Bisexuality and homosexuality in Ancient Greece is (relatively) well-documented and understood, but same-sex love and romance in Ancient China is a little more complex and speculative.
Still, there is recorded documentation of same-sex relationships in each of Ancient China’s many dynasties, and there are many things we know about how bisexuality manifested itself during those times. Similar to Greece, there wasn’t a strict divide between “gay,” “straight,” and “bisexual,” and in Ancient Chinese times, it’s believed that same-sex relationships were more commonplace.
To increase your knowledge of queer history, here’s some factoids about bisexuality and homosexuality from the time of Ancient China. (Unsurprisingly, many of the historic accounts of homosexuality take the form of stories/myths, so we’ll share some of those too.)
Ancient Chinese Terminology
Let’s start with some Classical Chinese terminology, which is quite fascinating. There were two common phrases for men who engage in same-sex relationships in Classical Chinese, which are sometimes (though not often) used today: “The passion of the cut sleeve” (斷袖之癖) and the “divided peach” (分桃).
Modern Chinese slang is equally as interesting, with Baboon (狒狒) being the literal translation of what Westerners call a bear-chaser and monkey (猴子) being the literal translation of what Westerners call a twink. 0 is also a symbol for bottom (0 is supposed to reference an anus) and 1 is a reference for top (1 being a symbol of the penis). So naturally, .5 means vers.
The History of the Cut Sleeve and Same-sex Relationships and Intimacy among Emperors of the Han dynasty.
We can probably guess your response when you first read the term “the cut sleeve,” (Is it a euphemism for a circumcised penis?! What does it mean?!) but there’s actually a heartwarming story that explains it. Emperor Ai of the Han Dynasty who ruled from 7 to 1 BC took the throne when he was 20. He was very much known for his homosexual, proclivities, we’ll call them. One morning, Ai’s lover Dong Xian was still asleep in bed, lying on Ai’s robes. Instead of waking Dong Xian, Ai cut off his sleeve to let his lover continue to sleep peacefully.
But Emperor Ai wasn’t the only emperor of the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD) that had same-sex sexual relationships. The Han records show that nearly every emperor that ruled during the Han Dynasty had same-sex lovers (10 of the 13) in addition to their wives and female concubines.
After the Han Dynasty, ancient Chinese people were more tolerant of same-sex relationships, assuming it didn’t get in the way of eventually marrying (a woman) and starting a family.
The Tears of Lord Long Yang
Another passionate same-sex love story comes from Lord Long Yang who was lovers with the King of Wei. The two men were fishing, and together they caught an impressively large fish. Then, they happened to catch an even bigger fish, so the king threw away the first one. Suddenly, Long Yang broke out into tears. When the King asked him what was wrong, Long Yang replied that he was afraid he would be treated like the first fish. When the king found someone newer and more impressive, he’d be thrown away too. Moved, the King of Wei issued a decree stating that “Whoever shall dare speak of beauties in my presence will have his whole clan extirpated [destroyed].”
(Isn’t that adorable? I mean, possessive and nuts, but also adorable?) Anyway, that’s why “Long Yang” is a another reference to same-sex love in China.
In Classical Chinese, the pronouns he, she, and it were written with the same gender-neutral character, tā (他). If only English learned from Classical Chinese, instead of differentiating gender with obnoxious pronouns…
Because of this, there’s more ambiguity with regards to same-sex relationships occurring in classical Chinese texts. Many stories can be read as either homosexual or heterosexual depending on the reader’s desire. Also, many ancient writings were written by men with a female voice (or persona), further complicating as to whether the work was intended to be heterosexual or homosexual.
The switch of attitudes against same-sex relationships in the 19th century
Ancient Chinese attitudes towards same-sex couples were pretty relaxed (assuming it didn’t interfere with heterosexual marriage and procreation), but of course, that’s not the case with China today. It’s unclear what exactly caused the attitude shift toward same-sex couples, but many scholars credit modern China’s homophobia/biphobia and disapproval of same-sex relationships to the country’s adoption of Western viewpoints of homosexuality.
In the 19th century, the idea of the “modern homosexual” was born in the West, and with it, the birth of the “modern heterosexual” whose behaviors and sexual activities were opposite of the modern homosexual. It’s believed China picked up some of the new Western perspectives concerning homosexuality in the 19th century, which dichotomized sexuality, eventually demonizing same-sex relationships.
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