Same-sex affairs are often described alongside heterosexual affairs in Chinese historical fiction written during the Imperial era. The lack of a specific 'gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender' genre of literature attests to the acceptance and normality of same-sex desire in the popular culture of a past era. Below are a few examples of Qing/Ming and earlier works of non-fantasy literary fiction in which same-sex couplings figure prominently.
《凤双飞》 is a 长篇弹词 by Qing Dynasty female writer 程蕙英 Cheng Huiying.1 Cheng was born poor but being extremely talented, rose to become a prominent writer.2 She has been described as "狂放倜傥，无普通女子畏缩柔儒之气" - "wild and unrestrained, energetic and unpredictable, without the reserve and gentleness of ordinary women."2 《凤双飞》 is said to be the only known lesbian-themed work of imperial era Chinese literature written by an author who was identifiable as a woman.4 There were other authors who wrote f-f works, but most did so under pen names.
《品花宝鉴》 was published in 1849. It is set in the world of the wealthy patrons who socialize with young, handsome actors from opera companies. In this world, crass rich men who crudely proposition boys exist together with genteel scholars who sincerely woo male opera singers. The author 陈森 Chen Lin based two of his characters on the real life persons of 毕沅 Bi Yuan, Superintendent of Hunan/Hubei and his life partner 李桂官 Li Guiguan, an opera singer.1 Li and Bi had started their relationship when Bi was just a poor scholar. At that time, Li, a successful opera singer, provided him with support. Later, after Bi became the top candidate on the Imperial Civil Service examinations, people called Li the Lady of the Imperial Candidate.2
In Chen's novel, the official/actor couple was not named Bi and Li but 田春航与苏惠芳 Tian Chunhang and Su Huifang. The other male-male couple in the story is 梅子玉和杜琴言 Mei Ziyu and Du Qinyan, a scholar and an actor respectively. If you're wondering why the actors have feminine names, they are female impersonators. The male couples maintained intense love and lifelong commitment to each other - but their relationships did not exclude heterosexual marriage.
There is some dispute as to whether 《林兰香》, written by 随缘下士 (a pseudonym) was written in the Ming Dynasty or the Qing Dynasty1 The tale describes the human dynamics in a 6-wife household. In this polygynous arrangement, some individual women feel a sense of duty towards their husband but reserve their deepest feelings for their female friends/lovers. The title is in part drawn from the names of two female characters - Lin Yunping, senior wife of the male protagonist Geng Lang, and Ren Xianger, the fourth wife.2 There are numerous lesbian references in 《林兰香》. Hongyu, maidservant to Ren Xianger, was expelled from the household after her lesbian affair with Widow Li. A more subtle relationship exists between three other women - Lin Yunping, Xuan Ainiang and Yan Mengqing:
Before marriage, Lin Yunping had a kinswoman and close childhood friend Xuan Ainiang. They referred to each other as 'jade mountain' and 'jade tree' - “玉山" and “玉树” - these were traditional metaphors for the handsome appearance of talented young men.3 The romantic connotations of this imagery were not lost on the people around them. Xier, maidservant of Ainiang, joked that if two among the four women - Jier, maidservant of Yunping; Xier; and their two mistresses - could change into men, then they would marry each other.4
After Yunping married Geng Lang, Ainiang missed her very much. While out on a trip with her family, Aining wrote a poem of sadness and longing on a wall. Another woman Yan Mengqing passed by later and read the poem. Mengqing guessed that the poet was a woman and felt a deep affinity with her. Mengqing added a second verse to Ainiang's poem, hoping to 'gain a true friend who understands me, even though I have never met/will never meet her'. Ainiang was very excited when she found the new verse, and guessed the identity of the writer.
Three years later, the women discover by accident that they are actually neighbors and finally meet face to face. Ainiang complains that she had 'lost' Yunping, her bosom friend, to Geng Lang, and that now that Mengqing was to become the second wife of Geng Lang, Ainiang would lose yet another friend. Mengqing declares her love for Ainiang in the following lines:
Ainiang and Mengqing agreed that for the three women to maintain their commitment to one another, they all have to marry the same man. Mengqing gave Ainiang her golden hairpin as a token of her trust. She vowed that if she was to abandon her affection and commitment to Ainiang, then her marriage would be short-lived. It is clear that the author sees Ainiang and Mengqing as lovers. S/he titles Chapter 34 "写遗肖情人作伴" "Leaving a portrait of a lover for companionship". In this chapter, Ainiang asks the dying Mengqing to add her own portrait to a painting of Ainiang, saying "Since you are one heart with me, why should you not paint yourself into the picture as my companion?"
