In the last years BCE, Emperor Ai was enjoying a daytime nap. He was in his palace, in Chang’an (now Xi’an, China), hundreds of miles inland, wearing a traditional long-sleeved robe. Lying on one of his sleeves was a young man in his 20s, Dong Xian, also asleep. So tender was the emperor’s love for this man that, when he had to get up, instead of waking his lover, he cut off the sleeve of his robe.
This story of the cut sleeve spread throughout the court, leading the emperor’s courtiers to cut one of their own sleeves as tribute. The tale’s influence outlived its time, producing the Chinese term “the passion of the cut sleeve,” a euphemism for intimacy between two men.
The Han Heydey
Emperor Ai was far from the only Chinese emperor to take a male companion openly. In fact, a majority of the emperors of the western Han dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE) had both male companions and wives.
The historian Bret Hinsch asserts in Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China that all ten emperors who ruled over the first two centuries of the Han dynasty were “openly bisexual,” with Ai being the tenth. They each had a “male favorite” who is listed in the Records of the Grand Historian (the “Shiji”) and the Book of Han (the “Hanshu”).
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Hinsch quotes the Shiji: “Those who served the ruler and succeeded in delighting his ears and eyes, those who caught their lord’s fancy and won his favor and intimacy, did so not only through the power of lust and love; each had certain abilities in which he excelled.”
Sima Qian, the author of the Shiji, who also wrote “The Biographies of the Emperors’ Male Favorites,” continues (as quoted by Hinsch): “It is not women alone who can use their looks to attract the eyes of the ruler; courtiers and eunuchs can play that game as well. Many were the men of ancient times who gained favor this way.”
Emperor Gao favored Jiru. Emperor Hui favored Hongru. Emperor Jing, Zhou Ren. And Emperor Zhao, Jin Shang. These rulers were also married to women, but their male companions were important parts of their lives as well. Thanks to detailed records that have survived two millenia, we know that these favorites received great privilege and power in exchange for their intimacy.
Ai bestowed Dong Xian with the highest titles and ten thousand piculs of grain per year. Everyone in Dong Xian’s family benefitted from the emperor’s patronage; Dong Xian’s father was named the marquis of Guannei and everyone in Dong Xian’s household, including his slaves, received money. Dong Xian and his wife and children were all moved inside the imperial palace grounds to live with Emperor Ai and his wife.
A Time of Acceptance
According to medical anthropologist Vincent E. Gil, writing in the Journal of Sex Research, China had “a long history of dynastic homosexuality” before the Revolution of 1949, with “courtly love among rulers and subjects of the same sex being elevated to noble virtues.” He says that the surviving literature from that time period in China “indicates that homosexuality was accepted by the royal courts and its custom widespread among the nobility.”
Writing in the Journal of the History of Sexuality, James D. Seymour agrees that relationships between men were “widely accepted and sometimes formalized by marriage,” adding that “almost all of the emperors of the last two centuries B.C. had ‘male favorites.’”
There is evidence of same-sex love even before the Han dynasty. The Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BCE) produced two of its own legends that led to turns of phrase that lasted thousands of years—like the cut sleeve. Han Fei wrote of Mizi Xia, a man who sought the love of Duke Ling of Wei, who lived from 534 BCE to 493 BCE. As quoted in Passions of the Cut Sleeve:
Another day Mizi Xia was strolling with the ruler in an orchard and, biting into a peach and finding it sweet, he stopped eating and gave the remaining half to the ruler to enjoy. “How sincere is your love for me!” exclaimed the ruler. “You forgot your own appetite and think only of giving me good things to eat!”
While the duke later turned on Mizi Xia, this vignette led to both “the bitten peach” and “Mizi Xia” becoming catchphrases referring to gay love in Chinese.
Another story that has lasted through the ages is that of the “Shared Pillow Tree.” Hinsch quotes Lin Zaiqing’s Chengzhai zaji’s story of the love between two men, Wang Zhongxian and Pan Zhang: “They fell in love at first sight and were as affectionate as husband and wife, sharing the same coverlet and pillow with unbounded intimacy for one another.” The tale continues that they died together and were buried together on a mountain where a tree grew. The tree’s branches “embraced one another” and the people “considered this a miracle.”
