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Dragons, emperors and the Rabbit God: China’s hidden LGBT+ myths

Dragons, emperors and the Rabbit God: China’s hidden LGBT+ myths

  • Learn the real story behind the Mulan movie. And discover the Rabbit God of gay love and the hidden Women Kingdom island.
Chinese Dragon lantern.

China’s rich culture means it has some of the most striking LGBT+ myths and history in the world.

So as we celebrate Chinese New Year 2020 – the year of the Rat – here’s our quick introduction to LGBT+ myths, legends and history from China.

Traditional fishing in China.
Traditional fishing in China. Sam Beasley

Women’s Kingdom

Imagine an isolated island. Nobody can travel there because the water surrounding it is less dense than usual, so ships just sink before they reach it.

This is the mythical Women’s Kingdom.

In ancient Chinese myth, whirlwinds whisked some travelers to this strange country.

Once they arrived, they discovered it was only inhabited by women. And, therefore, women formed relationships with each other.

Nowadays it’s not surprising to learn that the women get on very well without men and had built a very effective community.

Moreover, they could even reproduce without male help. To do so, they just slept outside and the southern wind blew across their bodies, making them pregnant. The only tragedy is that any male babies died before their third birthday.

An alternative legend about the Women’s Kingdom may even show where the story originated. It positions the country in southern Tibet.

There traditional female and male social roles are reversed. So women dress as men and are in charge. Men, meanwhile, dress in female clothes and run the household.

That story may be reflected in the lives of the Mosuo People today. They live in the shadow of the Himalayas, by Lugu Lake.

Even today, Mosuo society remains matriarchal. So older women dominate, women can change marital partners as they wish and the family bloodline passes through the female side.

It’s made the area popular with tourists and anthropologists, although the modern world now threatens the community.

Rabbit God

A rabbit.
Hu Tianbao returned as a rabbit after being murdered by the man he loved. Gary Bendig

Chinese legend tells us there was a soldier called Hu Tianbao living in Fujian, the province on the southeast coast of China.

He fell in love with a handsome young imperial inspector. But one day the inspector caught Hu Tianbao peeping on him while he was naked.

As a result, the soldier confessed his affections for the inspector. But the young man was angry and ordered Hu Tianbao beaten to death.

However, that wasn’t the end of the story. Underworld officials felt the soldier had been unjustly treated as his crime was one of love. So they sent him back as a young hare or rabbit called Tu Er Shen (literally Rabbit God).

They also gave the Rabbit God a special duty – to oversee love and sex between gay people.

At one time, many people embraced the worship of Tu Er Shen. Male lovers would ask for his favor and if they got the man they wanted, they would thank him by smearing pigs intestine and sugar on the lips of his idol.

Sadly, in later years, officials tried to crack down on this. But Taiwan did open a new temple to the Rabbit God in 2006. And perhaps it worked. Taiwan is the first place in Asia to allow same-sex marriage.

The Rabbit God sculpture.
The Rabbit God sculpture. Wikimedia Commons

Sex with dragons, spirits and fairies

In Chinese mythology, wise people particularly enjoyed male-male relationships. The Xian are ‘enlightened’ people who could be wizards, fairies, genies, sages or other kinds of celestial beings.

A giant Chinese dog sculpture.
Mythical beings would often have same-sex relationships. Nick Fewings

And in folk stories, they often choose same-sex partners. Usually their chosen lovers were younger than them.

They would ask the Lord of the Fairies for permission to have the relationship, which could last years as fairy time is different to human time.

However, if the Fairy Lord remembered, he may cut the relationship short. That often means these stories end in sadness for the human partner.

Meanwhile, Chinese dragons, by contrast, preferred older men. In one story, a dragon is so consumed with desire for a 60-year-old farmer that he rapes him. The farmer had to seek help for the bites and claw marks he suffered.

Chinese Dragon lantern.
The dragon used his teeth and claws on the farmer he raped. Til Man

Early emperors and a nice peach

In today’s age of emojis, many a gay or bi man has wanted to bite into a nice peach. But in ancient China, that had a deeper meaning.

Around 500BC, Duke Ling was the ruler of the state of Wey, before China was unified as one country.

And Duke Ling of Wey was in love with a beautiful man called Mizi Xia. One day, Mizi Xia bit into a peach and found it so delicious he gave the rest of it to Duke Ling to enjoy.

As a result, Mizi Xia’s name became used for any desirable young man and a ‘bitten peach’ became another word for homosexuality.

However, there is a lesson to young courtiers in the story. Duke Ling of Wey was fickle and when Mizi Xia lost his looks, he rejected him. He even used this romantic story against him, saying the courtier had insulted him by giving him a half-eaten peach.

Peach Blossom in China.
Peach blossom in China. Pixabay

Another romantic story added the phrase ‘cut sleeve’ to the language to mean homosexuality.

It took place when Emperor Ai of Han ruled, between 7BC and 1BC. Emperor Ai fell in love with a minor official called Dong Xian and promoted him rapidly at court.

One day, the two were napping on the same straw mat. When Ai woke up, he found Dong’s head was resting on the wide sleeve of his robe. Rather than waking him up, Ai cut off the sleeve so his lover could continue to sleep undisturbed.

