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Picturing an Aesthetic and Homoerotic Space: Harold Acton's Travel Writing of China in the 1930s.

By the early twentieth century when the western culture was no longer as source for artistic imagination and inspiration, the Orient British aesthetes found a route to confirm their cultural identification as who privileged the experience of artistic beauty. Unlike some British travellers whose travel writing of the oriental spaces applied a pure imperialist gesture, there are aesthetic travellers who provided another way of writing with a focus on the Orient's aesthetic value. As one of those aesthetes, Harold Acton arrived in China in the 1930s and wrote extensively on his life in Peking both in fictional and non-fictional literary forms. His personal contact with China was primarily undertaken out of an urge to unearth its artistic value, as well as his quest for sexual freedom so stifled in the British society of his time.

As a modernist whose aesthetic appetite has been fed at an earlier stage when he was a member of aesthete society at Oxford, Acton's negotiation with the spatiality of China in essence reflects his request to make up for the deficiency of beauty increasingly engendered by capital industrialization. According to what is manifested through Acton's travel writing, this aesthetic compensation mainly comes from his embracing of Chinese architectural, sartorial, musical as well as religious tradition; or we may define it as a request for historic and sensual-romantic beauty. As how he notes in his Memoirs of an Aesthete, in contrast with the modern cities in Republican China such as Shanghai and Canton, Peking, as the Chinese city he lived in for around nine years, due to its comparatively intact preservation of the classic Eastern architectural style, namely Chinese gardens, temples and the imperial palace, specifically caters to an aesthete's craving for historic and visual beauty. In fact, Chinese or chinoiserie gardens had been given an aesthetic value by the British since the late seventeenth century. Classified by Claire O'Mahony as one kind of "aesthetic gardens" (1), the Chinese garden's aesthetic value not only lies in its provision of a general exotic ambiance, but also manifests through the picturesque features it exhibits an echo of an earlier aesthetic ideal of Romanticism as a domestic intellectual movement. When referring to the photographs describing Peking interspersed throughout the Memoirs taken by Acton himself, we see him as purposely scanning Peking in a picturesque, or aesthetic, lens. If we examine the two photographs Acton offered which feature the gardens in Kung Wang Fu and Kung Hsien Hutung respectively with care (2), it can be seen that the snaps of the Chinese garden compound are analogous to the typical Romantic landscape rich in images of architectural ruins of ancient civilizations, overgrown plants, rough hills and cliffs, stone walls, and meandering waterways. By representing the picturesque Chinese gardens, for his home readership, Acton may have hoped that these images could, possibly, once again stir up their aesthetic awareness eroded by urbanization and the ashes of the wars. In addition, an aesthete's vision here resonates with the agenda of Romanticism in terms of their sympathy with the experience of beauty. Acton's nostalgia for Romantic aesthetic sensibilities seems to be an attempt to look for support from his intellectual predecessors to fortify his aesthetic quest as one of historic as well as immediate significance. Apart from the visual presentations, Acton in his memoir has more than once directly expressed his appreciation of the Chinese garden interspersed with rockery and pavilions, which, to him, reflected a harmony between architecture and nature: "These rambling buildings, courtyards, stone terraces and fishponds, each compact as a separate village, produced a total effect more overpowering than many a finer, more ambitious structure: they exhaled the peace that passeth all understanding" (Memoirs 280). It can be noticed here that Acton quotes from the Bible in the above passages the reference for Acton's quotation: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (3). Although Acton intends to embrace the Eastern architectural traditions enthusiastically, in this instance, the unconscious application of Biblical quotation indicates how difficult it is for him to reject entirely the influence of a Western upper-class education.

