I was recently working on a book chapter about Western authors who had lived in pre-communist Peking – the likes of Edmund Backhouse, George Kates, Harold Acton, David Kidd – and I was struggling to come up with an interesting frame. Rather than a straightforward series of  chronological biographies, I wanted a unifying thread or two. And then it hit me: Gay Peking. Although Shanghai enjoyed a deserved reputation as a decadent oasis catering to all tastes, Peking held a greater attraction for many homosexuals of an academic or artistic bent.

To examine the homosexual theme in depth I turned to D.E. Mungello’s Western Queers in China: Flight to the Land of Oz for some background context, and anecdotal nuggets to borrow. The book looks at twenty-three men, drawing on published sources but also the author’s own investigations which included contacting people who knew the men.

I first came upon Western Queers in China shortly after its publication in 2012 when I was doing some reading on Austrian-American botanist Joseph Rock (1884–1962); his lifelong bachelorship, photos of him in ethnic dress, and a few other things made the gaydar light up. Mungello had wondered about Rock too, but the eccentric plant explorer did not made the final cut, as the author was unable to find evidence to collaborate the rumours. Another man said to be gay but for which Mungello could not find sufficient proof to include was German Sinologist Erwin Ritter von Zach (1872–1942). Many homosexual men in those days were so discreet that they left no traces, even in private correspondence, which makes a book such as Mungello’s an extremely difficult undertaking.

In other cases, such as with George H. Kates, despite a lack of conclusive evidence, Mungello used his judgement and included the men. “Kates’ sexuality is unknown, but his life resembled the life of many men of same-sex attraction who lived in an age when being closeted was essential to one’s professional and social acceptance.”

Kate’s wrote a gorgeous memoir of a vanished Peking called The Years That Were Fat: Peking, 1933–1940. The American lived in a traditional Chinese courtyard house with two servants, recreating the lost world, even then, of the scholar gentleman. It was an idyllic existence (for those of a quiet bookish nature at least) of study and research, collecting artworks and furniture. I highly recommend reading The Years That Were Fat and then following it up with John Roote’s excellent biography and in-the-footsteps-style quest of Kates: A Love Affair with Old Beijing, The Remarkable Life of George Kates (2015).

Another book poignantly recalling old Beijing is David Kidd’s Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China (originally published in 1960 as All the Emperor’s Horses). Kidd moved to China in the autumn of 1946 two months shy of turning twenty. He taught English at Tsinghwa University and studied poetry at nearby Yenching University. Kidd married a Chinese woman, Aimee Yu, in 1949. Kidd was a homosexual so the marriage was obviously fake and done for practical reasons. But as Mungello says, “Since he did not initiate the marriage, he can hardly be accused of misleading her.” It was Yu who had approached him, at a Peking opera performance. Her father was a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and a famed collector of antiques. After the wedding Kidd moved into the Yu family’s huge compound. In his memoir, Kidd writes of the family’s splendid mansion and artworks with a passion which is in contrast to the friendly but platonic feelings he expresses for his wife.

The couple left China in 1950. While Yu flourished in the United States, Kidd felt alienated. They separated (neither ever married again) and he moved to Japan in 1956, where he lectured and was a prominent figure in the arts scene. As Mungello writes, Kidd was not alone in choosing Japan: “With China removed as a welcoming land for homosexuals, Japan became the closest substitute.”

Mungello, whose own China adventure dates back to 1963 when he started studying Chinese“because of the beauty and exotic quality of its characters,” is an American historian specialising in the interaction between China and Europe since the late Ming, in particular Christianity’s early days in China. Among his monograph titles are: Curious Land: Jesuit Accommodation and the Origins of Sinology (1989), The Chinese Rites Controversy: Its History and Meaning (1994), and The Great Encounter of China and the West, 1500-1800 (1999).

As you would expect from this expertise, Western Queers in China is especially strong when profiling early Jesuits who are suspected to have been gay, among them  astronomer Adam Schall von Bell (1591–1666). The German’s incredible success in attaining a high position – he was appointed Head of the Bureau of Astronomy and was an advisor to the emperor – and expanding the Jesuit footprint in China, made many enemies who raised accusations concerning improper conduct and subversion. Political machinations by rival factions led to Schall’s arrest and sentencing to death on April 15, 1665. He was to have the worst kind of execution, the lingering death of dismemberment, which was not just painful but unlike the much preferred strangulation, left an incomplete corpse for passage to the afterlife. In a scene straight out of a Saturday matinee, an earthquake the next day and a fire in the imperial palace were taken as signs of heavenly displeasure and resulted in his release. Regarding his sexuality, Mungello concludes that his close relationship to his chief servant suggests same-sex attraction but there is no proof that it went so far as to break any vows.

The subtitle “Flight to the Land of Oz” is a clever one, alluding to the dual push and pull nature of homosexuals going to China: the flight from homophobia and possible blackmail, imprisonment, and persecution, and, on the other side, the attraction of China’s tolerant views toward homosexuality and its many exotic appeals. Like Dorothy escaping a dull monochrome Kansas for the Technicolor fantasies in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Mungello says that for men in his study, “China was the metaphorical Land of Oz.”

China was a siren’s call to the gay sensibility. Whether in the aesthetics of its calligraphy, the wonder of its scenic landscapes, the exotic quality of its philosophy and theatre, or the lithe and dark-haired beauty of its men, China exerted a powerful attraction on many who felt same-sex desire. … It is an attraction that I myself felt, although for many years I thought it was merely a personal idiosyncrasy that did not apply to others.

There were wider effects of homosexual men’s interest in China. “This led them to play a significant role in opening the broader Western sensitivity to the beauty and fascination of China.”

Western Queers in China excels in both content and tone; it’s readable, non-sensational, and empathetic. Readers are sure to encounter new material and to come away with a title or two to read. For me this was the importance of French homoeroticism. I was, for example, unfamiliar with the novelist Victor Segalen and his novel René Leys. It would be easy to say that Mungello could have added this or that – Western Queers in China is short at 140 pages from the introduction to the end of the epilogue – but it’s a great foundation for other scholars to build upon.

Western Queers in China: Flight to the Land of Oz is published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. It’s also available from Amazon and other retailers.