Li Yu (1610—1680) was a celebrated Chinese playwright, novelist and publisher in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties. Homosexual relationships are discussed in several of Li’s works, such as “Women in Love,” “House of Gathered Refinements,” and “A Male Mencius Mother.” These works give glimpses into seventeenth-century Chinese perceptions of same-sex orientation, gender variance, and atypical sexual physiology.
Li Yu was famous for the erotic and the humorous tone of his work. With regards to himself, he says, “Broadly speaking, everything I have ever written was intended to make people laugh.”
Li was a prolific writer whose works were widely circulated and noted by his contemporaries. Nevertheless, those same contemporaries were anxious about the erotic descriptions in Li’s stories, even as they praised him for being a talented writer.
“Women in Love” depicts how two women overcome all adversity and eventually live together in a sexually chaste marriage. The happy ending of “Women in Love,” however, cannot be found in Li’s portrayal of men’s same-sex love relationships. Controversy over male homoeroticism was enough that Li Yu used a pseudonym, JingShiBaiGuan (“Author Recording Unofficial Astonishing Stories to Warn the World”), for “House of Gathered Refinements” and “A Male Mencius Mother,” works that have male homoeroticism as a major theme.
“LianXiang Ban” (Women in Love)
“LianXiang Ban” is included in a collection of ten plays, ShíZhongQu (Ten Operas). The play is about two women in the Ming-Qing dynasties. The main female characters, Cui ZhenYun and Cao YuHua, fall in love with each other at the first sight in a temple. When they meet again, they vow to be a couple in their next lives. Cui dresses up as a groom to marry Cao in their second meeting, despite Cui being already married to her husband, Fang Shi. In order to live with her beloved, Cui suggests that Fang Shi marry Cao. Polygamy in traditional Chinese society allowed a husband to take multiple wives, and it appears to be a practical solution for Cui and Cao. However, the proposal is hindered by Cao’s father. He refuses to marry his daughter to Shi as a concubine.
Unable to see Cui again, Cao is lovesick. In order to comfort his daughter, Cao’s father posts a notice to recruit a female teacher for her. Cui leaves her husband and becomes a teacher in Cao’s house. Cao recovers as soon as she meets Cui. Meanwhile, Fang Shi changes his name to Shi Jian and becomes an official after passing an examination (government promotion in the Confucianist system is accomplished by passing state-sponsored tests). The Emperor commands Cao’s father to marry his daughter to Shi. Seeing his wife’s platonic love affair with Cao, Shi never blames her. He even takes the wedding between Cui and Cao as a joke.
Female-female love is seldom addressed in traditional Chinese drama and short stories. The significance of Li’s “LianXiang Ban” is that the two female characters are wedded and determined to live and spend their lives together, even though their wedding is not taken seriously.
For the article, “Lesbians in China: Less ‘Threatening’ than Gay Men?” by Dinah Gardner, go to globalpost.com/dispatch/china/gay-china-lesbians.
“MengMu Jiao He SanQian” (A Male Mencius Mother)
“MengMu Jiao He SanQian” is included in Li’s Wusheng Xì (Silent Plays). Li begins the story critical of homosexual relationships. He criticizes the popularity of NanFong (male homosexuality, also known as “men’s custom” or “southern custom,” the words for “man” and “south” being almost the same when spoken aloud). Male beauty was admired and homosexual relationships were commonly accepted in the southeastern provinces of Fujian and Guangdong, hence the term “southern custom” in reference to those provinces. Li complains that well-off men in Minnan (now Fujian Province) were especially interested in homosexual relationships.
Li describes Shu JiFang as a handsome man who loathes women. Shu’s wife dies after childbirth. He is a single father in his early twenties when he meets You RuiLang, the most beautiful young man in Fujian. They fall in love with each other. To show his sincere desire to marry You, Shu presents a generous amount of the betrothal fund to You’s father. The father consents to the marriage, so Shu and You have a proper wedding ceremony. After a year living as a husband and wife, the couple’s sex life begins to change. You’s manhood worries Shu. He is concerned the boy is going to be interested in women as his genitals mature. To relieve Shu’s worries, You cuts off his genitals one day when Shu is away from home. The authorities hear of the incident, and the couple is arrested for intentional mutilation. To protect You from punishment, Shu allows himself to take the blame, and is beaten to death in court.
Before Shu dies, he asks You to be a chaste widow and to raise his son. You changes his names to RuiNiang (lang means “boy” and niang means “girl”). He also dresses as a woman and assumes the role of mother to take care of the son, who never knows his mother was born male until he passes the exam and becomes an official.
Li concludes that Shu JiFang was the most devoted lover in the history of the southern custom, and You RuiLang was the first widow whom could live in chastity after her husband’s death. Li’s friend, Du Jun, wrote a sympathetic commentary on Shu and You. Despite sympathy towards homosexual people, Du advises readers not to get involved in same-sex love: “If every homosexual man in the world is as chaste as You RuiLang, the fashion of NanFong is fine. If every friend in the world is full of passion as Shu JiFang, it is worth being XiaoGuan [“official personage,” a term for effeminate men in Li’s time]. It is doubtful there will be any men like You and Shu. It is a pity [homosexual activity] will only ruin one’s mind and behavior.”
