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Sexual and Gender Minorities in Chinese History

The History of Male-Male Love in China from 6th century BCE through the 18th century

There were many icons of male-male love in Chinese history. Among these, three ancient men - Long Yang, Mizi Xia, and Dong Xian - are now synonymous with homosexual desire. Long Yang was a male favorite of the Duke of Wei during the Warring States period (475-221 BCE). The hold of Long Yang over the ruler was such that the king decreed anyone praising the beauty of someone other than Long Yang before the king would be put to death with his entire household. Later, same-sex desire between men was termed "the interest of Long Yang".1

Mizi Xia was the favorite of Duke Ling of Wei (534-493 BCE). One day Mizi Xia bit into a peach and finding it sweet, he stopped eating it and offered it to the ruler. The ruler was moved by his 'considerate behavior'. From hence came these expressions for homosexuality: "a preference for the leftover peach", and "the love of the divided peach."2 Mizi Xia lost his life later when his beauty faded and the Duke lost interest in him.3

Dong Xian was the male lover of Emperor Ai of the Han Dynasty. So besotted was the Emperor with Dong Xian that he neglected his official duties. Once, Dong Xian fell asleep across the Emperor's sleeve. When the Emperor wanted to rise from his bed, he did not want to wake his beloved, so Emperor Ai cut off his own sleeve and got up. This tale gave rise to the term "a fondness for the cut sleeve" which means a man's sexual preference for other men.4

Owing to his position as sexual favorite, Dong Xian received many official promotions and honors. These unjustified rewards made him many political enemies. After Emperor Ai died, Dong Xian was forced to kill himself. Later men would blame Dong Xian for contributing to the demise of the Western Han dynasty. The climate of political chaos that characterized the last years of the dynasty was exemplified by the emperor's excessive favoritism towards Dong Xian. The fact that the Emperor spent all his time with Dong Xian and did not produce an heir was also said to be a factor in the collapse of the Western Han.5 Exclusively homosexual men like the Emperor Ai were the exception - most Chinese men-who-loved-men were in practice bisexual.

The three best-known personifications of male-on-male desire are not entirely positive characters by modern standards. Ancient men, however, seemed to think differently. The famous poet Ruan Ji(210-263 CE) wrote poetry extolling Long Yang and An Ling, two male favorites from the Warring States period (475-221 BCE).6

Historians see Long Yang, Mizi Xia and Dong Xian as political opportunists who shamelessly courted the favor of rulers, and their royal lovers are remembered as men of poor judgment. It should be noted, however, that Chinese historians give the same treatment to the female favorites of rulers - the historical beauties Yang Guifei, Bao Si and Da Yi were blamed for causing political chaos, and the rulers who loved them were portrayed as men of excessive appetites and foolish priorities. And not all Chinese records of male-male lovers focused on dubious characters. Here are a few examples that come closer to modern ideals of "true love":

Pan Zhang and Wang Zhongxian

The Taiping Guangzi compilation of the Song Dynasty contained this account of two men, Pan Zhang and Wang Zhongxian of the ancient Zhou dynasty:

Pan Zhang in his youth was beautiful in face and demeanor, and admired by his contemporaries. Wang Zhongxian of the Chu Kingdom heard of his fame and came to seek his friendship. Zhang accepted him. They desired to study together, and fell in love at first sight. Their affection was as husband and wife; they shared the same blanket and pillow and bonded as one. Later they died together. The people of their household grieved for them and buried them together at Luofu Mountain. A tree suddenly grew out of the grave; all of its branches and leaves embraced one another. The people at that time were amazed, and named it the "Shared Pillow Tree".7

Bi Qiufan and Li Guiguan

Bi Qiufan was a famous scholar and official of the Qianlong period who was known for his achievements in the fields of political science, military strategy, and literature. According to the Notes of Luoyanshi, he had a number of wives and concubines, as was expected for a statesman of his rank, but he neglected them. His constant companion was the male opera singer Li Guiguan. They were inseparable to the point that people referred to Guiguan as Qiufan's 'wife'.8

