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social sciences

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Scholars have assumed that "gay" relationships in ancient China were asymmetrical in terms of age and class, with elder social superiors initiating relationships with younger males of lower status. This assumption is somewhat confirmed by a later tradition, but very few early documents mention the lovers' ages or roles. Class difference is often tenuous. In the story of the Prince of Xiangcheng, quoted in the Garden of Tales (Shuoyuan), the grandee Zhuang Xin (who lived under King Xiang of Chu, who ruled from 298 to 263 B. C. E.) cruises him quite unabashedly!

Chapter 12 in the Book of Han Feizi (Hanfeizi) tells how Mi Zixia was the favorite of Marquis Ling of Wei (who ruled from 534 to 493 B. C. E.). As the two lovers were strolling in the palace orchard, Mi Zixia plucked an especially sweet peach. He found the fruit so much to his taste that he did not finish it, but gave the remainder to his lord, who praised him: "How much does he love me! That he gives me such a good fruit!" But when Mi Zixia lost his good looks and his lord's love, he was actively resented. This anecdote from the late Warring States period (475 to 221 B. C. E.) provided the phrase "shared peach," or fentao, as the earliest "gay" historical allusion.

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Lord Longyang's story in the Intrigues of the Warring States (Zhanguoce) shows how favorites strengthened their position through artful persuasion. After he had taken a boat to go fishing with his lover, the King of Wei, and caught more than ten fishes, Lord Longyang suddenly began to weep. The King asked why he was weeping, and he answered, "I was happy when I got my first fishes, but I then caught bigger ones. I don't want the smaller ones any more. I fear you will treat me like my first fishes." In response, the King issued an edict forbidding courtiers to introduce handsome men to his court.

The phrase longyang became one of the standard allusions to male love as early as the third century C. E. Under the Ming dynasty, it was a byword for an ephebe or . "To act the longyang" meant to exhibit passivity or to engage in male prostitution. "Longyang's spot" came to signify the anus. Even today the "Longyang Club," an organization of Caucasian gay men and lesbians attracted to Asians, is named after Lord Longyang.

A frequent topic of early essays by political thinkers and moralists, who would later become scholar-officials, is how only worthy people gain office and power. In these works, the authors attack commoners such as sophists, musicians, unprincipled ephebes, and charming women who curry favor with kings. While they worry that a ruler's devotion to male beauty and erotic skills might ruin a state, the writers do not condemn male-male love in itself.

In 221 B. C. E., the first Emperor of Qin reunited China and laid the foundation of a centralized, bureaucratic state. Under the Qin (221 - 206 B. C. E.) and the Han dynasties, beauty and flattery still reaped honors. Most of the emperors had male or eunuch lovers.

Emperor Wen (who ruled from 179 to 157 B. C. E.) fell in love with a page, Deng Tong, and lavished gifts and honors on him. A physiognomist foretold that Deng Tong would starve to death, so the Emperor granted his lover minting privileges, and he consequently became a Chinese Croesus! However, what the ruler had not foreseen was that the heir to the throne grew so jealous of his father's favorite that upon succeeding as emperor his first sovereign act would be to confiscate Deng Tong's estate, so that that the favorite died a poor wretch.

A similar story is that of Emperor Ai's chief favorite Dong Xian (23 B. C. E. - 1 C. E.). A mere gentleman of the Privy Chamber when Ai ascended the throne, Dong Xian was promoted to High Constable at age 22, and the Emperor even thought of handing over the realm to him, showered him with riches, and had a sumptuous palace and mausoleum built for him. But immediately following Emperor Ai's death, Dong Xian was forced to commit suicide.

Despite his unhappy end, Dong Xian provided the Chinese with a well-known historical allusion to male-male love. When taking a nap, Dong Xian lay on the emperor's broad sleeve; the emperor wished to get up without disturbing his lover, so he cut his sleeve. Later writers coined the phrase duanxiu, or "the cut sleeve," as a byword for gay love. Duanxiu zhi pi, or "the passion of the cut sleeve," is still understood by some contemporary Chinese as a reference to male homosexuality.

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