“The pleasure of the bitten peach,” a flowery Chinese slang term for homosexuality, comes from the cautionary tale of Mizi Xia, semi-legendary courtier to the Duke Ling of Wei. Mizi Xia earned the Duke’s favor through his beauty and was consequently given leeway to break rules (such as borrowing the Duke’s carriage without permission so he could visit his ailing mother) that would have resulted in brutal punishment for anyone else. On one occasion Mizi Xia was praised for sharing an especially delicious peach he had already started eating with the Duke, giving rise to the above euphemism. Tragically, as Mizi Xia grew older the Duke’s attraction to him faded, and his old acts of filial piety and generosity that had won him approval were spun as evidence of wrongdoing. The moral of the story? Fickle rulers must be handled with care.
Mizi Xia may or may not have existed, but his story captured the imaginations of generations of Chinese writers. As the cultural context around courtiers changed his name gradually became associated with male prostitutes, finally shifting into a taboo as China’s opinions on homosexual relationships grew more disapproving.
Shi Pei Pu (Chinese: 时佩璞), a 20th century Chinese opera singer and dancer specializing in female roles, is better known now for his unusual espionage saga than for his art. His fluent French was put to use when he met a diplomat at a party, igniting a nearly twenty year (sometimes long-distance) romantic and sexual relationship built on his requests for confidential French documents. Both he and the other man were later caught, and he served several years of prison time before being pardoned. After his release Shi remained in Paris as an opera performer; his death warranted a mention in Time. His story was loosely adapted into the play M. Butterfly.
Shi’s espionage case achieved notoriety due to the gender dynamics involved. Although reports on how it started vary between outright lying and insinuation, one way or another Shi’s lover was convinced that he was a woman for the duration of their relationship, including through a faked pregnancy. Although Shi was reluctant to speak on the details to the press, he did explain that he “used to fascinate both men and women” and that “what [he] was and what they were didn’t matter”.
In Chinese mythology, Tu Er Shen (兔兒神 or 兔神) is the god of male homosexual love. As the story goes, he was once an ordinary man named Hu Tianbao, who fell madly in love with an attractive imperial inspector, which he kept to himself because they were socially unequal; when he was caught watching the object of his affection through a bathroom wall and confessed to his infatuation, he was punished with death by beating. What might have been a tragic gay-bashing tale instead has a happy ending: The lord of the underworld judged Hu’s crime to have been love, which was no crime at all, and appointed him the deity of gay romance. He then appeared as a rabbit (hence the name Tu Er Shen, which means “The Leveret Spirit”) in a dream to a man from his hometown and prompted him to erect a shrine in the new god’s honor.
Worship of the Leveret Spirit has continued on and off since its 18th century inception. This website lists traditional methods of praying to Tu Er Shen, including offerings of paper charms and description of the deity’s generous nature. An online vendor now sells love spells named after Tu Er Shen (the website even includes handy instructions for determining if you are homosexual).
Chinese singer-songwriter-producer Chet Lam’s strategy for evading press scrutiny over his homosexuality was simple: be open from day one, because “when you lay yourself out in front of them, with no hidden agenda or anything, they will just stop asking.” As he has been composing and performing his music – some of which explicitly mentions same-sex relationships – to great success since 2003 without hassle over his sexual orientation, his maneuver appears to have worked. Although Lam has written pop hits for several bands, including his sister’s, his own style is more on the “city-folk” side, suitable as an opener for acts like k.d. lang. As a further testament to his entertainment versatility, he has also appeared in a handful of films.
Lam’s website (primarily in Chinese) can be found here; his Twitter, which has more content in English, is available here.
Known in life as Emporer Xin Liu, Ai earned his posthumous name of “filial and lamentable” (full: Xiaoai). While the “filial” aspect was standard for Chinese emperors beginning with Han Xiaowen, and the “lamentable” refers to his early death, historians center his biographies around acts that would be equally good reasons for the simultaneously blessed and damning titles: grave mismanagement and corruption, including the memorable love affair that gave rise to the Chinese idiom 斷袖之癖, “the passion of the cut sleeve.”
Ai became Prince Xin at age four when his father, brother to the then-reigning emperor, passed away. He earned his place as heir to the throne when he impressed his uncle with his knowledge of law and Confucian texts, and ascended at age twenty. Although his subjects were initially enthusiastic about his intelligence and people skills, during his short reign of six years his popularity tanked, due to heavy taxes, blatant corruption, and his predilection for disposing of officials who got in his way. Wikipedia’s account (which is copied word-for-word on a number of other cites, making citing other sources difficult) of the politicking his grandmother – who held a great deal of influence over Ai – engaged in reads like a high society soap opera.
As negative as the press Ai generated was, he is best known now for a touching love story…that, true to form, involved stunning levels of corruption and ended in tragedy. Dong Xian, a low-level public official, rapidly ascended through the court ranks after catching Ai’s eye, finally taking the title of commander of the armed forces. Historians agree that although they were both married the two were lovers, seeing as Dong displayed no remarkable aptitude that would justify him being given the highest existing political post, and he had a tendency to follow Ai around the palace at times when he should have been doing his job. At the time, homosexual relationships between men were not stigmatized; and so, when Ai arrived at an official function one day missing a sleeve and explained that he had cut it off rather than disturb Dong, who had been sleeping on the fabric, his courtiers took to cutting off their own sleeves as a way of celebrating the love affair. Unfortunately, when Ai passed away shortly after, his unpopularity – and more political maneuvering by his relatives – put Dong and his wife in a position where they were forced to commit suicide.