Test 2

Please select your preferred language.





Remember Me

New to Fridae?

Fridae Mobile


More About Us

12 Jun 2007

same-sex love in ancient and modern chinese history (1/2)

Inspired by Singapore's MM Lee Kuan Yew's recent reference to a magazine article about the English university having openly acknowledged gay love for almost 400 years which influenced the statesman's views that Singapore has "no option" but to decriminalise gay sex, columnist Dr Tan Chong Kee finds proof of same sex love being recorded throughout 2,000 years of Chinese history. Part 1 of 2.

In a recent interview which made headlines locally and internationally, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore talked about there being "no option" for Singapore but to be part of the world and decriminalise gay sex. He made reference to how an article on homosexuality in the recent issue of CAM, the Cambridge Alumni Magazine, had influenced him in arriving at this conclusion. That article led with the blurb: "Civil partnerships between same-sex couples have been on the British statute book for fifteen months. But in Cambridge, discovers Graeme Grant, gay love has been openly acknowledged for almost 400 years."

If an English university being in the lead for 400 years openly acknowledging gay love is good reason for an Asian country like Singapore to reconsider its criminalisation of homosexuality, what about 2,000 years of Chinese history where gay love is not only openly acknowledged, but celebrated? Modern homophobia has often censored this important chapter of Chinese history and culture.

Fridae columnist Tan Chong Kee, who holds a Ph.D. in Chinese Literature from Stanford University in the United States, takes readers through the history of same-sex love in China from The Warring States to the Ming and Qing Dynasties during which the country allowed European Christian missionaries to enter and became exposed to European influences and power. Part 1 of 2.

(Image above shows young men sipping tea and having sex. Individual panel from a hand scroll, paint on silk; China, Qing Dynasty [eighteenth to nineteenth centuries]; Kinsey Institute, Bloomington, Indiana, United States)

The Warring States (841 B.C. - 221 B.C.) 战国

Writing during this period, the philosopher Mo Tzu (墨子) discusses at length his misgivings about the rulers of his time. He admonishes these rulers for using their relatives and "handsome men" as court officials, leading to the mismanagement of the state. (1) It is important to note that he is not talking about one specific ruler but makes a general statement about "the kings and lords of today". Mo Tzu is not against same-sex love just as he is not against family ties. What he objects to is the practice of nepotism and favoritism, which, he notes, is widespread. Through Mo Tzu, we have a glimpse of how prevalent same-sex love was among the Chinese rulers, as early as 841 - 221 B.C.

To illustrate, let us look at the history of the state of Yu (虞). Many might have heard the story of Xi Shi (西施), one of the most beautiful women in Chinese history, which the King of Yue (越) used to distract the King of Wu (吳), paving the way to the eventual conquest of Wu. During this same historical period, the lord of Jing (晋) wanted to invade Yu (虞) but the lord of Yu had a wise counsel helping him to thwart Jing's plans. So the lord of Jing gave the lord of Yu a present of a beautiful man. The lord of Yu became so enamored with this beautiful man that he refused to listen to his counsel. Seizing this opportunity, Jing invaded and annexed Yu. (2)

The important lesson to draw from this story is that the lord of Yu's love for beautiful men was generally known in the "international circle" of the time. There was no need to hide because there was stigma. Furthermore, it was diplomatically appropriate to present the ruler of another state with either a male of female concubine. Not only does this story illustrate what Mo Tzu says, it also underscores the fact that since the earliest days of Chinese civilisation, the love for men was a common feature of the ruling elites.

Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) 汉朝

Sima Qian (司馬遷) wrote the first dynastic history in the Han Dynasty (史记) and his work sets the format which all subsequent official histories were written. It is very revealing that Sima Qian reserved a special chapter (佞幸列传) to document the history of the Han emperors' male lovers, and thanks to this precedent, we have inherited a rich official history of imperial male love throughout Chinese history.

Of the 25 emperors of Han, 10 of them are well known to have male lovers. Of these love affairs, the one between Emperor Ai and a beautiful ephebe, Dong Xian, was so deep that it became the reference for male same-sex love for thousands of years. Even today, among literary circle, male homosexuality is referred to as the "passion of the cut sleeve" (断袖之恋). For more than 2,000 years same-sex love between men in China had as one of their archetypes this love affair of Emperor Ai, an older high status man, with Dong Xian, a beautiful younger man, rather similar to the form same-sex love took in ancient Greece.

