Just as Western history begins in a time so ancient that we cannot tell fact from myth, so too in China. We can go all the way back to the Yellow Emperor, one of the founders of human civilization, to get our first story. He is credited with inventing the wheel, and the magnet, around 2600 BC. The Yellow Emperor is an important figure in Taoism, and like King Solomon of the Bible, he was famous for his prodigious sexual prowess, with hundreds of wives and concubines. He also comes down through history as the earliest recorded Chinese man to take include other men in his bed. Founder of civilization indeed.
The nature of same-sex love in China is best illustrated by three colorful stories that give us the famous Chinese euphemisms for homosexual love:
First, a duke named Ling, loved a male court official named Mizi Xia. One day Mizi Xia offered Duke Ling half of his peach to eat. Ling responded, “How sincere is your love for me! You forget your own appetite and think only of giving me good things to eat!” For the next two thousand years homosexual love was “love of the shared peach.”
The second story is of Emperor Ai who ruled around the time of Christ. One day his lover Dong Xian fell asleep on his robe’s sleeve. Rather than wake him, the Emperor cut off his sleeve, and leaving their bed chambers appeared in public with his cut robe. The imperial court then adopted the cut sleeve style in honor of their love, and homosexual love across time became “love of the cut sleeve.”
The third story is named after the Lord Long Yang, who was lovers with the king of Wei. Fishing together, Long Yang caught an impressive fish, but then caught a bigger fish and wanted to throw the first one back. Suddenly Long Yang burst into tears. When the king asked why, Long Yang said he feared the king might do the same thing, finding someone else better and tossing him away. Moved, the king issued a law that “Whoever shall dare speak of beauties in my presence will have his whole clan extirpated [destroyed].” For the rest of history, homosexual love has been “Long Yang.”
The historian Louis Crompton points out how different these stories are from the Western tradition:
Clearly these normative tales, if we may so call them, show an unselfconscious acceptance of same-sex relations, an acceptance that was to persist in China for twenty-four centuries. They contrast strikingly with the myth that dominated the imagination of Western Christendom – the story of Sodom with its supernatural terrors. But they are also quite distinct from the traditions of ancient Greece. Instead of legends of heroic self-sacrifice in a warrior society, we have piquant tales of delicate consideration and tendernesss. Love for the Chinese was rarely the inspiration it was for the Greeks, the Arabs, and the troubadors. Rather than being enobling experiences, male love affairs in ancient China were elegant diversions, suffused with poetic sentiment.
The other dominant theme to stories of same-sex love in ancient China is how mundane they are. Rather than high-drama affairs that illustrate grand conclusions about gay love, the stories that come down to us through history are of typical relationships, often more focused on fighting mothers-in-law than anything between the same-sex partners. Of course, as is true throughout the world, the history of women’s relationships are often ignored.
As to why modern China is so homophobic… anti-homosexuality feelings developed throughout East Asia with the arrival of the Europeans and the teaching of Christian ethics. This negative effect of Christianity can be seen most powerfully in Japan where their respect for same-sex love rivaled that of the Greeks until the shaming of the Christian missionaries arrived, but I’ll cover that in another post.
Slate.com has a great story about the situation in modern China: A Visit To A Shanghai Fake-Marriage Market, Where Chinese Lesbians And Gay Men Meet To Find A Husband Or Wife