In Acton's travel fiction Peonies and Ponies which was published after he left Peking and draws its materials from his own life there, Chinese architecture becomes the spatial setting for most episodes of the story. As Elisabeth Chang notes, British aesthetes tend to draw upon Chinese gardens "as a displaced location for internal critique" (100). In other words, according to Chang, Chinese gardens act as a literary trope that may deliver a satirical allusion. Acton in the Memoirs just indicates that how his travel narratives set within some Chinese surroundings written in "Roman a clef" style should be read as a satire.
I was writing a novel to illustrate the effect of Peking on a typical
group of foreigners and the effect of these foreigners on a few
Chinese. [...] My characters were amalgams of actual people; whose
characters are not? Had I drawn them straight from life, not only would
be the book have been libellous, it would have been dismissed as pure,
or impure, grotesquerie. (Memoirs 379)


In this instance, apart from being able to treat the Western readership with the picturesque beauty as a site of exoticism, Chinese gardens along with other types of classic architecture in Acton's travel writing are expected to accommodate the critique of some Westerners. Referring to Acton's narratives, the target of critique is those who failed to appreciate the historic beauty of Peking as he himself did. Acton specifically shows disapproval of the European residents of the expatriate community in Peking who tailored randomly the existing Chinese architectural legacies according to Western tastes.
A newcomer might have been puzzled to hear spinsters and matrons
prattling about "my temple" in the Western Hills. Did they preside over
some religious community? Did they ponder the nature of Buddhahood and
study the sutras? No, these temples merely provided an occasional
change of decor. It was pleasant to pretend, as if one were in London,
that one had to escape from the wear and tear of City life. The
Trumpers rented one in which they had patiently tried to produce an
illusion of their Surrey nest, for the walls were covered with Ceil
Aldins and the furniture with a chintz of flouncing cabbage roses; one
felt sure that lamb and mint sauce were on the sideboard. Monsieur
Lefort had banished the Eighteen Lohan to install a cocktail bar in his
temple, with modish appurtenances in surgical steel. He called it Le
Boeuf sur le Toit. It only lacked Jean Cocteau [...]. (Peonies and
Ponies 14)


The expatriates' alterations of those traditional Mandarin mansions in fact represent an intention to occupy and take advantage of the Chinese indigenous culture, which indicates a hidden imperial arrogance as well as the desire to sustain the privilege of those in charge. The Chinese architectural elements are not appreciated for its own sake; rather they are reorganized at random and disassociated from their original cultural context. In other words, they exist to feed those expatriates sensual excitements. In contrast to how Acton himself respect the cultural authenticity of China, the fictional figures in Peonies and Ponies thus in a way deprive the cultural significance of those Chinese mansions.

In addition to insinuating that most foreigners in Peking have mishandled the city's cultural legacy, Acton does not forget to provide a counterexample in the character of Philip Flower, his literary double, whose interactions with the indigenous cultural traditions are seen in more positive light. By actively pursuing knowledge in fields of study such as architecture, religion, the arts and anything that is authentic Chinese as Acton did, Philip Flower embodies a reciprocal relationship with the West that challenges the unidirectional cultural flow Said has alluded to through his Orientalist framework (4). Rather than misusing the Chinese culture as a way to exercise imperial powers, Philip Flower envisages the indigenous objects from a reversed perspective, namely to recover the cultural authenticity of the Orient. In a scene that occurs in the chapter "A Solitary Flower" in Peonies and Ponies, Acton describes Philip Flower's positive interactions with the Peking Opera as the representative of Chinese musical traditions. However, what should be notified is that, in addition to praising Philip for his attempt to integrate with Chinese culture, Acton seems to suggest that this kind of attempt cannot be always that successful. Referring to the experience of Philip Flower, regardless of whether he is deeply attracted by the Peking Opera staged at the Opera House in Tung An market and tries his best to follow the tempo of the music, he is still unable to connect with this Chinese art in a profound way.
Again, with a shock of surprise, he realized what a completely
different world the Chinese inhabited. He scrutinized the tense
expressions of the audience: yonder he recognized his tailor,
transfigured by his absorption in the play, his commonplace features
sensitized by strains which, even though Philip had heard them
repeatedly, failed to convey more than a strident noise to his own dull
tympanum. [...] Evidently it had one, but there was nothing, as in an
English ballad, to catch hold of. A mysterious rhythm of their own
these people possessed, a magic circle into which he could not enter.
Sometimes he fancied he had caught the 'hang' of it; then, just as he
was beginning to enjoy and possibly to understand, the song would stop,
clipped for no reason his ear could discover and he returned to his
bafflement. (Peonies and Ponies 83)


