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social sciences

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Reaction against excessive favoritism led to the virtual disappearance of imperial lovers during the Later Han (25-220 C. E.). The rising bureaucracy attempted to rationalize access to positions of power. In so doing, it eroded the influence of imperial lovers.

Han texts begin to mention lovers of grandees and such officials as the powerful minister Huo Guang (died 68 B. C. E.), who loved his majordomo Feng-the-Fair, and General Liang Ji (died 159 C. E.), who loved one of his slaves.

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Boy-loving Aristocrats in a Divided China (220-589 C. E.)

This period known as the Six Dynasties appears as a golden age of male love among aristocrats and scholars. After the long reign of the Han, China was divided into North and South. Short-lived dynasties came and went as the result of plots and coups. At this time, cultured gentlemen enjoyed metaphysical debates, wit, good looks, and expensive clothes. Male beauty and erotic skills could still win office and influence. Fashionable gentlemen wore powder and makeup without being seen as effeminate.

Collections of anecdotes and gossip from this period feature men freely discussing male beauty and, occasionally, male-male love. Love poems, such as those in the anthology New Songs from a Jade Terrace (Yutai xinyong), include sensuous depictions of ephebes, songs of amorous friendship, and laments on departed friends. The elaborate poetry fashionable in this period is studded with allusions to historical anecdotes and characters, including Mi Zixia, the shared peach, Lord Longyang's fishes, and the cut sleeve. Other texts refer to "male love" or the "taste for boys" (nanfeng or nanse), as opposed to the attraction to women (nüse).

Low ranking aristocrats, officials, and scholars of equal standing and age, such as the two great poets Ruan Ji (210-263) and Ji Kang (223-262), are also featured in the texts of this period. In addition, male prostitution is mentioned, and poems often describe catamites, or passive ephebes, and their often tragic fate.

During the Six Dynasties, Buddhism deeply influenced Chinese thought, and introduced the idea of carnal sin. From a Buddhist perspective, sensuality is an impediment to spiritual life and is regarded as transgression. Catalogues of erotic practices--much more detailed than taboos on rape, adultery, and endogamy--appeared to imply that certain activities are sinful in themselves. This attitude was new in China, and it proved a basis for home-grown puritanism. However, unlike monotheistic religions, Buddhism is not particularly homophobic, and does not preclude same-sex love between monks or nuns.

A Low Profile?: From the Sui to the Yuan Dynasties (589-1368)

In materials of the period from the Sui to the Yuan Dynasties (589-1368), male-male love is less visible than it was in the earlier periods. While a few emperors and princes are recorded as having favorites, their influence was kept in check by the bureaucracy's increasing grip on power.

During the Tang dynasty (618-907), poets--often social equals--exchanged amorous verse. In a different vein, the end of the Rhapsody on the Supreme Joy of the Sexual Union of Heaven and Earth and Yin and Yang (Tiandi yinyang jiaohuan dalefu) by Bai Xingjian (died 826) catalogues favorites from Antiquity to the Han, thus indicating an awareness of what we would now call gay history.

During the Song dynasty (960-1279), a prosperous urban society emerged with a highly visible culture of male prostitution that attracted authorities' concern. An edict from the Zhenghe era (1111-1117) called for the arrest and flogging of prostitutes for gross indecency. A local brand of Buddhist-inspired puritanism known as Neo-Confucianism, which emphasized abstinence and the reining in of desires, appeared under the Song.

"Gay" High Culture and Nascent Homophobia (1368-1911)

A tremendous diversity of sources about male-male love survives from the two later imperial dynasties, the Chinese Mings (1368-1644) and the Manchu Qings (1644-1911). In addition to traditional high literature in classical Chinese, a great deal of vernacular literature survives, including popular and urban genres such as fiction, drama, and humor. These works depict every stratum of society with unprecedented realism.

Almost every social or pornographic novel or short story from this period has some gay or lesbian content. Many erotic prints and paintings from the Ming to the early Republic (1911-1949) have survived in spite of their vulnerability to natural disasters and zealous censors.

As a result of the availability of so much material from this period, a dominant model of sex between Chinese men can be surmised. They mostly practiced and, more rarely, fellatio. Most erotic works deal with adult males loving younger--often teen-aged, effeminate, and sexually passive--males. Relationships between men in this period were sometimes institutionalized, with references to marriage, adoptive fatherhood (qifuzi), and sworn brotherhood (qixiongdi), especially in Fujian province.

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