China has a long history of tolerance towards homosexuality, beginning from the first references to same-sex relationships in the records of the Shang Dynasty (16th-11th centuries BC) and ending (after a rather shaky period from 1740 onwards) with the persecution of homosexuals during the Cultural Revolution. That’s over three thousand years of a society that occasionally celebrated same-sex love, occasionally denigrated it, but more often than not, just let people get on with it.
In typical elliptic style—because direct talk of sexual matters was considered unbelievably vulgar—Chinese literature referenced homosexual acts by means of phrases such as ‘cut sleeve’, ‘bitten peach’, or by name-dropping gay historical figures. The most famous stories are of Mi Zi Xia and his royal lover, Duke Ling of Wei, who shared a peach (yutao, ‘leftover peach’); and Emperor Ai, who cut off his sleeve to avoid disturbing his sleeping lover Dong Xian, which created a court trend whereby everyone went around cutting their sleeves (duanxiu, ‘breaking the sleeve’).
Qu Yuan, an admired poet of the Warring States period (340-278 BC), wrote poems to his lover, the King of Chu. Historical documents such as Sima Qian’s Memoirs of the Historian and the exhaustive dynastic records of the Han dynasty list scores of male favourites of the ruling monarchs. Throughout the Western Han dynasty (206 BC-23 AD), ten of the thirteen emperors took male lovers in addition to the necessary wives and concubines. Sima Qian wrote that the male favourites were often admired more for their skills in war, administration, or cultural pursuits than for their beauty.
My favourite of the Western Han emperors, Han WuDi (‘the Martial Emperor’)—or Liu Che, to give him his real name—was one of these ‘bisexual’ emperors. Liu Che liked to keep things within family units, too—his male lovers included an uncle and nephew, plus the famous musician Li Yan Nian and Yan Nian’s sister, Lady Li. My novella Fall of a State (available now from Dreamspinner Press) is a somewhat fluffy version of the relationship between Liu Che and his musician. Li Yan Nian is credited with writing the ‘Northern Beauty’ song (a version of which appears in the film House of Flying Daggers when Zhang ZiYi performs for Takeshi Kaneshiro), which—due to the Chinese language having no gender for its nouns and pronouns—means the Beauty could refer equally to a man or a woman. In my story, it does both.
During the period of disunion (265-589), in which six separate dynasties ruled and overlapped, the historians of the Liu Song dynasty record that homosexuality was as common as heterosexuality:
“All the gentlemen and officials esteemed it. All men in the realm followed this fashion to the extent that husbands and wives were estranged. Resentful unmarried women became jealous.”
Efforts were made during the Tang dynasty (618-907) to restore more of a ‘traditional’ moral order. Somewhat ironically, the first Crown Prince of the dynasty, Li Chen Qian, was gay. He was later removed from succession, though not for that reason.
By the time of the Song dynasty (960-1279), an increase in urbanisation and the introduction of paper money caused a growth in prostitution. A law was passed against male prostitution, but it seemed not to have been enforced with any rigour. The merchant classes, suddenly given a voice in the historical and literary records, had money to spend and lusts to fulfil. With their respectable wives raising families at home, the merchants went out partying with pretty young sing-song boys.
[Rest of the post cut because of explicit historical erotic images – NSFW!]
During the affluent Ming dynasty (1368-1644), the southern province of Fujian became famous for its male marriages. The older man (qixiong, ‘adoptive older brother’) paid the ‘bride price’ of the younger man (qidi, ‘adoptive younger brother’), and the two men would go through the full, formal wedding ritual before the qidi moved into his qixiong’s household, in exactly the same way a Chinese bride enters her husband’s family home. These male marriages lasted about twenty years before they were dissolved so the qidi could marry and raise a family of his own.
Part of this widespread tolerance was due to the religious beliefs of Chinese culture. Duty to the family was (and still is) of primary importance to the Chinese. A man needed to have children, particularly a son, and as long as he performed this duty, no one would condemn him for taking male lovers. A man who only had male lovers, however, was more problematic. Strict Confucianists looked down on exclusive homosexuality, and though it was considered something of an aberration, there was no serious stigma attached to it.
