Homosexuality during China’s long history can be traced through literature, accounts of life both inside and outside the imperial courts, and in attitudes about male prostitution. In recent years, more egalitarian relations have developed, but few people make homosexuality their core identity.

Historically, homosexual relations between men in China often involved a person of lower status seeking the favors of someone more powerful, whereas women who lived in communities without men sometimes formed monogamous relationships formalized by ceremony. In modern China efforts are being made to approach homosexuality in both genders without stereotyping or using the labels gay and lesbian.

Traditional Male Homosexuality

In China the oldest known reports of male homosexuality appear in the earliest poetry anthology of the Zhou dynasty (1045–256 BCE). In this period heterosexual marriages were frequently negotiated for other than romantic reasons, and men were free to search for satisfying sex and romantic love elsewhere, including in homosexual relationships. Homosexuality was typically structured in terms of class, with courtiers seeking the love of powerful men because of the concomitant benefits of such alliances, as in the instance of Lord Long Yang, who made elaborate efforts to prove his devotion to the king of Wei. During the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), the emperor’s favorites attained enormous prominence at court, and in one instance the dying emperor Ai (reigned 6 BCE–1 CE) even gave the throne to his favorite, Don Xian. Don Xian’s enemies, however, forced him to commit suicide and usurped the throne.

The first-known sources on homosexuality outside court life date from the North and South dynasties (220–589 CE). In Shishui xinyu (A New Account of Tales of the World) by Liu Qing (403–444 CE), male beauty is a major focus of attention. The Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) provides fewer records of homosexuality at court than did earlier periods, although homosexuality was more often mentioned in literature and particularly in poetry. The first derogatory term connected with homosexuality, jijian, usually translated as sodomy, surfaced during this period in the story of the male prostitute Xue Aocoa.

During the Song dynasty (960–1279), homosexuality apparently continued to be more common outside court circles, and evidence for it increased. Whereas in earlier times patronage consisted of emperors and other high-placed persons bestowing presents and honors on their favorites, in the Song period this patronage took the form of straightforward prostitution in the major cities. Prostitutes were typically seen as passive and receptive. Whereas in earlier times some relationships had been ones of love, the patron/prostitute relationship was purely sexual.

In the early twelfth century male prostitution was legally prohibited, but the law seems not to have been often enforced. The Ming dynasty (1368–1644) was a time of greater tolerance, with a flowering of literature depicting homosexuality that reflected patronage relationships before prostitution. During this period clashes over homosexual activity with foreigners occurred. In Manila, for instance, the Spanish arrested and condemned Chinese immigrants who protested that homosexuality was an accepted custom in their culture.

During the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), literature on homosexuality remained rich, and prostitution was common. In 1860 a Western visitor to Tianjin reported that there were thirty-five brothels and an estimated eight hundred boys engaged in prostitution. Sources of information about male prostitutes largely described actors who were elite prostitutes. There were sodomy laws at this time, and under Manchurian influence intolerance toward homosexuality began to emerge, though the practice continued to flourish.

Traditional Female Homosexuality

There is relatively well-documented information about women’s communities in imperial China, especially in southern Guangdong. In such communities women could resist social demands that they marry, and particular economic opportunities enabled these women to live largely independently of men. This appears to have been the case in the silk industry. Women in these communities held marriage ceremonies and lived like couples. In Chinese-dominated states, including Singapore, such communities have persisted.

As early as the Han dynasty, there is literary evidence of female homosexuality, including a love relationship between two slave women, as well as an empress’s servant who dressed in male attire, suggesting a lesbian relationship. The famous Qing dynasty novel The Dream of the Red Chamber also contains depictions of lesbian affairs.

Contemporary Male and Female Homosexuality in China

Homosexuality in China today continues to be associated with male as well as female transgender practices, but such viewpoints have begun to be questioned. Nowadays the words gay and lesbian are often used in place of the traditional terms, especially among highly educated people, who tend to distance themselves from the transgender implications of indigenous concepts.

In China as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan, a movement has developed to accommodate this conflict between traditional and contemporary ideas of homosexuality. The common denominator used for gay men, lesbian women, transgender and transsexual people, and even sympathetic and supportive heterosexuals is tongzhi, which is the Chinese Communist term for comrade. The introduction of the term tongzhi is a product of the wish to avoid the explicit sexual overtones of other terms for gay men and lesbian women and at the same time to create a network that overcomes the limitations of identity-oriented categories like gay and lesbian.

Further Reading

Blackwood, E., & Wieringa, S. E. (Eds.). (1999). Female desires: Same-sex relations and transgender practices across cultures. New York: Columbia University Press.

Chou Wah-Shan. (2000). Tongzhi: Politics of same-sex eroticism in Chinese societies. New York: Haworth Press.

Hinsch, B. (1990). Passions of the cut sleeve: The male homosexual in traditional China. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Murray, St. O. (2000). Homosexualities. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Source: Lunsing, Wim. (2009). Homosexuality. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1044–1045. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Homosexuality (Tongxìngliàn ???)|Tongxìngliàn ??? (Homosexuality)

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