While translating British psychologist Havelock Ellis’ 1933 book, Psychology of Sex, Pan discovered credible clues to the existence of homosexuality throughout Chinese history. According to his research, the first mention of homosexuality was in the Chronicles of Shang, where Minister Yi Yin of the early Shang Dynasty (16th century BC – 11th century BC) set out punishment for 10 criminal acts for officials, including pederasty.
Pan was surprised to find this popular proverb during the Zhou Dynasty (11th century BC – 256 BC) — “Good-looking males can distract emperors from the wisdom of old intellects”– leading him to believe that homosexuality was fairly common during those respective dynasties.
“The Pleasant Hug from Behind”, the earliest story of romanticized gay love, was recorded in the Spring and Autumnal Annals (772 BC – 481 BC):
When Jinggong threatens to kill an official who often looks at him, the sage Yanzi tells him it is wrong to kill someone who “admires your beauty”. Appreciating what Yanzi says, Jinggong lets the official “hug him from behind”.
If homosexuality was common during the Shang and Zhou dynstes, it was downright fashionable during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). Pan found that almost every emperor during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24) had or was suspected of having male partners, the most famous of whom was Dong Xian:
It is said that Emperor Ai woke up to find the sleeves of his imperial robes tucked under the sleeping body of his partner Dong Xian. Not wanting to wake his beloved concubine, Ai sliced off his sleeves, and hurried off to his day’s routine.
From then on, same-sex love between males has often been referred to as the “sleeve-slicing affection” – a euphemism for a gay relationship by those who still find it embarrassing to publicly address the topic.
By the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234), homosexuality had become a common practice among the upper class and is frequently mentioned in official reports. During the Qing Dynasty, China’s first gay novel was published, Pinhua Baojian (Treasury of Flower Appreciation). There was even a god of the gays in Qing Dynasty folklore:
This was the famous “rabbit god”, known as Hu Tianbao, a man who had been killed for stalking a handsome official. In hell, he was laughed at, but to show that they sympathized, the gods of hell appointed him the guardian god of same-sex lovers. This was more than an amusing anecdote, for it reflected the prevalent social attitude at that time towards homosexuality.
In an article by sociologist Li Yinhe on China’s historical acceptance of homosexuality, Li notes that China treated gays with more tolerance than some Western societies as culturally confident Chinese were not afraid of accepting an alternative lifestyle, though they would rather ignore it than oppose it. She added, however, that tolerance does not mean full acceptance.