男孟母教合三迁 is the sixth short story in 李渔's 无声戏 collection.1 Li Yu, who lived during the late Ming/early Qing era, is a well-known author and playwright.2 The tale is set in Fujian, specifically 嘉靖末年福建兴化府莆田县. A handsome young scholar 许葳 Xu Wei had no love for women, but nevertheless married a woman to produce a son. After his wife passed away, Xu Wei went to attend a temple gathering of hundreds of men and boys. The men were there to vote for the most beautiful boy. A teenager named 瑞郎 Rui Lang was agreed by all to be the most beautiful, but nobody could pay the high 'bride price' set by 瑞郎's father. 3
Xu Wei and Rui Lang become acquainted and fall in love. Xu Wei sold all his property so he could marry Rui Lang. The couple got along very well - “如鱼得水，似漆投胶“. Later, as Rui Lang grew older, his desires began to turn towards women. Rui Lang decided to castrate himself so that his relationship with Xu Wei could remain unchanged. He changed his name from 瑞郎 to 瑞娘. News of the castration came to the ears of the magistrate who had Xu Wei brought before the court for allegedly castrating the boy. Rui Lang came forward to take responsibility for the deed, but both the magistrate and his subordinates held a jealous grudge against Xu Wei for being the one who gained the much-coveted Rui Lang. Xu Wei was severely beaten in the courthouse and died shortly after.
After Xu Wei's death, Rui Lang played the role of faithful widow and mother, raising Xu Wei's son from his previous marriage. Rui Lang disguised himself as a woman, and moved away with the child Chengxian 承先. When Chengxian grew into a handsome lad, both his classmates and teacher began to make passes at him. Concerned, Rui Lang pulled him out of the school and found him another teacher - a very old man. Unfortunately, not long after, the local county magistrate took a fancy to Chengxian and came to offer a bride price for him. Rui Lang, wanting to shield his stepson from unwanted sexual involvement, once again had to move to another locale...
《怜香伴》 is a play written by the late-Ming/early-QIng scholar Li Yu 李渔. Cherishing a Fragrant Companion is the story of a young married woman 崔笺云 Cui Jianyun who meets an intelligent young woman Cao Yuhua 曹语花 while visiting a temple. The two fell in love. Jianyun made a vow to Yuhua to find a way for Jianyun's husband to marry Yuhua as a second wife, so that the two women could be together for life.1 《怜香伴》 is still performed today as an opera.2
清代毛奇龄 Mao Qiling of the Qing Dynasty wrote about the amorous adventures of Wuzhong, the famous playboy Emperor of the preceding Ming Dynasty in 《明武宗外记》:1
宫中六局者，有尚寝者，司上寝处事，而文书房内官，每记上幸宿所在及所幸宫嫔年月，以俟稽考；上悉令除却省记注，掣去尚寝诸所司事，遂遍游宫中，日率小黄门为抵蹋麹之戏，随所驻辄饮宿不返，其入中宫及东西两宫，月不过四五日。 ... 帝在豹房常醉枕宁卧，百官候朝至晡，莫得帝，起居密伺宁，宁来则知驾将出矣。
...The scribes of the Inner Palace recorded the dates on which the Emperor visited the Imperial Wives... In the daytime, he led the eunuchs around, playing games. Following that, he would drink and sleep with them, not returning (to the harem). The Emperor did not visit his wives more than 4 or 5 days a month... The Emperor often lay drunk on Qian Ning (an eunuch) in the Leopard Room, using him as a pillow. The courtiers would wait for the emperor to show up at court well into the afternoon, but he would not come. The emperor's daily activities were closely tied with Qian Ning's. When Qian Ning arrived, it was known that the Emperor would soon appear.
