The Homosexual Tradition in China:
Selections from Chinese Homosexual Literature
from Brett Hinsch, Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male
Homosexual Tradition in China, (Berkeley and Los Angeles:
University of California Press,1990)
1. Zhou Models: Mizi Xia, Pan Zhang and Lord Long
Discussion of homosexual behavior in Chinese literature referred
back to three classic tales of love from the Zhou period, the
Story of Mizi Xia, the Story of Pan Zhang, and the Story of Lord
The Story of Mizi Xia
As recorded in the Legalist philosophical work, the Han Fei
Zi [Hinsch p. 20-21- from Burton Watson, trans, Han Fei Tzu:
Basic Writings, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964),
In ancient times Mizi Xia won favor [chang] with the ruler
of Wei. According to the laws of the state of Wei, anyone who
secretly made use of the ruler's carriage was punished by having
his feet amputated. When Mizi Xia's mother fell ill, someone slipped
into the palace at night to report this to Mizi Xia. Mizi Xia
forged an order from the ruler, got into the ruler's carriage,
and went to see her, but when the ruler heard of it, he only praised
him, saying, "How filial! For the sake ofhis mother he forgot
all about the danger of having his feet cut off!" Another
day Mizi Xia was strolling with the ruler in an orchard and, biting
into a peach and finding it sweet, he stopped eating and gave
the remaining half to the ruler to enjoy. "How sincere is
your love for me!" exclaimed the ruler. "You forgot
your own appetite and think only of giving me good things to eat!"
Later, however, when Mizi Xia's looks had faded and the ruler's
passion for him had cooled, he was accused at committing some
crime against his lord. "After all," said the ruler,
"he once stole my carriage, and another time he gave me a
half-eaten peach to eat!" Mizi Xia was acting no differently
from the way he always had; the fact that he was praised in the
early days and accused of crime later on, was because the ruler's
love had turned hate.
If you gain the ruler's 1ove, your wisdom will be appreciated;
you will enjoy his favor as well; but if he hates you, not only
will your wisdom be rejected, but you will be regarded as a criminal
and thrust aside.... The beast called the dragon can be tamed
and trained to the point where you may ride on its back. But on
the underside of its throat it has scales a foot in diameter that
curl back from the body, and anyone who chances to brush against
them is sure to die. The ruler of men too has his bristling scales."
The Story of Pan Zhang
When Pan Zhang was young he had a beautiful [mei] appearance and
bearing, and so people of that time were exceedingly fond of him.
Wang Zhongxian of the state of Chu heard of his reputation and
came to request his writings. Thereafter Wang Zhongxian wanted
to study together with him. They fell in love at first sight and
were as affectionate as husband and wife, sharing the same coverlet
and pillow with unbounded intimacy for one another.
Afterwards they died together and everyone mourned them. When
they were buried together at Lofu Mountain, on the peak a tree
with long branches and leafy twigs suddenly grew. All of these
embraced one another! At the time people considered this a miracle.
It was called the "Shared Pillow Tree."'
The Story of Lord Long Yang
The King of Wei and Lord Long Yang shared a boat while fishing.
Lord Long Yang began to cry, so the King asked why he wept. "Because
I caught a fish." "But why does that make you cry?"
the king asked.
Lord Long Yang replied, "When I caught the fish, at first
I was extremely pleased. But afterward I saught a larger fish,
so I wanted to throw back the first fish I had caught. Because
of this eveil act I will be expelled from your bed!
"There are innumerable beauties in the world. Upon hearing
of my receiving your favor, surely they will left up the hems
of their robes so that they can hasten to you. I am laos a previously
caught fish! I will also be thrown back! How can I keep from crying?"
Because of this incident the King of Wei announced to the world
"Anyone who dares speak of other beauties will be executed
along with his whole family".
2. Han Favorites: Another Kind of Evidence
[Hinsch, 35-36] Just as Edward Gibbon observed that all
but one of the first 14 Roman emperors were either bisexual or
exclusively homosexual, for two centuires at the height of the
Han, China was ruled by ten openly bisexual emperors. The names
of the emperors, with their acknowledge favorites were recorded
in the official histories of the period by Sima Qian and Ban Gu.