Wu Sheng and Jiang Lang

Qing Dynasty writer Niu Xiu mentions a devoted relationship between social equals in Gu Sheng: Two Ming dynasty scholars Wu Sheng and Jiang Lang shared a love that was "deeper than the bond between the average husband and wife". But they were separated by Li, a man of influence. Li took Jiang to Beijing. Wu could not bear to be parted from him, and reached Beijing after overcoming many obstacles. Friends aided their reunion by raising money for Wu's journey.9

Male-to-Female Gender Crossing in Chinese Tradition

Traditionally, Chinese opera companies were single-sex troupes. In an all-male performing group, both male and female roles were played by men. Female-role actors often carried their roles offstage into the realm of prostitution. The 19th century novel Precious Mirror that Ranks Flowers describes wealthy men's patronage of female-role actors "who have all the beauty of women, but not their anatomy."10

Accounts of MTF lifestyles also exist outside the realm of theater/prostitution. The 17th century writer Li Yu wrote the fantasy tale "Nan meng mu jiao he san qian" in his Pantomime anthology. It is the story of a young widower Jifang who falls in love with and marries a teenager Ruilang according to the male-male marriage custom of their province. But by the same custom, the same-sex marriage must be dissolved when the time comes for the youth to take a wife and fulfil his duties of perpetuating the family line. To avoid this impending separation, Ruilang castrates himself and begins living as a woman. When Ruilang's husband dies later, she dutifully raises Jifang's son from his previous heterosexual marriage.11 While Li Yu's account is fictional, an earlier record from the 16th century tells of a biological male who made a gender switch at age 40 and married a male friend.12

The Tradition of Female-Female Unions

Golden Orchid Associations were highly visible in Guangzhou and other parts of South China during the late Qing dynasty, though it is not known when the tradition began. Two or more unrelated women can join together in an oath of sisterhood known as the Golden Orchid Oath. Such women usually do not marry men, and those who formally marry men refuse to lie with their husbands, even to the point of violent resistence.13

Hu Pu'an records the phenomenon of Golden Orchid two-woman commitment ceremonies in "A Record of China's Customs: Guangdong":

[Within the sisterhood], if two women have intentions towards each other, one of them would prepare peanut candy, dates and other goods as a gift to show her intent. If the other woman accepts the gift, she is now bound by honor to her suitor. If she refuses the gift, it is a rejection of the proposal. A contract-signing ceremony follows the acceptance. Those with the financial resources would invite their friends who come in droves to congratulate the couple and celebrate by drinking through the night.

After the contract is completed, the two women become like each other's shadows in sitting, lying down, rising, and living. If the party or parties breaks the oath, the female collective will arise to hold her/them accountable and humiliate her, often beating and humiliating the offenders, for such is their custom.14

Not all members of the Golden Orchid Associations were involved in lesbian marriages. Many women joined the sisterhood to escape the prospect of unhappy heterosexual marriages, or to tap into a well-organized social support system. An individual Golden Orchid member is also called a "self-combing woman", a reference to the practice of a single woman combing her hair into a married woman's hairstyle, indicating her sexual unavailability to men. Typically, a woman's female kin re-styles her hair at the time of her heterosexual marriage. But a marriage-resister re-styles her hair with her own hands. A woman's decision to live the "self-combing" lifestyle is often honored by her family and village, who will join a feast in her honor after her "self-combing" ritual.

Nevertheless, some families oppose such a choice by their daughters - the "self-combing" oath is irrevocable, and those who break the oath by having relations with a male partner will be put to death by the village. Golden Orchid members who face familial opposition to their singlehood can enter heterosexual marriages in name but find ways to continue life without a husband: a woman may return to her parents' house three days after her heterosexual marriage ceremony and only visit her husband's house on occasion. A single woman might find an agreeable single man who is willing to 'marry' her. She would then repay his family the bride price they paid for her. In some cases, a woman finds a family of a deceased man who agrees to 'marry' their dead son to her for a price.15

Outside the context of the Golden Orchid Associations, there were other recorded instances of lesbian behavior between women. It was not uncommon for women of the Imperial Harem to have lesbian affairs with one another.16 The Emperor had thousands of Imperial Wives, but usually only graced a few favorites with regular visits. As a result, most Imperial Wives were kept in a state of living widowhood. Some of these women sought sexual release with other harem inhabitants, including eunuchs.

