Homosexuality in China : 余桃断袖

Initially, I’d very much assumed that in China, like many western countries, homosexuality was frowned upon, or seen as sinful and evil, at least until recent years. However much to my surprise, especially so in the earlier generations, homosexuality was seen as a very normal, and regular way of life in China. Homosexuality wasn’t frowned upon in China until the 19th and 20th century through the spread of westernisation and Christian and Islamic beliefs. In time it was banned in the People’s Republic of China, and only 15 years ago in 1997 was the ban lifted and legalised once more.


Homosexuality in China has been documented since ancient times. There have been many documented cases of high authorities and people such as emperor’s having one or more male sex partners, while also maintaining heterosexual relationships. Emperor Ai of the Han Dynasty was one such emperor who was very devoted to his male companion, stated that he “did not care for women”, he even tried to pass on the throne to his lover. Another was General Liang Ji, again of the Han Dynasty, who was happily married, but also owned a slave who was publicly acknowledged as a concubine.

Homosexuality was the norm back in these days, so cases weren’t taken much note of unless there were odd circumstances surrounding them – Emperor Ai was noted as he once cut off his sleeve that his lover was sleeping on as not to wake him, which was then imitated by many people in court leading to the expression “breaking the sleeve”, and expression for homosexuality, which was paired with an early story of an emperor sharing a peach with his lover “the leftover peach” to create “yútáo duànxiù” (余桃断袖), a term for refering to homsexuality in general. General Liang Ji’s case was noted because he was extremely devoted to his wife, and shared his slave with her in a 3-way sexual relationship, rather than having them both only aim to please him. Male prostitutes was also not unheard of, younger or poorer men would provide sexual services to a man in a higher power in return for a political advancement.


Marriage between males also came about in the province of Fujian. The older male would play the masculine role as an “adoptive older brother”, pay a price to the family of the younger man, virgins reportedly fetching higher prices, the younger man would be the “adoptive younger brother”. They would carry out the ceremony much like a regular wedding. The younger male would move in the older’s home and would become completely dependant on him. They would even possibly go on to raise adopted children. Marriages like these would last up to 20 years before they were both expected to marry women and carry on their family name.

There is not much documentation of relations between women in Chinese history, with most of the reason being that the role of women is not given much positive emphasis, and that it can only be assumed to have been a rare occurrence.

China would keep these very open views, and deem homosexuality the norm for years to come, until the west began advancing into their territory. It is highly argued that the influence of the west is the reason that China took on the view of the majority of the rest of the world – that homosexuality was unnatural and wrong.

From the 19th and 20th Century onward, homosexuality was banned up until 1997, however it was only removed from the Ministry of Health’s list of mental illnesses in 2001. Not much was known about the Communist Chinese governments official policies in regards to homosexuality prior to the 1980’s, however many were imprisoned and executed – whether for oppression or sexual identity is unknown but Mao was believed to have supported castration of “sexual deviants”. Even in the 1980’s the Chinese government treated homosexuality as a disease and would subject people to things like electric shock therapy  to change their orientation.


Today, homosexuality in both males and females is becoming much less taboo, or shunned as it was during the 19th and 20th century. It is increasingly becoming more widely accepted among Chinese people, though there are still some limiting factors such as gay movies being banned from being shown on TV or at the cinema. In Chinese countryside it’s still as heavily frowned upon as it was before, what with lack of internet, city lifestyle and breaking out from the traditional norms, homosexuality is, when spoken of, usually considered as a disease.


While widely more tolerated, many individuals are not inclined to “come out” to family or friends – to not marry and have a child is seen as largely disrespectful to their parents. Some also feel that revealing themselves will have an impact on their career. People who have come out to parents, and even those who have not but the parents know, often face the “don’t ask; don’t tell” attitude; if it’s not talked about it won’t/hasn’t happened, they will often bring up marriage and children even if they know their child is gay, which can lead to many cutting of a huge chunk of their life off from their family. Older generations maintain the heterosexual lifestyle and carrying on the family name and heritage, but newer generations are beginning to branch out and embrace themselves rather than cling on to age old ways.

More recently there has been a trend growing in China of gays marrying lesbians to lead the “heterosexual lifestyle” that their parents desire, but while also leading their own lives, rather than past generations of homosexuals who would simply marry and have children, and stay hidden about their sexuality forever. They believe in China that this is a “temporary fix” to deal with social and family pressures, because for some the cost is too high for them to come out.

Homosexuality, until the 19th century really didn’t seem to be any sort of issue in China at all, in all generations past. It’s only since the coming of the west and their religious beliefs, and possibly Mao, has China taken on the same  questionable stance as (most of) the rest of the world. Though with the silenced attitude of many older generations, violence against gays and lesbians isn’t as prominent as it is in countries like the USA. With the way things are now in China, especially so with the current younger generation, it can only be a matter of time before homosexuality is once again, nothing more than normality, and with equality for everyone.

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