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( 5 ) East Asia - Part 2


China has a long history of gender diversity dating back many thousands of years.  The legendary king and founder of Chinese culture, Emperor Huang Di, is described by ancient poets as having male lovers and was by no means alone in this regard—for two centuries during the height of the Han dynasty, ten openly bisexual emperors ruled China.   Their names and the names of their acknowledged male lovers were recorded in the official histories of that period, beginning with Emperor Gao Zu (ruler from 206-195 B.C.) and his favorite, Jiru, and ending with Emperor Ai Di (ruler from 6 B.C. to 1 A.D.) and his much adored male concubine, Dongxian.  There were also no less than nine emperors after this period that had openly homosexual relationships, from Emperor Jian Wen Di of the Liang Dynasty (ruler from 549-551 A.D.) to Emperor Puyi, the last Qing or Manchu emperor of the twentieth century.  China has an excellent history of record-keeping and early court chronicles from the eighth century B.C. onward document Chinese kings with third-gender servants in their royal assemblies.  In many cases, the servants were intimately connected with the king and often acted as confidential advisors and friends.  Homosexual and transgender citizens were also known to serve as shamans, dancers and prostitutes in early Chinese culture and a good amount of homoerotic literature exists from the Six Dynasties Period (222-589 A.D.), such as that written by poet Ruan Ji.  Some of the poetry also includes references to lesbian love affairs.


The three most important religions of ancient China were Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism.  Taoism is China’s traditional, indigenous religion and worships various gods, nature spirits and human ancestors.  Many Tao gods and goddesses are depicted living either alone or with another deity of the same sex, such as the mountain god, Shanshen, and the local earth god, Tudi.  Tudi is always depicted as male but Shanshen is sometimes male and sometimes female.  Tao teachings stress harmony in nature and the importance of maintaining a balance between the female (yin) and male (yang) principles.  Some Taoists believe that homosexual behavior indicates an imbalance of yin or yang while others understand that third-gender people are naturally balanced or “neutral” since they possess both male and female qualities.  Confucius (551-479 B.C.) was an early Chinese philosopher and ethicist whose teachings slowly grew in popularity after his death.  Confucianism was adopted by Emperor Hu in the second century B.C. and has influenced China’s moral, social, political and religious practices for many centuries.  The Analects of Confucius is the primary source of Confucian teachings and stresses social loyalty and righteous living.  Homosexuality is not specifically mentioned in the text but traditional gender roles are prescribed and failing to produce a son is considered the worst neglect of duty.  On the other hand, Confucius exalted all that was ancient—he recognized China’s longstanding tradition of accommodating third-gender citizens but maintained they should never assume positions of power.  Buddhism was brought to China from western India during the second century B.C. along trade routes (the “Silk Road”) extending out of Central Asia.  It was acknowledged by Emperor Hu of the Han dynasty but slow to gain in popularity.  Buddhist teachings of asceticism and monastic life were initially foreign to both the nature-worshiping Taoists and family-oriented Confucianists but by the sixth century A.D., Buddhism became widespread and was a major religious influence.


Muslim merchants introduced Islam into China during the eighth century along the same trade routes that had brought Buddhism.  Islam sustained a significant following in northern China and influenced the region for eight centuries.  Muslims popularized the practice of male castration among third-gender servants and slaves, just as they had in India, and the castrations involved a complete removal of both the penis and testicles.  Castrated servants were highly popular among Chinese royalty for many centuries but became less common when Islam began to wane in the 1600s.  The last vestige of China’s eunuch system ended in 1912 with the collapse of the Qing Dynasty.


Christianity first arrived in China during the sixteenth century but never became widely popular.  Catholic missionaries operating from the Portuguese colony of Macao, such as Jesuit Matthew Ricci of Italy, noted an acceptance of homosexuality in the region but could do little to change it.  In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Great Britain also observed homosexuality in China while establishing its own lucrative trading port in Hong Kong.  In his book, Travels in China (London: 1806), English traveler John Barrow described the sodomy he found among Chinese officials as follows:  “The commission of this detestable and unnatural act is attended with so little sense of shame, or feelings of delicacy that many of the first officers of the state seemed to make no hesitation in publicly avowing it.  Each of these officers is constantly attended by his pipe-bearer, who is generally a handsome boy, from 14 to 18 years of age, and is always well dressed.”  The British were condescending toward the Chinese and exploited them shamelessly.  For this reason, all things British were met with suspicion and resistance in China, including their Christian faith.


