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Queer As Ancient Folk

homosexual lifestyles in ancient ChinaAlternative lifestyles in old China were not necessarily always a closeted affair.

Admit it. When you look at old photographs and portraits from the past, you think the subjects were nothing like you. They had no cars, no Net, and funny hairdos. Tradition-bound, their souls stagnated in a dark world yet to be enlightened by Queen Oprah. Thank goodness for social progress!

It is great to be alive now, with no one yet alive to look back on our times condescendingly. A brief warning, however: reading history with an open mind can be dangerous to “now-ism”. In fact, frequent historical reading has been shown to reduce smugness and feeling of modern superiority to critically low levels. So by all means continue to ooh and ah over your iphone. But in terms of alternative lifestyles, realize we have much to learn from the past.

China’s never been known as the ideal place to nurse a grudge against institutionalized patriarchy. Then again, little known is the Golden Orchid Society, a late Qing Dynasty haven for both lesbians and women who chose not to assume the burdens of traditional marriage.

Membership in the Golden Orchid Society was consummated by formal oath, two female partners swearing undying fealty. As Hu Pu’an recounts in ‘A Record of China’s Customs: Guangdong’, “[Within the sisterhood], if two women have intentions towards each other, one of them would prepare peanut candy, dates and other goods as a gift to show her intent. If the other woman accepts the gift, she is now bound by honor to her suitor. If she refuses the gift, it is a rejection of the proposal. A contractsigning ceremony follows the acceptance. Those with the financial resources would invite their friends who come in droves to congratulate the couple and celebrate by drinking through the night. After the contract is completed, the two women become like each other’s shadows in sitting, lying down, rising, and living. If the party or parties breaks the oath, the female collective will arise to hold her/them accountable and humiliate her, often beating and humiliating the offenders, for such is their custom.”

Membership in the Golden Orchid Society was hardly a strictly Sapphic affair. Many women joined to assuage their desperation at being trapped in an unhappy coventional marriage. In a time when a woman hadn’t the least say in choosing a life partner, bartered off to a man whose status brought her family the greatest material benefit, one can easily envision an unending parade of young wives with old husbands, abusive hasbands, husbands who made the Golden Orchid Society a refuge from a culture that worshipped the XY chromosome.

Some members were neither married nor gay, but nonetheless desired autonomy from the life of servitude and stricture that defined a woman’s role in traditional Confucian Usually, her female relatives would arrange her hair after marrige to indicate sexual unavailability. Simply by arranging such a hair do [don’t?] with her own hands, she would indicate to her village and the world at large that she wasn’t even interested in playing the game. No courtship, no husband, no sex, no nothing, thank you very much. Surprisingly, such “self-combing” women were often honored with a feast upon completion of the ritual.

Less surprising was the resistance many “self-combing” women faced from their families. After all, as with the Mafia, once in, there was no getting out. Dalliances with men after self-combing, if discovered by the village, were punished by death.

Ever resourceful, Chinese women of the Golden Orchid found a way out of chattel life. According to tradition, a woman was allowed to return to her own household three days after the marriage ceremony, and only visit her husband’s place occasionally. Sone found men who would ‘marry’ them for repayment of the bridal price plus a premium, and then leave their new wives the heck alone. Sometimes, the men weren’t even alive, but the family was willing to arrange a post-mortem marriage, for the right money.

Not that Qing life on the whole was much better for gay men. But way back in the Zhou Dynasty, Duke Ling of Wei was walking the orchards with his ‘best friend’, Mixi Xia, who gave the noble the rest of a peach he had just bitten. Calling a gay man a ‘half-eaten peach’ set the precedent for acknowledging that homosexual love was a fact of life, at least for the leisure classes. After the Han Dynasty, gay coupling became known as “the passions of the cut sleeve”, after Emperor Ai, who rather than disturb his sleeping boyfriend Dong Xian, cut the sleeve off his royal robe.

Attitudes were especially enlightened in Fujian Province, where a man could pay a bridal price for a much younger lad, and take him home until he was old enough to marry a woman. The older partner was known as “sworn older brother” and the younger as the “sworn younger grother”. When the older brother visited the home of the younger, the latter’s parents would accord him call the respect due a son-in-law. Later, when the younger grother started a business or married a wife, the older brother would help defray costs.

The rise of socialist political ideology in China swept all the mincing about directly back into the closet, and the concept of homosexuality was denounced as feudalistic perversion. Perhaps that is why it is surprising yet humbling to learn that one of our most celebrated modern issues is as old as ancient China.

This article originally appeared in China Expat.

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