Open menu


Open menu


Open menu
three pairs of lovers with space



Under the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), Greek love remained widespread, and with a dramatic increase in the reading public due to a population explosion, growing literacy and refinements in printing technology, writings appeared which shed light on its role in the lives of ordinary people, rather than the just the imperial court. Foremost amongst these were the widely-read novels of Li Yu (1610-80) straddling the end of the era. The Carnal Prayer Mat (1657), almost certainly his, relates the adventures of a scholar who devotes himself to sexual pursuits against the advice of a Buddhist abbot and keeps two page-boys for sexual relief between his seduction of women. His short story House of Gathered Refinements (1658) tells of the revenge of a boy deceitfully lured away from his lovers and castrated on the instigation of an imperial minister historically executed for corruption.  It is worth observing in passing that the characters in both works by Li assume marriage is not in contradiction to their Greek love involvements.  In the latter story, the boy's lovers are married and the boy himself looks forward to marriage until cruelly robbed of the prospect.

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 Dutch sinologist Gustaaf Schlegel wrote about pederasty as part of the sexual immorality he saw as ensuring doom for Qing China in his short book Prostitution in China in 1866. Using the reports of others such as Schlegel, French army surgeon Dr. Jacobus X... also wrote about pederasty in China in his Untrodden Fields of Anthropology (1893).

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.

The ethnographer Georges Hérelle (1848-1935) collected testimonies about the practice of Greek love by foreign soldiers in China in 1902-3. His informant Henri Jeoffrai, reported having seriously fallen in love with a boy in a Beijing brothel, and praised the bewitching gentleness of little Chinese boys[2].

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. A much more detailed, fictionalised but true story of such a boy actor in the last years of the 19th century was told by a European witness, George Soulié de Morant, as Pei Yu: Boy Actress.

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.

The English journalist and boy-lover Michael Davidson, who covered the collapse of the Kuomintang regime in Guangdong in 1949,  recalled his sexual ventures in the remaining bastions of Chinese capitalism in his memoir, The World, The Flesh and Myself:

In Hong Kong I made friends with a sweet slender Chinese boy, like a porcelain figure, named Chou. His little pinched underfed face was made beautiful by a perfect nose; it's the nose, as well as the hooded eyes and the alabaster skin, that makes the Chinese the loveliest people in the world; just as, inversely, it's the nose—that sorry lapse of creation—that makes hideous so sadly many northern Europeans. Chou was a studious boy, and I sent him to school; tenderly faithful, he needed a mother's affection. I saw him last in the huge grandiose Peninsula Hotel on Kowloon-side, like Euston Station, when I came back from Korea; he used to write to me after I had gone for good. [...]

From Hong Kong, early in 1950, I flew to Taiwan (which Vasco de Gama, sailing by, called Formosa, the Beautiful): interesting chiefly for exhibiting a Japanese culture imposed superficially upon a Chinese population settled around a remnant spine of Aboriginals: kinsfolk of the natives of Borneo. I remember the dreary food at the American 'club'; the delicate hands of the 'room-boy' at the Japanese-style hotel where I stayed;

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 re-mained 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,[3] 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] Laurent Long and Jean-Claude Féray, "Observations inédites d'Henri Jeoffrai sur la pédérastie en Chine" in Inverses (Châtillon), No. 9, 2009.

[3]  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.




If you would like to leave a comment on this webpage, please e-mail it to greek.love.tta@gmail.com, mentioning in the subject line either the title or the url of the page so that the editor can add it.