In a recent interview which made headlines locally and internationally, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore talked about there being "no option" for Singapore but to be part of the world and decriminalise gay sex. He made reference to how an article on homosexuality in the recent issue of CAM, the Cambridge Alumni Magazine, had influenced him in arriving at this conclusion. That article led with the blurb: "Civil partnerships between same-sex couples have been on the British statute book for fifteen months. But in Cambridge, discovers Graeme Grant, gay love has been openly acknowledged for almost 400 years."
If an English university being in the lead for 400 years openly acknowledging gay love is good reason for an Asian country like Singapore to reconsider its criminalisation of homosexuality, what about 2,000 years of Chinese history where gay love is not only openly acknowledged, but celebrated? Modern homophobia has often censored this important chapter of Chinese history and culture.
Fridae columnist Tan Chong Kee, who holds a Ph.D. in Chinese Literature from Stanford University in the United States, takes readers through the history of same-sex love in China from The Warring States to the Ming and Qing Dynasties during which the country allowed European Christian missionaries to enter and became exposed to European influences and power. Part 1 of 2.
(Image above shows young men sipping tea and having sex. Individual panel from a hand scroll, paint on silk; China, Qing Dynasty [eighteenth to nineteenth centuries]; Kinsey Institute, Bloomington, Indiana, United States)
The Warring States (841 B.C. - 221 B.C.) 战国
Writing during this period, the philosopher Mo Tzu (墨子) discusses at length his misgivings about the rulers of his time. He admonishes these rulers for using their relatives and "handsome men" as court officials, leading to the mismanagement of the state. (1) It is important to note that he is not talking about one specific ruler but makes a general statement about "the kings and lords of today". Mo Tzu is not against same-sex love just as he is not against family ties. What he objects to is the practice of nepotism and favoritism, which, he notes, is widespread. Through Mo Tzu, we have a glimpse of how prevalent same-sex love was among the Chinese rulers, as early as 841 - 221 B.C.
To illustrate, let us look at the history of the state of Yu (虞). Many might have heard the story of Xi Shi (西施), one of the most beautiful women in Chinese history, which the King of Yue (越) used to distract the King of Wu (吳), paving the way to the eventual conquest of Wu. During this same historical period, the lord of Jing (晋) wanted to invade Yu (虞) but the lord of Yu had a wise counsel helping him to thwart Jing's plans. So the lord of Jing gave the lord of Yu a present of a beautiful man. The lord of Yu became so enamored with this beautiful man that he refused to listen to his counsel. Seizing this opportunity, Jing invaded and annexed Yu. (2)
The important lesson to draw from this story is that the lord of Yu's love for beautiful men was generally known in the "international circle" of the time. There was no need to hide because there was stigma. Furthermore, it was diplomatically appropriate to present the ruler of another state with either a male of female concubine. Not only does this story illustrate what Mo Tzu says, it also underscores the fact that since the earliest days of Chinese civilisation, the love for men was a common feature of the ruling elites.
Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) 汉朝
Sima Qian (司馬遷) wrote the first dynastic history in the Han Dynasty (史记) and his work sets the format which all subsequent official histories were written. It is very revealing that Sima Qian reserved a special chapter (佞幸列传) to document the history of the Han emperors' male lovers, and thanks to this precedent, we have inherited a rich official history of imperial male love throughout Chinese history.
Of the 25 emperors of Han, 10 of them are well known to have male lovers. Of these love affairs, the one between Emperor Ai and a beautiful ephebe, Dong Xian, was so deep that it became the reference for male same-sex love for thousands of years. Even today, among literary circle, male homosexuality is referred to as the "passion of the cut sleeve" (断袖之恋). For more than 2,000 years same-sex love between men in China had as one of their archetypes this love affair of Emperor Ai, an older high status man, with Dong Xian, a beautiful younger man, rather similar to the form same-sex love took in ancient Greece.
