The Rabbit God Temple in Yonghe, Taiwan is a shrine dedicated to the patron deity of the LGBTQ community. Temples to the Rabbit God in this capacity are virtually unknown in other Chinese communities. Nevertheless, the presence of this shrine in Taiwan reflects traditions taken from Chinese folk religion and Daosim that have been revived and reinterpreted in accordance with Taiwanese incorporation of the worldwide LGBTQ movement.
History of the Rabbit God
According to an ancient Chinese legend, there is a rabbit on the Moon called Jade Rabbit, whose duty is pounding the elixir of life for the Moon Goddess, Chang-Er. Jade Rabbit was transformed into a deity in Chinese folk spirituality. In Hua Wang Ge Shen Gao, Ji Kun records that inhabitants in Beijing worshipped the clay-molded rabbit dolls during the mid-autumn in the late Ming dynasty. Later in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), rabbit dolls became children’s toys. However, the dolls were respected and referred as Ye, meaning “Master” in Chinese, because they represented the Rabbit God.
The Double Entendre of the Rabbit
Rabbits in Chinese culture are considered to be gender-ambiguous. The Mu Lan Ci (Mu Lan Ballad), describes how Mu Lan disguised herself as a man to enlist in the army in the place of her aged father. Mu Lan successfully convinced her colleagues that she was a man, and no one suspected her real biological sex. The author of Mu Lan Ci refers to the indistinguishable genital characteristics between male and female rabbits as an analogy to emphasize the androgynous appearance of Mu Lan. Anxiety driven by concern about gender ambiguity might be responsible for referring to effeminate men and male prostitutes as rabbits in Chinese folk speech.
Yuan Mei’s “The Rabbit God”
“Tu Er Shen” (“The Rabbit God”) is one of the collected essays in Yuan Mei’s Zi Bu Yu, written during the Qing Empire. The title, “Zi Bu Yu,” literally means “things of which Confucius did not speak.” It was inspired by the statement that “Confucius spoke of no supernaturalism, feats of powers, disorders and spirits” in the Analects of Confucius. Yuan implies that the anecdote of the Rabbit God should not be taken seriously because Confucius would disapprove of such a tale.
In Yuan’s account of the Rabbit God, there was a man called Hu Tianbao, who admired a young male inspector in the early period of the Qing. Driven by desire, Hu peeped at the official’s hindquarters when he went to the toilet. The inspector discovered Hu’s strange behavior and questioned him. Hu confessed that his infatuation. The inspector, however, was not impressed, and Hu was beaten to death. A month later, Hu appeared in a villager’s dream and told him that he, Hu, deserved the death because he offended a nobleman. However, the officials of the spirit world were sympathetic for his affection toward the inspector, so they appointed him as the Rabbit God to be in charge of the male-male love affairs. Hu gave the villager permission to erect a temple to worship the Rabbit God.
Yuan finished the story of Rabbit God with a comment on the popular “bond brotherhood” tradition in Fujian, where a man in love with another man would vow to be Qi Xiong Di. “Qi” means “contract or agreement” and “Xiong Di” means “brothers.” After learning the villager’s report of Hu’s unfortunate incident, people raised money to build the Rabbit God Temple. For his part, the Rabbit God responded to his adherents’ prayers without disappointment. Yuan concluded that people who had underground love affairs, secret agreements, and unobtainable desires could visit the Rabbit God Temple.
Chinese Attitudes towards Homosexuality
Yuan Mei’s sympathy for the protagonist, Hu Tianbao, shed the light on the fact that in the eighteenth century, Chinese attitudes toward homosexuality were tolerant to some extent in South China, especially in the area of today’s Fujian Province. But tolerance of homosexuality gradually decreased as Western homophobia was exported to China during the expansion of European colonialism in the mid-nineteenth century. However, when the Republic of China (ROC) was established in 1911, male prostitutes were still available in entertainment venues, and discreet relationships were an acceptable option for men who desired to have sexual relations with other men.
In 1949, the ROC was exiled to Taiwan after the Civil War. The newly founded regime on the mainland, the People’s Republic of China, was eager to establish order by destroying what its officials considered immoral traditions. This included erasing the history of homosexuality in China and deleting evidence of homosexuality in Chinese literature.
Pan Kwong-Tan was the first generation of Chinese scholars who studied homosexuality in China. He translated Havelock Ellis’s Psychology of Sex in 1947 and wrote an article, “Homosexual Examples in Chinese Literature,” as an introduction. The book Pan translated was reprinted in China in 1993, but the title of Pan’s introduction was changed to “Sexual Perversity in Chinese Literature.”
Taoism and Gay Folk Spirituality in Taiwan
The worship of the Rabbit God was lost in China, but it came into people’s awareness in Taiwan in the early twenty-first century. A Daoist priest, Lu Wei Ming, founded the Rabbit God Temple in Yonghe, Taipei County. Lu portrayed the Rabbit God as a matchmaker for homosexual people. In doing so, Lu succeeded in attracting the attention of the Gay community. The continued existence of the Rabbit God Temple indicates that Taiwanese society is liberal enough to accept and respect orientation diversity.
People who pray to the Rabbit God are told that the Rabbit God prefers to be called Ta Yeh (or Da Ye in Ping Yin). “Da” means “big” in Chinese. For those who seek help from the Rabbit God, they can write down their names, addresses, birthdays and prayers on pieces of paper money and burn them to make sure the messages are sent to heaven. Alternatively, personal items can be brought before the shrine for Ta Yeh’s blessings. It is a Daoist belief that wearing the blessed items will reinforce the power of blessings. Adherents can also take fu, paper charms, from the temple, place them under a pillow, and pray to the deity to fulfil their wishes before going to bed.
The history of Taiwan and the background of its people may explain tolerance for a temple to the Rabbit God. The majority of Taiwanese residents are of Chinese descent. Their ancestors migrated from Fujian, China to Taiwan during the late Ming Dynasty, and they may have brought a more tolerant attitude towards homosexuality with them. In addition, homosexual people were not treated as criminals during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan (1895-1945).
Gay studies in Taiwan had been neglected until the society became more democratic after the late 1980s. The resurrection of worshiping the Rabbit God in Taiwan not only signifies freedom of religion in society, but also shows the public’s increasing tolerance of same-sex love.
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Szonyi, Michael. “The Cult of Hu Tianbao and the Eighteenth-Century Discourse of Homosexuality”. Late Imperial China, vol. 19, no. 1 (1998), pp. 1-25.
Yuan, Mei. “The Rabbit God” in Zi Bu Yu. Taipei: Shi Hsui She. 2004.