Puyi, The Gay Last Emperor Of China

Before Mao Tse-tung created today’s unified China under communist rule the country was a weak state ravaged by foreign powers, a weakness exemplified by Puyi, the last Emperor of China.

Anyone who has seen Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (highly recommended if you haven’t) knows the basics: the strangely pampered childhood after his rise to the throne at two years of age, his mentoring by the Imperial household’s eunuchs, his weak government overthrown by the invading Japanese who made Puyi their puppet, and his forced “reformation” under the communists turning the last Emperor of China into an everyday citizen of the People’s Republic.

Scene from the movie “The Last Emperor”

One major error in the movie is the central love interest centering around Puyi’s wife. According to many witnesses, Puyi was gay. Mocked from his youth for his feminine figure, his stereotypically awkward glasses, and his preference for men, Puyi’s homosexuality is openly discussed in modern China. His own sister-in-law wrote in her memoirs that he lived with a pageboys as his concubines, and many say he never consummated his marriage.

While traditional China accepted homosexuality as a normal aspect of the human condition, people in Puyi’s time said he and his wife Gobulo Wan Rong could not have children because he was infertile, a common way of talking around homosexuality. There is even a later story of the estranged Empress getting pregnant by her chauffeur, the baby killed at birth.

I find Puyi fascinating as a gentle man born into a central role in a tragic history. I cannot imagine what his life was like, but I can imagine the quiet life he might have led if born into more normal circumstances. His surviving relatives gathered recently for a touching discussion of their famous relation. A niece says he was such a playful man that, “he was just like one of the kids,” and so humble the other children who knew him did not believe he had ever been the Emperor. They laughed about how this man, raised in such mind-bending privilege, could not even use money correctly for everyday transactions.

Some tender souls are born into ill-fitting circumstances. It is strange to think of the cosmic karma that created a life as extravagantly odd as Puyi’s. My empathy goes out to anyone who struggles to fit into life wherever their birth takes them.


The Queer Spirit of Burning Man

Queer is not the same as gay. Queer means different, strange, odd, or eccentric, and in that sense, Burning Man is profoundly queer.

If you haven’t seen this, it really is a touching and a powerful mood reseter, if you need one. Plus it gives a great sense of the spirit of Burning Man, something hard to get if you have never been there.


No Pride in Tokyo

Preston as a Mormon missionary in Tokyo, circa 1980...and circa 70 pounds ago.

Tokyo is the world’s largest city and home to Asia’s largest gay population, yet Tokyo has no Pride parade or celebration. As someone who lived there for a couple of years I can tell you, Japan is a very conservative country, with a cultural emphasis on conformity that transcends laws and rights. Celebrating what makes one different makes no sense when being the same is the primary value.

More on attempts to create a Tokyo Pride from Time Out Tokyo.

What Angkor Wat Taught Me about the Differences Between People

I find the act of understanding other people thrilling, which is part of why I love traveling, and the more exotic the better.

Young monks in saffron robes sitting on the ruins of Angkor Wat may be the most exotic thing in the world to me, but to young men in central Cambodia, sitting around ruins in the only clothes they own is everyday life. The exotic thing for them was a huge foreign man traveling alone and taking pictures of everything he sees.

Young monks at Angkor Wat

Walking past a small group of these kids, I paused and said hello, and realized they were not just sitting there to be picturesque. They had a purpose for being there. These were poor students, probably abandoned by their families to the monastery when their parents couldn’t feed them, who spent day after day hanging out on the local ruins in the hopes of a few minutes of interaction with an authentic English speaker so they can struggle through the few words and phrases they had learned so painfully.

Thrilled at my attention, the little group I talked to followed me shyly as I walked the temples, asking questions, giggling, and struggling to understand my foreign tongue. Sometimes we just walked in silence, as they’d run through their stock phrases and I had no Cambodian to offer back. Then they’d remember something they could ask, and struggle to understand my answer, giggling and perplexed.

At one point my little posse paused and I saw them screwing up their courage as the bravest one forward to ask me for something. They wanted to take my picture. They had a simple camera, and wanted a group shot standing next to me. In that moment it hit me with more force than ever before — in that place, in their eyes, I was the exotic one. All us foreigners were taking pictures of them and their magnificent cultural heritage, and all these simple boys wanted was a picture of the truly exotic thing in that landscape: me.

I wish I had a copy of that picture, the one that they took, as their smiles at having their photo taken with such an exotic human being from so far away expressed our connection and respect for each other, and our celebration of the differences, in a way far beyond words.

I love moments like that, when the world flips over and for just a moment, I can see life through the eyes of another.