《儒林外史》 by 吴敬梓 Wu Jingzi is a satirical novel about the ills and hypocrisies of the scholar class.1 In Wu's world, learned men could be treacherous and despicable, but not all his characters are uniformly evil. 杜少卿（杜仪） Du Shaoqing is one of the few positive characters - while he is foolish with his financial resources, he stands out from the rest as a scholar who is generous to others and who chooses to pursue the sublime things in life instead of the vainglory of officialdom. His cousin 杜慎卿（杜倩） Du Shenqing while less high-minded, is more capable of minding his resources. 杜慎卿 is also the famous woman-hater/boy-lover of The Confucianist Scholars. In Chapter 30, when a friend congratulates Shenqing on his plan to take a seventeen year old female as a minor wife,2 Shenqing replies:
This is to ensure the continuation of the family line. I have no other choice. If I have other options, would I do such a thing? ... As our founding emperor Taizhu said, 'If I had not been born of a woman, I would slay all the women under heaven!' Is there a single good person among women? It is my nature to notice the stink of a woman even if she is three houses away.
The friend 季苇萧 Li Weixiao tried to defend heterosexual relationships: “人情无过男女，方才吾兄说非是所好。”, but Du replied:
How can it be said that the only worthy feelings are between men and women? The love between friends is better than the relations between men and women. All you have to look at is the story of The Lord of E and his Embroidered Blanket. 3
Li then asked Du if he had sought male companionship in the Pear Garden 梨园, that is, among actors in opera troupes.4 Du said:
For me to seek what I want among male actors/sex workers can be compared to heterosexual men seeking true love in a brothel. Isn't this the wrong approach? When an individual can attain a meeting of the hearts and a mutual affection beyond mere physical attraction, then that is an individual of the highest caliber under heaven.
Seeing Du's obsession, Li decided to play a practical joke on him. He tricked Du into journeying to a faraway temple by telling him a handsome young Taoist priest lived there. It turned out the young Taoist priest did not exist, and only an old ugly priest dwelt there. Du came back frustrated but laughed off the prank. Later, after Du married the girl, the scholars Du and Li go out to enjoy to company of male actors, bringing along Du's new brother-in-law. Apparently, Du found the boy more attractive than his sister, from this description of Du's first meeting with his brother-in-law:
He bowed to Du Shenqing. Du grabbed a hold of him and took a good look. He found the boy to be indeed handsome, his older sister truly was no match for him in looks.
An English translation of 'The Scholars' is also available in print. (We have not reviewed this book, and make no claims as to whether the homosexual overtones were preserved in translation.)
Cao Xueqin's novel 《红楼梦》, while famous for its heterosexual couples, also contain numerous references to both male-male and female-female erotic or romantic relationships.1 The protagonist Baoyu has a subtle relationship with his kinsman and friend Qin Zhong. In Chapter 9, the two boys are described as having a very close friendship which caused much gossip among their classmates.
More hints are dropped in Chapter 15, in which Baoyu discovers Qin Zhong's failed seduction of a young Buddhist nun, he says, "When we go to bed, I'll take an accounting with you." The author adds cryptically, "As to how Baoyu and Qin Zhong 'took an accounting', I have not seen it. So I do not dare to speculate on this mystery."
There are more than 10 characters involved in homoerotic/romantic interactions in the novel. 2 Two female actresses regard each other as husband and wife; Baoyu's cousin Xue Pan makes crude passes at a handsome male actor; Feng's husband relieves himself using the page boy when his wife is not around.
A number of English translations of this Chinese classic are also available in print. (We have not reviewed these publications, and make no claims as to whether the homoerotic aspects were preserved in translation.)
《宜春香质》 is a mid-Ming work consisting of four volumes - Wind, Flower, Snow and Moon. It is a collection of male-male romantic/erotic stories.1
The Wind Volume is the story of Sun Yi, a youth from Tiger Hill. When he was 12, his classmates Li Zunxian, Kongtong and Yuntong used him for sex. After he tasted the pleasure of being a passive homosexual partner, he tried to lure his teacher Zheng Wanlu into having sex with him. His reputation as a passive homosexual spread. When Sun heard neighbors gossiping about him, he decided to leave home out of shame. He went travelling with a study partner Wang Zhonghe, and their love for each other grew. Unfortunately, Sun fell into the hands of an unscrupulous villain who raped him and then forced him into the sex trade. Eventually, Sun found his way to the capital, where he was beaten to death by the bullies Gan Jiang and Mo Xie. Sun's former lover Wang Zhonghe later passed the Imperial Civil Service Examinations and became an official. He prosecuted Wang's former pimp and then punished his murderers.