The Ten Han Emperors [with "favorites"]
Emperor Gao r.206-195BCE and Jiru
Emperor Hui r.194-188BCE and Hongru
Emperor Wen r.179-141BCE and Deng Tong, and Zhao Tan, and Beigong
Emperor Jing r.156-141BCE and Zho Ren
Emperor Wu r.140-87BCE and Han Yan, and Han Yue, and Li Yannian
Emperor Zhao r.86-74BCE and Jin Shang
Emperor Xuan r.73-49BCE and Zhang Pengzu
Emperor Yuan r.48-33BCE and Hong Gong, and Shi Xian
Emperor Cheng r.32-7BCE and Zhang Fang, and Chunyu Zhang
Emperor Ai r.6BCE-1CE and Dong Xian
[Hinsch also notes that following emperors from later periods
also had open homosexual relationships]
Pei Kai 237-291
Yu Xin 513-581 and Wang Shao
Zhang Hanbian c.265-420 and Zhou Xiaoshi
Emperor Jianwen c.550
Emperor Xizong r.874-889 and Zhang Langgou
Emperor Wuzong r.1506-1522
Emperor Shenzong r.1573-1620
Emperor Xizong r.1621-1628
Emperor Pu Yi - the last Qing [Manchu] emperor
3. Homosexual Poetry from the Three Kingdoms and
Six Dynasties Period
The complexity of homosexual relationships inevitably led to the
creation of poetic works immortalizing conflicting sentiments. Ruan Ji (210- 263CE), lover of Xi Kang, was one of the
most famous poets to apply his brush to a homosexual theme. This
work, one of several dealing with homosexuality from the "Jade
Terrace" collection of love poetry, beautifully illustrates
the stock imagery on which men of his time could draw in conceptualizing
and describing love for another man.
In days of old there were many blossom boys --
An Ling and Long Yang.
Young peach and plum blossoms,
Dazzling with glorious brightness.
Joyful as nine springtimes;
Pliant as if bowed by autumn frost.
Roving glances gave rise to beautiful seductions;
Speech and laughter expelled fragrance.
Hand in hand they shared love's rapture,
Sharing coverlcts and bedclothes.
Couples of birds in flight,
Paired wings soaring.
Cinnabar and green pigments record a vow:
"I'll never forget you for all eternity. "
4. Western Shock and Horror at Chinese Homosexuality
Early western observers, such as the Jesuit Matthew Ricci long
noted the acceptance of homosexuality in China, but could do little
to change it. In modern China, however, homosexuality is looked
down on. Part of the reason for this was the huge impact made
by the West from the 19th century on. After the impact of Buddhism,
Western Science is the outside cultural force with the most impact
on Chinese culture. Until recent years the full weight of this
science depicted homosexuality as abnormal and evil.
Here is one British official's view from 1806
[Hinsch, 141, citing John Barrow, Travels in China,
(London: 1806) ]
The commission of this detestable and unnatural act is attended
with so little sense of shame, or feelings of delicacy that many
of the first officers of the state seemed to make no hesitation
in publicly avowing it. Each of these officers is constantly attended
by his pipe-bearer, who is generally a handsome boy, from fourteen
to eighteen yaers of age, and is always well dressed.
The very extensive tradition of male homosexual literature in
China was distinct from any discussion of Lesbianism. You might
consider reasons for this. There are occasional references to
Lesbianisn, collected by Hinsch [pages 173-178]. The subject also
comes up in the most famous Chinese novel, The Dream of the
Red Chamber [also known as The Story of the Stone.]
[Hinsch, 176-77 - ref. Cao Xuequin and Gao E, Story of
the Stone, (New York: Penguin, 1973-87), Vol 3: 375, 551-53]
"So who was she making the offering for?"
Parfumee's eyes reddened slightly and she sighed.
"Oh, Nenuphar is crazy "
"Why?" said Baoyu. "What do you mean?"
"It was for Pivoine," said Parfumee, "the girl
in our troupe who died."
"There's nothing crazy about that,'' said Baoyu, ''if they
were friends. ''
"Friend," said Parfumee, "They were more
than that. It was
Nenuphar's soppy ideas that started it all. You see, Nenuphar
is our Principal Boy and Pivoine always played opposite her as
Principal Girl. They became so accustomed to acting the part of
lovers on the stage, that gradually it came to seem real to them
and Nenuphar began carrying on as if they were really lovers.
When Pivoine died, Ninuphar cried herself into fits, and even
now she still thinks about her. That's why she makes offerings
to her on feast-days. When Etamine took over the roles that Pivoine
used to play, Nenuphar became just the same towards her. We even
teased her about it: 'Have you forgotten your old love then, now
that you've got yourself a new one?' But she said, 'No, I haven't
forgotten. It's like when a man loses his wife and remarries.
He can still be faithful to the first wife, as long as he keeps
her memory green.' Did you ever hear Anything so soppy in your
"Soppy" or whatever it was, there was a star in in Baoyu's
own nature which responded with a powerful mixture of emotions:
pleasure, sorrow, and an unbounded admiration for the little actress.