A queer history of China

A summary of Chinese queer history through ancient texts

Illustration by Timothy McEvenue
Ancient affections
Pre-dynastic period
(1050 BC – 206 BC)

While there are isolated examples of prehistoric art depicting same-sex sex in China, particularly the Bronze Age Kangjiashimenji Petroglyphs, the contemporary understanding of homosexuality in Chinese history generally begins with the appearance of the Confucian canon during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods. Confucius himself holds intimate male friendships up as an example of supremely virtuous attachment. Legalist philosopher Han Feizi recounts the tale of Mizi Xia, who shared a sweet peach with his beloved, Duke Ling of Wei, an act which made the term fentao (分桃), or ‘bitten peach’, a longstanding euphemism for same-sex love. One of the few historical references to lesbian relationships is also from around this time – historian Ying Shao records ‘marriages’ between palace women.

Courtly cohabitation
Han, Sui
(206 BC – 618 AD)

It is during the Han Dynasty that the fashion for beautiful and talented male favourites in China’s most powerful households – including the imperial palace – becomes well documented. The Emperor Ai remains the most well-known proponent of what later becomes known as the nanfeng (男风), or the ‘male habit’. Historian Sima Qian documents how, while sharing a bed, Ai’s male lover Dong Xian once fell asleep across the Emperor’s sleeve, which the Emperor elected to cut off rather than risk waking his beloved, an action which gave rise to a new fashion trend at court (short sleeves), and the term duanxiu (断袖), or ‘cut sleeve’, a poetic allusion to same-sex love.

Porn and promiscuity
Tang, Song
(618 – 1279)

As China’s doors open to the world via the Silk Road, new ideas arrive in the capital of Chang’an. The Tang Dynasty sees a flourishing of the arts and literature, including some of the earliest examples of gay pornography and literary references to same-sex sexuality outside of a courtly context. The first documented male sex workers live during this period. As in ancient Greece and Rome, under the Tang, homosexuality is only condemned if it interferes with commitments to marry and produce heirs. Court documents continue to record the names of male favourites of emperors until the end of the Song Dynasty.

Literary loves
Yuan, Ming
(1279 – 1644)

Under the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, opera becomes a hugely popular art form, and opera troupes become associated with ‘singing boys’ trained to perform female roles who are, on occasion, also sexually available to wealthy male patrons. Ming writer Li Yu also gives us our only surviving explicit references to lesbianism in pre-modern China in his play Pitying The Perfumed Companion. Short story writer and pioneer of vernacular fiction Feng Menglong also alludes to same-sex sexuality in his popular short stories. A personage no less venerable than Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci himself is scandalised by the ‘unnatural perversions’ of Chinese men of all social classes, and he preaches against homosexuality, to little effect – though, as we shall see, Western-style homophobia will eventually take root in the Middle Kingdom.

The advent of homophobia
Qing (1644 – 1911)

It is under the Qianlong Emperor that the first statute outlawing non-commercial same-sex sex is introduced. Same-sex sexuality increasingly becomes viewed as an unsavoury predilection of the demi-monde – the fear among conservatives is that moral degradation will doom the nation, and thus homosexual affairs are risky for all but the most powerful. Exclusive homosexuality is at first satirised by writers such as Pu Songling, and later
condemned by the ultra-conservative neo-Confucianists. As the Qing Dynasty’s foundations begin to crack, scholars start to turn to Western thought as a solution to China’s problems, with many embracing contemporary Europe’s institutional homophobia. Ironically, it is homophobia, and not homosexuality, that the Great Powers introduce to China – with the worst punishments meted out to residents of the colonies of Hong Kong and Macau.

Early 20th century to present day

The belief that homosexuality is a mental illness, promulgated by Republican- era doctors and propped up until the present day, leads, in the 20th century, to the wholesale persecution of queer people in China on a scale never before seen. Charges of ‘hooliganism’ are used to lock up known gay and lesbian people until the early 2000s. Today, a new generation of queer activists is attempting to both reclaim traditional Chinese LGBT identity – which, as we’ve shown, was a fundamental part of sexual culture for millennia – and fuse it with the aims of the modern-day liberation movement.

By Jack Smith

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