Another archetype of Chinese male love can be found in the love affair between Han Wudi (汉武帝) and Han Yan (韩嫣). Han Wudi is one of the greatest emperors of China. He became emperor at the age of 16 and ruled until his death at age 70. Under his reign, China became the most powerful kingdom in the ancient world, and because of him, Chinese people to this day refer to themselves as the Han people. Just to list some of his achievement, Han Wudi declared January as the beginning of the year and this decision is still in effect to this day (before that, Chinese New Year was celebrated at different months of the year - similar to how Vietnamese and Malay New Years in our present time fall on different dates). He also created an imperial examination system to select able scholars as mandarins, setting in motion the system of imperial examinations that governed China for the next 2,000 years. With his military might and diplomatic skills, he established the Silk Route, ensuring commerce and cultural exchange between East and West for centuries to come. He united all the currencies of the Warring States and created the first centralised imperial mint. Every single one of these achievements has profoundly affected the world.

And this most admired emperor in all Chinese history was in love with another man. Han Wudi met Han Yan when they were both young princes. Yan was the grandson of the King of Han (韩). Wudi and Yan studied together and grew to love each other. Yan was no pretty boy. According to Sima Qian, Yan was "eight feet and five inches tall", translated into modern height measurement, it would be about 1.8 to 2 meters, which makes him a towering figure in the ancient world where people were much shorter than we are today. Yan is also skilled in equestrian and archery, and familiar with the battle tactics of the Northern huntsmen. That made Han Wudi loved him even more since he wanted to declare war on these people to secure his Northern borders. Yan was the only man (as opposed to eunuchs) allowed to freely come and go in the imperial palace and spent many a nights in the imperial bed.

Unfortunately Yan let his position in court go to his head. One day, during an imperial hunting expedition, Han Wudi asked Yan to first go ahead. Han Wudi's brother, the King of Jiangdu saw the imperial carriage from afar and thought it was the emperor, so he got off his horse and knelt by the road side to greet him. Yan did not even stop to acknowledge the King of Jiangdu. When the King realized it wasn't his brother in the carriage, he was infuriated with the snub from someone of a lower rank. He told their mother about the incident and the old Empress bore a grudge against Yan. When she eventually got hold of evidence that Yan was also sleeping with the emperor's female concubines, she ordered his death. Han Wudi pleaded with his mother to rescind the order but she refused. We are not witnessing sexual prudishness here. Sleeping with the emperor's female concubine is a very serious offence because it throws into question the imperial lineage. If one cannot be sure whether a son born to a female concubine is really the emperor's son, how can the next emperor be chosen? Yan's infraction hits at the foundation of dynastic rule, no wonder the old Empress knew she could use that to put the emperor's favorite male lover to death. But it is also the most telling sign of how much Wudid loved Yan - in the face of his own imperial lineage being thrown into doubt, he pleaded for Yan and was inconsolable at his death. It was as if he did not care whether it was his son or Yan's son who will succeed him as emperor. In fact, after Yan's death, Wudi asked Yan's brother, who looked very much like Yan, to be his next male companion.

The love story between Han Wudi and Han Yan was well-known among Chinese literati through out Chinese history and can be considered another archetype of Chinese male love: one between two equally masculine and martial men. We can see echoes of this archetype in the Ming dynasty novel "The Water Margin" (水滸傳) where bandits and swordsmen formed a tightly knit brotherhood that placed the love between each other high above their love for their wives.

1 墨子。尚贤中:今王公大人,有一衣裳不能制也,必藉良工。。。迨至其国家之乱,社稷之 危,则不知使能以治之,亲戚则使之,无故富贵面目姣好则使之。

2 战国策。秦策:晋献公欲伐虞,荀息献计,赠之美男,始虞侯喜美男而恶宫之奇。宫之奇以柬 而不听,遂亡。因而伐虞,遂取之。

Part 2 can be read here.

Dr Tan Chong Kee holds a Ph.D. in Chinese Literature from Stanford University in the United States and is one of Singapore's best-known figures in civil society activism.

Reader's Comments

1. 2007-06-12 20:48  
Wow. Ten out 25 Han Emperors had male lovers ? Great research. Yes, I'm afraid it was the British who imported their (at the time) judgemental and hypocritical moral code that still lingers unpleasantly in places like Singapore and India.I t's ironical the British have now introduced civil partnerships, and their former colonies still hang on to an outdated criminal code. You've dumped the British, now dump their old laws.
2. 2007-06-13 01:26  
I wonder if the emperors were top or bottom.

