same-sex love in ancient and modern chinese history
By Dr Tan Chong Kee
The Warring States (841 B.C. – 221 B.C.) 战国
Writing during this period, the philosopher Mo Tzu (墨子) discusses at length his misgivings about the rulers of his time. He admonishes these rulers for using their relatives and “handsome men” as court officials, leading to the mismanagement of the state. (1) It is important to note that he is not talking about one specific ruler but makes a general statement about “the kings and lords of today”. Mo Tzu is not against same-sex love just as he is not against family ties. What he objects to is the practice of nepotism and favoritism, which, he notes, is widespread. Through Mo Tzu, we have a glimpse of how prevalent same-sex love was among the Chinese rulers, as early as 841 – 221 B.C.
To illustrate, let us look at the history of the state of Yu (虞). Many might have heard the story of Xi Shi (西施), one of the most beautiful women in Chinese history, which the King of Yue (越) used to distract the King of Wu (吳), paving the way to the eventual conquest of Wu. During this same historical period, the lord of Jing (晋) wanted to invade Yu (虞) but the lord of Yu had a wise counsel helping him to thwart Jing’s plans. So the lord of Jing gave the lord of Yu a present of a beautiful man. The lord of Yu became so enamored with this beautiful man that he refused to listen to his counsel. Seizing this opportunity, Jing invaded and annexed Yu. (2)
The important lesson to draw from this story is that the lord of Yu’s love for beautiful men was generally known in the “international circle” of the time. There was no need to hide because there was stigma. Furthermore, it was diplomatically appropriate to present the ruler of another state with either a male of female concubine. Not only does this story illustrate what Mo Tzu says, it also underscores the fact that since the earliest days of Chinese civilisation, the love for men was a common feature of the ruling elites.
Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) 汉朝
Sima Qian (司馬遷) wrote the first dynastic history in the Han Dynasty (史记) and his work sets the format which all subsequent official histories were written. It is very revealing that Sima Qian reserved a special chapter (佞幸列传) to document the history of the Han emperors’ male lovers, and thanks to this precedent, we have inherited a rich official history of imperial male love throughout Chinese history.
Of the 25 emperors of Han, 10 of them are well known to have male lovers. Of these love affairs, the one between Emperor Ai and a beautiful ephebe, Dong Xian, was so deep that it became the reference for male same-sex love for thousands of years. Even today, among literary circle, male homosexuality is referred to as the “passion of the cut sleeve” (断袖之恋). For more than 2,000 years same-sex love between men in China had as one of their archetypes this love affair of Emperor Ai, an older high status man, with Dong Xian, a beautiful younger man, rather similar to the form same-sex love took in ancient Greece.
Another archetype of Chinese male love can be found in the love affair between Han Wudi (汉武帝) and Han Yan (韩嫣). Han Wudi is one of the greatest emperors of China. He became emperor at the age of 16 and ruled until his death at age 70. Under his reign, China became the most powerful kingdom in the ancient world, and because of him, Chinese people to this day refer to themselves as the Han people. Just to list some of his achievement, Han Wudi declared January as the beginning of the year and this decision is still in effect to this day (before that, Chinese New Year was celebrated at different months of the year – similar to how Vietnamese and Malay New Years in our present time fall on different dates). He also created an imperial examination system to select able scholars as mandarins, setting in motion the system of imperial examinations that governed China for the next 2,000 years. With his military might and diplomatic skills, he established the Silk Route, ensuring commerce and cultural exchange between East and West for centuries to come. He united all the currencies of the Warring States and created the first centralised imperial mint. Every single one of these achievements has profoundly affected the world.