Female-to-Male Gender Crossing in Old China

The The History of the Jin Dynasty recorded the following incident from the reign of the emperor Hailing: "the imperial wives each had maidservants who dressed as men. They were called 'false page boys'. One of them, Sheng Ge, lay with Alihu [an Imperial Wife] as husband and wife. The kitchen maid San Niang reported the affair to Hailing but he did not consider it an offense." Alihu killed San Niang in retaliation and was herself executed by the emperor for murder.17

FTM transgender characters also appear in literary fiction. The 18th century classic Dream of the Red Mansions explores a broad range of Chinese gender/sexual expression, including male-role actresses who dress as men and romance women. Strange Tales of Liao Zhai, a 17th century collection of supernatural stories, contains the brief narrative "Changing to a man":

In Suzhou's Mudu Town, a woman was sitting in her courtyard one night when a meteorite suddenly struck her skull. She fell to the ground and died. Her parents had no other child besides her. They wept grievously and tried desperately to revive her. When they moved her body, she came back to life and laughed, "I am now a man". Upon examination it was found to be true. Her family did not treat her as a demon, but secretly rejoiced at receiving a son.18

Same-sex love and desire in Chinese literature before the 20th century

Ancient and medieval Chinese writings contained many fictional tales and historical accounts of same-sex desire, particularly male-on-male relations. Compiling a listing of such works is beyond the scope of this article. The works listed below are a sample of books written prior to the 20th century. All these works are still available in print or online:

Precious Mirror that Ranks Flowers (Pin Hua Bao Jian)

Precious Mirror that Ranks Flowers, published in 1849, has been called "China's first gay novel". While there is no dearth of earlier Chinese fiction concerning same-sex relationships, Precious Mirror was the first work focusing primarily on same-sex romance to be written in the novel form. MTF cross-dressing also figures prominently in Precious Mirror.

The Scholars (Ru Lin Wai Shi)

The Scholars is a satirical novel by Qing dynasty writer Wu Jingzi. One of the novel's key characters is the obviously boy-crazy Du Shenqing, a young scholar who takes a female concubine only for the purposes of "perpetuating the family line". His true interest lay in beautiful men, both female role actors and men "whose beauty is not like the beauty of women." After voicing his distaste for women, he exclaims, "Life should be about love. If I meet a wondrous man who knows my heart, I would no longer drink to drown my sorrows or scatter my tears to the wind."

Note: We have not read the English translation and make no guarantees as to whether any original homoerotic scenes have been 'lost' in translation.
Pantomime (Wu Sheng Xi)

Pantomime is an anthology of bawdy tales written by 17th century literati Li Yu. The anthology contains one short story about a male-to-female transition and another tale about a hermaphrodite. Although Li Yu tends to make fun of his subjects, his story-telling is not entirely heartless. In "The Boddhitsava can change a daughter to a son", a childless rich old man wanted an heir. Unfortunately, his wife was also past childbearing age. Being a "jealous woman", she had refused to allow him to take concubines. In her old age, the wife finally permitted the taking of concubines so that her husband could sire an heir by another woman. However, the only child born out of this effort was a hermaphrodite. The old man rejected the infant, and the birth mother wanted nothing to do with "it". But the rich man's wife said "This is your only flesh-and-blood after an entire lifetime. Can you bear to drown him/her? Even if you will not keep the child, you should still let him/her live." She then instructed the matrons and concubines to take care of the child.19 The rest of the narrative takes on a fantastical dimension, as do the other tales by the same author. The writer Li Yu was well known for his irreverent sense of humor as well as his skills of seduction.

