Prior to the spread of Western influence in China, it was heavily speculated that homosexuality had been—at the very least—widely tolerated throughout the country, as evidenced by several samples of literature and folklore. It should not be a surprise then that there have been several legends of a similar nature that have been passed down from history.
Here are three legends and myths to quickstart our introduction to ancient Chinese homosexuality:
1. The Tale of the Rabbit God
The Tale of the Rabbit God, written by Qing Dynasty poet Yuan Mei (袁枚), detailed the life of an official named Hu Tianbao (胡天保) in 18th-century China.
Hu Tianbao once fell in love with a very handsome and young imperial inspector from the province of Fujian. Due to the latter’s higher status, Hu Tianbao was reluctant in expressing his affections and chose to watch the inspector from a distance. However, he was one day caught peeping on the inspector through a bathroom wall and confessed his feelings as a result, only to be beaten to death as punishment.
One month after his death, Hu Tianbao appeared in the dream of a man from his hometown, claiming that since the officials of the underworld had recognized his crime was one of love, he was to be appointed as a god who presided over and safeguarded the affairs of homosexual affections and relations. Hu Tianbao then asked the man to erect a shrine for him.
Though the story does not actually refer to rabbits, rabbits were seen as a slang term for homosexuals at the time. As a result, Hu Tianbao became popular in Fujian as Tu’Er Shen (兔兒神, The Rabbit God).
2. The Passion of the Cut Sleeve
This particular story was set during the Han Dynasty when bisexuality was a norm and it was not unusual for the emperor to take on male companions.
According to legend, Emperor Ai, a historical figure known to be the most effusive homosexual emperor of the dynasty, was once enjoying an afternoon nap while wearing a traditional long-sleeved robe. Dong Xian (董賢), his lover, was said to have been laying on one of his sleeves when Emperor Ai woke. Because of his tender affections towards the other, Emperor Ai did not want to disturb Dong Xian’s rest. Instead of waking his lover, the emperor decided to cut off the sleeve of his robe, so that Dong Xian may sleep without interruption.
Because of this story, “cut sleeve” has been known to be a term referring to a homosexual man.
3. The Bitten Peach
Set around 500 BC, this story focused on Mi Zixia (弥子瑕), a beautiful man who became a favored courtesan of Duke Ling of Wei. The affection between them was known to be detailed by two stories:
Firstly, it was said that Mi Zixia’s mother fell ill. Upon receiving the news, Mi Zixia immediately forged the Duke’s signature to use a ducal carriage to see her. While this crime was usually punishable by the amputation of the thief’s feet, the Duke did not offer any rebuke and instead praised Mi Zixia for his filial piety and devotion to his family.
During the second story, while walking alongside the Duke in an orchard, Mi Zixia reached out to pluck a peach and bit into it. Delighted by its sweetness, Mi Zixia gave the remaining half to the Duke, who afterward praised him, “How sincere is your love for me! You forgot your appetite and thought only of giving me good things to eat!
Though these two instances portrayed a sweet romance between the two, the tale eventually details that the Duke’s love for Mi Zixia faded along with the latter’s beauty. Mi Zixia was later accused of committing crimes against the Duke for the very things he was praised for—stealing the ducal carriage and insulting the Duke by offering an already half-eaten peach.
However, despite the bitter ending, Mi Zixia’s tale and the symbol of the bitten peach became widely popular and often used as literary allusions to homosexuality.
Hinsch, Bret. Passions of the Cutsleeve.
Ho, Yi. “Taoist homosexuals turn to the Rabbit God.” Taipei Times.