When Chinese sociologist and sexologist Li Yinhe pushed for the legalisation of same-sex marriage to China’s top political advisory body in 2005, she was told in response: ‘China is not ready’. However, it might be a surprise to many of us, who have only seen China’s government policy on homosexuality as ‘don’t support, don’t ban, don’t promote’, that China has a 5,000-year history of accepting homosexuality in various forms.
For over 5,000 years, homosexuality has been recorded in Chinese history, starting with the earliest record of luang fuen being used to describe homosexuality in texts from the Shang Dynasty era. It has been found that throughout Ancient Chinese history, Emperors such as Duke Ling of Wei and Mi Zixia had male sex partners alongside female partners. As exemplified, Chinese historian Sima Qian states:
One of the most iconic examples of this, is Emperor Ai of the Han Dynasty and his male lover Don Xian. They spurred the idiomatic term for homosexuality duanxiu zhi pi (meaning the “passion of the cut sleeve“). This derived from the tale where the emperor carefully cut off his sleeve so as not to awake Don Xian, who had fallen asleep on top of it.
It is not women alone who can use their looks to attract the eyes of the ruler; courtiers and eunuchs can play at that game as well. Many were the men of ancient times who gained favour this way.
Over time, Western and Central Asia developed a growing influence on sexuality in China. This started during the rise of the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD), whereby female companions to imperial courts gained political powers while imperial courts held declining power to scholarly-bureaucrats. Thus, the first negative term for homosexuality “jijian”, connoting illicit sexuality, appeared.
The Song Dynasty (960-1279AD) was the last dynasty to have official records of male companions. During this era there were further Central Asian influences, such as Indian Buddhism which condemned sexuality, increasing urbanisation that monetised all forms of sexuality, and the implementation of the first law against male prostitutes.
During the Self-Strengthening Movement of c.1861-1895, Western influences of homophobia catalysed the condemnation of homosexual traditions. This was because Western homophobia was imported to China along with Western science and philosophy as a part of institutional reforms by the late Qing Dynasty after the military disasters of the Opium Wars.
Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, although it was unclear whether LGBT+ people were specifically targeted for oppression due to their sexuality, it has been reported that Chairman Mao Zedong believed in the sexual castration of “sexual deviants”. Furthermore, under the Cultural Revolution, many aspects of Chinese tradition (including sexuality) were renounced for modernity, exacerbated by westernisation such as the rhetoric of tongxinglianbing or “homosexuality illness” from Western psychiatry.
“Like heterosexuals, China’s gays and lesbians have benefited from the retreat of the communist state from the puritanism that Mao forced on everyone except himself, and the official attitude that homosexuality was a ‘mouldering lifestyle of capitalism’.” – Australian journalist and author Hamish McDonald.
In 1997, homosexuality was decriminalised in China, and according to The Guardian it’s estimated that 5% (or 70 million) of China’s population is LGBT+. However, with China’s high value of Confucius’ Doctrine of the Mean (Zhong Yong), a culture of “don’t ask, don’t tell” has developed. Yet public silence towards the LGBT community doesn’t mean tolerance, as exemplified by same-sex marriage remaining illegal, the disownment of homosexuals by their families, and the need for some lesbians and gays to participate in fake marriages (Xinghun) to fulfill filial duties.