The Han Emperor Ai (27 BCE– 1 BCE) is famous in Chinese LGBTQ folklore due to an account of his same-sex love affair with his official, Dong Xian, which was recorded in Ban Gu’s Records of Han.
Ai, Dong, the Cut Sleeve, and Wang
According to Ban Gu, the Emperor was not interested in women because heterosexuality was not natural to him. Ai noticed the tall, handsome official, Dong Xian, in the court and requested him to stay in the palace for company. As Ai’s passion for Dong grew, the Emperor wanted to keep him in the palace permanently. He summoned Dong’s wife to the palace so Dong had no reason to leave.
The Emperor’s affections to Dong became legendary because of an incident that occurred when he was sleeping with Dong one afternoon. Ai was called to the court, but he did not want to wake up Dong, who was sleeping on the Emperor’s sleeve. The Emperor cut off the sleeve and got up. The courtiers inquired the missing sleeve, and the Emperor revealed the story. The style of the abbreviated sleeve became fashionable among the courtiers, and cut sleeve was recognized as a common term for same-sex love.
Emperor Ai died at the age of twenty-five without an heir. Before his death, the Emperor passed the Imperial seal to Dong and appointed him to be his successor. The extraordinary privilege, however, led to Dong’s political persecution, which cost him his life. The Empress Dowager Wang, Emperor Ai’s aunt, was influential in the court and was ambitious to extend her power when the Emperor passed away. Dong, who lacked political allies, was compelled to step down from his post. Wang forced Dong and his wife to commit suicide on the same day.
Attitudes towards Homosexuality in Han Dynasty
The Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty (156 BCE–87 BCE) adopted the principles of Confucianism as the mainstream doctrine to rule his state. Confucianism emphasizes stability of social structure. Family is considered the foundation of society, so Confucius’ ethical codes promote hierarchy in which the subject is subordinate to the ruler, the disciple to the master, the son to the father, and the wife to the husband. In Chinese tradition, marriage is a union of two households, a means to sustain or elevate one’s social status and to produce a new generation. Marriage was arranged entirely by the male head of the household.
Expansion of patriarchal authority resulted in the indulgence of male sexual interests. If a man was not satisfied with the woman he married, he could find alternate partners. In contrast, a woman was expected to tolerate her husband’s love affairs while she was prohibited from seeking emotional and sexual outlets outside of marriage.
Confucianism was little concerned with sexual relationships between men so long as the fundamentals of social structure and responsibilities were not compromised. Close male friendship was highly valued, in part because it could facilitate men to improve their social status in the patriarchal society. Several Han emperors were reported to show unusual affection for their male courtiers. In Ban Gu’s Records of Han, Emperor Wen (202 BCE–157 BCE) was noted for favoring an incompetent courtier, Deng Tong, without an apparent reason. The aforementioned Emperor Wu was also criticized for his close relationship with his subject, Han Yan, a skillful rider and archer. No evidence indicates these two emperors and their subjects had sexual relationships. Nevertheless, the patronage the emperors bestowed on their favorites caused the courtiers to die in tragic ways. Deng had his fortune was confiscated and was then starved to death, and Han was charged with treason and executed.
In the case of the Ai-Dong affair, the Prime Minister, Wang Jia, presented the examples of Deng and Han to persuade the Emperor Ai against giving the wealth and power unrestrainedly to Dong Xian. The object lessons, unfortunately, were lost on Ai.
The biographies of Deng Tong, Han Yan, and Dong Xian were recorded under the category of “Favored Obsequious Courtiers” in Ban Gu’s Records of Han. These courtiers were accused either of incompetency or flawed behavior. The censure was not for their personal relationships with the emperors, but rather their character, an indication (at least in the case of Ai and Dong) that blatant homophobia may not have been an important factor during the Han dynasty. The notion of regarding homosexuality as a sin did not emerge until Buddhism prevailed in the Tang dynasty.
Ban, Gu. Qian Han Shu. Taipei: Zhonghua, 2000.
Crompton, Louis. Homosexuality and Civilization. Boston: Belknap of Harvard University, 2006.
Haggerty, George E. Gay History and Cultures. London: Routledge, 2000.
Hinsch, Bret. Passions of the Cut Sleeve. Los Angeles: University of California, 1992.