Chapter 19 – Gender
Almost alone among barbarians they (the Germanic people) are content with one wife, except a very few among them, and these not from sensuality, but because their noble birth procures form them many offers of alliance. (Tacitus, 92 AD)
In the chapters before we talked about the common metaphor of culture as a living being (e. g. Spengler, 1922; Toynbee, 1958 etc.). In this chapter I go further by enquiring about the gender, sexual orientation, and maturity of that culture.
Among the many things that impressed Marco Polo in the 13th century, and captured his reader’s imagination throughout the centuries, is the absolute correct observation that a Mongol man, like the Mussulman, could take as many wives as he liked: “when a husband leaves his wife to go on a journey for more than 20 days, as soon as he has left, she takes another husband, in this she is fully entitled to do by local custom. And the men, wherever they go, take wives in the same way” (Polo, 2007).
Now, Marco often confused, I think, the Mohammedans with the Mongols, and the Mongols with the common Chinamen (of whom there were countless clans), as there were many hundreds of cultures melted together in 13th century Cathay (China). The Mongols took over Cathay (China) and established the Yuan dynasty (1264-1368) under Kublai Khan, who ruled from his court inBeijing, but they did not start polygamy inChina. Far from it, although polygamy occurred in many societies around the globe, but nowhere was it as common as in all Asiatic societies; but more so the phenomenon of concubinage, that is, the maintenance of mistresses.
Concubinage does not mean having multiple wives, like in traditional polygamy, and it is certainly not a form of prostitution either. We come to that in a minute. Having multiple wives, essentially for men who could afford such a costly status symbol, was common in Hindu societies too (the mythical Krishna had 16,108 wives!), but – since the legal introduction of monogamy during the 19th century by the British Imperialists – is now legally prohibited in many parts of India; while in the Muslim world it is often legal. Until the Marriage Act of 1953, the ideal of a household inChinawas “one man, many wives, and as many children as possible” (Gu, 1922, Xia et. al, 2003). InJapan, polygamy was declared illegal only after 1945 when the nation was defeated in WWII and occupied by theU.S.A.But let us stop here and turn to the important facts.
Whatever the state of law today is, in China, Korea, Japan and South-East Asia in general a gentleman can only have one legal wife but may have concubines or handmaids or mistresses – as many as he can afford (Gu, 1922). That said, promiscuous young women, even if married, as long as they do not have children, are usually “available” to powerful men, married or not (Suiming, 2004). In fact, there is a wealth of data suggesting, that “a high proportion of Chinese men are utilizing the increased access to mistresses/prostitutes (Suiming, 2004) much more often, relative, for example, to men living in theUnited States(Laumann et. al, 1994)”, where married men tend to leave the competition for sex partner, engage in parental activities and thus stick to one women (Gray, Yang, andHarrison, 2006). Now, this open attitude towards concubines, mistresses and handmaids is so strikingly omnipresent in Asia (especially in Thailand, Vietnam, China, Japan etc.) that it usually does alienate, if not ‘knock off’, the average American or European mind:
The Chinese feminine ideal is, for a wife to live to absolutely, selflessly for her husband. Therefore when a husband who is sick or invalided from over-work requires a handmaid, a hand rack or eye rack to enable him to get well and to fit him for his life work, the wife in China with her selflessness, gives it to him just as a good wife in Europe and America gives an arm chair or goat’s milk to her husband when he is sick or requires it. (Gu Hongming, 1922)
When the West exerted its imperial agenda, like in all historical conquest, naturally the conqueror turned to the females of the conquered. What happened after this encounter with Asian sexuality, especially during the last 150 years of Western hegemony, can only be described as the thorough construction of a fabulous, sexist ‘Asian exoticism’. This exoticism, in my view, takes the submissive Asian plaything-woman at the core of the concept of Western master-race dominance over all Asian nations and their women.Asiabecame ‘feminized’:
“I shall choose a little yellow-skinned woman with black hair and cat’s eyes. She must be pretty. Not much bigger than a doll…”
…are the words of Louis Marie-Julien Viaud (1850-1923), alias Pierre Loti, officer in the French Navy stationed in Nagasaki, in his book Madame Chrysantheme (1887), who engaged in term-marriages with Japanese ‘rashamen’ or “concubines of Westerners” (Loti, 2001).
