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social sciences

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Ancient China's best known " king" is Mulan, a girl who dressed as a man so she could be drafted in the army instead of her father. After being promoted to general, she came back home and revealed her true gender. The earliest poem on this patriotic hero dates back to the Liang dynasty (502-557), and it has inspired poets, playwrights, and story tellers ever since.

Empress Wu Zetian (624-705, ruled 685-705), proclaimed herself "emperor." She overturned gender conventions of all kinds, wore male regalia, and had her male servants and men in her "harem" dress as women. She may have initiated the prevailing Tang dynasty fashion for women cross dressing.

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Since women were excluded from the civil service examinations and careers in government, some of them cross dressed in order to attend school or secure a government position. The History of the Southern Dynasties (Nanshi) tells how Lou Cheng wore male clothes and became governor of Yangzhou before being exposed as a woman.

Several short stories and plays depict women triumphing in the examinations as First Laureates. The best known Chinese love story, Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yintai, features a young lady, Zhu Yingtai, dressing as a boy in order to attend a renowned college to prepare for the examinations. She falls in love with one of her male classmates, Liang Shanbo, who believes she is a boy until he is disappointed to discover that "he" is actually a girl. The version of this story in Shaoxing Yueju opera, in which all the parts are played by women, is the most outstanding tale of gender confusion in Chinese literature.

Male-to-female cross dressing seems to date back to the Northern and Southern dynasties (420-589), and some religious festivals seem to have required transvestism. Male prostitution apparently involved feminization as early as the fifth and sixth centuries; it certainly did so under the Ming, and was closely associated with the all-male opera in the early days of the Qing. The young men who played the female roles took feminine sounding names, such as "Orchid fragrance" (Mei Lanfang, 1894-1961). In addition, most favorites and catamites were expected to act feminine.

While transvestism was seen as an ambiguous device for women's emancipation and part of the refined culture of upper-class prostitution, it was also fraught with danger, because it was seen as signifying a challenge to norms and hierarchies. It was regarded as a badge of subservience for men and of undue independence for women. Sending a man women's clothing was the gravest of insults.

Ancient documents frequently mention sex change in humans and in animals as fact. These materials include omens and fantastic tales from the Han onwards and Taoist legends about pregnant men. In many of these works, female-to-male foretells the advent of usurpers or strong women, while male-to-female sex changes are regarded as omens of power falling into the hands of consorts, eunuchs, or unworthy favorites

An interesting case of religious "sex reassignment" is that of an originally male boddhisattva (or emerging Buddha), Avalokitesvara, turning to female in late Tang China. He ultimately evolved into the son-giving Guanyin, the goddess of Mercy. The transformation may have been influenced by Wu Zetian, a devout Buddhist.

Bourgeois "Morals" and Deafening Silence: 1920s to late 1980s

The incompetent and corrupt Qing dynasty finally collapsed in 1911, and with it went entire areas of traditional Chinese mores and culture. The trauma inflicted by Western and Japanese humiliations since the Opium Wars had intellectuals and politicians clamoring for a thorough "modernization" of China after the European model.

With the fall of the Empire, the May the Fourth movement opened the way to muddle-headed Westernization, as the fetters of tradition were replaced by the yoke of petit-bourgeois puritanism. In the period from the 1930s to the 1990s, China imported Western medical and psychiatric homophobia. As a consequence, there was a deafening silence in regard to queer sexuality and culture.

Nevertheless, flickers of traditional attitudes and customs survived. The world of female impersonators lasted into the 1920s, and male prostitution remained active in Shanghai and Tianjin in the 1930s. Many gay Europeans moved to China in the early twentieth century because they regarded it as more tolerant than their homelands.

The warlord Cao Kun (1862-1938) kept a catamite. Some famous individuals, such as the writers Xu Zhimo (1896-1931) and Guo Moruo (1892-1978), the feminist revolutionary Qiu Jin (1879-1907), and the female spy for Japan Eastern Jewel (executed in 1945), are known to have had homosexual experiences.

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