China’s Modern-Day Homophobia Belies a Queer History Dating Back to 600 B.C.
We’ve all heard the story of Stonewall countless times. But it would be a mistake to think that gay history began in the New York City of 1969. In fact, homosexuality can be traced as far back as the early days of recorded history, and in cultures far older than that of the United States. For example, some research indicates that homosexuality in China was simply accepted as a normal part of life prior to Western interference.
Though scholarship on the subject varies, it appears likely there was a general nonchalance towards behavior and people who we would today identify as queer. It was only in the last two centuries that an anti-LGBTQ attitude swept over the country.
There are various terms for homosexuality in China, from “the divided peach” to “allied brothers,” though it’s more common today to hear “tongzhi,” meaning “comrade,” or “datong,” an abbreviation for queer students. Women might identify as “lazi,” a transliterative abbreviation for “lesbian.”
For centuries, same-sex relationships in China were simply no big deal. One collection of literature dating from around 600 BC describes male attraction at court; other scholarship identified numerous same-sex partners for male emperors around 200 BC.
Emperor Ai, for example, tried to arrange for his male partner to inherit the throne. It is from Emperor Ai that we get the euphemism of the cut sleeve (pictured above) — a story says Ai’s partner fell asleep on Ai’s sleeve, and so the emperor cut it off so as not to wake him.
Bisexuality appears to have been particularly well-regarded. A story about Huo Guang set around the year 150 describes a same-sex romance; and scholars Ruan Ji and Ji Kang were described as lovers around the year 300. Their sexual prowess was especially noted.
During the Ming Dynasty, which lasted from the 1300s to the 1600s, writings record gay couples in a matter-of-fact context that seems to indicate such relationships were common. Schools of philosophy such as Confucianism and Taoism took little interest in passing moral judgement on same-sex relationships.
But research in this area can be complex. Classical Chinese doesn’t impose gender on pronouns, so poetry from the time is gender-neutral. Writing was also limited to an upper-class group of educated elites, and the topic of sex was often considered taboo. As a result, homosexuality must often be inferred through literary allusions.
There are also a limited number of erotic works that have escaped historical purges. Unfortunately, there are far fewer records of women’s relationships.
Laws against homosexuality in China originated in the Qing Dynasty, which lasted from the 1600s to 1900s and was characterized by more government surveillance over relationships. By the time of the Second World War, western hostility to queer love had overtaken the culture, and Chinese LGBTs faced harassment and persecution.
Thanks to the hard work of scholars and activists, queer people might someday soon experience the freedom, acceptance and love that once characterized Chinese life.
Did you know that homosexuality in China was first documented so long ago?
This article was originally published on Dec. 21, 2017. It has since been updated.