And this most admired emperor in all Chinese history was in love with another man. Han Wudi met Han Yan when they were both young princes. Yan was the grandson of the King of Han (韩). Wudi and Yan studied together and grew to love each other. Yan was no pretty boy. According to Sima Qian, Yan was “eight feet and five inches tall”, translated into modern height measurement, it would be about 1.8 to 2 meters, which makes him a towering figure in the ancient world where people were much shorter than we are today. Yan is also skilled in equestrian and archery, and familiar with the battle tactics of the Northern huntsmen. That made Han Wudi loved him even more since he wanted to declare war on these people to secure his Northern borders. Yan was the only man (as opposed to eunuchs) allowed to freely come and go in the imperial palace and spent many a nights in the imperial bed.
Unfortunately Yan let his position in court go to his head. One day, during an imperial hunting expedition, Han Wudi asked Yan to first go ahead. Han Wudi’s brother, the King of Jiangdu saw the imperial carriage from afar and thought it was the emperor, so he got off his horse and knelt by the road side to greet him. Yan did not even stop to acknowledge the King of Jiangdu. When the King realized it wasn’t his brother in the carriage, he was infuriated with the snub from someone of a lower rank. He told their mother about the incident and the old Empress bore a grudge against Yan. When she eventually got hold of evidence that Yan was also sleeping with the emperor’s female concubines, she ordered his death. Han Wudi pleaded with his mother to rescind the order but she refused. We are not witnessing sexual prudishness here. Sleeping with the emperor’s female concubine is a very serious offence because it throws into question the imperial lineage. If one cannot be sure whether a son born to a female concubine is really the emperor’s son, how can the next emperor be chosen? Yan’s infraction hits at the foundation of dynastic rule, no wonder the old Empress knew she could use that to put the emperor’s favorite male lover to death. But it is also the most telling sign of how much Wudid loved Yan – in the face of his own imperial lineage being thrown into doubt, he pleaded for Yan and was inconsolable at his death. It was as if he did not care whether it was his son or Yan’s son who will succeed him as emperor. In fact, after Yan’s death, Wudi asked Yan’s brother, who looked very much like Yan, to be his next male companion.
The love story between Han Wudi and Han Yan was well-known among Chinese literati through out Chinese history and can be considered another archetype of Chinese male love: one between two equally masculine and martial men. We can see echoes of this archetype in the Ming dynasty novel “The Water Margin” (水滸傳) where bandits and swordsmen formed a tightly knit brotherhood that placed the love between each other high above their love for their wives.
same-sex love in ancient and modern chinese history
By Dr Tan Chong Kee
The Western and Eastern Jing Dynasties (266 – 420 AD), the Southern and Northern Dynasties (503 – 557 AD) and Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD) 魏晋南北朝 唐朝
If the history of Han dynasty recorded much imperial same-sex love, the history of the next few dynasties, from Western and Eastern Jing, the Southern and Northern Dynasties, to Tang, tells of how same-sex love was equally prevalent among the aristocracy and even the general population. A passage in the History of Song described how “since after the year of Xianning and Taikang (after 275 AD) the love for men became hugely popular, surpassing the love for women. Every aristocrat was in to it, and all under heaven were emulating them.” (3)
Poetry written by literati celebrating same-sex love now appears. Although there was considerable poetry on same-sex love dating even further back than Han dynasty, their meanings are sometimes disputed by scholars claiming that the authors were women. But by Jing dynasty, the meanings of the poetry were indisputable because they made clear references to the Han emperors’ male lovers. The two most prominent members of the seven sages of the bamboo forest (竹林七贤), Ran Ji (阮籍) and Ji Kang (嵇康) were lovers. In one of Ran Ji’s famous collection of poems, he sings of the joy of same-sex love and used the imagery of two birds flying together as a metaphor (愿为双飞鸟， 比翼共翱翔). The great Tang poet Bai Juyi (白居易 772年—846 AD) later took this metaphor and used it to describe the love between the Tang emperor (唐明皇) and his female concubine Yang Quifei (杨贵妃). (4) It would be unthinkable under today’s homophobia if a writer were to use a gay metaphor to describe the marriage of say the Thai King or the Singapore Prime Minister! Bai Juyi was not trying to be risqué when he composed those lines, for the Tang Chinese, love was love, and perfectly analogous whether it was for a man or a woman. Another poet, Bai Xingjian (白行簡) wrote a long essay on human sexual expressions and devoted substantial lines to that of male same-sex love. These literary examples from the Tang dynasty underscore how Chinese culture sees same-sex love as just another expression of human sexuality.
