To celebrate LGBT History Month, 2013, Polari is publishing a daily series of LGBT Heroes, selected by the magazine’s team of writers and special contributors.
Emperor Ai – Chinese Emperor
by Christopher Bryant
Throughout the history of Imperial China, from the earliest recorded words around the fifth century BCE through to the Communist Revolution of 1949, same-sex love was part of the cultural tradition. It was treated openly and as part of the natural order. The tradition hinged on the three tales that provided the social framework for how Chinese culture accepted homosexuality.
The three tales were used repeatedly as proverbs in literary and historical works, and they determined the place of homosexuality. The first tale, the story of the shared peach, told of the Duke Ling, ruler of the state of Wei (534-493 BCE), and his love for a court official, Mizi Xia, who offers the ruler half a peach that he is eating. The second, the tale of Long Yang and the Fish, told of the love of another ruler of Wei, who had a favourite called Lord Long Yang. The third, the tale of the cut sleeve, is the most celebrated. It concerns Emperor Ai of the Han dynasty, who ruled from 6 BCE – 1 CE, and his lover, Dong Xian.
In Records of the Han by Ban Gu (circa 66 CE) it is written that, “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!” Following this, the style of the cut sleeve became a fashion among courtiers. It was the definitive symbol for a homosexual bond.
Throughout its Imperial history, Chinese culture was shaped by ethical systems, and not monotheistic religions. Taoism hinges on the idea of balance, on the yin & yang, and Confucianism promotes social duties and opposed superstition. Emperor Ai reinforced the idea of respect and consideration in an act that would reverberate throughout the history of Imperial China.