Male homosexuality may have been a familiar feature of Chinese life in remote ancient times. The official Chinese historical records indicate that during the Spring-Autumn and Chin-Han Era (770 B.C. to A.D. 24), male same-sex behavior was not a crime or considered immoral behavior. On the contrary, it was sometimes the noble thing to do. For example, in Western Han (206 B.C. to A.D. 8), ten of the eleven emperors each had at least one homosexual lover or shared some same-sex behavior. During the Western and Eastern Jin and Southern and Northern Dynasties (A.D. 256 to 581), male homosexuality seemed also acceptable in the broader upper-class society. In ancient times, Chinese culture was also characterized by a very tolerant attitude toward same-sex female behavior. [Source: Zhonghua Renmin Gonghe Guo, Fang-fu Ruan, M.D., Ph.D., and M.P. Lau, M.D. Encyclopedia of Sexuality =]

China has a history of being tolerant to homosexuality. Confucianism doesn’t condemn homosexuality as some religions do. Homosexuality has been documented in China since ancient times. In the Song dynasty it was considered fashionable for both men and women. Several emperors reportedly kept male consorts. Homosexuality was common enough in the 19th century for a English emissary to remark that “many of the first officers of the state seemed to make no hesitation in publicly avowing it.” In the 20th century the renowned scholar Kang Youwei proposed same sex marriages. See Han Dynasty Emperor Ai.

Cross-dressing is a theme in ancient Chinese literature and transgender people are not uncommon today. Some authors glorified homosexuality. The best example was “The Mirror of Theatrical Life”, the most representative Chinese classic novel of homosexuality. Written in the 1840s, the author, Chen Sen, eloquently praises the charms of catamites (young male homosexuals).[Source: Fang-fu Ruan, “Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”, Haeberle, Erwin J., Bullough, Vern L. and Bonnie Bullough, eds., sexarchive.info]

“According to medical anthropologist Vincent E. Gil, writing in the Journal of Sex Research, China had “a long history of dynastic homosexuality” before the Revolution of 1949, with “courtly love among rulers and subjects of the same sex being elevated to noble virtues.” He says that the surviving literature from that time period in China “indicates that homosexuality was accepted by the royal courts and its custom widespread among the nobility.” Writing in the Journal of the History of Sexuality, James D. Seymour agrees that relationships between men were “widely accepted and sometimes formalized by marriage, ” adding that “almost all of the emperors of the last two centuries B.C. had ‘male favorites.’” [Source: Sarah Prager, Jstor Daily, June 10, 2020]

Liana Zhou and Joshua Wickerham wrote in “Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History”: “Despite the strong political, medical, and social pressure against homosexuality, because of China's long history of homosexual acceptance and lack of religious persecution, Chinese homosexuals have largely avoided the virulent opposition characterized by queer rights struggles in North America and Europe during the second half of the twentieth century.” [Source: Liana Zhou and Joshua Wickerham, “Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Websites and Sources: USA Today piece usatoday.com ; Sex Incidents in China zonaeuropa.com ; Sex Industry guardian.co.uk ; Chinese sex toy maker lacyshaki.en ; Books: “Sexual Life of Ancient China”, written by Robert van Gulik in the 1920s; “The Illustrated Handbook of Chinese Sex History” by Professor Liu Dalin and “Sex China Studies in Sexology in Chinese Culture” by Fang-ju Juan, The Sexology Research Institute of China is at People's University in Beijing. Sex History and Literature Ancient Sex Culture China.org ; Chinese Sex Literature yellowbridge.com ; Sex in Ancient China Book Review dannyreviews.com Prostitution in China : Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Shanghaiist blog shanghaiist.com ; Homosexuality in China History of Gay life in China fordham.edu/halsall

Sharing the Peach: Chinese Male Homosexual Tradition

Joshua Wickerham wrote in the “Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History”: In the early Chinese tradition, as with the Greeks and Romans, same-sex sexual behavior did not essentialize a person as "homosexual." Records of male love exist in the Book of Poetry (Shi Jing) and as entries about male favorites in the courts of ten of the eleven Western Han emperors. [Source: Joshua Wickerham, “Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

“References to homosexual male coupling were allusions to historical stories. The earliest such allusion comes from the Zhou Dynasty and concerns the Duke of Ling and his favorite, Mizi Xia. When Mizi Xia sampled an exceptionally sweet peach from the Duke's orchard, he saved half of the peach for Ling. Ling was so moved that he publicly acknowledged his love for Mizi Xia. Thus, male homosexuality became known as "sharing the remaining peach" (yu tao). Another reference comes from the Western Han, where the Emperor Ai (6 B.C.-1A.D.) woke to find his sleeve under his sleeping lover. Rather than wake him, the emperor cut off his sleeve, thus starting a fad of the duan xiu or "cut sleeve" at court. The most popular of these references were used well into the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).

“By the Tang and Song Dynasties, there were few references to these imperial male favorites. Love of the "rear chamber" was seen as a threat to marriage obligations and woman's chance of marrying. Like women, male favorites could be a threat to statecraft and could even distract generals from battle. This period also leaves us with the first derogatory references to the male homosexual tradition.

“Homosexual marriage was a frequent theme in Ming (1368-1644) and Yuan Dynasty (1264? — 1368) fiction. In Fujian Province during the Ming Dynasty, homosexual male marriage was an institution. A young male would usually move in with an older male's family and take on all the attributes of a female wife, and he would be treated as a son-in-law. They eventually could adopt males to raise as sons. These marriages usually ended in heterosexual coupling because of filial obligations to continue the bloodline.

“Female homosexuality does not receive the same attention as the male tradition. It is not included in the imperial histories and appeared in no way connected to male homosexuality. Even if a woman were financially and socially independent, which was rare, few escaped marriage or concubinage, except as nuns. The first references to anything resembling modern notions of lesbianism were mostly in the Guangzhou area. These "Golden Orchid Associations" of the Ming Dynasty organized something akin to wedding ceremonies. Couples could adopt female children. One person generally assumed the husband's role and the other the wife's. The male homosexual tradition, though trampled by the Neo-Confucianists, who demanded familial obligation, survived to the end of the dynastic period. Modern Chinese live largely without knowledge of this history of permissive elite homosexuality.

