June is a time for celebrating Pride Month, but while many establishments around the world are decked out in rainbows and members of the LGBT+ community are free to be as loud and proud as they want, it’s a very different case in China.
China is not exactly the most LGBT-friendly country. It decriminalized homosexuality in 1997 and officially removed it from the list of mental disorders in 2001. Although these may seem like significant developments, whatever progress China made towards the acceptance of the LGBT+ community was hindered when Xi Jinping rose to power. The Chinese President has always been particularly unwelcoming of “Western influence”, and for the most part, homosexuality is regarded as a Western concept. This is why the LGBT+ community has become a target of the government’s crackdown.
The crackdown has been gaining traction in the last two years. Shanghai Pride, China’s biggest Pride Month celebration, has been on hiatus since 2021 due to government pressure and negative attention. WeChat has been shutting down LGBT+ accounts with no explanation. In addition, the state media has also resorted to using slurs such as “sissy men” to condemn effeminate men and prevent them from appearing in the entertainment industry. While this might not be a direct attack on the LGBT+ community, the fact that the government is shaming men who do not conform to gender norms is a big enough red flag. And of course, there is also the widespread censorship that prevents the LGBT+ from being represented in mainstream media.
Despite the government’s negative attitude towards the LGBT+, the boy’s love dramas have ironically become one of China’s soft powers. There isn’t exactly a shortage of boy’s love content in China, as there are thousands of boy’s love webnovels available online. This particular genre is called Danmei, and it has attracted legions of fans who are willing to delve deep into China’s state-regulated web just to find them. Two of the most well-known Danmei authors would arguably be Mo Xiang Tong Xiu and Priest, who wrote the source material to the internationally-popular dramas The Untamed and Word of Honor respectively.
While the webnovels are able to explicitly portray the romance between two male characters, the same cannot be achieved by the show adaptations without getting in trouble with China’s censorship board. These relationships are instead rewritten as friendships, wherein the two male leads would refer to each other as soulmates (or bosom friend, which sounds like a hilarious way to friendzone someone). However, the romance aspect is still conveyed through sustained eye contact, intimate gestures, and blatant symbolism, which would often lead viewers to wonder how some scenes managed to pass the censorship.
One common symbolism is the “cutsleeve” or duàn xiù (断袖), which is a euphemism that describes gay relationships in China. While this word cutsleeve is never spoken out loud in the dramas, it is portrayed through gestures like making subtle scissoring motions on a character’s sleeve or literally cutting off another character’s sleeve. The term cutsleeve originated from Emperor Ai (born Liú Xīn 刘欣) of the Han Dynasty, and the story attached to it actually reveals a lot about China’s attitude towards homosexual relationships 2000 years ago.
According to Vincent E. Gil, a medical anthropologist, China had a “long history of homosexuality.” Not only was homosexuality accepted, it was also widely practiced among upper-class families. This is mostly because marriage used to be regarded as a union between families rather than a matter of love, so men were allowed to seek love from other people regardless of their gender, so long as they fulfill their duties of getting married and having children. The stigma against homosexuality only began during the Song Dynasty due to the influence of Buddhism and the homophobic laws imposed by the Monguls and the Manchus.
There are records of homosexual relationships that date as far back as the Zhou Dynasty, but it was the Han Dynasty that had the most number of emperors with male lovers. Emperor Ai was one of them, and while he was not the greatest or most competent emperor, he will forever be remembered in history as the originator of the word cutsleeve.
Emperor Ai had a male favorite named Dǒng Xián (董贤), who was described as “soft, gentle, and good at charming people.” He caught Ai’s attention when he was serving as the private secretary of the Crown Prince, and once he gained Ai’s Favor, he was later promoted to Prime Minister and Supreme Commander of the Army. Ai never tried to hide the fact that he favored Dǒng. He would hear no words spoken against his lover, and would imprison or demote those who questioned Dǒng’s sudden rise to power.
Emperor Ai and Dǒng Xián would often be found in bed together, and there was one day when Dǒng fell asleep on the Emperor’s sleeve. Not wanting to wake him, Ai cut off his sleeve and got up to attend a meeting. When the minsters saw this, they started a fashion trend and cut off their own sleeves to honor the love and devotion between Emperor Ai and Dǒng Xián.
Unlike other emperors who had male lovers, Ai never married or had children, but Dǒng Xián did. When Ai was on his deathbed, he declared that Dǒng Xián would succeed him as emperor, however, the order was ignored the moment Ai breathed his last breath. Without the support of his lover, Dǒng was stripped of all his powers, and he and his wife were pressured to kill themselves. It is said that when the people found out about Dǒng Xián’s death, they cut off their sleeves as a symbol of mourning.
The story of Emperor Ai and Dǒng Xián is just one among the many gay relationships in Chinese history, and unlike Western scholars who seem determined to interpret any form of male closeness as intimate friendships, Chinese scholars openly wrote about the relationship between the emperors and their male lovers. It’s a bit sad to see a country that used to be so accepting of homosexual relationships be so averse to it now, but given China’s rich history of same-sex relationships as well as the soft power of Danmei dramas and the fans’ appetite for queer content, there may still be hope that the LGBT+ community would eventually be wholeheartedly accepted rather than merely tolerated in China.
Watch this video if you want to know more about the Han Dynasty’s bisexual emperors.