Northern Song (960 – 1126 AD) and Southern Song (1127 – 1279 AD) Dynasties 北宋 南宋
The Song dynasty is the period in Chinese history when male prostitution became prevalent among the common people. Take for example this passage from a reliable folk history of the Song Dynasty: “Nowadays, the houses of prostitution in the imperial capital number in the ten of thousands. Even the men are displaying their bodies for sale with perfect nonchalance. (5) The number of male prostitutes became so unmanageable that finally late into the Northern Song dynasty, in the year 1111, a law was passed in an attempt to control them. The law apparently did not have much effect as the historical record from the Southern Song dynasty shows: “Since the move to the South, the “Wu custom” (ie. Male same-sex prostitution) became even more prevalent. Their home base is just outside the New Gate. All of them would apply rouge and powder, dress up and gesture like women, and were addressed as women. They then solicit all and sundry…this is the most egregious of bad influence but no one has used the old law to prohibit them. (6)
Note here that the tone of voice from the Southern Song chroniclers has become more moralistic. This is probably due to the rise of Neo-Confuciansim (理学). Two key slogans of Zhu Xi (朱熹 1130 – 1200 AD), who was a central figure in Neo-Confucianism, were: “Preserve heavenly morals, eradicate human desires” and “To die of hunger is inconsequential, to behave contrary to moral rectitude is far more serious”. (7) Ironically, as a result of such teachings that view human nature as something evil to be brought under control through strict moral codes, it was women’s rights that became severely curtailed. Social prohibition against women re-marrying after their husband’s death, and expectations that women should quickly kill themselves when in danger of being raped, all stemmed from the teachings of Neo-Confucianism. One aspect of ‘moral rectitude’ is that the superior man must not behave like an inferior woman. Thus for these Neo-Confucianists, men dressing up as women should be prohibited.
Historians have argued that the inward obsession of the Song dynasty with chastity and moral rectitude grew out of its outward military weakness towards the Northern tribes. Northern Song became Southern Song because it lost all its territories north of the Yangtze River in a series of military defeats. Unable to subjugate the “northern barbarians,” their attention turned to subjugating women and “human desires.” Unfortunately, Neo-Confucianism became very influential in China, giving rise eventually what the May-Fourth movement intellectuals called “False Moralism” (假道学). The backlash against Confucian teaching during the early part of twentieth-century China was in large part a backlash against the hypocritical moral posturing of the Neo-Confuciansts.
During the Southern Song dynasty in 1156, the Jesuit Gaspar da Cruz arrived in Canton (Guangzhou) China. His accounts, written with a distinctively prejudicial slant, says that: “sodomy, a vice very common in the meaner sort, and nothing strange among the best." Here one of the earliest European accounts confirms the prevalence of male same-sex love in China at that time and noted that it was just as common among the lower strata of Chinese society (the meaner sort) as it was among high society (among the best). Da Cruz’s account goes on to say that the Chinese “had never had any who told them that it was a sin, nor an evil thing done.” Another of his contemporary, Mendes Pinto, called it “depravity of the unspeakable sin.” It was presumably the duty of the white men to teach the Chinese about proper moral conduct. And here, we have on record one of the earliest spread of homophobia from the West into China, re-defining same-sex sexual pleasure as an “unspeakable sin” and “an evil thing.”
Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 AD) 明朝
There may have been various derelict efforts to curb male prostitution during the Southern Song Dynasty, but it quickly surge ahead in full force during the Ming. A passage in the book Wu Zazhu describes the Ming situation rather well: “the popularity of male same-sex love was evident since the earliest times… Due to the Song Neo-Confucianism there was a slight roll back, and now it is becoming prevalent again. On the whole, it is more prevalent in the southeast than the northwest (part of China).” (8)
Just how prevalent was it in the southeast? According to this Ming dynasty novel describing male prostitution: “Nowadays the customers in Hangzhou all prefer boys, only one in ten perhaps would be willing to take the ‘watery’ route (i.e., women)” (9) Since this is a novel, the description can well be a hyperbole. Nevertheless, we can certainly surmise that male homosexuality was a very common aspect of life in China during that time.
The Ming emperors are equally famous as lovers of men as their Han dynasty predecessors. What was new was in Ming dynasty was the rise of house boys (娈童家奴). This is where wealthy families kept their own harem of pretty boy-slaves for house work and sexual gratifications. In some instances, the master’s male favorites could even wield considerable power. There is a funny historical record about a wealthy man who decided to take a wife in his old age, but all his male concubines got together to stop him. The marriage night thus became a civil lawsuit night, and the local magistrate who had to try the case wrote a couplet to tease them. (10)
Another important European missionary, Mateo Ricci, arrived in China in 1583 during the Ming dynasty. Commenting on Chinese same-sex love, Ricci’s view is that the Chinese are: "to be pitied rather than censured, and the deeper one finds them involved in the darkness of ignorance, the more earnest one should be in praying for their salvation." Ricci’s attitude has ample echoes even today when homophobic Christians talk about “praying for your sins” and “loving the sinners but hating the sin.” However, the focus among some modern day Christians has sifted from pity to censure.
A modern church historian, David Mungello, notes in his book, The Great Encounter of China and the West, 1500-1800 published in 2005, that: “Ricci’s criticism of sodomy among Chinese male needs to be viewed in light of the Counter-reformation’s active campaign against homosexuality that had been conducted by the Roman Inquisition under Pope Paul IV (r. 1555 – 1559) during Ricci’s childhood… Prior to the Counter-Reformation, sodomy has been regarded as a misdemeanor typical of giovani (males aged eighteen to thirty-five or forty) rather than a felonious act… However, during the Counter-Reformation, attitudes towards homosexuality in Europe became much harsher, and Ricci’s criticism of homosexual practices among Chinese males reflected this hardening of attitudes. The Jesuit hierarchy was hypersensitive about same-sex attraction and was zealous in searching for signs of it.” (11)
Mungello’s point is significant. Homophobia, he found, was not even intrinsic to the Christian religion, but was a by-product of the Roman Inquisition and the Counter-Reformation. Incidentally, among the Roman Inquisition’s famous achievements were the trial of Galileo and the suppression of the knowledge that the Earth revolves around the Sun. While the modern world has since rid itself of the shackle on free thought imposed by the Roman Inquisition, it is still to this day enslaved by its homophobia.
Qing Dynasty (1636 – 1912 AD) 清朝
Male same-sex love continued from strength to strength during the Qing Dynasty. Needless to say, many Ching emperors had their own slew of male lovers, including Qian Long (乾隆), the most revered of the Qing emperors. Instead of prostitutes and house boys, male-male love now more commonly took the form of opera performers who were female impersonators. These performers had financial independence and were free to choose which male suitor they wanted to shower with their favor. A novel, Pinhua Baojian (品花宝鉴), based its story lines on contemporary real life events and described in minute details the life of these performers and their liaison with the wealthy and powerful elites of their days. Its central protagonist was in fact a literati who topped the Qing imperial examinations and went on to become a fairly high ranking official. He fell in love and took as ‘wife’ a female impersonator opera singer and their love was celebrated by the literati and elites of his time.
One of the most famous and talented artist of the Ching Dynasty, Zheng Banqiao (郑板桥) writes about his predilection for pretty boys in his autobiography. Another famous literati, in his Six Chapters of a Floating Life (浮生六记), writes with warmth and support about his wife’s lesbian affair with another woman.
