Content warning for suicide
"Favors of the cut sleeve are generous. Love of the half-eaten peach never dies,"
– Liu Zun
We move now from Germany to ancient China, to two of the most famous gay couples in Chinese history and the sources of some of the most recognizable queer symbols in China: the bitten peach and the torn sleeve. While these are not common symbols in most Western media, it is used in China as code phrases for relationships between two men. Though the stories may have been slightly distorted throughout the years, both are still very important parts of queer history.
Our first story begins with a Duke and a courtesan; their relationship continued from 493-534 BC. As the story goes, Duke Ling, a married man, was said to be madly in love with his courtesan, Mizi Xia. Mizi Xia was said to be incredibly beautiful and well-loved throughout Wie, the land that the Duke ruled. While the two were in an extramarital relationship, the Duke was very open about his love for the other man. He was known for bragging about Mizi Xia when the two were still close, and that fact alone tells us a lot about queer relationships at that time. They were considered unideal and unnatural, but most people found them allowable so long as the couple also fulfilled their "duties" within a heterosexual relationship. This meant having children or, in the Duke's case, producing heirs. It was tolerated that the Duke had an extramarital affair with a male courtesan, and he was allowed to not only brag about the relationship but also give his lover favours. In these moments, we find their most well-known stories.
The first begins when Xia's mother became ill. Xia, upon receiving the news, forged the Duke's signature to take one of the carriages. This offence was punishable by cutting off the feet of the thief but when Xia returned, the Duke didn't punish him. Instead, he praised his love's loyalty to family and willingness to face punishment to be with his mother.
Another source of pride for the Duke was the bitten peach, a symbol still used to signify love between men in China. While walking through the garden together, Xia picked a peach and took a single bite. When he realized it was particularly sweet, he gave it to the Duke. He praised Xia, saying "How sincere is your love for me! You forgot your appetite and thought only of giving me good things to eat!”
It is a beautiful story, but it's telling begins for another reason. It was originally recorded by a scholar who used the beginning and the eventual end of the story as a parable. It was said that after Xia's beauty faded, so did the Duke's love for him. He was accused of crimes against the Duke—the crimes for which he'd received praise. The theft of the carriage and the gift of the half-eaten peach, once hailed by the Duke, now brought punishment for Xia. The Duke's shifting attitude was used by the scholar to ward against the dangers of falling into the favour of powerful people.
Our second story involves higher stations and higher stakes: Emperor Ai of Han and the commander of his armed forces, Dong Xian. The Emperor was known for his sentimentality in connection with awarding stations, having four dowager empresses at the same time, a feat that he was the first and last to manage. Still, there were harsh consequences, as warned by his Prime Minister Wang Jia. He cited the many other people close to the emperor who had been promoted quickly and faced punishment for that.
The Emperor reacted by accusing the Prime Minister of false crimes and forcing him to commit suicide. He reacted to all criticism of his lover in this fashion and spent the whole of his life very in love with the Xian. Unlike the Duke’s relationship with the courtesan, the Emperor did not turn against his lover. By all accounts, he spent his life entirely in love with the man, leading to the story of the cut sleeve.
On one occasion, Dong Xian fell asleep in the emperor’s arms. When the emperor had to leave, he cut off his sleeve so as not to wake his love. Again, the story was simple, small, and so very sweet, but it has an untold conclusion. When the Emperor died, so did Dong Xian, though not for the same reason. While the Emperor died of natural causes, Dong Xian committed suicide. The Emperor ordered for Dong Xian to be given the throne after his death, but the order was ignored the minute his body was cold. All of Dong Xian’s titles were stripped away, and he killed himself, along with his wife. After his death, to honour him, people around the land cut their sleeves as a symbol of mourning and respect.
These two stories have many common factors: small gestures of affection, gentle sacrifices, and love of two people from wildly different stations. Something very important we have to recognize is their unhappy endings, the lack of happily-ever-after. As soon as the protection of powerful men fell away, the two lost everything. This did not happen to the wives of these men. While we are in no way implying wives are always treated well, the wives of these men were seen as a family, their relationships to their husbands were seen as legitimate, and they were recognized by all forms of government. The relationships between two men are not given that luxury, even today. As of April 28th, 2016, 15 countries have legalized same sex marriage. There are 196 countries in the world. It is not to say that in those 15 countries there is any form of actual equality, but at the very least there is some recognition of the existence and validity of those relationships.
In those times in China, queer relationships were tolerated; that was all we got. Queer people were allowed to exist, and we deserve more than just that. We should be recognized, embraced, accepted, given equal rights, and a million other things, but toleration is not enough; it is such a low bar, but few countries manage to step over it. It is intolerable that queer people have been forced to accept less for so long, and the continuation of that tradition today. We deserve more than symbols.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
Editorial Board. (2000). Chinese Tradition of Male Love [Abstract]. Retrieved from http://www.gay-art-history.org/gay-history/gay-customs/china-gay-cut-sleeve/china-homosexual-bitten-peach.html
Gil, V. E. (1992). The cut sleeve revisited: A brief ethnographic interview with a male homosexual in mainland China.
Hay, B. (n.d.) Comrades of the Cut Sleeve Homosexuality in China [PDF file]. Retrieved from http://bobhay.org/_downloads/_homo/11%20Comrades%20of%20%20the%20Cut%20Sleeve.pdf
Hinsch, B. (1990). Passions of the cut sleeve: The male homosexual tradition in China. Univ of California Press.
Shane, K. (2009). Pleasures of the Bitten Peach: An Exploration of Gender & Sexuality in Late Imperial China.
Sun, Z. (2010). Speaking out and spacemaking. Gender Equality, Citizenship and Human Rights: Controversies and Challenges in China and the Nordic Countries.
Wei, W. (2007). ‘Wandering men’ no longer wander around: the production and transformation of local homosexual identities in contemporary Chengdu, China. Inter‐Asia Cultural Studies, 8(4), 572-588.