Western visitors to China over the centuries were shocked (and appalled) over what Portuguese Friar Gaspar da Cruz called “a filthy abomination [that the Chinese] are so given to” in his Treatise of China in 1569. Another sixteenth century Portuguese traveler to China, Galeote Pereira, reported in Certain Reports of the Province of China that “the greatest fault we do find is sodomy, a vice very common.”
But China was not alone in its acceptance of bisexuality. While Europe’s Christianity promoted homophobia (along with sexism and racism), much of the rest of the world celebrated a diversity of ways to love, to present gender, and to have sex in precolonial times. Bisexuality was not only the norm in China, but across much of Asia, reaching the edge of Europe. Conquerors like Alexander the Great and Roman emperors like Nero are among other ancient examples of rulers who had intimate relationships with both men and women.
Hinsch asserts that “not only was male love accepted, but it permeated the fabric of upper-class life” during Emperor Ai’s time. Since marriage was divorced from romance in this culture and time period, and primarily represented the union of two families, “a husband was free to look elsewhere for romantic love and satisfying sex. Even in the ancient period, we see men who maintained a heterosexual marriage and a homosexual romance without apparently seeing any contradiction between the two.”
An Incomplete Story
Women’s history, however, was rarely recorded, and when it was, it would not have included the private lives of the masses. “We can find references to ‘paired eating’ between women in the Han dynasty in China,” Leila J. Rupp writes in the Journal of the History of Sexuality, suggesting that the phrase was likely a reference to cunnilingus. Hinsch also mentions, in Passions of the Cut Sleeve, that Ying Shao (who lived from approximately 140 to 206 AD) wrote, “When palace women attach themselves as husband and wife it is called dui shi,” and that “dui shi” translates to “paired eating.” Women’s sexuality is often suppressed in the historical record, and this one phrase is one of the only references we have to sex or love between women in ancient China.
By contrast, recorded relationships between two men in late imperial China (over a thousand years after the Han dynasty) seem to have often been constructed like Ai’s and Dong’s: one man had the upper hand in power and influence. “Most of the available historical data from traditional Chinese sources suggest that male-male sexual relationships often took place between members of the social elite and their ‘junior’ partners of lower social status,” explains the Chinese literature professor Martin W. Huang (also in the Journal of the History of Sexuality).
Kam Louie that Male-male relationships may not have been confined to exchanges of power from wealthy rulers to humble peasants. As Kam Louie pointed out in a 1999 article on sexuality, masculinity, and politics in Chinese culture: “Other, less visible, relationships may involve more profound emotions and feelings, but are often overlooked in discussions of male intimacy.”
It’s highly unlikely that the historical record captures the full scope of same-sex sexual behavior in the era. How might we know of a secret sexual relationship between two peasants who didn’t know how to write a diary and were never caught? It’s almost impossible that we would.
When Emperor Ai died in 1 BCE, he wanted to leave the kingdom to his beloved Dong Xian. Unfortunately, the court considered this display of favoritism one step too far. They ignored the emperor’s deathbed decree and forced Dong Xian and his wife to kill themselves. It was the end of the Western Han dynasty.
The Chinese politics scholar James D. Seymour argues that serious homophobia didn’t seem to appear in China until the Song dynasty (founded in 960):
During the Song dynasty there was the popular rediscovery of a sixth-century Indian Buddhist text that condemned homosexuality. Later there were the draconian law codes imposed on China by the Mongols and the Manchus, which made homosexuality and certain other forms of extramarital sex serious criminal offenses.
In the thirteenth century, China was occupied by Genghis Khan, who outlawed sodomy (see the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies for more). Anti-LGBTQ+ laws continued for centuries, until the turn of the millennium, when many countries around the world began softening their stance on LGBTQ+ sex and love. Sodomy was legalized in China in 1997, and homosexuality was removed from its DSM in 2001. These changes may seem very recent, but in the U.S. sodomy was only decriminalized in 2003, with the Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas, while homosexuality was removed from the American DSM in 1973.
While twenty-first century Europe was the worldwide leader in modern LGBTQ+ rights, it was arguably the worst offender of anti-LGBTQ+ bias and laws in antiquity. It was places like China that first accepted queerness, recording it in their history, though slower to adopt equality and cultural acceptance in modern times. Cut sleeves, bitten peaches, and pillow trees may be legends of centuries ago, but they are still part of the global story of queer pride.