There are a few references to female same sex love.“We can find references to ‘paired eating’ between women in the Han dynasty in China, ” Leila J. Rupp writes in the Journal of the History of Sexuality, suggesting that the phrase was likely a reference to cunnilingus. Bret Hinsch mentions, "in Passions of the Cut Sleeve", that Ying Shao (who lived from approximately 140 to 206 AD) wrote, “When palace women attach themselves as husband and wife it is called dui shi, ” and that “dui shi” translates to “paired eating.” Women’s sexuality is often suppressed in the historical record, and this one phrase is one of the only references we have to sex or love between women in ancient China. [Source: Sarah Prager, Jstor Daily, June 10, 2020]

Same Sex Love in Ancient China

There is evidence of same-sex love in China corresponding with the eras of the ancient Greeks and even the ancient Egyptians. Sarah Prager wrote in Jstor Daily: “ The Zhou dynasty (1046-256 B.C.) produced two legends that led to turns of phrase that lasted thousands of years. Han Fei wrote of Mizi Xia, a man who sought the love of Duke Ling of Wei, who lived from 534 B.C. to 493 B.C.. [Source: Sarah Prager, Jstor Daily, June 10, 2020]

As quoted in Passions of the Cut Sleeve: One day 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!” While the duke later turned on Mizi Xia, this vignette led to both “the bitten peach” and “Mizi Xia” becoming catchphrases referring to gay love in Chinese.

Another story that has lasted through the ages is that of the “Shared Pillow Tree”, Lin Zaiqing’s Chengzhai zaji’s story of the love between two men, Wang Zhongxian and Pan Zhang “fell in love at first sight and were as affectionate as husband and wife, sharing the same coverlet and pillow with unbounded intimacy for one another.” The tale continues that they died together and were buried together on a mountain where a tree grew. The tree’s branches “embraced one another” and the people “considered this a miracle.”

Bisexuality and Homosexuality in Early Imperial China

According to “Bisexuality in Early Imperial China”: The words homosexuality (toxinglian) and heterosexuality (xiangxinglian) are modern word creations in Chinese that are based on the Western influence on science. There have been various words used to designate such activities before, but they have not been used very often, and when they are, it is questionable whether in the modern sense. Unfortunately, we also have to limit ourselves to male bisexuality, because all historical works were written by men for men: They only contain chapters on virtuous, especially chaste women as models for others to emulate. It is therefore unlikely that we will ever be able to deal meaningfully with female bisexuality in Chinese history, unless that in a much later epoch. The reader must also take into account that the sources were written by the ruling class for the ruling class, so it is questionable whether the representations are representative of the entire Chinese people. What applies to women in China and elsewhere also applies to the ruled: What they did and thought hardly ever comes to light.[Source: “Bisexuality in Early Imperial China: A Preliminary Overview” by Joseph Wong, originally published in: Haeberle, Gindorf (Ed.): Bisexualitäten, Gustav Fischer, Stuttgart, Jena, New York, 1994, pp. 172-183]

It is clear from the historical accounts that bisexual behavior existed in China during the Han and Tang periods, although the style and recorded content changed. In the beginning, the materials were limited to events at court and focused on the emperor's favorites. However, since the middle of the 7th century, when China was ruled by the Tang, the tradition of such reports, which had a growing didactic undertone, ceased to reflect a less tolerant, if not hostile, attitude towards bisexual behavior. In the very rare reports of this kind that continued after that, there are very few cases of triangular relationships between a man and a married couple.

In the cases outlined here, most bisexual relationships seem to have developed in adolescence. The intimate partners of the emperor or crown prince were often people who were close to him for a relatively long time and belonged to a much lower social class: a eunuch, a slave, a bodyguard or a musician. Such relationships were often associated with a high level of trust and allowed many favorites, particularly in the Han period, to play prominent political roles. Fewer such cases are found in the Tang period, but we have not examined the latter half of that period, when imperial power was less powerful and high dignitaries and other influential people manipulated political events.

Bisexuality and Homosexuality in the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-A.D. 220)

According to “Bisexuality in Early Imperial China”: The earliest and perhaps most widely read historical work is the "Shiji" from the reports of the Chinese historian Sima Qian (145-86 B.C.). It represents the first conscious attempt to compose a Chinese story from the earliest beginnings to the present day of the author. We shall turn to one of the most neglected chapters, the 125th chapter in the "Biographies of the Emperor's Male Favorites." In the first paragraph it says: “... not only the woman can use her gaze to attract the ruler's attention; Courtiers and eunuchs can play this game just as well. Many men in olden times found goodwill in this way. " [Source:“Bisexuality in Early Imperial China: A Preliminary Overview” by Joseph Wong, originally published in: Haeberle, Gindorf (Ed.): Bisexualitäten, Gustav Fischer, Stuttgart, Jena, New York, 1994, pp. 172-183]

While later scholars only want to see this as an extension of the possibility of gaining prestige, Sima Qian obviously emphasizes in the comparison of courtiers and eunuchs with women that many men at court gained their influence primarily through sexual attraction. This interpretation is also supported by the following report: “When the Han came to power, Emperor Gaozu was. . . very taken with the charm of young Qi, and Emperor Hui's favorite was a boy named Hong. Neither Qi nor Hong had any special talents or abilities; both gained their meaning simply from their looks and grace. Day and night they did not leave the ruler's side, and all high ministers had to turn to them if they wanted to see the emperor. As a result, all visitors to the palace wore the same shell sashes and made up their faces in the same way, transforming themselves into a crowd of qis and hongs, as it were ...”