Another phenomenon to note in the Ching Dynasty is the emergence in historical records of another form of male same-sex love. According the Qing dynasty scholar, Shen Defu: “Men in Fujian province value male love, regardless of wealth and beauty, the men each partner up with whom they like. The elder man is called ‘God-elder-brother’, the younger man ‘God-younger-brother’. If the elder god-brother moves in to the younger man’s home, the younger man’s parents will love him as if he is their son-in-law. The younger god-brother will rely on the older god-brother for economic support and even to save up money to help him take a wife. Those who really love each other would stay together like husbands and wives even after the age of 30.” (12)
This third archetype of traditional Chinese male love is most similar to what we practice today. The pairing is no longer conditioned by social status, rank or wealth, but simply by mutual feelings of attraction. And we see how our forefathers were able to love each other with full support from their parents. Since many Chinese in Southeast Asia originally came from Fujian province, this tradition is especially significant. Many gay people I have talked to about this aspect of Chinese history were incredulous. They couldn’t believe that Chinese culture could be anything but homophobic and families could be anything but uncomfortable with homosexuality. This cannot be further from the truth. We only limit ourselves if we choose to be blind to what really happened in history.
Despite almost 800 years of homophobia being propagated by European missionaries in China, we can see that Chinese attitude was not affected by them. Dynastic China in its glory probably saw these missionaries’ attitude toward same-sex love as rather angst-ridden and decidedly foreign.
The Turning Point
The turning point came at the end of the Ching dynasty when the allied army of eight Western nations invaded China, marched into the forbidden palace, extracted a series of humiliating treaties, and colonised the Middle Kingdom. That was such a devastating blow to Chinese confidence that it unleashed numerous waves of social movements aimed at regaining Chinese national prowess and pride. A key consensus among these reformers was the need to learn from the West. Western sciences, mathematics, astrology, medicine, philosophy, psychology, in fact, every branch of Western knowledge were eagerly studied. Even Western forms of dress, customs, etiquette, and religion became popular and were marks of progress for those who adopted them. It was under such a condition that Western homophobia, piggybacked on Western science, finally and regrettably succeeded in infiltrating Chinese consciousness and began to take root.
As the European powers colonised China and Asia, it spread its knowledge and prejudices. The impact on Western culture of the sexual obsession of the Catholic Church and its homophobic excesses has been studied by scholars such as Michel Foucault. I will not reproduce that fascinating history here. It is suffice to note that England was as much a victim and through the armies of Victorian England this mentality was brought to the British colonies. This is the reason why many former British colonies have the infamous homophobic section 377 in their statue books. It is not a coincidence that Malaysia, India and Singapore, for example, both numbered their homophobic law section 377. It was bequeathed to both by mother England. Now that England has finally woken up and jettisoning her homophobic prejudices, some of her former colonial subjects are clinging on to this past.
It is remarkable how a whole generation of immigrant Chinese in Southeast Asia has grown up today with little knowledge of history, and assume that whatever status quo they know about today must be intrinsically “Asian.” Thus, one often hears confused non-sense arguments such as: to stigmatise homosexuality is to affirm conservative “Asian values.”
Chinese values has largely been completely nonchalant towards male sexuality. It has been ahead of the Western world in its acceptance of homosexuality by more than 2,000 years. Of course, I am far from arguing that all traditional Chinese values must be adopted wholesale for the modern world, just like I do not believe homophobic values from the Roman Inquisition should have any relevance today. Cultures and values always change over time. The question to ask is: are they are becoming more humanising or more menacing; are they becoming more rooted in love and acceptance, or in fear and hatred; will they promote greater social cohesion and harmony, or will they divisively incite irrational hatred and intolerance?
On this count, I submit that we Asians need to feel proud again of our heritage, and re-claim a cultural value of acceptance that has been too long overshadowed by Western colonisers and their present day lackeys.
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