Smiles From Behind a Curtain: The World of Male Prostitution in Imperial Beijing

The area south of Qianmen Gate was once known for its brothels, and in the late 19th century the most popular attractions were not always the fragrant female courtesans imported from China’s south, but young – and sometimes not so young – men often referred to as xiànggong 相公. The term could mean “gentleman,” or an old-fashioned way for a wife to address her husband, but it was also a play on words, a loose homophone for “xiàng gūniáng” 像姑娘, or “as like a woman.” South of Liulichang, near where the Liufangqiao Metro Stop is today, was Hanjiatan, now known as Hanjia Hutong. Along with Shaanxi Hutong, Hanjiatan was famous for its proximity to the best theaters, the finest opera stages, and, of course, the most refined and comely actors.

For men of refinement, the theater was a venue of culture but also an erotic space. Patrons in particular focused their obsessions on the actors – almost always male – who played the dàn 旦, or lead female role in the performance. The dan became objects of desire and connoisseurship. Actors were encouraged to smile coquettishly at theatergoers and to mingle with more elite members of the audience who sat in curtained boxes or at tables.

The charged atmosphere of the theater was captured in this popular song from the early 19th century, translated by the historian Wu Cuncun:

“There is no place as thrilling as the upstairs stalls,
Those fellows look like they have money to spend.
A single smile from behind the curtain,
They won’t begrudge the thousand spent on the best table.”