Today, we’re traveling to Ancient China with the guidance of Howard Chiang, an Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Davis. Professor Chiang is the editor of Sexuality in China: Histories of Power and Pleasure, and he was kind enough to walk me through several thousand years of Chinese queer history––no easy task!
In his graduate studies, Professor Chiang noticed a lack of scholarship in the history of sexuality in China, particularly in the realm of queer history. “There’s a heteronormative assumption that queerness didn’t exist in China,” he explained. “And that’s simply not true. The presence of queers everywhere and anytime is perhaps the most mundane and boring fact of life. What makes the study of history interesting is to think about how we analyze that fact of life.”
We discussed several difficulties he encountered in researching China’s queer history. To start, there’s no word in Chinese that literally translates to sexuality. “It wasn't a category that Chinese people have always thought of as a natural marker across time,” said Chiang. “There hasn’t been a concerted effort to preserve the documents relating to the history of Chinese sexuality in an official archival holding in the way there are in other countries.”
Despite these challenges, references to same-sex desire have been around for thousands of years. The earliest records come from the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BC), a period associated with the birth of Chinese philosophies, like Confucianism, legalism, and Daoism.
The Classic of Poetry 詩經, one of the Five Classics said to have been compiled by Confucius, has hints of romance between men. “Some of the poems contain gender-ambiguous pronouns when referring to a ‘good-looking person’ (meiren 美人). Originally, scholars thought this meant ‘beautiful woman,’ but later they’ve pointed out that it actually means ‘beautiful human.’ You also get these accounts of very masculine, virile warriors sharing clothes with each other, talking about being intimate with one another.”
In the later Zhou dynasty, stories of emperors and their “male favorites” provide more explicit examples of same-sex desire. Perhaps the most famous is concerned with what historians later characterize as “The Passion of the Cut Sleeve.” Written in the second century CE, it tells the story of Emperor Ai 哀 and his “male favorite,” Dong Xian 董賢. “The two were sleeping together during the daytime and Dong Xian was stretched out across Emperor Ai’s sleeve,” Chiang explained. “Instead of waking his beloved, he chose to cut off his sleeve in order to get up.” The image of a cut sleeve has since become an enduring symbol of same-sex love in Chinese culture.
The study of love between women, meanwhile, presents a particular challenge to queer scholars of Chinese history. “A lot of the sources that we have are routed through the lens of men,” Chiang told me. “It’s a limitation that women's historians have tried very hard to overcome. To read between the lines but also to look out for what were they trying to say, through poems and songs, and the texts they leave behind.”
With this lens, love between women isindeed visible in Chinese literature. One of the most famous examples comes from the Chinese comedy play, Lian Xiang Ban 憐相伴 (The Fragrant Companion), written by playwright Li Yu in 1651. The story follows two women who, after falling for each other, convince one of their husbands to take the other woman as a concubine. “This stirred up a great deal of anxiety,” said Chiang. “The concubine’s father really resisted this arrangement, because it was clearly a way for the two women to be together for the rest of their lives. They were utilizing the Confucian norm of marriage to subvert it.”
Chiang elaborated on the relationship between queerness and Confucianism: “It’s complicated,” he said. “Confucianism can mean different things to different people. But I think it’s safe to say that, in a nutshell, same-sex desire is often considered to be the antithesis of Confucianism.”
“According to Confucianist principles, it's very important for one to bring a son to the family to carry on the patrilineal, patriarchal family line.” He cited China’s one-child policy, overturned in 2015, as an instance of how many Chinese families sought to perpetuate this tradition.
“These assumptions are all very problematic, by the way,” he added. “But there are certain East Asian societies that will use Confucianism as a bedrock of promoting certain kinds of political conservatism. They'll say that gayness and queerness are simply imported from the outside. This can easily lead to the conclusion that if these things are not from within, they need to be suppressed.”
A few examples of queer erasure have appeared in the last few years. Shanghai Pride, the only Pride festival in mainland China, was canceled with no indication of its return. Recently, the Chinese government began closing WeChat accounts for LGBT associations at universities, and administrators circulated a troubling survey to gather information from students who identify as queer at Shanghai University. “One can imagine that none of this will lead to anything positive,” warned Chiang.
Chinese conceptions of gender have always allowed for a certain sense of ambivalence. “In traditional China, separate spheres and segregation of sex roles are very obvious and rigid,” said Chiang. “But it’s precisely because of these rigid demarcations that we see examples over and over again of subjects who try to transgress their gendered sense of self.”
One of those exceptions is the history of the word renyao 人妖. Ren means “man” and yao means “monster.” In the 3rd century B.C., the word referred to a “freak” or a “human anomaly,” but it evolved to indicate gender transgression. “Throughout Chinese history, the two meanings of the term coexisted, but in the early 20th century, the meaning of gender-crossing took precedence,” explained Chiang. Since the 1950s, renyao has almost exclusively referred to someone in the trans community in China. The history of the concept is discussed in Chiang’s recent book, Transtopia in the Sinophone Pacific.
I concluded our interview by asking about the future of research into the history of sexuality in China. “The historical study of non-normative gender and sexuality has long been—and continues to be—marginalized in Sinology. It’s unfortunate because it gives the impression that the history of East Asian civilization is dull and boring, not sexy.”
“But, things may be different,” he added. “I think researchers are now ready to be more open-minded and are more capable of entertaining diverse theoretical approaches to studying history.” With the efforts of historians like Chiang, we can certainly expect to keep learning more about China’s vibrant queer history.
Want to learn more? Check out Professor Chiang’s Books: