Hu Tianbao is a fictional character in Chinese folk religion/Daoism who was elevated to the rank of godhood after he fell in love with another man and was beaten to death for revealing his true feelings. The myth of Hu Tianbao is the basis for a shrine in Yonghe, Taiwan to the Rabbit God, Hu’s divine identity.
The legend of Hu Tianbao comes from Yuan Mei’s “The Rabbit God Temple” in his Zi Bu Yu. In Yuan’s account of the Rabbit God, there was a man called Hu Tianbao in the early years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Hu was infatuated with a young male Imperial Investigation official in Fujian. Wherever the official went, Hu would follow. He once even peeked at the official while in the toilet. The official grew suspicious and questioned Hu about his behavior. Hu confessed his secret, and the official was so furious that he had Hu beaten to death. After a month, Hu appeared in a local man’s dream and told him that he was appointed as the Rabbit God, who would supervise the affairs in the world of men who were romantically attracted to other men.
Yuan Mei (1716-1797) was an official and scholar in the Qing Empire, China. He became the Bachelor of the Hanlin Academy, the highest honor for the Qing literati, at the age of 23. He retired from the official post in his early thirties and dedicated his time to arts and literature.
Yuan commented on homosexual affairs in society. In his Shuiyuan Shihua, he wrote about an affectionate relationship between a poor official and a famous actor in Beijing. In 1763, he composed four poems on the homoerotic preferences of his acquaintances. Yuan’s scandalous verses were pardoned because of his reputation for being an incurably romantic poet. He appeared to be more liberal and advanced than his contemporaries, and he promoted education for women. Yuan’s personal interest in male beauty could explain his sympathy for male same-sex desire. Evidence indicates that he might have been intimately involved with several men, and his homoerotic tendencies were more obvious in his later years. From the 1770s onwards, Yuan wrote quite often about his affections for young men, who were described by him as young, tender, and as beautiful as flowers. His close friends also remembered that Yuan did not need a walking stick in his sixties because he was always accompanied by young men.
The Cult of Hu Tianbao
There is no concrete evidence to prove whether or not the cult of Hu Tianbao existed in Fujian during the eighteenth century. Some scholars believe that Yuan Mei’s story of Hu Tianbao could be a parody, developed from an anecdote heard from his friend, Zhu Gui (1731-1807). Zhu recalled that in Fujian, a man who desired another man would go to pray an idol for successful romance. The iconography of the cult had an image of two men embracing one another, one of whom looked senior to the other. After the worship, the adherents would plaster the idol’s mouth with pork intestine and sugar in thanks.
Although Hu Tianbao could be a fictional character in Yuan’s novel, the religious worship of a deity of homosexuality in Fujian is based on historical fact. The people of Fujian and Guangdong provinces in the eighteenth century had the reputation for privileging male beauty and tolerating same-sex romance between two men or two women, which, when permanent, was expressed in terms of marriage. It was common for men to find a male companion of similar status. In this companionship, the elder one would be called “bond-elder brother” (Qi Xiong), and the younger one “bond-younger brother” (Qi Di). The elder brother was treated as a son-in-law when he went to the home of the younger one, and the younger one’s expenses, including expenditures in taking a wife, were all taken care of by the elder.
There is a Rabbit God Temple in Yonghe, Taiwan, a Daoist shrine open to everyone in the LGBTQ community.
Hinsch, Bret. Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China. California: University of California. 1992.
Ho Yi. The Taipei Times. “Taoist Homosexuals Turn to Rabbit God.” 21 October 2007.
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 Temple” in Tsze-Put-Yu.
Wu Cuncun. Homoerotic Sensibilities in Late Imperial China. London: Routledge. 2004.