An investigation of the Western male’s age-old attraction to Asian women.
International Herald Tribune columnist Bernstein (Ultimate Journey: Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment, 2001, etc.) begins with the story of ChinaBounder, a foreign English teacher in Shanghai who boasted on his blog that he could have unlimited sex with Chinese women. The author attempts to trace this long-running East-West sexual fascination and finds the underlying reasons as pertinent today as they were when British diplomat Paul Rycaut’s The Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1668) first titillated readers with details of the Eastern harem. Western conquest and colonialism translated into Eastern slavery and submission, setting the stage for Eastern reception of Western desire. In his loose-limbed style, Bernstein illustrates this development with solid examples throughout literature. These include the central crisis in the Iliad, in which Agamemnon steals Achilles’s beloved slave companion, Briseis; the passion of Antony for Cleopatra; Marco Polo’s fabulous descriptions of Kublai Khan’s permissive court, and other stimulating travel accounts by Sir John Mandeville and Ludovico di Varthema; and the work of Gustave Flaubert and Richard Burton (both aficionados of prostitution while traveling in the East) as a kind of “sexual and cultural liberation movement” in an era of the emerging bourgeoisie. The author chronicles the various “phases” in this long erotic encounter, including the British nabob in India, the French lusting for Moorish women in Algeria, the war-time occupiers of Japan and Vietnam and the current trend of post–middle-aged Western men taking up marriages in Thailand. In an effort to be fair and nonjudgmental, Bernstein offers feminist viewpoints as well.
A diligent scholar pursues a subject given to theories of exploitation and dehumanization, but intriguing any way you look at it.