Peaches and sleeves: a history of homosexuality in China

Published: June 24, 2014

June is gay pride month, with worldwide festivities of parades, parties and remembrance marking the occasion. Major cities in China, including Shanghai and Beijing, are celebrating gay pride month in their own unique ways. The issue of human rights, and the contemporary struggle of homosexuals the world over for acceptance and integration, is a central tenet of social responsibility. How exactly does the history of gay rights and culture in Chinese society through to today impact any future advancement for the LGBT community? 

 
Absent the moral stigma of religion, the ancient Chinese saw homosexuality as a normal human condition. Official records document same-sex relationships in the inner court from at least the early Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.). Notable scholars conclude that emperors with male-sex partners were quite a common occurrence during the Han and later dynasties. The most notable gay Han emperor was Emperor Ai, who even tried to pass the throne to his lover Dongxian.  A poignant story where Ai cuts off his own sleeve rather than wake Dongxian, who is sleeping on his arm, is still used today in reference to homosexuality. 

Scholars during the Liu Song Dynasty of the third century claimed that homosexuality in China was as prevalent as heterosexuality. Bret Hinsch, in his history Passions of the Cut Sleeve, notes the rise of actor-prostitutes and male prostitutes starting in the Jin Dynasty. Politics and homosexuality continued to intermingle through a system of patronage similar to that of the Greek city states and Roman Empire. Older patrons would receive sexual favors and in turn guarantee political advancement for their lovers.  

It was not until the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) that the homosexual community in China began to feel a pinch. It was then that the first negative term for homosexuality made its way into normal parlance. Not too long after, the Song Dynasty ended the practice of recording the male lovers of emperors and began passing bans on male prostitutes. 

Regardless, these slight measures pale in comparison to the level of persecution seen during the Middle Ages in Europe and arguably many places today. Gay marriages were commonplace as late as the 17th century in the province of Fujian. Actors also continued to openly profess their same-sex relationships on stage and off. The rising influence of western religion during the Qing and Ming periods, however, resulted in a more critical eye towards homosexuals. 

Communist China under Mao did castrate, imprison and execute homosexuals as sexual deviants. Like many things during this time, it isn’t entirely clear to what extent this occurred. What is known is that homosexuality was not decriminalized until 1997 and was still classified as a disease through the turn of the century. 

China today is still primarily atheist, so religious implications of homosexuality do not occur as often as the West. Who one loves is personal as long as they abide by the notion of filial piety. Children are expected to have sons and daughters to carry on the family name. With increasing pressure on China’s social safety net, the desire for children and grandchildren as a go-to 401K plan continues to grow. Families place pressure on China’s estimated 40 million homosexuals to get married and have kids. To counter this, as much as 80% of China’s LGBT community enter into heterosexual marriages. 

Today, there is a surge of awareness of and about the LGBT community in China. Cities like Shanghai, Chengdu and Beijing are making a push through community centers, informative panels, partnerships with foreign consular offices and annual Pride events. In Shanghai, LGBT professional networking and community groups are taking root. Charlene Liu, the de-facto head of Shanghai’s gay community, has led Shanghai Pride from its infancy six years ago to today. This past April, Shanghai saw its first LGBT Corporate Diversity and Inclusion Conference. Organized by Steven Bielinski, who is also the founder of Shanghai LGBT Professionals, the Conference included leaders from Fortune 500 companies operating in China and discussed HR-led inclusive workplaces. 

 
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