People did make fun of exclusive same-sex relationships, though. Here’s part of Pu SongLing’s ‘Jesting Judgement’, a highly witty spoof pastiche of Neo-Confucianist anti-homosexual writings of the late Ming/early Qing dynasties, which is appended to his story ‘Cut Sleeve’ in Strange Tales From A Chinese Studio:
Twixt men and women
Were once thought foul;
How much fouler reeks
The passion of Cut Sleeve,
Of Half-Eaten Peach,
Of love twixt man and man!
Only the mightiest warrior
Can penetrate that tiny bird-track!
The narrow grotto
Leads to no Peach Blossom Spring:
Surely the fisherman
Poled up it by mistake!
Taoism is a complex belief system involving the universal balance of Heaven and Earth, Light and Dark, Yin (the feminine principle) and Yang (the masculine principle). Everything contains a part of its opposite, so men contain yin just as women contain yang. Homosexual men have an imbalance of yin, hence they’re attracted to the yang energy of other men.
The Buddhist belief in past lives and karma also accounts for instances of homosexuality. ‘Karmic hangover’ is used as an explanation for specific cases of same-sex relationships. If a man falls in love with his neighbour, perhaps the neighbour was the man’s wife in a previous life, and chances are the marriage was unhappy—so this M/M relationship is a way of karma redressing the balance. The man must make his neighbour happy in this life, or risk revisiting the relationship all over again in the next life. Pu SongLing mentions several instances of these ‘karmic hangovers’.
European visitors (mostly Jesuit missionaries) to China during the Ming dynasty expressed their horror at the “unnatural perversions” (Matteo Ricci) and “detestable and unnatural acts” (John Barrow) they witnessed around them, and the slow influx of Western ideas and morals over the next two hundred years began to change Chinese perceptions of homosexuality. In essence, Western homophobia reshaped millennia of tolerance.
In 1740, during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), the government passed its first legal proscription of homosexuality. It was punishable by a month in prison and 100 blows of a stick—the lightest penalty in the legal code. The growth of Neo-Confucianism, with its strict adherence to rigid rules for the way men and women behaved with one another, gave rise to a period of sexual segregation and repression. The free expression of love was seen only on stage, and the low social status of actors (xianggong) meant they were permitted more freedom in their sex lives.
Male actors who played female roles (since women were banned from the stage) were highly sought-after companions for the man-about-town. Much like the Japanese onnagata, Chinese xianggong or dan became national sex symbols, followed around by screaming fans of both genders. The cult of the xianggong was such that male homosexuality became the most prevalent form of recreational sex, to the extent that it was difficult to find female prostitutes in the Beijing pleasure quarter of the late 19th century—and those who went looking for female prostitutes were laughed at by their contemporaries.
The end of the imperial dynasties in the early 20th century also signalled an end to the extraordinary tolerance shown towards homosexuality in China. The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) was a period of horrific persecution and senseless destruction. Homosexuality was seen as a mental illness, a stigma that endured until April 2001 when the law was repealed.
Incidentally, though I’ve focused on male same-sex relationships here, there’s also plenty of evidence for female homosexuality throughout Chinese history. The references are fewer, as may be expected in a society that kept its women secluded for the most part, but there are several mentions of wives and concubines finding love with one another. Pu SongLing has a few charming romances featuring lesbian couples, and then as now, girl-on-girl action was considered fascinating by eroticists and pornographers, as can be seen in these Ming-style paintings (probably dating from the Qing dynasty):
Fall of a State by Kate Cotoner
The desire of an emperor… Bored with his usual palace musicians, the emperor Liu Che is tempted by a new song from lowly qin-player Li Yan Nian. Yan Nian is also beautiful, and Liu Che is in the mood to take a new lover. His lovers usually come to him, but Yan Nian’s shy reticence intrigues the emperor.
The yearning of a man… Yan Nian has been in love with the emperor since he entered the palace. Regardless of his heart, he made a promise on his father’s deathbed to use his musical skills to bring his beloved younger sister to the emperor’s attention. However, Lady Li has no intention of becoming an imperial concubine.
The danger of love… An attack at a victory celebration heralds an attempt on the emperor’s life, and desire and yearning collide when it’s revealed there may be no way to protect all the hearts threatened by a plot to overthrow the state.