In addition to reports in the "Biographies of Male Favorites", references to bisexuality can be “found elsewhere in the Official Histories, although there are understandably fewer. In the "Hanshu", the biography of Huo Guang (reign: 86-66 B.C.), the younger brother of Huo Qibing, whom we have already met, reports that he loved a slave overseer named Fang Zudu. Huo often discussed his affairs with him and showed indulgence for his many offenses. Fang and Wang Zufang, another of Huo's slaves, paid no attention to the imperial chancellor while Huo was in power. Although we know little about Wang, it is noteworthy that Fang had an illegal affair with Huo's wife Xian.(8th) In another case, the "Hou Hanshu" reports that the "beloved overseer of male slaves" Qin Gong of Liang Ji was similarly influential. He made it to the post of Great Granary Prefect and was able to enter the premises where Liang's wife, Shou, lived. Whenever Gong came to her, she dismissed her servants on the pretext of discussing state affairs and had an illegal relationship with him. In favor of both the inner and outer chambers, Gong's power assumed earth-shaking proportions. All the inspectors and two thousand picul dignitaries had to say goodbye to him when they left the court. It is not certain whether several thousand people captured and made into male or female slaves did not have sexual relations with their masters.

Tale of the Cut Sleeve

The most famous example” of an intimate relationship between an Emperor and his male lover “is undoubtedly Dong Xian. I Sarah Prager wrote in Jstor Daily:“In the last years B.C., Emperor Ai was enjoying a daytime nap. He was in his palace, in Chang’an (now Xi’an, China), hundreds of miles inland, wearing a traditional long-sleeved robe. Lying on one of his sleeves was a young man in his 20s, Dong Xian, also asleep. So tender was the emperor’s love for this man that, when he had to get up, instead of waking his lover, he cut off the sleeve of his robe. This story of the cut sleeve spread throughout the court, leading the emperor’s courtiers to cut one of their own sleeves as tribute. The tale’s influence outlived its time, producing the Chinese term “the passion of the cut sleeve, ” a euphemism for intimacy between two men.[Source: Sarah Prager, Jstor Daily, June 10, 2020]

According to “Bisexuality in Early Imperial China”: It is said that Dong Xian's handsome, bright appearance attracted the attention of Emperor Ai (reign: 7-18 B.C.) at the age of two. He too was showered with gifts and shared the emperor's camp. An anecdote reports that she once did took a nap together and the emperor awoke to find that Dong was lying on top of him. In an attempt to rise without waking Dong, the emperor eventually cut his sleeves, which not only allowed Dong to go back to sleep, but also led to the fact that in classical Chinese literature the term "cut sleeves" was used to denote homosexual relationships Men became. Dong was bisexual; he had a wife whom the emperor allowed to live in the palace in order to spare Dong the arduous journey home. At the age of 22 he was one of the Three Excellencies, which means that he occupied a top position in the government.” [Source:“Bisexuality in Early Imperial China: A Preliminary Overview” by Joseph Wong, originally published in: Haeberle, Gindorf (Ed.): Bisexualitäten, Gustav Fischer, Stuttgart, Jena, New York, 1994, pp. 172-183]

When Emperor Ai died in 1 B.C., he wanted to leave the kingdom to his beloved Dong Xian. Unfortunately, the court considered this display of favoritism one step too far. They ignored the emperor’s deathbed decree and forced Dong Xian and his wife to kill themselves. It was the end of the Western Han dynasty.

Bisexual Han Emperors

Sarah Prager wrote in Jstor Daily:“Emperor Ai was far from the only Chinese emperor to take a male companion openly. In fact, a majority of the emperors of the western Han dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.) had both male companions and wives. The historian Bret Hinsch asserts in “Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China” that all ten emperors who ruled over the first two centuries of the Han dynasty were “openly bisexual, ” with Ai being the tenth. They each had a “male favorite” who is listed in the Records of the Grand Historian (the “Shiji”) and the Book of Han (the “Hanshu”). [Source: Sarah Prager, Jstor Daily, June 10, 2020]

“Hinsch quotes the Shiji: “Those who served the ruler and succeeded in delighting his ears and eyes, those who caught their lord’s fancy and won his favor and intimacy, did so not only through the power of lust and love; each had certain abilities in which he excelled.” Sima Qian, the author of the Shiji, who also wrote “The Biographies of the Emperors’ Male Favorites, ” continues (as quoted by Hinsch): “It is not women alone who can use their looks to attract the eyes of the ruler; courtiers and eunuchs can play that game as well. Many were the men of ancient times who gained favor this way.”

“Emperor Gao favored Jiru. Emperor Hui favored Hongru. Emperor Jing, Zhou Ren. And Emperor Zhao, Jin Shang. These rulers were also married to women, but their male companions were important parts of their lives as well. Thanks to detailed records that have survived two millenia, we know that these favorites received great privilege and power in exchange for their intimacy. Ai bestowed Dong Xian with the highest titles and ten thousand piculs of grain per year. Everyone in Dong Xian’s family benefitted from the emperor’s patronage; Dong Xian’s father was named the marquis of Guannei and everyone in Dong Xian’s household, including his slaves, received money. Dong Xian and his wife and children were all moved inside the imperial palace grounds to live with Emperor Ai and his wife.

Hinsch asserts that “not only was male love accepted, but it permeated the fabric of upper-class life” during Emperor Ai’s time. Since marriage was divorced from romance in this culture and time period, and primarily represented the union of two families, “a husband was free to look elsewhere for romantic love and satisfying sex. Even in the ancient period, we see men who maintained a heterosexual marriage and a homosexual romance without apparently seeing any contradiction between the two.”