Different from other European residents who might play down the oriental musical presentation as defiant or inferior, Philip, or Acton, belongs to the category of residents who strives to understand the nuances of Chinese culture. His attempt to forge a dialogue with China ruffles the imperialist arrogance and displays a rapport between the East and the West. However, the Chinese musical tradition here presents a type of uncertainty that has been the source of Philip's frustration and anxiety. Apart from showing the hero's attempt to fit in Chinese culture, Acton indicates that the rooted incompatibility between Chinese and Western cultures might at times sadly shattered a confidence in gaining access to the alternative culture.

In addition to Chinese architecture and music, Chinese sartorial tradition acts as another cultural element that entrenches Acton's aesthetic agenda. A photograph in the Memoirs features Acton and one of his friends Amy May Wong offers a glimpse of how obsessed Acton was with the revival of China's earlier modes of clothing (5). In the picture, Acton wears a Chinese long gown with a pigtail as the typical hairstyle of the male population of the Ch'ing Dynasty. Seated with Amy May Wong, the first Chinese American Hollywood movie star, Acton has successfully modelled himself after a Manchurian nobleman. Besides, Acton has deliberately created an atmosphere full of retrospective elements by situating himself inside a "moon gate" carved in wood, with the background of a Chinese screen on which a traditional Chinese painting with mythological aura is displayed. The type of Chinese long gown he wears in the picture, appears as loose and airy, with its refined cutting, shared the similar qualities of the Aesthetic dress of the fin de siecle. As a fresh sartorial style developed from Artistic Dress, the fin de siecle aesthetic clothing of the time rejects the structured and cumbersome dress code, and appeared as loosely fitted with plain colour as the Chinese long gowns do. Apart from that, the Chinese screen with those typical Oriental motifs as the artistic prototype that inspired Japanese panel screens as an ideal decorative forms assimilated by the Aesthetic Movement of the late nineteenth century, also suggests Acton's preference as a manifesto of the identification of an aesthete. Acton's archaeological reconstruction in his artistic creation, which looks purely as a result of his desire to embrace the East, is after all the manifestation of a certain Western ideology.

Acton's this self-presentation in the photograph with Amy May Wong evokes Viktor Shklovsky's theory of the art technique of "defamiliarization" (4). Shklovsky coined the term "defamiliarization" to refer to a means to create a work artistically to "remove the automatism of perception" (7). According to Shklovsky, "[t]he purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects 'unfamiliar,' to make forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged" (4). By the early twentieth century, although the Chinese or chinoiserie artistic style is not as thoroughly new and fresh to the Europeans, quite a few artists are still keen to apply Chinese elements into their artistic creation to arouse an instant sensory refreshment. The late nineteenth century and early twentieth century authors including Oscar Wilde, Ezra Pound, Robert Byron and Harold Acton himself all coincidentally borrowed ancient elements of the Orient in their literary works to offer a compensation for the "atomization of perception" (7) engendered by mundane everyday life. By presenting a picture with an exotic lure and a bizarre combination of the East and the West, the photograph of Acton and the Hollywood actress provides the readership with the "defamiliarized" and thus prolonged aesthetic experience.

Besides offering a compensation for the perception of beauty for Acton as an aesthete, Peking also afforded him an opportunity to achieve a measure of spiritual transcendence. Acton's method to achieve this transcendence was principally through the perceived spiritual solace of Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. During one of his visits to the monasteries and temples on the Western Hills in Peking, as recounted in the Memoirs, Acton recalls how inner peace could be obtained through the mystical power of Eastern religions.
I had seldom, if ever, found such peace in Christian places of worship:
Crucifix alone recalls scenes of agony, and death and tears are always
present. But here the smiling Buddhas and Lohans tranquillized the
mind, and their smiles pervaded each temple. Impatience, the most
marked characteristic of all modern modes of thought and the curse of
all our lives, was banished by the light of Buddha's smile. The
ascendancy of inward culture and of love to others--Buddha's meditation
under the Bo-tree--was reflected, with subtle variations, in each haven
of peace, and there seemed no doubt that Buddha had grasped the
solution of the great mystery of sorrow and had learnt its causes and
its cure. (Memoirs 280)


