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 for them many offers of alliance.
(Tacitus, AD 92)
In the preceding chapters I talked about the common metaphor of culture as a living being (e.g. Oswald Spengler, 1922; Arnold Toynbee, 1958 etc.). In this chapter I go further by exploring the gender, sexual orientation, and maturity of that culture.
Among the many things that impressed Marco Polo in the thirteenth century, and what captured his readers’ imagination throughout the centuries, is the absolute correct observation that a Mongol man, like the Mussulman, could take as many wives as he wanted: “When a husband leaves his wife to go on a journey for more than twenty 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, I believe Marco Polo often confused the Mussulmen with the Mongols, and the Mongols with the common Chinamen (of whom there were countless clans), as there were many hundreds of cultures existing side by side in thirteenth century Cathay (China). The Mongols took over Cathay and established the Yuan dynasty (1264-1368) under Kublai Khan, who ruled from his court in Beijing, but they did not introduce polygamy in China. Far from it: Although polygamy was accepted in many societies around the globe, nowhere was it as common as in Asiatic societies. However, by far more popular was 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. I will discuss this shortly. Having multiple wives, as long as a man could afford such a costly status symbol, was common in Hindu societies, too (the mythical Krishna had 16,108 wives!), but since monogamy was introduced in the nineteenth century by the British Imperialists, having multiple wives became illegal in many parts of India. Yet in the Muslim world, it is often legal. Until the Marriage Act of 1953, the ideal household in China consisted of “one man, many wives, and as many children as possible” (Gu, 1922; Xia et al., 2003). In Japan, polygamy was declared illegal only after the country was defeated in World War II and occupied by the U.S. army. But I will stop here and turn to more important facts.
Whatever the state of law is today, in China, Korea, Japan, and South-East Asia in general, a gentleman can only have one legal wife, but as many concubines, handmaids, or mistresses 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 (Pan, 2004). In fact, there is a wealth of data suggesting that a high proportion of Chinese men are utilizing the increased access to mistresses and prostitutes (Pan, 2004) much more often than men living in the USA (Laumann et al., 1994), where married men tend to turn away from the competition for sexual partners, engage in parental activities, and thus stick to one woman (Gray, Yang & Harrison, 2006). Now, this open attitude towards concubines, handmaids, and mistresses is so omnipresent in Asia (especially in Thailand, Vietnam, China, Japan etc.) that it usually ‘blows’ the average American or European mind:
The Chinese feminine ideal is for a wife to live absolutely, selflessly for her husband. Therefore when a husband who is sick or invalided from overwork requires a handmaid, a hand rack or eye rack [sic] to enable him to get well and to make him fit 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 armchair or goat’s milk to her husband when he is sick or requires it. (Gu Hongming, 1922)
When the West implemented 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, demotes the submissive Asian woman to a plaything, and puts her at the mercy of Western master-race dominance. Asia thus became ‘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, an officer in the French navy stationed in Nagasaki, in his book Madame Chrysantheme (1887). The book talks about short-term marriages with Japanese ‘rashamen’ or “concubines of Westerners” (Loti, 2001).
This kind of representation of Asian woman and Asian sexuality prevails in hundreds of artworks, books, films, television shows, and musicals, and almost always entails interracial romances 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, Sinicized 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 Chun Sue’s Beijing Doll (Chun, 2004).
As Patricia Lin argued in Invented Asia (2007), “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 Chinese and Japanese writers found it natural to depict dominant Western men as洋鬼子 (yang guizi, foreign devils from the ocean), who were evil, stout, and ugly (Zhou, 2000).
What happened in Asia before and between the First and Second Opium Wars (1839-1842; 1856-1860), the World Wars (1914-1918; 1938-1945), the Korean War (1950-1953), the occupation of Japan (1945-1952), Vietnam (1959-1975), and during the U.S. hegemony in Japan (1945-) compelled Western mass media and cultural consumer entertainment to strengthen 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 the U.S. occupation was to render the Japanese as helpless and naïve as women and children supposedly were. (Naoko Shibusawa, 2006)
Butterflies, amber, pottery, calligraphy, lotus flowers, cherry trees, dolls, silk, kimonos… are those national symbols of a masculine or feminine nature? Westerners found them to be of a feminine nature, and commented on the absence of more manly sports (soccer, football, baseball, basketball, athletics etc.), and the toy-like houses and cities they encountered. They 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).