Another archetype of Chinese male love can be found in the love affair between Han Wudi (汉武帝) and Han Yan (韩嫣). Han Wudi is one of the greatest emperors of China. He became emperor at the age of 16 and ruled until his death at age 70. Under his reign, China became the most powerful kingdom in the ancient world, and because of him, Chinese people to this day refer to themselves as the Han people. Just to list some of his achievement, Han Wudi declared January as the beginning of the year and this decision is still in effect to this day (before that, Chinese New Year was celebrated at different months of the year - similar to how Vietnamese and Malay New Years in our present time fall on different dates). He also created an imperial examination system to select able scholars as mandarins, setting in motion the system of imperial examinations that governed China for the next 2,000 years. With his military might and diplomatic skills, he established the Silk Route, ensuring commerce and cultural exchange between East and West for centuries to come. He united all the currencies of the Warring States and created the first centralised imperial mint. Every single one of these achievements has profoundly affected the world.
And this most admired emperor in all Chinese history was in love with another man. Han Wudi met Han Yan when they were both young princes. Yan was the grandson of the King of Han (韩). Wudi and Yan studied together and grew to love each other. Yan was no pretty boy. According to Sima Qian, Yan was "eight feet and five inches tall", translated into modern height measurement, it would be about 1.8 to 2 meters, which makes him a towering figure in the ancient world where people were much shorter than we are today. Yan is also skilled in equestrian and archery, and familiar with the battle tactics of the Northern huntsmen. That made Han Wudi loved him even more since he wanted to declare war on these people to secure his Northern borders. Yan was the only man (as opposed to eunuchs) allowed to freely come and go in the imperial palace and spent many a nights in the imperial bed.
Unfortunately Yan let his position in court go to his head. One day, during an imperial hunting expedition, Han Wudi asked Yan to first go ahead. Han Wudi's brother, the King of Jiangdu saw the imperial carriage from afar and thought it was the emperor, so he got off his horse and knelt by the road side to greet him. Yan did not even stop to acknowledge the King of Jiangdu. When the King realized it wasn't his brother in the carriage, he was infuriated with the snub from someone of a lower rank. He told their mother about the incident and the old Empress bore a grudge against Yan. When she eventually got hold of evidence that Yan was also sleeping with the emperor's female concubines, she ordered his death. Han Wudi pleaded with his mother to rescind the order but she refused. We are not witnessing sexual prudishness here. Sleeping with the emperor's female concubine is a very serious offence because it throws into question the imperial lineage. If one cannot be sure whether a son born to a female concubine is really the emperor's son, how can the next emperor be chosen? Yan's infraction hits at the foundation of dynastic rule, no wonder the old Empress knew she could use that to put the emperor's favorite male lover to death. But it is also the most telling sign of how much Wudid loved Yan - in the face of his own imperial lineage being thrown into doubt, he pleaded for Yan and was inconsolable at his death. It was as if he did not care whether it was his son or Yan's son who will succeed him as emperor. In fact, after Yan's death, Wudi asked Yan's brother, who looked very much like Yan, to be his next male companion.
The love story between Han Wudi and Han Yan was well-known among Chinese literati through out Chinese history and can be considered another archetype of Chinese male love: one between two equally masculine and martial men. We can see echoes of this archetype in the Ming dynasty novel "The Water Margin" (水滸傳) where bandits and swordsmen formed a tightly knit brotherhood that placed the love between each other high above their love for their wives.
1 墨子。尚贤中：今王公大人，有一衣裳不能制也，必藉良工。。。迨至其国家之乱，社稷之 危，则不知使能以治之，亲戚则使之，无故富贵面目姣好则使之。
2 战国策。秦策：晋献公欲伐虞，荀息献计，赠之美男，始虞侯喜美男而恶宫之奇。宫之奇以柬 而不听，遂亡。因而伐虞，遂取之。
Part 2 can be read here.
Dr Tan Chong Kee holds a Ph.D. in Chinese Literature from Stanford University in the United States and is one of Singapore's best-known figures in civil society activism.