Acton even affords the hero Philip Flower in Peonies and Ponies a similar experience as himself in terms of the devotion to Chinese philosophy and religious traditions. Acton characterizes Philip Flower as "a middle-aged foreigner in old-world Chinese garb of vividest hue solemnly burning gilt paper money, lightening candles and incense and prostrating himself three times before the shrine of Confucius" (Peonies and Ponies 200) as a double of himself. In the final chapter of the novel, "To The Nirvana", according to Acton's narrative, Philip Flower realizes his innate tranquillity through reciting Buddhist doctrines in meditation. If we refer to the portrait of Acton attached to the Preface of the Memoirs, with the caption "Portrait of Acton as a Lohan" drawn by K'ang T'ung-Pai, describing Acton in cassock, sitting cross-legged, and surrounded by a picturesque backdrop, it seems what Acton seeks to achieve through his Peking adventure is displayed clearly: the picturesque beauty, the revival of cultural traditions as well as self-perfection. For this, he truly obtained redemption from China and its culture.

In addition to playing the role of the source of picturesque beauty, according to Acton's depiction, Republican China provided a homoerotic parallel through which he has successfully accommodated his identity as a homosexual. Joseph Allen Boone has argued in his monograph The Homoerotic of Orientalism, it is through "forms of sexuality and eroticism" that the East and the West find a certain sort of symbiotic nodules (xxv). Though Boone principally investigated how homoerotic representations has traversed across in-between European and Islamicate cultures, his theories are still applicable in our analysis here. As how Wenqing Kang has argued, "western sexological concept of homosexuality was accepted and incorporated in early-twentieth century China because it was similar to the local understanding of male same-sex relations" (490). It is due to Republican China's acceptance of homosexuality as a western sexological concept and its relatively tolerant attitude of homosexual behaviour, Acton formed further attachment to Chinese culture. When taking a close reading of Peonies and Ponies, we can detect how Peking at the 1930s acted as a space that permits homosexual behaviours, or at least the production of homoerotic discourses. Elizabeth Chang has affirmed how writers have been able to treat the oriental spaces such as China as where some identifications and discourses recognized by the West as non-normative are allowed. According to Chang, "[w]riters had long found China's landscape an accommodating and exotic refuge for ideas too critical, challenging or scandalous to be located domestically" (100). In Peonies and Ponies, Acton depicts Peking as just such a space Chang has recognized as where the "sexual transgression" can be achieved through the characterization of the figure Yang Pao-chin and the ambiguity of the relationship between the Yang and Philip Flower.

In the fiction, Acton at first recognizes China representing a culture as inherently allows a sort of ambivalence in sexual preferences, and this kind of sexual ambivalence is exhibited through the profession of a fictional character he portrayed in Peonies and Ponies called Yang Pao-chin. As a Peking Opera singer, Yang's proficiency is in playing female roles. This form of performance of Peking Opera transforms a male actor into an androgynous figure in feminized appearances and manners with his original male physiological characteristics concealed. This ambiguity as prompted by theatrical requirements and convenience has not only created "transgendered" individuals, albeit only on stage by means of art, but helped destabilize the gender binary recognized as the sole standard by the West long before the early twentieth century. Meanwhile, Acton gave a hint of the homosexuality of his literary double, Philip Flower, by giving this figure a feminine surname, "Flower", which was mocked by Captain Gully, another European resident in the expatriate community, as the family name merely for a "frost-bitten pansy" (Peonies and Ponies 138). Based on Acton's insinuation, we may need to reconsider the relationship Philip Flower attempts to achieve with the young male character Yang Pao-chin. Although Philip Flower claims to foster Yang as his son, if we take a closer look at Philip's interaction with Yang, it seems that his affection towards this young man is blatantly ambiguous. Take the scene in which Philip meets Yang Pao-chin for the first time in an opera house as an example, Acton treats it like a love-at-first-sight story.
The air is very dense, as in some catacomb lighted by acetylene. Was a
thunderstorm brewing? The drums on the stage were ominously rumbling.
Philip felt shaky about the knees; his lungs were oppressed nigh to
suffocation. The figure briskly fanning himself by a narrow wooden
staircase he recognized as Yang. (Peonies and Ponies 85)


