three pairs of lovers with space



The following observations on the common Chinese practice of pederasty were made during the British embassy to China of Lord Macartney, which stayed three weeks in Peking in 1793 in an unsuccessful attempt to negotiate better trading conditions. The author, (later Sir) John Barrow (1764-1848) was the son of a journeyman tanner who had risen to be mathematics teacher at a naval academy by the time he was appointed comptroller of household to Lord Macartney’s embassy, the beginning of a distinguished career as an explorer and writer.

The reception of the diplomatique (Lord Macartney) and his suite, at the Court of Pekin, a caricature by James Gillray

Barrow’s book, Travels in China, from pp. 149-151 of which this extract is taken, was published in London in 1804. Its general tone, befitting an author described by The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as “an ardent imperialist”, may be guessed by the final part of its subsidiary title: “in which it is attempted to appreciate the rank that this extraordinary empire may be considered to hold in the scale of civilized nations.”


The prohibition against the frequent intercourse with modest females, for there are public women in every great city, is not attended here with the effect of rendering the pursuit more eager; nor does it increase the ardour, as among the ancient Spartans who were obliged to steal, as it were, the embraces of their lawful wives. In China it seems to have the contrary effect of promoting that fort of connexion which, being one of the greatest violations of the laws of nature, ought to be considered among the first of moral crimes – a connection that sinks the man many degrees below the brute. The commission of this detestable and unnatural act is attended with so little sense of shame, or feelings of delicacy, that many of the first officers of state seemed to make no hesitation in publicly avowing it. Each of these officers is constantly attended by his pipe-bearer, who is generally a handsome boy from fourteen to eighteen years of age, and is always well dressed. In pointing out to our notice the boys of each other, they made use of signs and motions, the meaning of which was too obvious to be misinterpreted. The two Mahomedans, I observe, who were in China in the ninth century, have also taken notice of this circumstance: and I find in the journal of Mr. Hittner, a gentleman who was in that part of the suite who accompanied the British Embassador into Tartary, in speaking of the palaces of Gehol, the following remark : "Dans l’un de ces palais, parmi d'autres chefs-d’oeuvres de l’art, on voyait deux statues de garçons, en marbre, d'un excellent travail; ils avaient les pieds et les mains liés, et leur position ne laissait point de doute que le vice des Grecs n’eût perdu son horreur pour les Chinois. Un vieil eunuque nous les fit remarquer avec un sourire impudent.”[1]

John Barrow, a portrait attributed to John Jackson, ca. 1810

It has been remarked that this unnatural crime prevails most in those countries where polygamy is allowed, that is to say, in those countries where the affections of women are not consulted, but their persons purchased for gold - a remark which may lead to this conclusion, that it is rather a moral turpitude than a propensity arising from physical or local causes. The appetite for female intercourse soon becomes glutted by the facility of enjoyment; and where women, so circumstanced, can only receive the embraces of their proprietors from a sense of duty, their coldness and indifference, the necessary consequence of such connexions, must also increase in the men the tendency to produce satiety. I think it has been observed that, even in Europe, where females in general have the superior advantage of fixing their own value upon themselves, it is the greatest rakes and debauchees, who,

“--- bred at home in idleness and riot.
“Ransack for mistresses th’unwholesome stews,
“And never know the worth of virtuous love.”

fly sometimes in search of fresh enjoyment in the detestable way here alluded to.*

*I should not have taken notice of this odious vice, had not the truth of its existence in China been doubted by some, and attributed by others to a wrong cause. Professing to describe the people as I found them, I must endeavour to draw a faithful picture, neither attempting to palliate their vices, nor to exaggerate their virtues. 


[1] This translates into English as “In one of these palaces, among other masterpieces of art, there were two marble statues of boys, of excellent workmanship; they had their hands and feet tied, and their position left no doubt that the vice of the Greeks had lost its horror for the Chinese. An old eunuch pointed them out to us with an impudent smile.”