The Flower Volume tells of Shan Xiuxin, a graceful and attractive boy who sold nets for a living. He hooked up with Xie Gongchuo in a homosexual relationship. After he had swindled Xie out of all his money, Shan abandoned him. Shan later went to Shandong, finding employment with He Binwang, who put him in charge of managing He's pawnshop. After He went home to Haozhou, Shan passed his time gambling, feasting, visiting prostitutes and spending money without regard for the future. Shan later rented part of his residence to Tie Yixin, a refugee from Liaoyang who had come to Shandong with his family fleeing from the war. Finding Tie's concubine attractive, Shan offered his own backside to Tie and then conducted an affair with Tie's concubine. When Tie discovered the affair, Shan framed him before the magistrate. Tie was expelled from the region and Shan was able to buy Tie's concubine. Later, Shan's employer He, having fallen on desperate times in Haozhou, returned to Shandong, only to be shut out of his own house by Shan. Fortunately, He Binwang was rescued and succored by Wang Qiaoying. Binwang later passed the Imperial Examinations and entered the prestigious Hanlin Academy. Later, he joined forces with Tie to obliterate both Shan and the concubine.
The Snow Volume's protagonist is Yi Ziqu, a pretty boy who worked in a male brothel as a prostitute since childhood. When he became an adult, he switched to the career of a swindler, colluding with brothel owner Qi Guihe to cheat the merchant Shang Xin out of house and home. The desperate Shang Xin received help from a friend and was eventually able to work his way back up the ladder of fortune. Yi Ziqu was later reduced to begging for a living.
The Moon Volume's hero is a talented scholar of Wenlin, by name of Nui Jun, who was extremely ugly. He met a a group of sages and immortals skilled in the erotic arts. They turned him into a gorgeous man. He then went to the "The Land of Men's Pleasure" Yinan Guo, where he achieved great honor and became the king's lover. He was eventually promoted to the position of queen and also received amorous attentions from women. Later, he was raped by bandits and taken to the Sheng Yin kingdom where he suffered great torment. Finally, he met the Buddha, who removed his Six Desires, cut off his sex, and sent him into the wheel of fire. Niu woke up in shock and found that it was all a dream. Realizing the illusory nature of worldly desires, he left his home to spend his life in solitary meditation.
《男王后》 The King's Male Queen is a play written by 王骥德 of the Ming Dynasty.1 The plot was drawn from the Tang Dynasty fiction Biography of Chen Zigao which was in turn inspired by the historical character of Han Zigao. In The King's Male Queen, the king of Lingzhou sees the beautiful young man Chen Zigao, and orders him to disguise himself as a woman so that the king could make him queen. The king's sister, upon finding out that the queen is really a handsome man, demands that her brother give her Chen Zigao as husband.2 The original Han Zigao, however, was a general serving King Wen of Chen and is not recorded to have been a cross-dresser.3
《弁而钗》 刊于崇祯年间 。 From a Man's Cap to a Woman's Hairpin was published in the late-Ming era. It comprises of four novels, in which homoerotic and heteroerotic scenes exist side by side:
In 《情贞纪》 A Story of Passion and Loyalty, 20 year old 翰林 Hanlin scholar 风翔 Feng Yi developed an interest in 15 year old 赵王孙 Zhao Wangsun. Feng took a fake name in order to become Zhao's classmate, and worked hard to seduce him. After news of their affair leaked out, Zhao was forced to return home. Even so, Feng secretly helped Zhao to pass the Civil Service exam with flying colors, and Zhao became a government bureaucrat. Fate so decreed that Feng would later be unjustly sentenced to die for the crime of insubordination. While other officials feared to speak against the injustice, Zhao alone spoke in defence of Feng, eventually proving his innocence and securing his release. The two then left the Imperial Court to live out the rest of their lives together. 1
