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social sciences

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China is the only contemporary civilization with written materials dating back some 3500 years. Within this history is a rich, 2500-year-old continuous tradition of male-male love, as well as somewhat less rich traditions of what we would now call lesbianism and gender nonconformity.

The ancient Chinese had no unifying concept such as homosexuality, , or tongzhi (modern Chinese term meaning alternative love and sex) and did not link such manifestations as the taste for boys, love between ladies-in-waiting, cross dressing, and sex change. But, most significantly, in China tongzhi escaped systematic until the beginning of the twentieth century.

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Some aspects of Chinese thought before the tenth century C. E. account for traditional, tolerant attitudes toward male-male love and . These ways of loving were well integrated into Chinese values before Buddhism influenced Chinese thought after the fourth century C. E. and before the intrusion of Western bourgeois thinking beginning with the May the Fourth movement (1919).

Ancient Chinese thinkers were concerned with practical matters, such as politics and morals; they were suspicious of philosophical systems, being more intent on devising methods of wielding power and attaining wisdom. The Chinese gentleman, or junzi, aimed at universal culture, and shunned specialized knowledge and the limitations of technical expertise. On the other hand, the Chinese had an early taste for compiling catalogues and classifying human characters according to moral or psychological criteria.

Chinese morality was not based on religious taboos, but was founded on ideals of temperance, personal cultivation, and virtues such as benevolence, justice, urbanity, wisdom, and trust. The ancient Chinese did not regard sensuality as shameful, and they would have thought the regulation of erotic practices by the state as bizarre. Even a concept of sexual orientation would have seemed foreign to them. After having fulfilled the obligation of siring male heirs for the clan, males were free to pursue their own erotic paths. Same-sex eroticism was not considered a moral problem in itself.

Ancient moralists and philosophers warned against excessive passions, particularly the potential harmful influence of favorites (as well as women and eunuchs) on state affairs or households, but they praised those favorites who had a beneficial influence on rulers.

Sources of the Chinese tongzhi Tradition

Countless ancient texts in every literary genre, from history (seen as a guidebook for politics) and philosophy to poetry, anecdotes, and fiction include some queer content. Most of this material concerns male-male relationships rather than lesbian relationships or experience.

The oldest materials--especially poetry--often prove very difficult to interpret, as classical Chinese has no gender and often omits the subject of a sentence. The earliest gay sources tend to be vague, and focus on the moral rather than the sexual features in male-male relationships. However, some examples of pictorial erotica survive from the late Ming (1368-1644) onwards. While works of erotic art often fell victim to puritanical censors during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) and afterwards, modern archeological finds, such as Han (206 B. C. E.-220 C. E.) bronze dildoes, including double-headed ones for lesbian use, are slowly emerging from the shadows of Communist prudery.

Lesbian and transgender materials prove much more fragmentary than male-male references, and the earliest date back only to the Han, and are found in anecdotes and fiction rather than in official histories. Only from the Ming dynasty are references to alternative sexualities and gender nonconformity more comprehensive.

The Politics of Favor (Seventh Century B. C. E. - 220 C. E.)

A late eighteenth-century anecdote dates to the legendary Yellow Emperor, who ruled from 2687 to 2599 B. C. E., i. e., back to the remotest period of Chinese history. The oldest surviving literary materials to have been interpreted as gay are some Songs of Zheng (Zhengfeng) in the Book of Odes (Shijing), written between the tenth and sixth centuries B. C. E. Some of these poems engage in amorous teasing, celebrate virile brotherhood, and praise warriors' prowess and beauty.

Other ancient texts are historical anecdotes and philosophers' admonitions that provide an image of how widespread and institutionalized male love may have been in feudal China. Words for it, such as chong and bi, refer to political favor, to the relationship between ruler and courtier, and are found in texts up to the end of the imperial period.

The earliest truly historical material is found in the Annals According to Zuoqiu Ming (Zuozhuan), which refers to Shen Hou, a favorite of a king, then an earl in the seventh century B. C. E., and to the good-looking Zhao of Song, lover of Marquis Ling of Wei and his wife at the end of the sixth century and early fifth century B. C. E.

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Above: This erotic print from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) depicts a female voyeur watching two males copulate.

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