Emperor Wu and Deng Tong

According to “Bisexuality in Early Imperial China”: “Among the gentlemen who enjoyed his favor in the palace of Emperor Wen, there was also a courtier named Deng Tong and the eunuchs Zhao Tan and Beigong Bozu. Beigong Bozu was a worthy and affectionate man, while Zhao Tan attracted the emperor's attention through his ability to observe the stars and clouds; both usually rode in the same carriage with Emperor Wen. " A detailed description of an emperor's intimate relationships with a eunuch can be found in the section on Deng Tong: “Deng Tong does not seem to have had any special talents. He came from Nan'an in Shu Province (now Siqan). Knowing how to poke a boat, he became one of the yellow-capped boatmen in the fields around the imperial palace. . . Deng Tong performed his new role with great respectability and prudence. He never mingled with the people outside the palace and, although the emperor gave him a few days off to visit his own, he always refused to go. Finally the emperor showered him with gifts until he had a huge fortune and rose to the rank of nobleman. The emperor even went to Deng Tong's house himself on occasion to enjoy himself. [Source: “Bisexuality in Early Imperial China: A Preliminary Overview” by Joseph Wong, originally published in: Haeberle, Gindorf (Ed.): Bisexualitäten, Gustav Fischer, Stuttgart, Jena, New York, 1994, pp. 172-183]

Deng Tong, however, had no gift other than entertaining the emperor and was never able to do anything for the benefit of others at court. Instead, he directed all his efforts to maintain his own position and to ingratiate himself with the emperor. . . Once, Emperor Wen was tormented by an ulcer, and Deng Tong made it a duty to vacuum the wound to prevent infection. The emperor was deeply saddened by his illness and, to distract himself a little, he asked Deng: 'Who do you think loves me most in the whole empire?' Deng Tong. When the Hereditary Prince came later to inquire about his father's condition, the Emperor told him to vacuum the wound. The prince succeeded in keeping the wound clean, but it was clear to him that he found the task repugnant. When he later learned that Deng Tong had been sucking the emperor's ulcer for a long time, he was secretly ashamed. From that time on he harbored grudges against Deng ... “

There is no explicit or vivid description of sexual occurrences, which is not even possible, because this was not the Chinese way of writing. The following comment: Emperor Gaozu (reign: 202-195 B.C.) which is said to be the son of a dragon who mated his mother in a thunderstorm. This was observed by her husband, which simply means: "There was a dragon on her" (Shiji, chap. 8). When Sima Qian wrote, “all his endeavors were directed towards maintaining his own position and ingratiating himself with the emperor. . . “, The implications for his contemporaries were obvious. Sexuality was not mentioned, but it was meant. For those interested in the history of sexuality in ancient China, this is perhaps the most important aspect.

The historian Sima Qian was a neuter. What he criticizes about Deng and others, however, is not the fact that they had homosexual relations with the emperor, but their lack of talents and abilities despite their great influence in "doing anything for the benefit of others at court." Another passage tells how Princess Zhang provided him with food and clothing after the emperor died and the Hereditary Prince, who was angry with Deng, took the throne. What is certain, however, is that the emperors Wen (reign: 180-157 B.C.), Gaozu and Hui (reign: 195-188 B.C.), all of whom had empresses and sons, were bisexual.

Emperor Wu’s Favorites

According to “Bisexuality in Early Imperial China”: Emperor Jing (reign: 157-141 B.C.) and Wu (reign: 141-87 B.C.) lived during the time of Sima Qian. Emperor Jing evidently had no particular favorites, although one was more favored than others. But the reports about the favorites of Emperor Wu are again remarkable: “Among the favorites of the current emperor (ie Wu) were the courtier Han Yan, the great grandson of Xin, the king of Han, and the eunuch Li Yanlian. When the ruling emperor was King of Qiaotong, he and Yan learned to write together, and they liked each other very much. Later, after the emperor was made the Hereditary Prince, he turned to Yan with great affection. Yan was a good rider and archer, and very adept at gaining the emperor's favor. . . Yan soon rose to the rank of high dignitary and received as many gifts from the ruler as Deng Tong did in his heyday. At that time, Yan never left the emperor's side day or night..[Source: “Bisexuality in Early Imperial China: A Preliminary Overview” by Joseph Wong, originally published in: Haeberle, Gindorf (Ed.): Bisexualitäten, Gustav Fischer, Stuttgart, Jena, New York, 1994, pp. 172-183]

Since Han Yan went in and out of the emperor, he was allowed to enter the women's quarters of the palace, and he did not have to adhere to the general ban on entering them. Some time later, the Dowager Empress was told that Yan had an illegal relationship with one of the women. She was very upset about this and immediately sent him a messenger with the order to take her own life. Although the emperor himself defended him, he could not change the order either, and Yan was forced to die. His younger brother Han Yue, the prince of Antao, also succeeded in gaining considerable favor from the emperor. "

Here we have a definite case of a bisexual dignitary. There is a small problem with credibility though. Emperor Wu was about four years old when he received the title of "King of Jiaotong" and he became Crown Prince three years later before taking the throne at about 16 years old. It is doubtful that the kind of affection he felt for Han Yan that interests us here began in childhood, and if so, the historian probably would have known, since he and the emperor lived at about the same time. It is probably important for the author to make it clear that this close relationship developed at an early stage. The story of Emperor Wu's other favorite is similar, if not more notable, “Li Yan'nian was born in Zhongshan. His parents and siblings were all gifted singers. Li Yan'nian, convicted of castration of some crime, was given the post of dogkeeper in the Imperial Palace. The Princess of Pingyuan later recommended Li's younger sister for her dance skills. When the emperor saw her, he fell in love with her and took her into his women's home in the palace, at the same time he had Li Yan'nian sing in front of an audience and assigned him to a higher post.

Li was a good singer and knew how to compose new songs. The emperor asked him to set some hymns to music with an accompaniment for stringed instruments, which should be heard at the celebrations in honor of heaven and earth that the emperor himself had introduced. Li took on this task and fulfilled it to the satisfaction of the emperor. . .

At that time, Li carried the seal of two thousand picul dignitaries and the title of "First Master of the Harmony of Tones". Day and night he did not leave the emperor's side, and won favor and honor that could rival those whom Han Yan had once enjoyed. After a few years, however, he began a relationship with a lady of the imperial palace and became more and more arrogant and carefree in his behavior. After Lady Li died, the emperor's affection for the Li brothers waned, and he finally had them locked up and executed. "

There is disagreement as to whether it was Li Yan'nian or his brother Li Ji who had an affair with one of the palace ladies. Unfortunately, we know very little about Li Ji. The question arises if he was not perhaps a eunuch too, which would explain why he had access to the women's shelters and could commit the crime; also, his ascent may have been very different from that of the Han brothers, Yan and Yue, previously reported.

