"Favors of the cut sleeve are generous, Love of the half-eaten peach never dies,"
Now that we slip out of our World War 2 series, we go 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. And while the stories may have been slightly distorted throughout the years, both are still very important parts of queer history, while having a slightly darker reality to them.
Our first story begins with a Duke and a courtesan, and their relationship in the years of 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. While they were not ideal, or the natural order of things, most people, considered them allowable, as long as the participants also fulfilled their “duty” within a heterosexual relationship: having children, and 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 the most often cited stories about the pair.
The first, and less famous of the two, was a story of when Xia’s mother was ill. Xia, getting the news, immediately went to forge the Duke’s signature so he could take one of the carriages to see his mother. At the time, this offense was punishable by cutting off the feet of the thief. But when Xia came back to the Duke, the Duke didn’t punish him at all Instead; he praised the man’s loyalty to family and willingness to face the punishment if it meant that he could be there for his mother. Another source of pride for the Duke is where the bitten peach symbol originated. While walking through the garden with his love, Xia picked a peach, taking a bite of it before he realized it was a particularly sweet one, and he gave it to the Duke, to which he praised the man. “How sincere is your love for me! You forgot your appetite and thought only of giving me good things to eat!” The recording of that story was what made the symbol of the bitten peach a sign for love between two men. But the reason for it’s telling begins somewhere very different. It was recorded originally by a scholar who used both the beginning and the eventual end, of the story as a parable. It was said that after Xia’s beauty faded, so made the Duke’s love for him, and he was accused of crimes against the Duke. The two crimes were previous sources of praise: the theft of the carriage and the gift of the half eaten peach. 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 comes along with the first in terms of darker consequences for simple and sweet stories of two men in love. This time, the stations were much higher, as were the stakes. The Emperor Ai of Han, and the man who was promoted quickly to commander of the armed forces because of this relationship, 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, but it had harsh consequences. He was warned of these consequences by his Prime Minister Wang Jia, who cited the many other people close to the emperor who had been promoted quickly and faced punishment for that. But the Emperor reacted to being told about this by accusing the man 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 man. 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, and when the emperor had to leave, he cut off his sleeve, so as not to wake up the man. 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. Though the Emperor ordered for Dong Xian to be given the throne after his death, the order was ignored the minute the 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. But 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 is not what happened to the wives of the men. While we are in no way trying to imply 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. We deserve more.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
A History of Gay Asia. (2013, January 23.) Passions of the Cut Sleeve, and Other Tales.
Retrieved May 16 2016 from http://history.bittenpeaches.com/
Historic Romance. (2010, June 30.) A Brief History of Same Sex Relationships in China.
Retrieved May 26 2016 from https://historicromance.wordpress.com/2010/06/30/a-brief-history-of-same-sex-relationships-in-china/
Comrades of The Cut Sleeve: Homozexuality in China. Retrieved May 16 2016 from
The World History of Male Love. Chinese Tradition of Male Love. Retrieved May 16 2016 from