In fact, experts believe that all the emperors and other rulers for hundreds of years may have been bisexual. In fact, the only reason more is not known about their male lovers is because only exceptional or surprising stories were written down.

The general’s threesome

Naturally, it wasn’t just emperors engaging in gay sex. Again, there are too many stories of male couples to list them all, but a few are exceptional.

One happened around 150AD, and it involves General Liang Ji, his wife Sun Shou, and his male slave, Qin Gong.

He acknowledged both his wife and his slave as his lovers.

Indeed, they both had a similar social status, inferior to the general’s, which is wrong on many levels but nevertheless…

In any case, General Liang Ji was forward-thinking enough to break social norms by sharing Qin Gong with his wife in a threesome. This was unusual because he allowed them to enjoy each other, not just concentrate on him.

Another of China’s greatest military heroes, Guan Yu, from around 220BC, was reportedly gay.

Legends describe him as ‘unmoved by beautiful women’. And there are stories he had close relationships with his ‘brothers’ – although they were not blood related, but merely ‘bro’ companions.

It hasn’t stood in the way of his immortality, however. Chinese communities around the world worship him as Lord Guan and he has an airport named after him in his home town of Yuncheng.

Indeed, you may even see shrines to Lord Guan in Chinese shops and restaurants.

The Terracotta Army.
The Terracotta Army. Manoj Kumar

Sexually talented scholars

Another famous pair of lovers were scholars Ruan Ji and Ji Kang. They were two of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove – a celebrated group of scholars, magicians and sages who stood up against court corruption.

Many reported Chinese same-sex relationships had a dominant or more important partner. But Ruan Ji and Ji Kang had an egalitarian, long term relationship in the third century BC.

In fact, they were such a committed couple their relationship was ‘stronger than metal and fragrant as orchids’. And, apparently, they were hot in bed. The wife of another sage spied on them making love and said they were very sexually talented.

By comparison, there is very little information on same-sex relationships between women. But around the same time it is known palace women were creating marriage-like relationships with each other called ‘du shi’.

The original Mulan story

However, everyone does know the story of one legendary Chinese queer woman – Mulan.

But the original story has a few twists and turns that Disney did not include in their 1998 animation.

Hua Mulan’s story takes place around 386AD to 536AD. The rulers of Tuoba call for one man from each family to serve in the army against the Rouran invaders.

Mulan realises her father is too old and weak while her brother is just an infant. Besides, she is skilled in fighting. She has already learned martial arts, sword fighting and archery before she enlists.

She then goes on to serve in the army, as a man, for 12 years. At the end of her time, Mulan then turns down a prized job as an official. Instead she rides home on a camel and back into the arms of her joyful family.

It’s only then that she puts on her old clothes and amazes her comrades who hadn’t realised.

Mulan weilding a sword.
The original Mulan myth differs from the Disney version but still sees a woman breaking gender roles. Disney

Mulan’s sad ending

But the most classic version of the Mulan story, Chu Renhuo’s Romance of the Sui and Tang, has some twists.

It starts the same, but the king’s warrior daughter Xianniang tries to recruit Mulan as a man. Under questioning, the princess discovers she’s a woman. And she is so delighted they become sworn sisters.

Meanwhile Mulan’s father sides with the Tang dynasty’s enemies and is sentenced to death. Mulan and the princess respond by offering themselves for execution in his place. And the Tang emperor is so impressed he reprieves them.

But even that is not the end of the story. By the time Mulan is ready to go home, she discovers her father is dead and her mother has remarried. Then the invading Mongol emperor, the Khan, summons Mulan to the palace to become his concubine.

Rather than endure this, Mulan commits suicide so she can join her father in death.

There are rumors that Disney’s new live-action version of Mulan this year may include some more of the original story.

Oppression and marriages

Meanwhile, there wasn’t a happy ending for LGBT+ people in China either.

The Tang dynasty saw more westerners and their attitudes come to China. For the first time, Chinese gained a negative word for homosexuality, ‘jijian’. Despite this, Chinese LGBT+ people didn’t experience the kind of persecution that swept Europe at that time.

Indeed, open gay relationships still flourished for hundreds of years. In 17th century Fujian province, men even married under the auspices of the Rabbit God.

Typically, an older man would pay a ‘bride price’ to the family of a younger man. They would then marry in a full Chinese ceremony with ‘the three cups of tea [and] the six wedding rituals’.

Afterwards they would live together as an ‘adoptive older brother’ and ‘adoptive younger brother’. They may even raise adoptive children together. However, while the marriage may last many years, society eventually expected them to marry women to have biological children.

LGBT+ people in China today

Praying in a Chinese temple.
Chinese myth and culture has spread around the world. Ekoherwantoro

For much of modern history, LGBT+ people in China have stayed firmly in the closet.

Nowadays, homosexuality is legal and the authorities no longer consider it a mental illness.

There has even been talk of legalising same-sex marriage but it is unlikely to pass soon. Meanwhile, same-sex couples can use ‘guardianship’ laws to get some protection and recognition for their relationships.

Public support for LGBT+ people is growing. But even now, few LGBT+ people are out to everyone in their lives. And the vast majority of gay Chinese men are married to women – often due to social and family pressure.