Generals and Emperor Favorites During Han Dynasty

According to “Bisexuality in Early Imperial China”: The Lis had another brother, Guangli, a general who was known for his battles against the barbaric invaders in the north, a feat that precludes further examination of himself in this chapter because it is, as already said, reserved for the untalented and useless, and music was not considered an honorable art in the Han Dynasty. It is not unlikely, however, that Li Guangli had as close ties to the emperor as his brothers. At the end of this chapter, the chronicler notes that from that time onwards, those special enjoyed the favor of the emperor who belonged to families who were related to the emperor by marriage. However, they should not be considered in this context because their success was primarily based on talent and skills. Wei Qing and Huo Qubing, to whom the entire 111th chapter of "Shijin" is dedicated, are reported as examples. [Source: “Bisexuality in Early Imperial China: A Preliminary Overview” by Joseph Wong, originally published in: Haeberle, Gindorf (Ed.): Bisexualitäten, Gustav Fischer, Stuttgart, Jena, New York, 1994, pp. 172-183]

As for the success of the two generals, Sima Qian can only be right in one case. According to his own biography in the 111th chapter of "Shiji" Wei was a horseman at the court of Count Hou and later served in the palace, where his sister gained the emperor's favor. Wei was captured when Princess Chang learned that his sister was pregnant, but was later rescued by a palace rider and a group of young men. When the emperor heard of this incident, he had Wei brought before him and appointed him supervisor of the imperial guards. His brothers were also called to high offices, and within a few days they were showered with gifts valued at 1,000 gold pieces. Wei was later promoted to an imperial advisor before heading north against the invaders. Up until that point, Wei's career was not uncommon. To use Sima Qian's own words, Wei resembled the others in the "Biographies of the Emperor's Male Favorites" in that he had "no special talents or abilities", and it is reasonable to assume that he "ingratiated himself with the Emperor", before he and his brothers received these unusually generous gifts.

In his biography of Huo Qubing, the son of Wei Jing's older sister, it is clearly stated that at the age of 18 he gained the favor of the emperor and was appointed by him to be his partner. In short, it is very likely that Wei and Huo were some sort of male favorite of the emperor, and had they not had such outstanding military careers in their later life they would either have been covered in the chapter on the emperor's male favorites or has been completely ignored. The latter was likely the fate of those horsemen who saved Wei and from whom the emperor may have heard the story and who may have had a similar relationship with the emperor.

Bisexuality and Homosexuality in the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907)

According to “Bisexuality in Early Imperial China”: The Sui and Tang dynasties are generally considered to be other glorious epochs in Chinese history. After the end of the Han period, China was divided into several small states for a few hundred years, and the areas north of the Yangtze River were often occupied by nomadic tribes who did not belong to the Han people, who had long lived in central China in the valleys of the Yellow River and the Yangtze River and who were very different in customs and lifestyle from the Chinese at the beginning of the fall of the empire. However, under the Sui government, China was again unified under one legal system and one central government; many of the nomads had already integrated themselves beforehand. In fact, neither the Sui nor the Tang family were pure Han descendants. [Source: “Bisexuality in Early Imperial China: A Preliminary Overview” by Joseph Wong, originally published in: Haeberle, Gindorf (Ed.): Bisexualitäten, Gustav Fischer, Stuttgart, Jena, New York, 1994, pp. 172-183]

It is not certain whether bisexual practices are part of the Chinese heritage of the Han period or whether they stem from non-Chinese influences. What is certain, however, is that such practices will continue to be represented in the Official Histories, though not as directly and easily identifiable as before. It is important to note that the tradition of collecting biographies of the emperor's favorites in the Official Histories of the Tang Period ceases after six such history books have been compiled and none contained such a biography . This does not necessarily mean that there was no bisexual behavior at the time, but rather likely that such behavior was not considered morally acceptable. As a result, they were no longer even tolerated as negative examples in the Official Histories. We are not aware of any law that openly criminalized such acts, but they were certainly not encouraged.

This will be explained with a few examples. Interesting is the story of Zheng Yi, a dignitary who served in the Northern Zhou Dynasty (550-577) and the Sui Dynasty (581-618), and his biography in both Chapter 35 of "Zhou Shu" and Chapter 38 of the “Sui Shu” has come down to us. The latter reports that, over ten years old, he rejected a dignitary who wanted to "have a little fun with him" by telling him straight to his face that such an "intimate game" was immoral. Perhaps it was precisely this rejection that earned Zheng the trust of the emperor, who even arranged for him to marry a princess after Zheng's wife died. When Zheng later became a civil servant for the Crown Prince, he began an intimate relationship with him. When the emperor found out about this, he removed Zheng from his position and made him common again. But he was soon brought back by the prince, they resumed their relationship, and Zheng took part in the coup that later led to the establishment of the Sui dynasty.

While bisexual behaviors in the Han dynasty are mostly found in the relationships of the emperors, in the Sui and Tang dynasties they occur more in those of the princes. For example, the first Crown Prince of the Sui, Yang Yong, was definitely bisexual, although references to this are not found in his own biography but in that of one of his officials who did not seek his favor and who had the courage to oppose subtle behavior to go to the field: he even brought a guard to court once, whose laughter during the intimate games with the prince were so loud that they could be heard outside the princely apartments. From these reports we know that the prince had no fewer than four male lovers; he also had ten sons from at least four wives.

