The existence of homosexuality in China has been well documented since ancient times. According to one study, homosexuality in China was regarded as a normal facet of life in China, prior to the Western impact of 1840 onwards. However, this has been disputed. Many early Chinese emperors are speculated to have had homosexual relationships, accompanied by heterosexual ones. Opposition to homosexuality, according to the study by Hinsch, did not become firmly established in China until the 19th and 20th centuries, through the Westernization efforts of the late Qing Dynasty and early Republic of China. On the other hand, Gulik’s influential study argued that the Mongol Yuan dynasty introduced a more ascetic attitude to sexuality in general. It is also argued that the classical Chinese were unable to express homosexuality in a coherent and empathetic manner.” Thus, it may remain for further research to determine the question of whether anti-gay attitudes in Modern China can be significantly attributed to the entrance of Western attitudes into China, or whether opposition was merely not expressed in a coherent manner. Either way, it is indisputable that homosexual sex was banned in the People’s Republic of China from at least the twentieth century, until it was legalized in 1997. In 2001, homosexuality was removed from the official list of mental illnesses in China.
Traditional views of homosexuality in China
The political ideologies, philosophies, and religions of ancient China regarded homosexual relationships as a normal facet of life, and in some cases, promoted homosexual relationships as exemplary. Ming Dynasty literature, such as Bian Er Chai (弁而釵/弁而钗), portrays homosexual relationships between men as enjoyable relationships. Writings from the Liu Song Dynasty claimed that homosexuality was as common as heterosexuality in the late 3rd century:
All the gentlemen and officials esteemed it. All men in the realm followed this fashion to the extent that husbands and wives were estranged. Resentful unmarried women became jealous.
Confucianism, being primarily a social and political philosophy, focused little on sexuality, whether homosexual or heterosexual. However, the ideology did emphasize male friendships, and Louis Crompton has argued that the “closeness of the master-disciple bond it fostered may have subtly facilitated homosexuality”. Although Taoist alchemy regarded heterosexual sex, without ejaculation, as a way of maintaining a male’s “life essence”, homosexual intercourse was seen as “neutral”, because the act has no detrimental or beneficial effect on a person’s life essence.
In a similar way to Buddhism, Taoist schools sought throughout history to define what would be sexual misconduct. Consequently, the literature of some schools included homosexuality as one of the forms of sexual misconduct, while others maintained neutrality.
Opposition to homosexuality in China rose in the medieval Tang Dynasty, being attributed by some writers to the influence of Christian and Islamic values, but did not become fully established until the late Qing Dynasty and the Republic of China. There exists a dispute among sinologists as to when negative views of homosexual relationships became prevalent among the general Chinese population, with some scholars arguing that it was common by the time of the Ming Dynasty, established in the 14th century, and others arguing that anti-gay attitudes became entrenched during the Westernization efforts of the late Qing Dynasty and the early Republic of China in the 19th and 20th centuries. Although rejection of homosexuality originating in the Tang Dynasty might also suggest Indian influences, given the fact that some Hindu and Buddhist literature disapproved of homosexuality.
The earliest law against a homosexual act dates from the Song Dynasty, punishing “young males who act as prostitutes.” The first statute specifically banning homosexual intercourse was enacted in the Jiajing era of the Ming Dynasty.
Lu Tongyin, author of Misogyny, Cultural Nihilism & Oppositional Politics: Contemporary Chinese Experimental Fiction, said “a clear-cut dichotomy between heterosexuality and homosexuality did not exist in traditional China”
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