This kind of representation of Asian woman and Asian sexuality is prominent in hundreds of art pieces, fiction, film, television and musicals, and almost always entails the inter-racial romance between European or American men with Asian women, for example in John Luther Long’s Madame Butterfly (Long, 2002), John Paris’ Kimono (Paris, 1947), Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha (Golden, 1997), Max Clavell’s Shogun and Tai-pan (Clavell, 1986), and, of course, Marguerite Duras’ notorious L’Amant, in which a French teenage girl becomes the submissive – sinosized – mistress of a much older Chinese gentleman (Duras, 1984). And I haven’t even mentioned more hedonistic works such as Wei Hui’s Shanghai Baby (Wei, 2002) or Chu Sue’s Beijing Doll (Chu, 2004).
As Patricia Lin in her studies on Invented Asia (2007) argues: “sexual encounters historically were initially predominantly between Western white men and Asian woman given the nature of colonial and business ventures which tended to favor situations where primarily men were sent out into Asian territories.” This is testified by the fact that, vice versa, Chinese and Japanese writers found it naturally to depict dominant Western man as evil, stout and ugly 洋鬼子 ‘(yang guizi, foreign devils from the ocean) (Zhou, 200).
What happened in Asia before and between theI.and II. Opium Wars (1839-1842; 1856-1860), the World Wars (1914-1918; 1938-1945), the Korea War (1950-1953), the occupation of Japan (1945-1952), Vietnam (1959-1975), and American hegemony in South-East Asia (1945-), accompanied by Western mass media and cultural consumer entertainment only strengthened the objectification of Asia – Asia as an all-perverted – animalistic if you like – place of Western sexual dominance versus Asian sexual submission:
The most obvious use of the postwar American discourse about Japanese ‘feudalism’ in justifying theU.S.occupation was to render the Japanese as helpless and naïve as women and children supposedly were. (Shibusawa, 2006, p. 73)
Butterflies, amber, pottery, calligraphy, lotus flowers, cherry trees, dolls, silk, kimonos… are those national symbols of a masculine or feminine nature? Western observers found it to be of a feminine nature, and many more things like the absence of more manly sports (like soccer, football, baseball, basketball, athletics etc.), the toy-like houses and cities they encountered, too, and started a “discourse of femininity and masculinity, or femininity and maturity merged, male activity and female passivity”, or simply about “race and manliness”… (Shibusawa, 2006, p. 73), a discourse that did not occur, for example, about the defeated Germans, who after all were a Western culture and considered, comparable to the Americans and the British, “a mature people” by all means (Douglas McArthur, in Shibusawa, 2006, p. 55).
Not only gender and the level maturity but also such concepts as ‘love’ and ‘privacy’ were believed to be of an altogether different nature in Asia. The crux was this: If in Korea, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, China and India it is still the case, even in 2008, that most marriages were arranged or ‘match-made’, and that ‘marriage’ is still considered the “union of two families” rather than two individuals, or that a man has to marry and have a child, preferable a boy, before he is considered a real ‘man’, while keeping in mind that today’s situation in those country already is a huge improvement to what was going on in Asia let us say 20-30 years ago (Lü, 2005), some Western authors argued and still like too see it this way that: ‘Love has nothing to do with marriage in Asia’ (Nilson, 1988), or, in defense of Asian values, that the concept of ‘love’ in (Confucian) China and tutti quanti is inherently different from that in the (Christian) West, and can (and must) be understood ‘in the Asian context’ only (Lin, 2007).
Similar, inAsia’s collective societies, the concept of ‘privacy’ must be understood ‘in that Asian context’ only (McDougall, 2002). It might be helpful to keep this rule in mind: In China, ‘love’ and ‘privacy’ are best expressed by ‘爱(ai)’ and ‘私 (si)’. Korean and Japanese language speaker can read and understand these two characters, but pronounce them differently and also transliterate them into their own alphabets, Hangul and Hiragana respectively. The concept of individual ‘privacy’ which we take for granted in the West was imported into ‘Hangul’ or ‘Katagana’, simply because… well, because there was no generic word for it in classical Japan or Korean languages before. Linguistic distance correlates with cultural distance – only if one has gone through the painful ordeal of mastering a foreign language will one understand and appreciate the foreign culture and its distinctive values beneath it.