Li Chengqian and His Brothers

According to “Bisexuality in Early Imperial China”: Li Chengqian, the eldest son of the famous second emperor Taizong the Tang, was definitely homosexual and probably bisexual as well. He loved a young musician who was handsome and danced well. The emperor was very angry when he heard of this affair and ordered that the musician be killed along with a few others. Li Chengqian expressed his pain by naming a room in his residence after his lover, instructing his servants to make sacrifices for him, finally having him interred near his residence, posthumously showering him with titles, and having a stele erected for him, the was generally reserved for high dignitaries. He also withdrew from court for months. Since his misconduct included a refusal to wear Han Chinese-style clothing and hairstyle, it has been assumed that his sexual inclinations are of Turkish origin. However, if one considers the number of behaviors reported before and after him in which there was hardly any evidence of Turkish influence, this hypothesis seems to be very dubious. .[Source: “Bisexuality in Early Imperial China: A Preliminary Overview” by Joseph Wong, originally published in: Haeberle, Gindorf (Ed.): Bisexualitäten, Gustav Fischer, Stuttgart, Jena, New York, 1994, pp. 172-183]

Chengqian was by no means the only member of the imperial family reported to be bisexual — two of his brothers probably resembled him in this: one of them is said to have close relationships with archers serving under him would have; in the case of the other this is uncertain, but this may partly be due to a later idealization of his biography. Two of Taizong's grandchildren, including Zhongzong, who came to the throne in the early 8th century, were also likely bisexual. In fact, the reign of Zhongzong (705-710 B.C.) was a bisexually very active epoch because the emperor himself pursued this inclination. Zhongzong was succeeded by his younger brother Ruizong (reign: 710-712 B.C.), who in turn was succeeded by his son Xuanzong Li Longji, better known as Minghuang or the Radiant Emperor.

Radiant Emperor and His Male Lovers

According to “Bisexuality in Early Imperial China”: The Radiant Emperor was so named because the Tang Dynasty was at its zenith during his reign and because he ruled for a very long time (712-756 B.C.). His reign ended tragically due to an internal rebellion that forced him to give up first his lover, and later the throne. His romance with Lady Yang is well known, but his male lovers have been almost completely neglected. Only three of them are mentioned in the 106th chapter of "Jiu Tang Shu" or the "Ancient Tang Story". We know very little about one of them; nothing more has been passed on, except that he "gathered all his strength to serve the emperor." Another excelled through “small talents”, such as B. the manufacture of medicine, and the emperor "often had him come to and kept him with him until late at night. . . Eunuchs were sent out to fetch him to court on days off. .[Source: “Bisexuality in Early Imperial China: A Preliminary Overview” by Joseph Wong, originally published in: Haeberle, Gindorf (Ed.): Bisexualitäten, Gustav Fischer, Stuttgart, Jena, New York, 1994, pp. 172-183]

He participated in everything and was informed of important matters, and his contemporaries called him the "Minister of the Interior". The third was a bodyguard of the emperor, whom he already had with him in his prince days. 'When the emperor was unable to see him for a while, he looked like he was missing something; but when he saw him they would spend happy hours together all night, sometimes until the sun was high in the sky." What is revealing, however, is that at the end of the chapter, where the historians make their own remarks and comments, the three are compared to Deng Tong and Hong Ru in the Han dynasty. which he already had with him in his prince days.

In short, the historians of this period were well aware of the relationships between these three officials and the Emperor. The biographies of these three men are compiled with those of two other officials who were very influential during the reign of the Radiant Emperor because they enjoyed his trust, but who are generally held responsible for the decline of the dynasty. These two probably had no sexual relations with the emperor, but had the principle of organization of the Official Histories not changed, the biographies of these five men would certainly have been summarized in a chapter on the emperor's male favorites.

The Radiant Emperor's relationships with men were likely not limited to the three mentioned. It can be assumed that a considerable number of his subordinates, since his time as prince, which began the reign of Zhongzong, have had an undeniable and unexplained close relationship with the emperor that was not proportionate to the relationship between him and his officials. One z. B. refused to follow the custom of the time and sat with the emperor's brothers who tried to prevent him from passing on certain events at court to outsiders. Whatever these events were, they were probably scandalous. Interestingly, one of these scandals in the early Tang period was caused by one of Taizong's sons, usually stationed in the provinces, when he was visiting the capital and living with his brother. The need for later historians to report on it too smooth and beautiful, confirms the suspicion that the scandal was related to a relationship between men. It should be noted that there were male prostitutes in the capital in the 8th century whose clients were men.

Increased Hostility of Homosexuality During the Tang Dynasty

According to “Bisexuality in Early Imperial China”: That direct mention of homosexuality was avoided can be seen in the memoirs of the advisers of those princes who were known for such behavior. There are at least two examples of this: one relates to Li Chengqian, the other to Li Xuan, the son of Gaozong, the third Tang emperor. When reading the memoirs, one hardly notices at first that the princes' behavior is being objected to. In another case, however, during the Gaozong reign (649-684 B.C.), First Minister Li Yifu was criticized by a government censor for defying his position through the acts of "peach and sleeve cutting". should have achieved. The origin of the last expression has already been shown, the first is a synonym for the same action. Although such euphemisms were used, the emperor was very angry. The censor was exiled to the province for using vulgar language and the charges were never seriously prosecuted. Whether the emperor was trying to protect his First Minister or was genuinely upset is difficult to say due to the nature of the subject, but the fact that the censor was banned for such an accusation suggests that there are obvious relationships between Men were taboo as early as the early Tang period. .[Source: “Bisexuality in Early Imperial China: A Preliminary Overview” by Joseph Wong, originally published in: Haeberle, Gindorf (Ed.): Bisexualitäten, Gustav Fischer, Stuttgart, Jena, New York, 1994, pp. 172-183]

This officially hostile attitude towards relationships between men has created greater difficulty for historians in direct reporting and, as one contemporary scholar has noted, reports of homosexual relationships have in fact disappeared from the Official Histories since the Tang Period. The examples cited above already violate this claim, and in fact, deep reflection and imaginative interpretation produce interesting results.

