Homosexuality in China: then and now (5 min read)

*may contain images/content that may be upsetting or inappropriate to young readers

The now

21st century China is not known for it’s tolerance towards homosexuality in the LGBT community. It was not long ago when China’s netcasting Services Association (CNSA) has banned the portrayal of homosexuality and prostitution, claiming that these are all “abnormal” types of sexual activity. If you watched the drama Legend of nine tails fox, one of the stories was removed because of inappropriate homosexual content.

Households headed with same sex- couples do not share the same privileges as heterosexual couples such as their right to adopt children, although same sex marriage has been legal since 2001.

This attitude is reflected amongst the chinese people as well, particularly the older generation. News of same sex couples proposing publicly being criticized by onlookers appear now and then and the lesbian couple who got filmed their engagement on their graduation have faced a campaign of threats by their university party secretary.

The past

However, this has not always been the case. In fact,  for thousands of years, homosexuality was seen as a normal facet of life, until the last two dynasties the Ming and Qing dynasty where there were increasingly more restrictions in place. Literature from the Ming Dynasty such as Bian Er Chai, portrays intimate relationships between men as enjoyable relationships. But even in the Ming and Qing dynasty, male prostitutes were legal and the keeping of a catamite by men of power and wealth was part of the norm.

This is why in the drama Lost Love in Times SP, even when everyone thought Cai Qian was a boy, no-one discouraged Prince Che from having a relationship with Cai Qian and two of his soldiers in the Black Shield Army were an openly homosexual couple.

In fact, according to Taoist alchemy, it was also seen as something that is “neutral” as homosexual relations will no detrimental or beneficial effect on a person’s life essence and therefore health. Additionally, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucism, the dominant religions that governed China takes a neutral view on homosexuality which meant that the attitude towards the LGBT community was extremely tolerant, for thousands of years.

There have been many ancient chinese poems and literature, some more dreamy and vague and others more explicit that describes this. One of the most famous is a scene in the Dream of the Red Chamber (uncensored versions) where depicts men engaged in same sex acts. Its prominence is also seen in art where there are scrolls and paintings in silk that show this:

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Prominent figures

  • In the  Intrigues of the Warring States, a collection of political advice and stories from before the Han dynasty, it refers to the Duke Xian of Jin (ruled from  676–651 BCE) who planted a handsome young man, Mi Zixia (彌子瑕) in the court of a rival to try and persuade his rival, the Duke Ling of Wei  (衛靈公) into making bad decisions.
  • Another famous figure is Han Zi Gao (538AD to 567 AD) who lived during the Northern and Southern dynasties, he was a cobbler but during a rebellion, the Hou Jing rebellion which caused the destruction of the Southern Liang dynasty and the establishment of the Southern Chen dynasty, Han Zigao became a refugee but his handsomeness caught the eye of a general called Chen Qian who was also the nephew of the Emperor Wu of Chen, Chen Ba Xian. Chen Qian later became emperor of Chen and Han Zigao became one of his secret male lovers. Legend has it that Chen Qian once promised Han Zigao that he would make him his Empress if he became the emperor, however due to pressure from the Imperial Court he was forced to make him a general. However we know that things did not end well with Han Zigao as he was given a lot of power so when Chen Qian died, he was removed from power and executed.  There may be truth in this story as n 2013, archaeologists discovered a grave in Nanjing that they believe to be Chen Qian and Han Zigao’s, however this is still being debated.
  • According to Bret Hisch in the book Passions of the cut sleeve: the male homosexual tradition in China as late as in the Ming dynasty, the Ming Emperor Zhengde had a homosexual relationship with a Muslim leader from Hami named, Sayyid Husain.
  • Although all these men had male lovers, they also had heterosexual relationships with women as well. The only exception is probably Emperor Ai during the Han dynasty who did not care for women and had tried to pass the throne to his lover Dong Xian. He is the one who reportedly cut his sleeve so that he would not wake Dong Xian who was asleep on it.

Terminology

  • Because of the incident of Emperor Ai cutting his sleeve, duànxiùliàn (the literal translation is “cutting of the sleeve love”) became a term that is often used in films and literature to describe homosexuality in general.
  • Another common term that is used in literature to describe homosexuality is lóngyángpǐ or passion of the dragon which was the term Prince Che used to describe in Cai Qian’s supposedly homosexual love towards him. This may term may be derived from another famous homosexual couple Lord Long Yang who was the male lover of the King of Wei.

The future

It’s hard to know if attitudes towards the LGBT community will change in the future, but as homosexuality has been removed as a mental illness and same sex marriages have become legal, perhaps one day, China will be as tolerant to homosexuality as it did in the past.

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