In 《情侠记》 A Story of Passion and Heroism , 天津张机 Zhang Ji of Tianjin was an impressive martial artist and military officer married to two sisters, both formidable warriors. Zhang's younger male friend 钟图南 Zhong Tunan secretly desired Zhang, so he got Zhang drunk and sodomized him. At first, Zhang was angry at being raped while unconscious, and wanted to kill Zhong with his sword, but when Zhong declared his love, Zhang forgives him. Later, both men became high-ranking courtiers. When they met again, Zhong wanted to have intercourse. Zhang was at first unwilling, saying that it was improper for men of their position but Zhong overcame his objections. The two maintained good relations into old age, even uniting their families by arranging marriages between their sons and daughters.2
In 《情烈纪》 A Story of Passion and Sacrifice, the protagonist 文韵 Wenyun was an actor who specializes in female roles. He died to remain loyal to his lover 云汉 Yunhan. After his death, his spirit took on the body of a woman so he could sell himself to be the minor wife of an official. He used the money from the sale to fund Yunhan's attempt at the Imperial CIvil Service Examinations.3
In 《情奇纪》 A Story of Passion and Miracles, the protagonist 李又仙 Li Youxian decided to sell himself in order to pay off his father's debts. A male-only brothel owner was impressed by his feminine beauty and bought him. All the men in the brothel dressed as women and addressed each other as sisters. After a hard and humiliating life as a sex worker, Li was redeemed by 匡时 Kuang Shi. To repay Kuang Shi, Li took on a female identity and lived with Kuang as his minor wife. Li even perfected his disguise by using a miraculous potion to make his feet as small as the bound feet of a woman. When Kuang was unjustly imprisoned, Li risked his own life to raise Kuang's son. Kuang's son grew up, passed the Imperial Service Examinations as the top candidate, and was able to avenge his parents. Li Youxian, considering his obligations to Kuang discharged, disappeared from the world to live as a Taoist priest.4
《金瓶梅》, the famous erotic novel by 明代兰陵笑笑生 Ming Dynasty's Lan Ling XiaoxiaoSheng (a pen name) contains female-female sex scenes in additional to heterosexual and male-male sex scenes.1 The villainous protagonist Ximen Qing, in addition to heterosexual activities with his many wives, also uses the sexual services of his young male servant.2
《万历野获编》, by 明代沈德符 Ming Dynasty's Shen Defu, tells of bizarre sexual escapades by court personalities such as eunuchs during the reign of 朱翊钧 of the Ming Dynasty. 1 It contains the following account of the Wanli Emperor's taste for males:2
... He selected from among the court eunuchs with drooping tufts of hair ten or so clever and pretty boys, to attend to him in person, receive the Emperor's favor, and lie down and rise up with him.... And it came to pass there was a commander... who was young, handsome and graceful. He was part of the Emperor's retinue when the emperor went to Tianshou Mountain. Mid-journey.. the empeor bestowed the favor of Dong Xian [the famous male favorite of Emperor Ai of Han] on him...
《陈子高传》 Tale of Chen Zigao is a piece of homoerotic fiction written by 唐代李翊 Li Yi of the Tang Dynasty.1 It owes its inspiration to 《陳書》 卷二十，列傳第十四的〈韓子高列傳〉 The Biography of Han Zigao as recorded in the Book for the Chen Dynasty . The historical character 韩子高 Han Zigao was a general and male favorite of 陈文帝 King Wen of Chen. 2 The fictional Tale of Chen Zigao changed his surname from Han to Chen.3 The text of Tale of Chen Zigao, which includes scenes of homoerotic intimacy, is reproduced in the 《情外类》 chapter of Feng Menglong's History of Passion, which was compiled during the Ming Dynasty.4
汉陈皇后 Empress Chen of Han and the witch Chufu were featured as a lesbian couple in a novel of the Six Dynasties:1
The witch wore men's clothing and accessories. She lived with the empress and slept with her. They loved each other like husband and wife.
The official historical records of the incident involving 陈皇后 and 楚服 contained no reference to a lesbian affair. 史记 by 司马迁 of the 汉 Dynasty records that the Empress had become jealous when the Emperor transferred his affection to other Imperial Wives. She sought the use of magic arts to restore her husband's favor. Chufu, a woman of the Imperial harem, conducted rituals to help the Empress curse her rivals. When the Emperor discovered the matter, Chufu was executed and the Empress was divorced and banished.
These stories represent only a small segment of Chinese glbt Imperial era fiction. For further reading, see:
暧昧的历程--中国古代同性恋史 (An ambiguous journey - the history of homosexuality in ancient China)
作者 (Author)： 张在舟 著 (Zhang Zaizhou)
出版日期 (Publication Date)： 2001-04
出版社 (Publisher)： 中州古籍出版社 (Zhongzhou Ancient Books Publishing House) http://chinabooks.cnokay.com/pub_house/zhongzhou/