Sunday, September 4, 2011

Who's a Pretty Boy Then?

I said the other day that the pretty boy is a traditional type in Korean art and entertainment, and indicated that his appeal extends beyond the young girls who are the target audience for boy groups and the like. I began to think that I should offer some support for that statement.

The most famous example of youthful male beauty as an ideal in Korean culture is the Hwarang, the flower boys of the Silla dynasty, in the first millennium CE. The origins of this group are murky, and they changed in their aims and image over time. But along with filial piety, loyalty, and sincerity, physical beauty and the cultivation of friendship were virtues associated with the group. Somewhere along the line military excellence was added, and it looks to me as if each era projected its own ideals on the Hwarang of the past. I haven't looked into this enough to have an informed opinion about the quality of the historical record, but physical beauty recurs as an enduring requirement for induction. For many people today, the combination of male beauty and friendship indicates homoeroticism. I suspect it often did, but we'll never know.

The Hwarang now have a martial art named after them, and a couple of years ago a stage musical. As the poster shows, the musical assimilated the Hwarang to contemporary Korean standards of male good looks, which brings us full circle.

Some of the most valuable material in English on what you might call "old Korea" comes from the late Richard Rutt, formerly an Episcopal bishop in Korea who, because of the small number of Episcopalians in Korea in those days, became almost a circuit preacher, ministering to scattered congregations all over the Republic in the 1950s and 1960s. He developed a great fondness for and knowledge about Korean culture, and in his 1964 book Korean Works and Days he described the rural communities he visited in his first decade there. Stephen O. Murray quoted some of Rutt's observations somewhere, which led me to read Korean Works and Days myself. It's ... intriguing stuff.

For example, describing the entertainment at country fairs, Rutt wrote:
The boys are a very interesting feature of the teams. They are sometimes called hwadong (flower boys) and are almost certainly historically connected with the famous Hwarang, the Order of Flower Boys of the Silla dynasty. They wear red skirts with sleeveless, split-skirted blue coats over them. Over the coat is a series of crossed and knotted sashes tired into turbans with heavy ruching over the forehead. I am told by the oldsters that this headdress is modern. In days gone by the boys wore long pigtails and looked like girls. Nowadays their skirts are the only suggestion of female impersonation left about them. There were three of them here, about thirteen to fifteen years old [62].
More generally:
Educated Koreans often claim that homosexuality is unknown here, in spite of the passionate intensity of many adolescent friendships. But the attitude on this subject too is ambivalent. One of the severest judgments made by the strict Confucian historians against the later kings of the Koryo dynasty was a condemnation of their indulgence in the "love of dragons and sunshine." (That is the literal translation of the phrase, indicating two male concepts, but it really refers to the name of a classic Chinese royal favourite.) And for centuries the gentleman's ideal has restricted sex to marriage and procreation. But there are signs that in rural society paederasty was tolerated if not actually approved.

Not long ago I was sitting in the tiring room of one of my smaller churches, chatting with the churchwarden while the supper was being prepared. There was a lull in the conversation, and then he chuckled and said, "You know, I never realized paederasty was a sin till I read the Epistle to the Romans." After hearing the rest of his chatter I was left wondering to myself just what memories lay behind his chuckle.

He said that when he was a boy, only forty years ago, there were often "pretty boys" in a village. They were especially the favourites of young widowers and sometimes of older and richer men. The boy would receive nice clothes and would be fairly conspicuous. But his position would involve no ostracism and would not impair his chances of marriage.

But among the itinerant players -- the dancers and acrobats and puppet-show people -- paederasty, male prostitution, and regular homosexual marriages [!], sometimes with transvestitism, were common and well known (just as formal tribadistic unions were common among the palace women in the capital.)
Today, he said, things have changed. He suggested three reasons: the Japanese efforts to break the custom, the greater freedom of contact between men and women, and the fact that boys no longer wear their hair long like girls. But still the colloquial description of a good-looking boy is "pretty, like a girl" and implies no disparagement [112-13].
Since Korean Works and Days describes Rutt's experiences in Korea during the 1950s and early 1960s, the "forty years ago" to which his informant refers would be just before and after 1920. The Japanese occupied Korea from 1910 until 1945. My knowledge of Korean culture is much more limited than Rutt's, but from the Koreans of different generations whom I've known, I think it can still be said that it implies no disparagement in Korea to say that a good-looking boy is "pretty, like a girl." (This doesn't mean a general acceptance of male homosexuality, however, as indicated by Rutt's remark about educated Koreans' denial of homosexuality in Korea.)

I'm fascinated by Rutt's relaxed discussion of this topic, surprising from a very conservative Anglican priest who converted to Catholicism in 1994 because he disapproved of the Church of England's decision to ordain women as priests. (In 1969 he married a woman several years his senior, and I've been wondering what happened to his marriage when he was ordained a Catholic priest in 1995. His wife, who also converted to Catholicism, lived until 2007.) He also became an authority on knitting, and wrote a history of that lifestyle choice.

But despite his conservatism he wrote without homophobia or even any evident moral disapproval of homosexuality in rural Korea. (His preferred term, "paederasty," is accurate in the context, since boys were the objects of desire.) I'd be wary of generalizing too much from this anecdote, though, because there was a great deal of regional variation in Korean culture outside the cities; on the other hand, the wandering performers went all over the place, so it appears that good-looking dancing boys were popular everywhere.

At this remove we'll probably never be able to find out more, since the people who could have told us are dead, but when the movie The King and the Clown became a huge hit in 2006, it aroused some interest in male homosexuality in the Korean past. Even the New York Times covered it. And it seems to me that commercial pop culture's use of pretty boys still has a specifically Korean flavor to it.