subjects to the extremes -- of the practice of praying for blessings.  And the sixth is a romance between two members of the same acting troupe who can express their true feelings only through their make-believe medium.  The essential ingredient of a Li Yu story is the inversion of a social or literary theme.

Inversion?  I know what an invertido is in Spanish.  One of the more obscure meanings of 'inversion' is 'the taking on of the gender role of the opposite sex'; in Freudian terminology, 'homosexuality.'  So I head to the fourth story, which is translated by Gopal Sukhu and Patrick Hanan.

The title of the story is 'A Male Mencius's Mother Raises Her Son Properly By Moving Houses Three Times.'  That is quite a mouthful of words, but this is surely playing back to the classical story about the philosopher Mencius whose mother moved house three times to keep her son away from bad influences.  So this is going to an inversion of the classical tale.

As is common, the story begins with a poem:

We know not how the Southern Mode began
And women's travail was bequeathed to men:
Face to back, opening the firmament,
For lack of a woman, making do with a man.
"You're missing out on joy -- forlorn, alone,
Tell me pray, what pleasure do you again
From such intolerable filth and pain?"
He turns.  "It has a savour all its own."

What is this Southern Mode?  A footnote explains that nan (south) is a homonym of the word for nan (male) ; thus homosexuality (男風) is the Southern Mode (南風).

And now the story begins with the background about the state of homosexuality in China:

This lyric, to the tune of "Bodhisattva Barbarian," is a reproach aimed at devotees of the Southern Mode.  We do not know when the mode began or who invented it, but isn't it strange that it now competes with the Way of Man and Woman as created by Heaven and Earth?  But how do we know that the Way was created by Heaven and Earth?  Just look at the places where the male anatomy protrudes and the female recedes -- the correspondence is certainly not adventititous.  In shaping the male and female anatomies, Heaven and Earth intended that the surplus element should supplement the deficient one and that, when it did so perfectly, pleasure would be the natural result.  Surely such enjoyment cannot simply be willed into existence!  When the sexual intercourse is over, the man's semen and the woman's blood congeal to form an embryo which, after the passages of ten months, is born as a baby boy or girl.  This effect cannot be fortuitous.  And because the man and the woman are acting naturally, without artifice, in accordance with the mutual interaction of yin and yang, the meaning of Heaven above and Earth below, and the function of Creation, they can be intimate without harm to morality and playful while furthering the cause of propriety.

The Southern Mode, however, lacks three things: complementarity in physical terms, mutual pleasure in emotional terms, and offspring in terms of effect.  I wonder how this practice originated, if it brings pain to others and no benefit to oneself?  What is the point of it?  Why, when two men in medieval times chanced to to be standing next to each other, did one of them suddenly take it into his head to do this thing, and why was the other one happy to acquiesce?  What an empty illusion they shared!

Besides, that sinkhole was created to eliminate bodily wastes, because the foul matter and rank odours produced inside the five organs needed somewhere to drain away.  The Creator, in first endowing us with physical form, was afraid that men and women might mistake this orifice for the other one during intercourse, and so he situated it at the rear.  Why then, after it had been segregated to emphasize its inferior status, did men wilfully cross the alps and seek out this remote spot for their clandestine purposes?

Now, if it were just a matter of some elderly bachelor too poor to take a wife who relied on this for sexual relief, or some pretty boy without enough to eat who relied on it for his survival, that might be condoned.  But in today's world there are family men who are addicted to this mode as well as affluent young fellows who revel in it -- and that is impossible to justify.

The practice is prevalent in all parts of the country, but especially in Fujian.  From Jianning and Shaowu onward, every prefecture and county is worse than the one than before.  And not only are the men fond of it, even such insentient creatures as plants and trees have become infected and take delight in it.  Deep in the mountains grows the banyan tree, also known as the Southern Mode tree.  If there a sapling nearby, the banyan will actually lean over and try to seduce it.  Eventually, when it has succeeded, it branches will be clutching the sapling in a tight embrace, as if folds the young tree into its bosom.  The two will then form a single tree which is impossible to separate with knife, saw, axe or chisel.  That is why the banyan is known as the Southern Mode tree.

Not long ago a certain licentiate head about the tree but was sceptical.  Not until he arrived in Fujian and saw it with his own eyes did he realize that there are many strange things in the world and that not everything in oral legend or popular romance is necessarily false.  In a chastened mode, he wrote the following quatrain:

The double lotus, the brances entwined --
Who would deny love to plant and tree?
It's true that there exists a Southern Mode:
You won't believe unti lyou come and see.

Gentle reader, does it not stand to reason that, if plants and trees behave in this manner, a similar obsession is to be expected among men?

Then the story begins in earnest.  I cannot give all the details, but it involves the traditional conventions of love-at-first-sight, mutual magnetic attraction, courtship rituals, dowry negotiations, jealous lovers, wedding, married bliss, tragedy, and so on but grafted into a same-sex relationship.  The inversion in the story title was about a scholar/official whose 'stepmother' moved their home three times to avoid trouble with people who lust after him.  Only when the scholar/official grew into an adult that someone finally told him that his 'stepmother' was his deceased father's homosexual lover who dressed as a woman in order bring him up properly.  But the scholar/official never let on to his 'stepmother' that he knew the truth, and he treated him as a mother.  When the 'stepmother' died, the son buried him next to his father's grave with the proper title of wife.  All in all, it was a very sympathetic treatment.

Silent Operas was written circa 1650.  I don't know what would happened to someone who dared to publish such a book in America or Europe at that moment in time.  [Reader's note: Actually, America's publishing industry was in its infancy and literature there was still coming from Europe, but erotic and ribald literature in Europe was being freely published at that time. Here's a very small example: Schooling Sex: Libertine Literature and Erotic Education in Italy, France, and England 1534-1685 by James Turner and James Grantham Turner.]