Strange Tales of Liao Zhai (Liao Zhai Zhi Yi)

Strange Tales of Liao Zhai is a 12-volume collection of supernatural stories by 17th century writer Pu Songling. While many of the tales are heterosexual romances, sexual and gender minorities appear in a few stories. One of these tales, "Changing to a man", is an account of a miraculous female-to-male sex change. In another Liao Zhai story, the titular character Shang Sanguan was a young woman of Zhuge City. After her father was beaten to death by the local bully, Sanguan ran away from home and reappeared a few years later as Li Yu, a handsome young man who sang at the birthday feast of the bully. The villain was so pleased by the beautiful young man that he asked for 'his' company in the bedchamber. Sanguan took the opportunity to behead her father's murderer.20

A History of Passion (Qing Shi)

A History of Passion is a compilation of accounts of lust and love in old Chinese writings. The famed Ming Dynasty literati Feng Menglong compiled more than 800 stories into twenty four volumes. One of these volumes, "Another Kind of Passion" (Qing Wai Lei), was dedicated to male-on-male passion through the ages. The 1984 printing of A History of Passion (published as Categories of Passion in History) omitted "Another Kind of Passion". Later printings restored the once-censored content.21

From a Man's Cap to a Lady's Hairpin (Bian er Chai)

Bian er Chai, a collection of erotic fiction probably written in the 17th century, depicts both homosexual and heterosexual encounters. One of these stories, "Record of the Passionate Hero" (Qing Xia Ji), contains explicit descriptions of same-sex and opposite-sex intercourse. The protagonist Zhang is a virile soldier who has vanquished many foes on the battlefield. In addition to being married to two female warriors, he enjoys the company of multiple females (at the same time) outside of marriage. Zhang also submits to the sexual advances of his younger friend Zhong, an unusual arrangement as it is usually the older man who takes an 'active' role in a sexual coupling between two men.22

Dream of the Red Mansions (Hong Lou Meng)

This 18th century novel by Cao Xueqin has reached cult status and has even been made into a vastly popular TV serial. Many of the male characters in Dream of the Red Mansions, including the protagonist himself, practice the bisexuality common among Chinese men of their era.

Note: We have not read the English translation and make no guarantees as to whether any original homoerotic scenes have been 'lost' in translation.

Same-sex love in Chinese movies

In recent years, film fest goers saw a good number of China/Taiwan-made gay- or lesbian-themed movies, the better known ones being Wedding Banquet, East Palace, West Palace, and Lan Yu. Most gay Chinese movies with modern-day settings follow the Western paradigm of giving much import to the issue of sexual orientation. The traditional Chinese view of sexuality, however, focused on actions and preferences more than on sexual orientation as an integral part of personal identity. Even in romantic tales centered on a heterosexual relationship or homosexual relationship, the sexual preference of individual characters was usually not considered noteworthy.

Chinese films set in earlier eras tend to follow the line of "Guy A falls in love with B, and it just so happens that B is a man (or woman)", or "Lady Z forms a life-long romantic bond with Y and Y happens to be male (or female).", instead of the Western formula of "Guy A falls in love with Guy B, which brings about a sexual identity crisis in Guy B, and now Guy A also has to deal with society's homophobia." The following is a listing of Chinese movies about same-sex love in pre-1950s settings, all of which give sexual/gender minorities a matter-of-fact treatment without deliberately drawing attention to their minority status.

Intimates (1997)

The Chinese title of Intimates is Zi Shu ("Self-Combing"), a reference to the Southern Chinese custom of women who refuse heterosexual marriage and live with other women. Set in part in 1930s China, the film centers on two women - Yi Huan, a young woman who takes the "zi shu" oath of lifelong heterosexual celibacy; and Jade Bangle, a rich man's concubine who helps Yi Huan join the Golden Orchid Society. Yi Huan, unlike some other Golden Orchid members, has no bias against heterosexual unions. She had a male sweetheart and only took the "zi shu" oath to avoid being married to another man. Both women are later betrayed by the men in their lives. After seeing each other through trying times, their close, committed relationship develops a romantic, sexual component. Their love would span a lifetime and inspire the next generation. Intimates won awards at both the Tokyo International Film Festival and the Hong Kong International Film Festival.