In a nutshell, homosexuality is pretty common in the middle kingdom until the west came and preach their shit.

Homosexual intercourse is NOT against the law in the middle kingdom. That i'm very sure of.

But of course, take it with a pinch of salt. If some Roman emperor had a harem of 11 year old boys, that does not make it ok for us to follow suit.
3. 2007-06-13 10:32  
The records of same-sex love and relationship in the Chinese history is not some thing new at all. In his translation of Henry Havelock Ellis's Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Chinese sex psychologist Pan Guangdan (潘光旦) wrote an appendix focusing on the presence of homosexuality in ancient China. The translation was done in the 1930's, shortly after the publication of Ellis's book.
4. 2007-06-13 11:05  
Wow its true that love is ageless and timeless. I wonder why people back then are so open and do not discriminate gays like modern people now days....We all have a great lesson to learn her.I am really touched by this piece of history.Thank you to Fridae, great job and keep it up.
Comment #5 was deleted by its author
6. 2007-06-13 11:52  
I strongly believe in the proverb "the fengshui will always turn". Just as there are good days for gays, there are bad days of oppression. I've lived almost three decades in fear at my work place, and I cannot wait for the day when I walk out of this prison (not just a closet). When that day comes, I just wonder how many self-righteous Straits Times Forum writers will come forward and acknowledge that they were as wrong as the Nazis? Haha, that's like waiting for an apology from the Pope for murdering Galileo.

Just as we remember those who helped made a positive difference (like MM Lee, Alex Au, SM Goh), we should also remember those who wrote those bigoted letters about us in the papers. Forgive, but never forget.
7. 2007-06-13 12:41  
Its no surprise...same-sex love- esp amongst scholarly/ aristrocratic circles, have always been known to historians familiar with the Middle Kingdom..anyone remember the story of the Cut Sleeve? ;> It centers on a Han Emperor who " very clearly did not care for women".
Once, sleeping in the daytime with his campanion Dong Xian stretched out across his sleeve, the emperor wanted to get up, but the boy was still asleep. Because he did not want to disturb him, the emperor cut off his own sleeve and got up. His love and thoughtfulness went this far.
8. 2007-06-13 14:06  
As a historian and scholar in Asian Studies, I just want to posit that historical representation of same-sex eroticism does not mean an essential homosexualty throughout time and space. We've got to remember that we're dealing with displays of power, lust, greed, dominance, and a multitudes of other factors which made Chinese historians even document these specific examples in the ways they did. I'm very glad, however, that modern scholars are revisiting and reclaiming queer spaces in Chinese culture to combat the idea that queerness or same-gender love is foreign to Asia.
Comment #9 was deleted by its author
10. 2007-06-13 15:19  
that reminds me of my discussion in my bed last night with my partner about chu yuan ( the person responsible of our bah chang festival)...she told me he was a homosexual too who was in love with the king...something like that...haha. all i can say is cool. however on a serious note, homsexuality could have existed since mankind's existence...is only biology. the history should have far stretched. but then again in our local political arena is...depending on are the people being homosexual. sigh...is all for commercial values and not human rights here.
Comment #11 was deleted by its author
12. 2007-06-13 17:12  
"There was leaning on Jesus' bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved." John 13:23-25

"The disciple standing by, whom he loved" John 19:26

"The disciple whom Jesus loved following; which also leaned on his breast at supper" John 21:20

"The soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul ... And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was upon him, and gave it to David, and his garments ... and his girdle." 1 Samuel 18:1-4

David and Jonathan "kissed one another, and wept with one another" when they parted for the last time. 1 Samuel 20:41

13. 2007-06-13 18:55  
前 人 种 树, 后 人 纳 凉

Old treasures unearthed for the glory of Asian civilization
14. 2007-06-13 19:03  
We have seen dramas on Xi Shi (西施).

Anyone wanna produce a theatre play on Jing (晋) 's invasion of Yu (虞)?

Produce a English version for English conservatives and a Chinese version for the Chinese conservatives to know their tradition and roots, hehe
Comment #15 was deleted by its author
Comment #16 was deleted by its author
17. 2007-06-14 04:06  
I am not sure about whether the emperors are top or bottom, but I am sure that Han Yan is a BI since he slept with the emperor's female concubines. Or maybe he is a suppressed straight who has been forced to be in love with the gay or BI emperor.

But since there are so many evidences about same-sex love in China's history, why aren't these mentioned in the media, and even during history lessons in schools? The TV series just show emperors falling in love with hunderds and thousands of female concubines ONLY.

jammyboi, what has "leaning on Jesus' bosom" and "whom Jesus loved" has to do with this context? I think this is more about the Roman Culture at that time instead.