I myself am z. B. assumed that the first and second emperors of the Tang might have been bisexual. The confusing close relationship between Li Yuan, the founder of the Tang Dynasty, and his brother-in-law Dou Kang could be understood in this light. His son Taizong not only had a similar relationship with another relative of the imperial family, but also showered some musicians and slaves who looked after the horses at court with gifts for no apparent reason, which led to a warning from one of his advisors. Whether or not Taizong, long regarded as the exemplary emperor in Chinese history, was bisexual is likely to remain a mystery.

Homosexuality in Late Imperial China

Sarah Prager wrote in Jstor Daily: “Western visitors to China over the centuries were shocked (and appalled) over what Portuguese Friar Gaspar da Cruz called “a filthy abomination [that the Chinese] are so given to” in his Treatise of China in 1569. Another sixteenth century Portuguese traveler to China, Galeote Pereira, reported in Certain Reports of the Province of China that “the greatest fault we do find is sodomy, a vice very common.”[Source: Sarah Prager, Jstor Daily, June 10, 2020]

Recorded relationships between two men in late imperial China seem to have often been constructed like Ai’s and Dong’s: one man had the upper hand in power and influence. “Most of the available historical data from traditional Chinese sources suggest that male-male sexual relationships often took place between members of the social elite and their ‘junior’ partners of lower social status, ” explains the Chinese literature professor Martin W. Huang (also in the Journal of the History of Sexuality). Kam Louie that Male-male relationships may not have been confined to exchanges of power from wealthy rulers to humble peasants. As Kam Louie pointed out in a 1999 article on sexuality, masculinity, and politics in Chinese culture: “Other, less visible, relationships may involve more profound emotions and feelings, but are often overlooked in discussions of male intimacy.” It’s highly unlikely that the historical record captures the full scope of same-sex sexual behavior in the era. How might we know of a secret sexual relationship between two peasants who didn’t know how to write a diary and were never caught? It’s almost impossible that we would.

The Chinese politics scholar James D. Seymour argues that serious homophobia didn’t seem to appear in China until the Song dynasty (founded in 960): During the Song dynasty there was the popular rediscovery of a sixth-century Indian Buddhist text that condemned homosexuality. Later there were the draconian law codes imposed on China by the Mongols and the Manchus, which made homosexuality and certain other forms of extramarital sex serious criminal offenses. When the Mongols ruled China under Kublai Khan they outlawed sodomy (see the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies for more). Anti-LGBTQ+ laws continued for centuries, until the turn of the millennium, when many countries around the world began softening their stance on LGBTQ+ sex and love.

Some have suggested that maybe Cao Xueqin, the 18th century novelist and author of “Dream of the Red Chamber”, arguably China's most famous book, might have been gay. The book details a number of sexual trysts involving members of both the opposite sex and the same sex. Most of the hundreds of characters in the novel are women, delicately sketched with details so sensitive that, in the opinion of some, only a man of homosexual orientation could fathom. In A Dream of Red Mansions, there is only one man who is seriously into women, and he is a clown and bully. The hints of homosexuality in other famous works of literature. In Romance of Three Kingdoms, men would never give up their “brothers” but don't seem to care that much about their wives. In Outlaws of the Marsh, the heroes go one step further: they kill their adulterous wives, concubines or beaus and escape to this mountain retreat where everything looks like a martial arts version of a gay resort. [Source: China Daily, Raymond Zhou, July 12, 2008]

Homosexuality in 20th Century China

Anti-LGBTQ+ laws continued for centuries, until the turn of the millennium, when many countries around the world began softening their stance on LGBTQ+ sex and love.Liana Zhou and Joshua Wickerham wrote in “Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History”: “In modern China, colonial-era hooliganism statutes, Cultural Revolution campaigns, general sexual taboos, and vestiges of Neo-Confucianism ensured that, for most of the twentieth century, same-sex coupling remained almost completely misunderstood and strictly forbidden. For most Chinese gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, being attracted to the same sex meant a life of denial, punishment, secrecy, and shame. Beginning in the late twentieth century, academic debates and media reports, along with the rise of gay/lesbian bars and social clubs, have combined to give Chinese homosexuals more possibilities to gain legal rights and basic recourse against discrimination. [Source:Liana Zhou and Joshua Wickerham, “Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

“Though post-1911 campaigns against Confucianism resulted in a successful women's liberation movement, neither nationalist modernization nor communist collectivization of the traditional family could disrupt the Confucian tenets of marriage and childbearing. Most citizens of modern China — regardless of sexual orientation — enter into heterosexual marriages. Chinese are expected to marry by the age of thirty. In 2003 the government of Taiwan promulgated, but never enacted, a law to legalize same-sex marriage. In 2006 same-sex marriage remains illegal in all areas of China.

“The catch-all colonial-era hooliganism law enacted by the Republican government made homosexuality and other activities criminal offenses. This statute remained in force after 1949, though the Communists only legally codified this as law in 1979. During the Cultural Revolution, when all aspects of an individual's life could be exposed as potentially anti-revolutionary, the government targeted those suspected of deviant sexuality. In 1991 Hong Kong decriminalized consensual sexual activity between two men over twenty-one years of age. The government of the PRC revoked the hooliganism laws in 1997, which tacitly decriminalized private homosexuality, although public displays of any sexual behavior remain illegal in the early twenty-first century. In Taiwan, since the mid 1990s, public political support for homosexuals has been widespread.

“Homosexuality received scant attention from the sexual education reform movements in the 1920s and 1930s. Some sexologists and sociologists considered same-sex love (tong xing lian) the opposite of so-called natural opposite-sex love (yi xing lian). Homosexuality was considered a filthy habit, which could contaminate, infect, and corrupt the social organism. In 1946 Pan Guangdan, a Shanghai sexologist and sociologist, published one of the first modern Chinese essays on the history of Chinese homosexuality, included in his translation of Ellis's Psychology of Sex.

