GAY MEN AND LESBIANS comprise an estimated three to four percent of China’s 1.2 billion people, which yields a range of 36 million to 48 million people. If the real number lies at the midpoint of that staggering estimate, the total number of homosexuals in China is greater than the total population of Spain.
Historically, some same-sex relationships were accepted in China, at least among the upper classes. Such relationships typically took place between a mature man and a youth, like those we associate with ancient Greece. A “half-eaten peach”—lovingly offered in an orchard by the young Mizi Xia to his patron, Duke Ling of Wei, in 500 BCE—became a metaphor for homosexuality in ancient China. So, too, did the “cut sleeve” in the title of a book by Bret Hinsch, Passions of the Cut Sleeve, about homosexuality in imperial China. The reference is to Emperor Ai of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). Napping one afternoon with his favorite boy resting on his arm, the Emperor wished to get up without disturbing his still sleeping lover, so he cut off his own imperial sleeve.
Homosexual behavior—as distinct from a “gay” identity, which is a Western import that didn’t hit China until the late 20th century—was an ordinary part of Chinese life. Same-sex love is depicted in novels like the 18th-century Dream of the Red Chamber. It was common within Beijing Opera circles, as portrayed in the 1993 movie Farewell, My Concubine. Such relationships were usually forged between ruler and ruled or between rich and poor, and were fueled by that power dynamic. Rarely was same-sex activity criticized in the dynastic records and poetry that recorded its presence. Observers condemning the undue influence of Mizi Xia over Duke Ling, for instance, did not critique the same-gender tie per se, only the potential threat it posed to the court’s legal and social order.
What about homosexuality in today’s China, five-plus decades after the Communist Revolution and almost three decades since the death of Mao Zedong? To find out, I recently visited the country I’ve been studying since 1979. I conducted in-depth, Chinese-language interviews with gay men and lesbians in Beijing, Shanghai, and the United States, hung out in gay bars in China’s big cities, read Chinese underground gay publications and books by sociologists from mainland China and Hong Kong, and combed websites targeting China’s gay community.
Kyna Rubin is a freelance writer and China specialist. Her writings have appeared in Asian Wall Street Journal, Far Eastern Economic Review, The Los Angeles Times, and other publications.