Part 4: 2400 Years of Homosexuality in China
The standing of homosexuality in Imperial China, from the early days of writing through to the Communist Revolution of 1949, was fundamentally different than it was in the West. In fable, the Yellow Emperor, one of the inventors of civilisation (c. 2600 BCE), set the precedent for sexual behaviour with his many wives, concubines, and male lovers. Same-sex love was treated with an openness unheard of in Europe. It was also considered a fact of life, and for the most part was not singled out as a vice that had to be punished or demonised.
Throughout its Imperial history, Chinese culture was not informed by monotheistic religions. Taoism and Confucianism are ethical systems rather than religions. Taoism hinges on the idea of balance, on the yin and yang, and Confucianism promotes social duties and opposed superstition. There was a place for homosexuality within both.
There are three tales that provide the social framework for how Chinese culture viewed homosexuality. The tales are used as proverbs in literary and historical works, and indicate the status of homosexuality within the social structure.
The Shared Peach. The first tale concerns the love of Duke Ling, ruler of the state of Wei (534-493 BCE), for a court official, Mizi Xia, who offers the ruler half a peach that he is eating.
Mizi Xia was strolling with the ruler in an orchard and, biting into a peach and finding it sweet, he stopped eating and gave the remaining half to the ruler to enjoy. “How sincere is your love for me!” exclaimed the ruler. “You forgot your own appetite and think only of giving me good things to eat!”
Han Fei Zi • Tale of the Shared Peach, c. 240 BCE
Long Yang and the Fish. The second tale is also about a ruler of Wei, who had a favourite called Lord Long Yang. The two men were fishing and Lord Yang started to cry after he caught a fish.
“Why does that make you cry?” the king asked.
Lord Long Yang replied, “When I caught the fish, at first I was extremely pleased. But afterwards I caught a larger fish, so I wanted to throw back the first fish I had caught. Because of this evil act I will be expelled from your bed! There are innumerable beauties in the world. Upon hearing of my receiving your favor, surely they will lift up the hems of their robes so that they can hasten to you. I am also a previously caught fish! I will also be thrown back! How can I keep from crying?”
Because of this incident the king of Wei announced to the world, “Anyone who dares to speak of their beauties will be executed along with his entire family”.
Quoted in Passions of the Cut Sleeve • Bret Hinsch, 1990 CE
The Cut Sleeve. The third tale is the most famous of the three, and concerns Emperor Ai of the Han dynasty who ruled from 6 BCE – 1 CE, and his lover, Dong Xian.
Emperor Ai was sleeping in the daytime with Dong Xian stretched out across his sleeve. When the emperor wanted to get up, Dong Xian was still asleep. Because he did not want to disturb him, the emperor cut off his own sleeve and got up. His love and thoughtfulness went this far!
Records of the Han • Ban Gu, c. 66 CE
The emperor then appeared in public wearing the cut sleeve, and his courtiers celebrated the love affair by cutting their own sleeves.
These three tales of love and consideration informed the tradition of homosexuality in Imperial China.
There is, nevertheless, a dark side to the stories. When Mizi Xia gew older, the duke of Wei cast him aside; and on the death of the Emperor Ai, Dong Xian was forced to commit suicide. That said, this was not because of homosexuality but the fleeting nature of romance and the consequences of political power. The histories that recount the stories are political treatises, and when it comes to love they advise that a ruler should not put it above the state. It was expected that a man should marry, but it did not forbid homosexual attachments. That said, Emperor Ai was faithful to Dong Xian until death.
In the political treatise that tells the story of the cut sleeve, the writer Han Fei is concerned not with the dangers of homosexuality, but the danger that a ruler could lose his way because of love, whether it be heterosexual or homosexual.
In dealing with those who share his bed, the enlightened ruler may enjoy their beauty.
Yet he should beware.
The ruler is easily beguiled by lovely women and charming boys, by all those who can play and fawn at love.
Han Fei • Han Feizi, c. 240 BCE
In Zhan Guo Ce (Intrigue of the Warring States) there is the tale of Duke Xian of Jin, who sent a boy to influence the ruler of the state Yu so that he could conquer it. He is instructed by his adviser:
Xun Xi said, “The Book of Zhou says, ‘A beautiful lad can ruin an older head’.”
Unknown author • Zhan Guo Ce, 2003 CE
A beautiful lad is then sent to distract the king of Yu’s main advisor, and Xian sweeps in to conquer.
In his Records on the first 5 Emperors of the Han dynasty, the historian Sima Qian, who has been compared to Tacitus, included biographies of the Emperors’ male favourites. He writes of their influence on imperial affairs, and is not recording (or passing judgement on) gossip, like Suetonius did in his Lives of the Twelve Caesars.
Those who served the ruler and succeeded in delighting his eyes and ears, those who caught their lord’s fancy and won his favour and intimacy, did so not only through the power of lust and love; each had abilities in which he excelled.