LGBT Rights in the 1980s and 90s: Denial and Exclusion

Fang-fu Ruan wrote in “Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”: In China in the 1980s and 1990s, general policy has been to deny the existence of homosexuality. When public figures do speak out on homosexuality, it is usually to condemn it. One of the most famous attorneys of the 1980s, Dun Li, when asked to express his opinion concerning homosexuality, said: “Homosexuality, though it exists in different societies and cultures, with some minor exceptions is considered abnormal and disdained. It disrupts social order, invades personal privacy and rights, and leads to criminal behavior. As a result, homosexuals are more likely to be penalized administratively and criminally.” [Source: Fang-fu Ruan“Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”, Haeberle, Erwin J., Bullough, Vern L. and Bonnie Bullough, eds., sexarchive.info]

This official attitude of denial or condemnation began to break down in the 1990s. In 1991, officials in Shanghai, the largest city in China, reported that there were about 10,000 homosexuals in the city. Changzheng Hospital in Tianjin, the third largest city in China, reported that of its 366 cases of sexually transmitted diseases, at least 61 cases of syphilis were acquired through male sexual contacts; 80 percent of them involved anal sex, 10 percent oral sex, and 10 percent anal and oral sex. Most of the incidents that were linked to infection (80 percent) were anonymous contacts in public toilets. The age of the victims ranged from 16 to 60: two thirds were between 20 and 30. Most were workers, some were cadres and teachers. Lesbians in China are even more closeted than gay males.

Some of the women who are willing to discuss their homosexuality have already been imprisoned and have little to lose. Still, two journalists were more successful in contacting lesbians than gay males in their 1989 survey of homosexuality in China, many of them through the criminal court system. Unfortunately, since so many investigations of female homosexuality have been based on interviews with prisoners, it has been all too easy for Chinese people to develop a stereotype of lesbians as immoral, frustrated people. It is clear that many lesbians do live painful lives. Given the general lack of sex information in China, and the repressive attitudes of the leadership, it will be a long time before Chinese homosexuals can hope to live normal, fulfilling lives.

China Begins Opening Up to LGBTQ+ Rights

Sodomy was legalized in China in 1997. In 2001 the Chinese Psychology Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses These changes may seem very recent, but in the U.S. sodomy was only decriminalized in 2003, with the Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas, while homosexuality was removed from the American list of mental diseases in 1973. [Source:Sarah Prager, Jstor Daily, June 10, 2020]

Liana Zhou and Joshua Wickerham wrote in “Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History”: ““The Republican period saw the emergence of an elite civil society devoted to advancing sexual discourse. Communist appropriation of sexual education and policy to government bodies hampered this debate. Beginning in the 1980s, limited discourse on anti-discrimination, equal rights, and sexual freedom reemerged with a clearer vision of China's long history of homosexuality. [Source: Liana Zhou and Joshua Wickerham, “Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

In the 1980s nonjudgmental studies of homosexuality began to appear. Shanghai University sexologist Liu Dalin's first nationwide sexual survey on homosexuals was published in 1990. In 1991 sociologist Li Yinhe and her husband Wang Xiaobo published Their World: A Study of the Male Homosexual Community in China. The book, with its sociological and anthropological dimensions, became a bestseller when it was updated and republished as The Homosexual Subculture in 1998. That same year, Qingdao University medical school professor Dr. Zhang Beichuan began publishing Friend Exchange (Pengyou Tongxin), China's first gay newsletter. Taiwanese writer Pai Hsien-yung published the first modern gay Asian novel, Crystal Boys (1983), which is the basis of a number of films and a television series in Taiwan. “In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a few media reports in larger cities like Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing contained gay-themed stories. The subject is still regularly censored and underreported in the PRC.

“Comrade (tongzhi) is the most common slang term used by Chinese gays. In Cantonese, Gei is a popular slang transliteration of gay. In Mandarin Chinese, Lala is the most common word for Chinese lesbians. The first tongzhi meeting was held in Hong Kong in 1996. At this meeting the group established a strategy to combat homophobia and secure equal rights for all Chinese sexual minorities.

“Activist-scholar and Shanghai Medical University graduate Dr. Wan Yanhai started China's first HIV/AIDS hotline in Shanghai in 1991, which also served the homosexual community. Wan Yanhai also founded one of the first HIV/AIDS concern groups, AIZHI, in Beijing in 1994. Though police monitored and shut down early consultation efforts, every major Chinese city has HIV/AIDS hotlines in the early twenty-first century. The largest cities also have lesbian, homosexual legal rights, and sexual consultation hotlines. In the early 2000s, the PRC began to take the HIV/AIDS crisis seriously, instructing all centers for disease control to work with and educate tongzhi groups on the control and prevention of the spread of the virus.

“In 2004 Fudan University's medical college, in cooperation with the Chi Heng Foundation, organized the mainland's first class on homosexuality. The graduate health course attracted considerable media attention, despite enrolling only three students. In the fall of 2005, the first undergraduate class — also at Fudan — attracted a full roster of students and even more journalists.

“Queer China, “Comrade” China” (2008), directed by Cui Zi’en, China’s most prolific queer filmmaker, presents a comprehensive historical account of the queer movement in modern China. Unlike any before, this film explores the historical milestones and ongoing advocacy efforts of the Chinese lesbian and gay community. A Shanghai Timeout Review of Cui Zi’en’s “Zhi Tongzhi” (“Queer China, Comrade China”) goes: Espousing a more traditional form, and dividing the film in seven chapters, Cui covers incredible ground in a relatively short amount of time (60 minutes). Fact-filled, yet fun-filled, Cui’s film pays homage to all the tongzhi warriors, male or female, prominent or unknown, who are bringing about what Li (Yinhe) describes as a major sexual revolution. [Source: dgeneratefilms.com, December 2011]

Today, gay marriage is not legal and there is no anti-discrimination protection for gay people in the workplace. An undercover film in 2015 year found Chinese doctors still offering electroshock therapy to "cure" homosexuality — even though a Beijing court had ruled against the practice. [Source: Sarah Buckley, BBC News, February 27, 2016]

Image Sources: Wikipedia

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

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