After the short first sight, Philip in a later scene even boldly confesses how he "take[s] a special interest": "I was drawn to Yang the moment I set eyes on him. He appealed to my imagination. I'd do anything for him. Don't ask me why: I hardly know myself!" (Peonies and Ponies 121). In this case, although Acton is still not able to openly support homosexuality, we can detect between the lines his intention to create an ideological confusion concerning sexual orientation among his readership, albeit in a very careful and inconspicuous way. Although Republican China, like its predecessors, never officially sanctioned "queerness" of sexuality, with gender ambiguity freely demonstrated on stage in the Peking Opera, an art form with a profound cultural legacy, Acton seems well equipped to show his western peers that tolerance of sexual deviance is alive and well here in Republican China, as well as in its culture. For Western artists, Peking therefore possesses a distinctive aura that opens up the potential for tabooed relationships; it symbolizes temptation and transgressive pleasures in contrast with the mundane interpersonal relationships back home.

In conclusion, by mapping out China as an aesthetic and homoerotic space, Acton presents a disorderly encounter between the Orient and the Occident, which exhibits the complex intercultural negotiations between the two sides. For Harold Acton, China's spatial significance at first lies in how it was able to become a focus of his aestheticism. In addition to this, the space allows him to perceive it with a homoerotic lens, which renders the spatiality of Peking much aligned with his cultural identity as a queer or homosexual aesthete. As Oscar Wilde notes the modern idea tends to be "under an antique form" (137), Acton's pursuit of various Chinese cultural traditions is consistent with the overall agenda of aesthetic movement as a modern artistic movement. The sexual freedom embraced by him is also a manifesto of the Bohemian lifestyle aspired by the fin de siecle aesthetes. Representing the aesthetic agenda as well as the rebellious impulse of some of British intellectuals of the day, Harold Acton's personal stance along with the array of discourses devised by the fictional figures in his travel writing provide an alternative way in thinking and representing the Sino-West spatial relations.

Works Cited

Acton, Harold. Peonies and Ponies. Hong Kong: Oxford UP,1983.

--. Memoirs of an Aesthete. London: Methuen, 1948.

Boone, Joseph Allen. The Homoerotics of Orientalism. New York: Columbia UP, 2014.

Chang, Elizabeth. "The Idea of the Chinese Garden and British Aesthetic Modernism". British Modernism and Chinoiserie. Ed. Anne Witchard. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2015.

Kang, Wenqing. "Male Same-Sex Relatons in Modern China: Language, Media Representation, and Law, 1900-1949". Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 18.2 (2010): 489-510.

O'Mahony, Claire I. R. "Fin-de- siecle Fantasy to the Western Front: The Aesthetic Gardens of Nancy". Garden History 36.2 (2008): 253-272.

The Bible. Authorized King James Version, Oxford UP, 1998.

Shklovsky, Victor. "Victor Shklovsky: 'Art as Technique'". Twentieth-Century Literary Theory: A Reader. Ed. K.M. Newton. Macmillan Press, Basingstoke, 1997.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. Penguin Books, London, 2003.

Wilde, Oscar. The Letters of Oscar Wilde. Ed. R. Hart-Davis. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962.

Kun Xi is currently a PhD candidate from School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow whose research interests include British and American travel writing on China in the nineteenth and twentieth century, postcolonial studies, feminism, translation studies and comparative literary studies. E-mail: k.xi.1@research.gla.ac.uk
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Author:Xi, Kun
Publication:Interactions
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Mar 22, 2019
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