Fleeing By Night (2000)

Fleeing by Night takes its title from a Chinese opera in which the medieval hero Lin Chong kills the villain and then flees for his life. Set against the backdrop of 1930s China, Fleeing by Night follows the life of Shaodong, a young man engaged to a lady whose family sponsors an opera company. While watching his fiancee's theater company, Shaodong falls in love with the actor playing Lin Chong, who is himself called Lin Chong. It was not until many years later that Shaodong finds out his then-fiancee Ying'er has long loved the same man.

Despite the curious love triangle, Shaodong and Ying'er maintain a close marriage. One does, however, get the feeling that their relationship is based on deep friendship, not romantic love. The true passion of both their lives is acknowledged to be the unfortunate Lin Chong, whose personal journey followed the plot of the tragic opera. The relationship between Lin Chong and Shaodong never crossed the line into sex but is not seen as less important for that; the movie's explicit gay sex scenes had little to do with mutual love. Fleeing by Night is interesting because its treatment of desire and sexuality is quite different from the typical Western movie's "love=sex" formula.

Dong Fang Bu Bai (1992)

Known to Western audiences as "Swordsman II", the movie title Dong Fang Bu Bai is actually the name of the lead character, a powerful and sexually ambivalent sorcerer. Dong Fang, meaning "The East", is a Chinese surname, and Bu Bai, the personal name of the said character, means "Invincible". The convoluted plot involves a medieval martial artist who falls in love in a "beautiful maiden", not knowing the "maiden" is the self-castrated Dong Fang.

Farewell my Concubine (1993)

The film takes its title from a Chinese opera of the same name, though "Farewell my Concubine" is more accurately translated as "The Warlord Bids Farewell to his Lady". The story follows the life of a female impersonator from the 1920s up to the present day. Sold to a theater company at an early age, Dieyi grows up acting female roles and becomes famous for playing Lady Yu, consort of the the king Xiangyu in the tragic opera "The warlord bids farewell to his lady".

Dieyi carries his role offstage and develops an amorous affection for his friend Xiaolou, who plays Xiangyu opposite Dieyi's Lady Yu. His feelings are unrequited, however. Xiaolou marries the courtesan Juxian, while Dieyi accepts the sexual patronage of a wealthy male client...

  1. Li Dalin, "The loves and hates of same-sex passion" in The sexual culture of pre-modern China
  2. ibid
  3. Same sex love in ancient Chinese literature (
  4. 10 Famous Male Favorites of Antiquity: Dong Xian (
  5. The Origin of Idioms: "Blamed by a thousand men" (
  6. Same sex love in ancient Chinese literature (
  7. Li Fang (ed.), "Tombs" in A Comprehensive Record of the Great Peace, Scroll 389
  8. The Long History of Same-sex love (A Thousand Dragons web)
  9. Li, "From emperors to commoners: the culture of male-on-male desire" in The sexual culture of pre-modern China
  10. Chen Sen, "Pin Hua Bao Jian" (Xibei University Publishing House, 1993)
  11. Li Yu, "Nan Meng Mu Jiaohe Sanqian" in Pantomime
  12. Bret Hinsch, Passions of the Cut Sleeve, p128
  13. "Self-combing" women and the "never-home" wife (
  14. The Golden Orchid Oath (
  15. China Portrait: The Last "Self-combing" women - unmarried for life but without hatred for men (
  16. The Long History of Same-sex love (Thousand Dragons web)
  17. The History of Jin: Section 63 - Empresses and Imperial Wives
  18. Pu Songling, Hua Nan from Liao Zhai Zhi Yi
  19. Li Yu, Bian Nv Wei Er Pu Sa Qiao from Wu Sheng Xi
  20. Pu, Shang Sanguan from Liao Zhai Zhi Yi
  21. A History of Passion (
  22. Qing Xia Ji in Bian Er Chai