The Secret Sexual Life of Zhou Enlai and the Limits of Historical Knowledge

The retroactive outing of somebody of Zhou’s stature is sure to court controversy, and this could well have made Ms. Tsoi’s book the most buzzed about title on the private life of a Chinese leader in years — had it not appeared around the same time that Hong Kong booksellers associated with salacious works on Xi Jinping and Peng Liyuan’s behind-closed-doors activities began mysteriously disappearing.

Homosexuality was illegal in the PRC until 1997. Before then, men who had sex with other men risked the charge of “hooliganism.” And it was only in 2001 that the Chinese Psychiatry Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. While social mores are changing, especially in China’s cities, it is still far from unusual to encounter members of the older generation who believe that homosexuality is a foreign vice, an unfortunate by-product of China’s opening to the outside world.

But retroactively outing a historical figure remains problematic, not because of the sex — Zhou Enlai may well have had erotic relations with other men — but because such studies are often methodologically flawed. Too often, contemporary understandings of romance and sexuality, gay or straight, are read into texts from another time period. But doing so can prejudice the data and lead to shaky conclusions. It is an error of perception when we use present-day standards to judge or categorize evidence of past behavior.