Sima Qian • Records, c.90 BCE
The Han emperors continued to have male lovers (and this includes Emperor Ai). Bisexuality was assumed and as men were expected to marry there was no word for a homosexual person.
From its beginnings, Imperial Chinese culture honoured the scholar rather than the warrior. Under Confucianism, the state was guided by the scholars and not the warriors.
Instead of legends of heroic self-sacrifice in a warrior society, we have piquant tales of delicate consideration and tenderness.
Louis Crompton • Homosexuality and Civilisation, 2003 CE
Over the course of the centuries, and through its many imperial incarnations, the attitude towards homosexuality did not change. In 545 CE, the court poet Xu Ling collected an anthology of poetry that included many works on male love. One of written by the the second Emperor of the Liang dynasty, Jianwen.
Charming boy—You look so handsome!
You surpass Dong Xian and Mizi Xia.
Our feather curtains are filled with morning fragrance,
Our curtained bed is inlaid with ivory …
Your face is more beautiful than rosy red dawn clouds …
You’re enough to make the girls of Yan envious,
And cause even Zheng women to sigh.
Emperor Jianwen • ‘Charming boy’, from New Songs from a Jade Terrace, 551 CE
In the following years, and in particular under the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE), the official record of male favourites was the domain of the unofficial biography. There was little cultural change in the status of homosexuality. A contemporary of Shakespeare, Xie Zhaozhe, recorded that young men were shared at official gatherings in Peking. The historian Mao Qiling details the many male loves of the Ming Emperor Zhengde (who ruled 1505-1521). The sixteenth Ming emperor, Xi Zong (who ruled 1620-1627), kept two palaces, one for his female lovers, and one for his male lovers.
There were also cases when homosexuality was incorporated into the traditional Confucian order. The commentator Shen Defu recorded an instance of this in the province of Fujian.
The Fujianese men are extremely fond of male beauty. No matter how rich or poor, handsome or ugly, they all find a companion of their own status. Between the two the older is called the “bond [adoptive] elder brother” (qixiong), the younger “bond younger brother” (qidi). When this elder bother goes to the house of the younger brother, the parents of the latter take care of him and love him like a son-in-law. And the younger brother’s expenses, including those of his marriage are all covered by the elder brother. They love each other and at the age of thirty are still sleeping in the same bed together like husband and wife.
Shen Defu • Miscellaneous Musings from the Humble Broom Book Room, c. 1620 CE
In 1557, Portuguese traders arrived in China, and with them came missionaries and the superstitions of the West. By 1569, the Dominican Gaspar da Cruz had started to rewrite Chinese history. He ascribed the series of earthquakes that occurred in the 12th century to the fact that the Chinese were indifferent to sodomy. The laws of Leviticus and Exodus were used by Christians as an excuse to terrorize the Chinese.
Nevertheless, the passions of the Westerners did not immediately unsettle the serene Chinese culture. Anatomy of Love, an anthology compiled between 1629 and 1632, featured 850 tales and anecdotes. One chapter was devoted to homosexuality. The stories are judged on the character of the protagonists, and not their sexuality. The tales of the shared peach, Lord Yang and the fish, and the cut sleeve all feature.
The influence of the West did however start to seep into the culture. The writer Li Yu (1611-1680) was the forefront of the new Chinese literature, and in his stories about homosexuality he celebrates exemplary same-sex romances, but then in his commentary he condemns them. This may have been there to placate the censors, but the fact that it is there at all signalled a change. Nevertheless, in his play Pitying the Perfumed Companion Li Yu tells the story of two women in love.
Mme Fan, who is seventeen, meets a girl two years younger in a Buddhist convent. They fall desperately in love and take oaths of devotion before the Buddha in the presence of their approving servants. The girl laments that they must be separated and wishes they could be reincarnated as man and wife. In a charming scene they playfully try on a man’s robes to see who might better fit the part. Then Mme Fan hits upon a more practical solution: she asks her husband to take the younger woman into the household as a concubine. He agrees, and the play ends happily.
Louis Crompton • Homosexuality and Civilisation, 2003 CE
In the years following the end of the Ming dynasty the country’s troubles were blamed on slipping values, and a strict Confucianism was enforced. Male love was discouraged through legislation. The Second Qing emperor (ruled 1626–1643) punished affairs between men with the martial code of 100 lashes. Nevertheless, by introducing punishment this only put homosexual affairs on the same footing as heterosexual ones. Europeans, of course, thought it lenient. It was soon relaxed and the culture returned to traditional Chinese ways.
The fact of same-sex attraction continued to be treated as another part of the complex human experience. In the eighteenth century, it became popular for scholars and officials to have affairs with tan actors (male actors who played female parts). Three of the emperors between 1851 and 1935 had male lovers.
This tradition came to an end with the Communist revolution of 1949. It is an irony that it was not the religion of the West that brought its end, but what the Americans liked to call “Godless Communism”.
The next part of ‘A Queer History’ looks at the West after the fall of Rome.
Part III – A Queer History: Outlawing Homosexuality