three pairs of lovers with space


The fortunes of Greek love began to deteriorate with the Manchu conquest of 1644. Under the new and more authoritarian Qing dynasty, there was a reaction against what was perceived as the disastrous libertinism of its predecessor, and both pederastic behaviour and writings were more regulated. The early Qing emperors themselves retained austere Manchu habits: the second one, the formidable Kangxi, boasted that he was not waited on by “pretty boys”. Partly for sexual liaisons with boys, he deposed his son Yinreng as Crown Prince in 1708 and executed three of his favourites, as recounted in his reconstructed Memoirs. Under him, new laws on homosexuality were drawn up in 1679, though they were not added to the legal code until 1740. According to these, consensual pedication was proscribed for the first time, and a far more severe penalty of strangulation introduced for consensual pedication of a boy under twelve,[1] perhaps the earliest instance anywhere of consensual sex with males under a particular age being subjected to special penalties.

A rich man about to make love to a boy. Oil on silk painting, mid-19th century

Nevertheless, the new laws seem to have been very little enforced, except in the case of rape. Though censorious attitudes steadily increased through more stringent application of Neo-Confucian rhetoric regarding the family, pederasty continued to be widespread. The highest officials commonly maintained beautiful catamites in their households, as attested by a disgusted John Barrow,, who took part in Lord Macartney’s British embassy to China in 1793. Pederastic literature became more sexually explicit than it had ever been, as illustrated by this excerpt from an early nineteenth-century novel. Pederotic art appeared, which was much more explicit than anything from earlier times.  

The best traveller's survey of the subject, written in 1899 towards the end of the Empire, and including details of the flourishing boy prostitution scene was Two Words on Pederasty by J.-J. Matignon, a French physician who spent seven years attached to the French legation in Peking.

Numerous boy brothels serviced an evidently huge clientele in the larger Chinese cities at least as late as the 1930s. At its worst, boy prostitution was horrific indeed, as described by Drew and Drake in the chapter on China in their Boys for Sale, and then unfavourably compared with its gentler and more refined Japanese counterpart.  At its best, however, it was not dissimilar: during the 18th and 19th centuries, it was fashionable for young scholar-officials to involve themselves with boy actors, who were a usual part of any drama troupe, often playing the female roles and were generally sexually available for payment. Sometimes these liaisons were or became passionate love affairs. The highly-desirable boy actors in Peking were described by Cai heng zi.

During his reign as the puppet emperor of Manchukuo 1934-45, Puyi, previously the last emperor of China, made concubines of his pageboys and treated them as badly as everyone else.

Two brothel owners confess to dabbling in prostitution, Beijing, 1951. Many such men were executed

As the only form in which pederasty was still widely practised by the 20th century, prostitution was obviously a manifestation of an unequal society. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the communist revolution of 1949 led rapidly to its suppression. Moreover, though pederasty remained technically legal, all homosexual activity became, for the first time, seriously liable to punishment by the unprecedentedly prudish new authorities as arbitrarily-defined anti-social behaviour. Thus pederasty was effectively suppressed in China rather earlier than in the rest of the Far East.

From the enactment of China’s first criminal code in 1979, “hooliganism” became the legal grounds for prosecuting homosexual acts. By this stage, homosexuality was perceived as a foreign perversion alien to Chinese culture and traditional Chinese pederasty was forgotten.  Hence, when a new criminal code abolished “hooliganism” in 1997, and made homosexuality illegal only with a boy under 14,[2] it was culturally much too late for such limited legal tolerance to revive old ways of thinking.


[1] George Thomas Staunton, Ta Tsing Leu Lee: Being the Fundamental Laws and a Selection from the Supplementary Statutes of the Penal Code of China (London, 1910), pp. 569-70.

[2]  For details of the legal position of pederasty in China since 1979, see “A comparison of the gender-specificity of age of consent legislation in Europe and China: Towards a gender-neutral age of consent in China?” by Guangxing Zhu and Suzan van der Aa in European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research 23 (2017) pp. 523–537.