“CuiYa Lou” (House of Gathered Refinements)
“CuiYa Lou” (House of Gathered Refinements) is recorded in ShiEr Lou (Twelve Towers). The protagonist, Quan RuXiou, is a feminine, beautiful young man. He opens a shop that sells flowers, incense, books, and antiques with his lovers, Liu MingXu and Jing ZhongYu. Liu and Jing are both married, so they take turns sleeping in the shop with Quan after work.
There is an inside joke in this arrangement: Quan, the youngest partner and lover of the other two men, is the flower specialist in the shop. “Flowers in the rear courtyard” (HouTingHua, alternate: “pleasures of the rear courtyard”) refers to anal sex. Apparently, Li is familiar with the euphemism since the first subheading in Chapter One is “The Flower-Seller Will not Sell Flowers from the Rear Courtyard,” and the story details how Quan suffers for refusing to sell his body.
Quan’s beauty spreads among the officials. The evil Prime Minster Yan threatens Quan’s lovers, and calls Quan to his palace in an attempt to hire Quan for sexual favors, but Quan refuses every advance. Angry with Quan, Yan orders Eunuch Sha to castrate him. Quan is served drug-laced wine and Sha castrates him, giving the severed genitalia to the pet dog to eat. Quan is devastated with humiliation.
After the incident, Quan goes to serve Eunuch Sha in Yan’s palace and find the appropriate time to take revenge on Yan. Quan befriends and flatters Yan while collecting evidence of Yan’s illegal business transactions. On the day Yan is impeached, Quan provides the evidence to the Emperor. Subsequently, Yan is executed in public. After the execution, Quan takes Yan’s head home and uses it as a urinal.
Double Standard in Li Yu’s Works
Moralists in the Ming and Qing dynasties condemned homosexuality because the act was considered unnatural in comparison with heterosexual sex. Hostility towards male homosexuality in Li’s works brings to light a double standard on gender. As society deprived women of their subjectivity, it also denied their autonomy of body and sexuality. Consequently, women were seen as the object of desire to fulfill men’s sexual pleasure, which involved penile erection, penetration and ejaculation. The female anatomy was believed to render women incapable of taking the initiative in sex. In theory, a woman could not perform sex acts on another woman, while men were capable of pleasuring their lovers, male and female. This perceived natural sexual passivity of women helped to protect homosexual women from persecution.
Li dramatized the scenes of castration in “CuìYa Lóu” and “MengMu Jiao He SanQian” to teach moral lessons. Removal of male genitals forced emasculated men to lose the power to initiate sex and situated them in a position similar to women. Li, however, did not put down the protagonists, but portrayed the two feminine young men Quan and You as rightful gentlemen. Castration was considered inhumane and illegal if it was not performed by order of the imperial eunuchs. The horrendous castration in “CuìYa Lou” led to the accusation of corruption by the castrated man against the one who ordered his castration. Ironically, as the boy volunteered to cut off his manhood for love in “A Male Mencius Mother,” his lover was punished, thus illustrating official policing of the sexual body. In either case, no good came from same-sex love.
In contrast to criticism of male same-sex love, sexual attraction between Cui and Cao is not mentioned in “LianXiang Ban.” Their love is described as platonic admiration, in accordance with the tradition that women’s sexual desire could only be realized with a man. Similar dynamics will be used in eighteenth-century Britain for depictions of the famous Ladies of Llangollen, two upper-class and eccentric women who set up household together in Wales, thus reflecting a degree of protection for women in covert romantic same-sex relationships in pre-Stonewall China and Britain.
Overt Disapproval, Covert Sympathy
Li Yu’s treatment of same-sex love for both men and women is more sympathetic than it is negative, and can be seen as conforming somewhat to the morality of his day (not counting prohibitions not to speak of such things in public). His lack of total censure is in keeping with implicit Confucian views on homosexuality that, while not condoning same-sex erotic attraction, does not usually find such behavior problematic unless it interferes with the production and care of the next generation. Classical Buddhist discourse in China, however, tends to condemn homosexuality.
Not all references to male homosexuality in classical Chinese drama are tragic. Another playwright, Tang Xianzu (1550-1616), wrote “Mudan Ting” (Peony Pavilion), a chuanqi (dramatic romance with singing, dancing, and minimal stage props) featuring multiple imagined settings, including a depiction of the Judge in Hell passing humorous punishments on sinners. A homosexual man brought before the Judge is sentenced to become a bee: “And you, bee, a wicked one you are, with sucking mouth and stinging tail,” a pronouncement that is more bawdy joke than a statement on morality.
For the full article on the play (in French) go to rmtnews.wordpress.com/category/taipei.
Much of the discussion in this article refers to LGBTQ rights and censorship in Mainland China. The situation is different in Taiwan, which has had a Pride parade since 2003. In addition, there is the Rabbit God Temple for same-sex homoerotic-romantic love in Yonghe, Taiwan. The Rabbit God Temple is a Daoist shrine open to everyone in the LGBTQ community.
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Hinsch, Bret. Passions of the Cut Sleeve. California: University of California, 1992.
Hu, Yuanling. Li Yu XiaoShuo XiQu YanJiou. Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju, 2004.
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Mao, Nathan K. Twelve Towers: Short Stories. Hong Kong: Chinese University, 1979.
Sang, Tze-lan Deborah. The Emerging Lesbian. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2003.