Why Modern Depictions of Pre-Modern Chinese Heterosexuality Upsets Me

Because it did not exist.

Yes. There was no such thing as heterosexuality back then. Nor homosexuality or bisexuality, for that matter. There was only sexuality and, as far as I know, we had (and still have) a gender binary system so sexual attraction was seen as something akin to flavours. Sometimes you want snails, sometimes you want oysters. You may like one better than the other or you may only like one of them or you may like neither, but you would not make an identity out of it.

This is also pretty much the Japanese view before the Meiji Restoration. Many of what I will be discussing can be applied to the Japanese as well, but I want to focus on my own experiences towards my own culture and history.

For those of you who were unaware, homosexual acts in Chinese history is very well documented even if the resources are not so readily available. Do a quick Google search and you are likely to come across the phrase “passion of the cut sleeve”, a Chinese phrase for male same-sex desire. It would also come with a popular tale about Emperor Ai of the Han Dynasty, whose male lover, Dong Xian, once fell asleep on the sleeve of his large robe. Out of consideration for Dong Xian, the Emperor cut off his sleeve and went about his business.

Or perhaps you might discover antique art depicting men fucking men.

Dream of the Red Chamber, a Ming Dynasty novel considered one of the Four Great Classical Novels of China, had scenes were the male protagonist expressed sexual desire for other men. And though the protagonist of Jin Ping Mei (AKA Plum in the Golden Vase) had sexual adventures mostly with women, he still had time to play with his male servant. Jin Ping Mei by the way is also a Ming Dynasty novel, notorious for being rather pornographic.

These are just a few examples. Very very few.

Sex between women cannot boast of having such a large body of records and fiction dedicated to it, as men in a sexist society are uninterested with what women do with each other unless it threatens them. And why would they be interested in sex which does not involve them? Even so, we still have enough relics from the past to tell us it happened. A Han Dynasty tomb unearthed a few years ago had a collection of dildos in them, double-headed ones even. And in the realm of theatre, “Women in Love” was performed in Beijing in 2010, it’s story derived from a 17th century work.

Yes, there has been arguments against (male, mostly) homosexual acts. But for the most part, homosexual acts was widely regarded as normal throughout Chinese history. We’ve only had legal codes against male-male sex in the Ming and Qing dynasties, and both happened because of pressure from Europeans. The Ming one was quick to fall out of favour, the Qing one unfortunately laid the groundwork for the homophobia to come, along with the concept of there being a hetero and a homosexuality.

Having learnt and still continuing to learn about this aspect of my people’s history, I now have a new disappointment for the sea of heterosexuality in media. I am now angry at the same-sex heritage denied to me and others like me. I am furious at how many of my fellow Chinese see the West as being more progressive in these matters when it was white people who pressured us to institute the oppression in the first place. This all because they tell lies about how we’re all backward and because we lie to ourselves that things have always been this way.

Sure we have always been heterosexist only if you consider, give or take, one century as always. One hundred fucking years in five thousand years of history.

Maybe if people cared about historical accuracy, we’d have more non-heterosexual representations. People talk about anachronisms in wuxia or a period drama, no one ever mentions the complete lack of same-sex passions. Where is my wandering female hero protagonist and her wandering female hero lover? Where is my male scholar protagonist who sneaks away with his male scholar lover when the lights are out? No, I just have to settle for Dongfang Bubai, a villainous and effeminate gay man who became like that because he cut off his testicles. Wow, how totally fucking refreshing!

Now whenever I watch something set in Ancient and Imperial China, I cannot help but thing that if the characters were real, most of them would have or had a same-sex romance. And I would like to see it happen too. But I won’t. I am a pessimist. We all seem too invested into white people”s heterosexism to recognise that it isn’t our own, nor do white people want to accept that it is because of them. And why should they? They need us– No, they need the rest of us to have problems so that they can look at themselves and think that they’re so much better when really they are not.

Maybe the West is making better effort in non-heterosexual representation. I don’t know. It still feels like the same shit to me. And even if it were true, even if Western media does rid itself of heterosexism first, Chinese history in Chinese media is still important. Because we need to know who we were. Because we need our own faces to tell us in our own words that we need not restrict our passion and desire to persons of a specific gender. And because our history of sexuality, like that of every culture’s, is necessary to help us navigate the more complex depths of the issue as we are more and more faced with the reality that the concepts we think universal wasn’t and isn’t really.

In the meantime, I shall go hunt down the movie Painted Skin 2: The Ressurection. For a lot of reasons, one of them being this:

Painted Skin 2

Promotional image from the movie Painted Skin 2. Vicki Zhao and Zhou Xun being intimate!

I’m going to be disappointed when it turns out that they aren’t actually lover, aren’t I?

EDIT: I somehow mistakenly attributed Dreams of the Red Chamber to the Ming Dynasty when it should be the Qing. This is why it’s always a good idea to read through your stuff multiple times before publishing.

23 thoughts on “Why Modern Depictions of Pre-Modern Chinese Heterosexuality Upsets Me

  1. When it comes to societies which don’t really bother about homo and hetrosexuality, yet are strictly patriarchal, there thens to be a dismissal and mockery of men who take ‘the woman’s role’ in a male homosexual relationship. Was this the case in ancient China as well?

    • Not actually. In fact, among nobles, it is quite common for a man to be valued as a lover because of his talents and achievements instead of beauty. Not that beauty in men was disregarded.

      In my ancestral province of Fujian, there was a sort of a same-sex marriage where an older man is joined with a younger one and the rituals are similar to opposite-sex marriage. This sort of marriage will eventually break up so that both men can start their families. In the ritual, the younger man’s role is similar to that of the wife, as he enters his partner’s home. But it wasn’t about “taking the women’s role” but about “deferring to one’s senior” since respect for seniority is one of the most important values of Confucianism.

      I can’t tell you in detail though. I need to do more research on this myself and I might have gotten a few facts wrong, but i know for sure that the same-sex bonding existed. There was one for women too, but I don’t know if the system was similar to the male one.

  2. Funnily enough, I myself recently learned that the Ottoman Sultans during the 18th and 19th century had started using Secular laws in their country and homosexuality was legal in the Middle East for much of that time period. This was over a century before the Europeans started changing their minds on homosexuality and the American Psychological Institute decided that homosexuality was not a mental illness.

    In my experience, there are some things that the West does better. You have secularism and gay rights are light years ahead of what’s going on here now. However, people are also blind to them problems that occur there. I didn’t even know about the KKK or all the racial tension that goes on there until I met neo_prodigy.

    I recall one of my art teachers pointing out how in his time, much of the focus on art when you are learning is on the Western masters like Van Gough, Picasso and others as opposed to Eastern Masters.

    For my part, I try to not look at just the West but East aswell. I try to learn about the other Asian cultures and countries surrounding me.

  3. In the meantime, I shall go hunt down the movie Painted Skin 2: The Ressurection.

    I love this movie!!!! It’s streaming on Netflix right now!

    I’m going to be disappointed when it turns out that they aren’t actually lover, aren’t I?

    You’re going to love and hate this movie. You’ll love it for the same reasons I did – I thought it was going to be about two women, because the when, where, and how the Fox Demon and the Princess meet is HOT. It lays the perfect framework for the ultimate lesbian love story, rendering you unable to take your eyes away from the screen.

    …And then….you’re robbed. Horribly.

  4. I think Red Chamber Dream was written during Qing dynasty in 18th century, other than that completely agreed.

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