China – Gay Emperors, Cut Sleeves and Jesuit Priests
For those Portuguese Catholic missionaries who set up shop in Macau, China was always the prize. Its population was closing in on 200 million – vastly more than all of Europe’s 70 million. But why Macau? It was just a tiny territory, a small peninsula linked to the mainland and two small islands. I can only guess because it was one of the furthest points from Beijing, the centre of the Middle Kingdom as the Chinese called their country. The Chinese thoroughly disliked all foreign barbarians and would no doubt have much preferred they merely disappeared. For whatever reason, in 1557 China entered into an agreement with Portugal to lease Macau for an annual payment of nearly 19 kg in gold.
In his book “A Hidden Love: Art and Homosexuality”, Dominique Fernandez makes many interesting observations about sex in China. It had, he claims, “a glorious erotic culture, largely but by no means exclusively heterosexual.” Long before Christ appeared in the Middle East, it was far from unusual for Princes and Ministers at the Emperor’s court to retain young men for their pleasure. In the fourth century BC a courtier named Long Yang-jun was offering such special services that Long Yang became a literary term for homosexuality. Even today, he is commemorated in international Long Yang Clubs – although it is doubtful if present members possess his obviously quite amazing erotic skills!
Emperors around this time sometimes had concubines of both sexes. Emperor Wu Ti (146 – 87 BC) surrounded himself with young guys and even engaged in the occasional ménage a trois with two of his favourites. A tale often told concerns the tenth Han Dynasty Emperor Ai Ti (6 – 1 BC) who had numerous male lovers. Sharing his couch with his favourite Dong Xian, the young man fell asleep across the Emperor’s sleeve. Rather than wake him, the Emperor took his sword and simply cut off the royal sleeve.
From then on, “cut sleeve” (tuan-hsui) became just one of many terms that appear throughout China’s literary history as a euphemism for homosexual love and devotion. Later, in the fifth century one of the emperors during the Liu-Sung Dynasty, 15-year old Liu Ziye, became famous for his orgies with men and the eunochs who served the Court. Even as late as the 18th century, the book “Passions of the Cut Sleeve” outlines the fifty most famous cases of love between men in China. These and many other tales illustrate a far more universal and unselfconscious acceptance of male love than was ever in evidence in the west.
By the end of the first millennium, young male prostitutes also became more visible, often wandering the streets dressed as women. Nevertheless, Chinese culture continued to stress heterosexuality as the norm – the forces of yin and yang. In general, though, gay sex was never censured unless it was exploited for some form of payment. Even as Europe’s Popes were fretting about the dicks on classical male nudes, the Ming Dynasty was marking the high watermark of gay relationships in China. As in Japan, these by now were taking the form of older men of a higher social standing taking the active role with younger disciples.
After the Qing invaders (often called the Manchus in the west) took over the throne in 1644, a mix of Confucian bigots and the teachings of western missionaries was to result in a complete about face. Overt sexuality and depictions of gay sex in particular became far less descriptive. The “interesting parts” were, as in Europe, being covered up. By now, too, erotic paintings make clear that the enjoyment of the passive member in an encounter has diminished. Sex has become more functional.
Whether the joy of homosexual relations carried over to the vast majority of the Chinese people toiling in the fields, history does not record. But we do know that across the seas, homosexuality appears to have played little part in the life of ancient Japan. Indeed it seems to have been introduced by a bonze (Buddhist monk) returning from a visit to China around 800 AD. Soon monks would keep a novice usually in his teens. Part of the instruction would be in the erotic arts. Anal intercourse was the rule rather than exception. Later, samurai would similarly take young guys under their wing.
Originally women were permitted to act on stage, but then banned and so boys had to take their place in Kabuki and Noh dramas. Many were in effect prostitutes and their training included the arts of both theatre and seduction. Towards the end of the 17th century, a work by writer Ihara Saikaku outlines 23 reasons why homosexual love is superior to that between a man and a woman. Even in Kabuki today, men play the role of women and are termed onnagata. Japan’s most famous living onnagata is Bandō Tamasaburō, now accorded the title National Living Treasure.
As noted in Part 1, American imperialism and then conquest is largely responsible for the rejection and near obliteration of Japan’s homosexual culture. In China just as the Qing Dynasty was rotting from within, the rape of the country by the western powers throughout the 19th century achieved more or less the same effect, for along with the colonists came vast numbers of missionaries. But those early Jesuits had also played their role. Matteo Ricci who arrived in Macau in 1582 eventually found his way to Beijing. Like many of his fellow priests he took the trouble to learn the Chinese language and its customs. The Ming Dynasty Emperors welcomed them and even gave some positions at Court, but less for religious reasons than the knowledge they passed on of mathematics, astronomy, geography and hydraulics. Inevitably, though, Jesuit teaching on sexuality and procreation seeped through.
ronically it was the Papacy which would halt this cosy burgeoning relationship in Beijing. It had started a century earlier when Father Ricci argued with Rome that certain Confucian ceremonial rites and ancestor worship were merely socio-cultural practices and had nothing to do with idol worship. The utter lack of interest in Chinese affairs shown by Pope Clement XI resulted in his denouncing the dangerous accommodations being made between the Church and the heathen Middle Kingdom. Thus Jesuit influence died out just as the Dynasty embarked on its slow road to destruction. Civil wars and communist orthodoxy did the rest. China’s long love affair with homosexuality was all but dead.
Well, not quite. The outcome today is far from that which the missionaries desired. Gay life in both countries is again stirring, this time as the influence of right-wing religious zealots has waned. But extremists have gained a new lease on life elsewhere in Asia. First though, let’s look at our favourite gay Asian destination, Thailand.