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Homosexuality in Ancient China

Homosexuality In Ancient China

Updated: Jun 11


China is one of the oldest countries in the world, with a history spanning more than 5,000 years. So why is it that you don’t hear much about homosexuality and queer relationships in China? Part of that has to do with the culture of ancient China and Western influences that erased the history of gay people. Similar to the rest of the world, gay people have always existed—the difference is how societies dealt with their queer history. So let’s talk about the queer history of ancient China!

Records of Homosexuality

Painting of a woman spying on male lovers
"Woman Spying on Male Lovers" (Image Source: Chinese Sexual Culture Museum)

Similar to homosexuality in ancient Greece, same-sex rituals and activities occurred in China between men of different socioeconomic classes. It was not looked at the same way our modern world perceives sexuality. It was part of the culture but not widely discussed. One Western chronicler, Galeote Pereira, recorded instances of prostitution in Beijing where young men were bought and taught the art of dance, music, and other skills related to being a host, similar to geishas in Japan. Due to China being very patriarchal, records were essentially all written by men for men, so records of same-sex relationships between women were scarce, if not non-existent.

Factors of Same-Sex Relationships

When it came to the power balance of same-sex relationships between men, the hierarchy was dictated by three different factors: gender, age, and status. Women were already seen as socially inferior to men at this time, so when relationships occurred between two men, other factors such as age and status determined the roles in both a sexual encounter and social encounter. It was not always a romantic relationship—there were instances of political marriage.

What is a "Cut Sleeve?"

An illustration of Dong Xian and Emperor Ai depicting the story of Passion of the cut sleeve
An illustration of Dong Xian and Emperor Ai depicting the story of Passion of the cut sleeve (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The term “cut-sleeve,” or duàn xiù, was coined by historians based on the story of the late Emperor Ai of the Han Dynasty. The story goes that Emperor Ai had a lover named Don Xian. One afternoon, in order to not disturb the sleeping lover on his arm, Emperor Ai cut off the sleeve from his robe. Thereafter the term “cut-sleeve” was used by historians as a euphemism for men loving men. The term 斷袖之癖 (duàn xiù zhī pǐ) translates to “the passion of the cut sleeve.”

Being Gay in Modern China

Despite the somewhat cute story behind the term “cut-sleeve,” having one of the largest dating apps geared towards gay and bisexual men, and claiming to support same-sex rights at the UN, China is still a difficult place to live for LGBTQ individuals. While there are organizations and cities known to be LGBTQ-friendly, there is still a stigma around the topic of queer people in China. Even with the younger generation being more accepting, advocates in China still face obstacles from the government and older generations, so the fight for the queer community in China is still ongoing. But, one last reminder for everyone: there have been and always will be queer people in China, changing the world one separated sleeve at a time.



Daily JSTOR. (2020, June 10). In Han Dynasty China, Bisexuality Was the Norm.

Deck, A., & Yang, W. (2021, August 27). To survive, China's biggest gay dating app became a pharmacy. Rest of World.

Hinsch, B. (1990). Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China. University of California Press.

1 Comment

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It's quite an interesting and specific topic, and until I read it, I couldn't even imagine that such a thing could exist in ancient China. Every time this network surprises me more and more, I can't even imagine that this could happen, because remembering those commercial carpet images that they have in their offices, I immediately wonder how they have time for any kind of life there, they are always working, it's just a nightmare, there can't be any hint of a personal life with that schedule. But it does exist, no matter what the schedule is, so it's doubly interesting to discuss this topic, because it's quite old and interesting again.

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