But "Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was upon him, and gave it to David, and his garments ... and his girdle" has something suspicious behind it. Why would a heterosexual man stripped himself openly for another heterosexual man just for fun? It is in the battle field, and Jonathan, being the heir to the throne after his father, could be killed, esp. when a heterosexual soldier could easily shoot an arrow to kill the heir when he stripped his no 4 (robe), M16 (girdle) and underwear (garments). As a commander, Jonathan should know this.

A sound-minded heterosexual man by nature would protect his life, his kingdom and even his wives from another heterosexual man.

I think Jonathan is blinded by his love for David and did what a woman would normally do for a man la. Unfortunately David is a straight and took no notice of Jonathan's muscles. Can't imagine a gay prince performing a strip show for a handsome heterosexual man, with his father and also the heterosexual soldiers under him as third party spectators. He has lost his dignity. A poor gay falling in love with a straight. Sad story.

18. 2007-06-14 04:21  
wa... history lessons!!!!
Comment #19 was deleted by its author
20. 2007-06-14 05:50  
I just find it so bizarre when people become more tolerant of homosexuality when they hear of historical evidences of homosexuality and it's nonchanlance or acceptance; and more bizarre when they justify the acceptance or rejection of homosexuality with evidence from the animal kingdom.

"Oh they did in in the past. Okay, I guess I shouldn't be homophobic anymore"

"Wow, male dolphins having sex with each other. Okay, now, I guess being gay is okay"

Bizarre that their actions and thoughts are governed by the past and/or by animals!
21. 2007-06-14 14:21  
I always think gay had been accepted and acknowledged since many many years ago....back to Hans period or Alexander the Great period....

I always believe that this was changed mainly due to the fact of some ppls in the past using religion to make us look sinful and bad.

In the past, most religions were spread thru war and conquer. Thus, during war time, a kingdom needs a huge army and they need more ppls. Maybe preventing gay contribute to more ppls marry and increase birth rate for a nation or kingdom.

As we all know, rulers from the past or their second in command (usually the spiritual adviser ) will use religion to control the nation. They always use GOD's name to justify most actions and rules.

Well, tat is my only gut feel about this...how about urs?
22. 2007-06-15 19:57  
Thanks for this article. I will look forward to the rest of the series. I have long known that ancient attitudes toward same sex relations were tolerant and non-judgemental, but am glad to learn this history.
23. 2007-06-15 21:18  
Yes - I am sad to say that homophobia is a modern affliction.
24. 2007-06-17 09:52  
Check out the book by Dr. Bret Hinsch, "Passion of Cutsleeve, History of Chinese homosexuality" Bret is now teaching in Taiwan, reachable by email.


An excellent speaker
25. 2007-06-17 13:06  
Most of the known historical lovers have been portrayed as the weaker, pretty, almost (insinuated) feminine party. It is nice to know that men (like Han Wudi) used to like strong masculine men too.

Stories about lovers of equal standing and status also need to be unearthed to break the stereotype that gay relationships consist of one masculine and one feminine partner.
26. 2007-06-17 22:03  
Yes, thank you indeed for the article & publishing it! There is much to be picked up from history - in this case, it is evidence that homosexuality has always existed (even though we do not perpetuate our kind)... I find there is no better prove than this that:
1. homosexuality is part of nature; and,
2. the notion that if homosexuality were legally accepted, it would homosexuality to become widespread and lead to moral decay quite laugable.

Great stuff! Do keep it running! :o)
27. 2007-06-19 21:11  
Hmm...i also came by a fact that during thoe dynasties...Qin Dynasty...those famous eunuchs...or we call in extremely "RED" (cantonese) usually slept with the Emperor before...nw i guessed is a fact
28. 2007-06-20 16:01  
No wonder I have a strange feeling when I visited the Forbidden City and Summer Palace ....my be my previous life ...hehehe....

bravo on the articles ...again it only shows that the so called morality is poisoned by certain reilgious belief ...should culture give way to religious belief ? ( which is concocted by man's interpretation most of the time) ....lets celebrate !

Please log in to use this feature.

Select News Edition

Featured Profiles

Now ALL members can view unlimited profiles!


View this page in a different language:

Like Us on Facebook


 ILGA Asia - Fridae partner for LGBT rights in Asia IGLHRC - Fridae Partner for LGBT rights in Asia