In the 1950s, budding author Wang Meng got into serious trouble when he "stepped over the political line". In recent years, the accomplished and retired writer, and one-time Minister of Culture, has again raised eyebrows. This week, he was criticized for suggesting Cao Xueqin might have been gay.
Cao, the 18th century novelist, penned what is inarguably China's most monumental work of fiction. Most of the hundreds of characters in the novel are women, delicately sketched with details so sensitive that, in Wang Meng's opinion, only a man of homosexual orientation could fathom.
Coincidentally, I was just interviewed on my take of the movie Red Cliff, which is adapted from Romance of Three Kingdoms and literature from that period in early 3rd century. The reporter asked: "Do you think there is a 'brokeback' relationship between Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu, the two male leads?"
The traditional Chinese euphemism for homosexuality is "cutting sleeves". According to a folktale, an emperor loved his male concubine so much that, instead of waking him up from sound sleep, he cut the sleeves of his robe, which was stuck under his lover's body. Brokeback, from the gay cowboy movie, sounds similar when translated into Chinese and has since become a tongue-in-cheek substitute for "cutting sleeves".
I told the reporter I didn't see any hint of that in the John Woo epic. But I was not surprised. A friend of mine, who has a habit of outrageous cultural reinterpretations, once gave me the rundown of all four of China's classic novels.
In A Dream of Red Mansions, there is only one man who is seriously into women, and he is a clown and bully. In Romance of Three Kingdoms, men would never give up their "brothers" but don't seem to care that much about their wives. In Outlaws of the Marsh, the heroes go one step further: they kill their adulterous wives, concubines or beaus and escape to this mountain retreat where everything looks like a martial arts version of a gay resort.
What about the Monkey King? I asked. Both Monkey and Pig are straight as doornails. Monkey is seduced by the Spider Woman, and Pig is always chasing beautiful girls.
"That's a facade," said my friend. "If you look deeper, Monkey and Pig are actually flirting with each other."
"If you publicize your theory abroad, people might think China has been turned into an enlarged San Francisco," I told him.
Through a modern eye, many relationships between men in classic Chinese literature appear somewhat amorous.
That is because we no longer have the old notion of male bonding. We have friendship, but male bonding, as depicted in classic novels, go way beyond it. When you were sworn as "brothers", you were literally willing to die for each other, without a moment's hesitation.
You may think this is just the stuff of fiction. But I can understand why it actually existed. In those days, a man could have many wives, whose sole function was to bear him children. A "sworn brother" was for a lifetime.
One thing Western reporters tend to get wrong is the sight of two young men walking arm-in-arm. They may not be blood brothers, but there's little chance they're gay - unless they walk out of a gay bar at midnight. If they were gay, they would not do that in public.
In Chinese culture, public display of affection between man and woman is frowned upon, and that could have contributed to the acceptance of certain kind of physical contact between young men. But with the encroachment of Western notions, city kids no longer engage in it.
As for my friend who espouses the gay hypothesis for the four novels, he is a Don Juan in real life.
(China Daily 07/12/2008 page4)