The relationship of homosexuality to any culture is often complex, bearing the weight of that culture’s religious traditions and family structures. Before the influence of Christianity, eastern countries such as China had a very different experience of homosexuality than their western counterparts. In ancient China, strict distinctions between homosexual and heterosexual desires were not emphasized, and for men at least, it was often not unusual for these relationships to exist side by side. In fact, for much of China’s early history, same-sex relationships between men were not uncommon and were often considered a normal part of society.
Same-sex relationships between men were documented in ancient China as early as the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). Many of the emperors from this period were said to have had male lovers, usually in addition to wives or concubines. A common traditional expression for male homosexual relationships, “the passion of the cut sleeve,” comes from a story of an emperor and his male lover during this period. Emperor Ai of the Han dynasty was said to show exceptional devotion to his male lover, Dong Xian. According to the story, the emperor cuts off the sleeve of his robe rather than disturb his peacefully sleeping lover.
Mention of emperors’ male companions continues in official documents until the Song dynasty (960-1279). After this period, male homosexuality continues to be documented by the wealthier classes. These relationships are often formed between young men and older, prominent men who took on the more masculine role and carried on these relationships in addition to heterosexual marriages. As late as the seventeenth century, the province of Fujian was performing male marriages where an older man would pay bridal sum to enter into a union with a younger man, complete with a traditional marriage. The younger man would then move in with the older man’s family until both men eventually married women to carry on their families.
Homosexuality remained legal in China until the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), and began to be repressed during China’s Self-Strengthening Movement. In modern China, popular attitudes toward homosexuality vary while the government demonstrates no open support of LGBT issues. As is the case in the United States, activists are working to bring these issues to the forefront in China. Activists hope to garner support for equal rights such as same-sex marriage, an institution that is, in some way, already part of China’s history.
By Jennifer Rosedale, Staff Contributor