Some feminists, and also men can be great feminists for that matter, have argued, that the whole image of ‘Asian playthings’ is the construct of an obsessive Western mind. But then, so is the stock market and French cuisine. No idea that has occupied so many minds over hundreds of years can be that far away from the actuality of human life.
Unless someone speaks a foreign language fluent and is familiar with the cultural nuances those relationship requires, foreign observers are unlikely to understand and appreciate the cultural context of let’s say ‘enjo kosai ‘in Japan, a compensated dating of young schoolgirls by middle-aged men (atimes, 2008/05), modern concubinage in Hong Kong or Shanghai, or the rampage prostitution in most East-Asian countries, just as an East-Asian person will have difficulties to understand European ‘swinger culture’, where couples exchange their sex partners, even wives, mixed saunas, or the naturist or ‘nudist culture’ valued in many European societies.
But all relative it is not: In the past it has always been the Western male colonialist or imperialist who came to Asia, not the Eastern male colonialist or imperialist who came toEurope. Where women dress like dolls, are submissive, know that their husbands will cheat anyway, where prostitution is cheap, people are beautiful, slim, young, even easy to marry, where languages are unreadable, and where Asian body types, in particular their exotic facial features, skin color and genital configurations seemed to arouse Western men an to the very heights of exoticism and bizarreness (Lin, 2007), there will be a market for it:
I have met the plaything which I have, vaguely perhaps, desired all my life: a little talking cat. […] her head, the size of your first, is poised, and seems unreal, on a child’s neck, a neck too long and too thin; and her tiny nothingness of a body is lost in the folds of an extravagant dress, hugely flowered with great gilded chrysanthemums.
(Pierre Loti, 2001)
Dominant groups, therefore, are able to transmit their ideologies and sexual categories through powerful cultural means of subjugation.
Just asAsiahad to bend down and suffer under Western military and economical might, so it did under the ‘dominance vs. submission’ sexuality catechism. As long as those occupied cultures did not ‘westernize’ to an approved and satisfying level of moral conduct set by Europe andAmerica, they remained:
“stripped of all privileges and left with an ascribed eroticism that invites sexual engagement, exploitation and ultimate abandonment” (Lin, 2007).
Now, as all the above authors undeniable play on the ‘animal instinct’ of bad Western wolves and innocent Asian sheep, I do not quite get myself to agree with this ‘chronicles of victimization’ of Asia, that only plays further into the hands of Western dominance. On the contrary, I do believe that in our modern world civility will prevail over barbarism, or, as one ofChina’s major entertainer once said:
We urge more foreigners to marry Chinese women!
(Cheng Long [成龙], alias Jackie Chan)
Well, Mr. Chan, this is what Western men usually do inChina. Or, at least that is what they aspire to do – and not only inChina, but in the whole of East-Asia. To put this into socio-economic perspective: in an international world, Ms. Asia has already pinched Ms. West’s boyfriend. “She” will make sure that her culture prevails, and, believe it or not, “he” will spend his money on her and, facing the shortage of children and crisis back home, he will bid his future on her and her kin.
On a philosophical level, the idea of a masculine West and a feminine East that transcendent all human experiences and forms a sense of liberation and harmony – Blaise Pascal called it ‘logique du cour’ or ‘wisdom of the heart’ – is a popular concept of dualism, also evident in Yin and Yang (阴阳): the feminine or negative principle in nature, or moon, and the masculine or positive principle in nature, or sun.
Jim Garrison, in his Civilization and the Transformation of Power, took this duality to the most profound level, when he analyses today’s gender politics inflected through folk-wisdom and mythology (Garrison, 2000). He describes how the suppression of ‘Mother Earth’, the archetypal feminine, has led us to the brink of world catastrophe, heralded by the ‘Crisis of Europe’ in works such as Meadows’ The Limits to Growth (1972), Spencer’s The Decline of the West (1893), and Husserl’s The Crisis of European Sciences (1970). The power plays between ‘Mother mind’ and ‘Father force’, the violent tension between ‘Mahimata’ (Mother Earth) and Lord Shiva (god of destruction) – all cultures have their myths about this duality and can follow its discourse:
Here – the destructive power of the short-sighted masculine West, who narrow-mindedly focuses on objects, not relations, and who wants to exploit and manipulate those objects in order to control nature and all things.
There – the gentle power of the long-sighted feminine East, who holistically perceives the world’s interconnectiveness of all objects, who cultivate and appreciates them in order to balance the relations among all things.