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New study shows Chinese tolerance for homosexuality over thousands of years

A new study by a Chinese sociologist has documented tolerance of homosexuality and same-sex relationships going back thousands of years in China
Photo: Peter Morgan

Chinese sociologist Pan Guangdan has documented acceptance of same-sex relationships in China going back thousands of years, suggesting that tolerance for LGBTs may be coming full circle in the People’s Republic of China.

Pan made the discovery while translating the 1933 Havelock Ellis book Psychology of Sex from English into Chinese.

Ellis was the first person to author a medical textbook on homosexuality and the book inspired Pan to see what evidence there was for homosexuality in Chinese historical documents.

The China Daily reports that Pan found plenty of evidence that the ancient Chinese were well aware of same-sex relationships, with many couples living quite openly.

The earliest mention Pan found was in chronicles from the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC-1046 BC) where sex between men and youths was one of ten criminal acts that court officials could be punished for.

However in the following Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC-256 BC) homosexuality appears to have become more acceptable, with a common proverb reading, ‘Good-looking males can distract emperors from the wisdom of old intellects.’

Pan found another story in the Spring and Autumn Annals of the State of Lu covering the years 722 BC – 481 BC called ‘The Pleasant Hug From Behind,’ in which a handsome man threatens to kill an official who admires him but is advised by a sage that it is wrong to kill someone who admires you.

Instead the man decided to let the official ‘hug him from behind.’

Pan found evidence that almost every emperor of China during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-24 AD) was believed to have had male lovers.

A popular story about the Emperor Ai (27 BC-1 BC) told how he cut off his sleeve to avoid waking his lover Dong Xian, leading to the term ‘sleeve-slicing affection’ for same-sex relationship – a euphemism still used in China to this day.

During the Sui, Tang and Yuan dynasties (AD 581- AD 1386) mentions of homosexuality fade from official records but continue to appear in novels - but then during the Jin Dynasty (1115 AD-1234 AD) return as it appears that same-sex relationships had become common among the upper classes.

Following the Yuan Dynasty in the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368 AD -1911 AD) homosexual characters were popular in novels, and during the Qing the first Chinese language book with a gay protagonist, ‘Treasury of Flower Appreciation,’ was written.

During the Qing Dynasty it was even believed there was a specific god who looked after gay men – the rabbit god Hu Tianbao.

Around this time the Chinese also began to recognize the existence of lesbian relationships and in China’s Southern provinces it became acceptable for female couples to move in together to form a household.

Pan’s findings have been published as an appendix to his Chinese language edition of Ellis’ Psychology of Sex.

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