However, no such discourse took place in Germany, which was defeated in World War I and World War II. Perhaps this was because Germany’s population was predominantly white and Western. At the heart of Europe, Germany was considered to be a grown-up culture comparable to the Anglo-American one; by all means the Germans were “a mature people” (Douglas McArthur, in Shibusawa, 2006).
Not only gender and maturity, but also such concepts as ‘love’ and ‘privacy’ were believed to be of an altogether different nature in Asia. In Korea, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, China, and India it is still the case, even a decade or two into this new millennium, that most marriages are arranged or ‘match-made,’ and that ‘marriage’ is still considered the ‘union of two families’ rather than of two individuals, and that a man has to marry and have a child, preferably a boy, before he is considered a real ‘man.’ Nevertheless, we should bear in mind that today’s situation in those countries is already a huge improvement over what it was 20 to 30 years ago (Lü, 2005). Some Western authors still argue 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, Japan, and tutti quanti is inherently different from that in Christianity and the West, and can and must be understood ‘in the Asian context’ only (Lin, 2007).
Similarly, in Asia’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 speakers 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 and Katakana simply because there was no generic word for it in classical Korean and Japanese. 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 a foreign culture and its distinctive values.
Some feminists (men can also be great feminists) have argued that the whole image of ‘Asian playthings’ is the construct of an obsessive Western mind. But then, so are 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 facts of human life.
Unless someone speaks a foreign language fluently and is familiar with the cultural implications of certain words and expressions, one is unlikely to understand the cultural context of, let’s say, ‘enjo kosai’ in Japan – a compensated dating of young schoolgirls by middle-aged men (Goldman, 2008/05) – modern concubinage in Hong Kong or Shanghai, or rampant prostitution in most East Asian countries. Similarly, an East Asian person will have difficulty understanding 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 it isn’t all relative: 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 to Europe. 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 exotic Asian facial features, skin color, and genital configurations seem to arouse Western men to the very heights of eroticism 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 as Asia had to bend down and suffer under Western military and economic might, so did it have to be submissive to the ‘dominance vs. submission’ sexuality catechism. As long as those occupied cultures did not become ‘Westernized,’ i.e. did not conform to a certain level of moral conduct set by Europe and the USA, they remained “stripped of all privileges and left with an ascribed eroticism that invites sexual engagement, exploitation and ultimate abandonment” (Lin, 2007).
Now, while all the authors and scholars quoted above allude to the ‘animal instinct’ of bad Western wolves and innocent Asian sheep, I cannot quite get myself to agree with these ‘chronicles of victimization’ of Asia that only play 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 of China’s major entertainers, Jackie Chan, alias Cheng Long [成龙], once said, “We urge more foreigners to marry Chinese women!”
Well, Mr. Chan, this is what Western men usually do in China. Or, at least that is what they aspire to do, not only in China, but in the whole of East Asia. To put this into socioeconomic perspective: In an international world, Ms. Asia has already claimed Ms. West’s boyfriend. Ms. Asia 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 stake his future on her and her kin.
On a philosophical level, the idea of a masculine West and a feminine East that transcends all human experience and forms a sense of liberation and harmony – Blaise Pascal called it logique du Coeur, 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 analyzed today’s gender politics using 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 Donella Meadows’ The Limits to Growth (1972), Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West (1893), and Edmund Husserl’s The Crisis of the 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 that narrow-mindedly focuses on objects, not relations, and that 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 that holistically perceives the world’s interconnectedness of all objects, and that cultivates and appreciates them in order to balance the relations among all things.
Pattberg, Thorsten (2013), The East-West Dichotomy, Foreign Language Press, Beijing