Zhu Gui, a grain tax official for the Fujian Province, lodged China’s first recorded complaint against homosexuality in the eighteenth century.  Gui complained of several homosexual cults, such as Hu Tianbao, which worshiped images of embracing male deities at local shrines.  In 1740, the Qing Dynasty enacted China’s first law against homosexuality but it was rarely enforced and the penalties were mild.  The new law had little impact on longstanding homosexual traditions in China other than to make them more secretive.  British-ruled Hong Kong instituted harsh sodomy laws in 1865 prescribing life imprisonment while Portuguese Macao resisted any such legislation.  When the Republic of China was established in 1912 after the abdication of the Qing Dynasty’s last emperor, the country’s new legal code did not criminalize private homosexual behavior.  After the 1949 Communist takeover, however, strict sodomy laws were established and a persecution of China’s homosexual and transgender citizens began.  This reached its zenith during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, when Chinese Communists launched a vicious attack against homosexuals and punished them with long prison terms and executions.  The radicals also destroyed all ancient and modern artifacts depicting homoeroticism and only a few, privately owned collections managed to survive the onslaught.  China’s Cultural Revolution was a sorry deviation from the region’s traditional tolerance of gender diversity and stands out as one of its worst instances.  Afterwards, homophobia gradually eased as China slowly began to modernize.  In 1991, Hong Kong became the first Chinese city to abolish sodomy laws and Mainland China soon followed in 1997.  Homosexual and transgender citizens maintained a strong presence in early twenty-first century China but were mostly stigmatized and kept underground.  Modern Chinese terms for homosexuals included tongzhi (comrade) for men and lazi for women.


The original inhabitants of Taiwan were polytheistic aborigines of Malay and Polynesian descent that had lived on the island for thousands of years.  Records from the Han Dynasty acknowledge Taiwan since the third century A.D. but hostile natives prevented the Chinese from settling there.  Portuguese explorers sighted the island in 1544, naming it Formosa, and the Dutch established a small colony in the early seventeenth century.  Soon afterward, however, a large influx of Chinese immigrants overtook the mostly rural island and the Qing Dynasty reclaimed Formosa in 1683.  Chinese women were originally restricted from immigrating and as a consequence, male homosexuality became common during this time.  Sodomy was never punished under Chinese rule, however, or when Japan took over Taiwan from 1895-1945.  During Japanese rule, a type of all-female folk opera known as Koa-a-hi became widely popular throughout the island.  In this artistic tradition, women played both male and female roles and often extended their masculine stage personas into the Taiwanese social life.  In 1949, Mainland China fell to Communist rule and Taiwan became a refuge for Chinese nationalists.  The island nation eventually became an independent, prosperous country and continued to resist enacting sodomy laws.  At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Taiwan was among the most tolerant of Asian countries in regard to civil liberties and had small but thriving gay and lesbian communities in large cities such as Taipei and Kaohsiung.


Korea’s ancient oral traditions and folklore contain numerous accounts of sexual relationships between men.  One popular story from the eighth century A.D. describes a young Buddhist monk, Myojung, who was courted by several male aristocrats that included a Chinese emperor from the Tang Dynasty.  Another interesting account from the eighth century involves Korean Emperor Hyegong (ruler from 765-780 A.D.), the thirty-sixth ruler of the Silla Dynasty.  Crowned king at the age of eight after the death of his father, Hyegong grew up to be girlish and was described as “a man by appearance but a woman by nature.”  Fifteen years after his ascendance to the throne, royal subordinates killed Hyegong when they were no longer able to tolerate his femininity.  In fourteenth-century Korea, Emperor Kongmin (thirty-first ruler of the Koryo Dynasty) was famous for falling in love with young boys.  After his wife’s death, the king spent much of his time pursuing young Buddhist monks and even established an organization devoted to their recruitment.  In the fifteenth century, court chronicles describe how Emperor Sejong (the fourth ruler of the Chosun Dynasty) met with his cabinet in 1436 to discuss rumors about his daughter-in-law’s lesbian behavior.  To preserve the dignity of the royal court, the girl was expelled from the palace on contrived charges.


Korea’s indigenous religious traditions are very similar to Chinese Taoism and gender diversity was accepted in ancient times.  Buddhism was introduced during the fifth century A.D. and became Korea’s official religion under the Silla Dynasty in the seventh century.  Confucianism was introduced from China in the seventh century and became the recognized state ideology in 1392 under the Chosun Dynasty.  Christianity entered Korea during the seventeenth century but did not become popular until after World War II.  In the 1950s, the Korean peninsula was divided into North and South.  By the early twenty-first century, neither country had enacted sodomy laws although homosexuality was severely restricted in the communist North.  Homosexual and transgender subcultures persisted in the democratic South, especially in large cities such as Seoul, but were somewhat constrained by conservative attitudes.


In Japan, Shintoism is the traditional, indigenous religion and a wide range of gods, nature spirits, and human ancestors are worshiped.  The ancient Japanese were straightforward about human sexuality but also honored family traditions and virtue.  Shintoists are well known for their seasonal holidays celebrating fertility and large festivals are observed in Japan, even today, wherein enormous phallic effigies are taken out of local shrines and paraded through the fields.  Homosexuals and other gender-variant persons are mentioned throughout Japanese history and commonly described as house attendants, artists, dancers and prostitutes.  Young Kabuki actors, called kagema, were especially notorious as male prostitutes and worked in teahouse brothels known as kagemajaya.  The kagema are popularly portrayed in numerous homoerotic Japanese poems and paintings that were especially prominent during the Heian Period from 794-1185 A.D.


Buddhism introduced ascetic values into Japan at the end of the fifth century A.D. but Japanese Buddhists were notoriously negligent in their vows.  For many centuries, homosexual behavior was commonly associated with Japan’s Buddhist monasteries and is well documented in surviving diaries kept by the priests themselves.  Early Jesuit missionaries of the sixteenth century often commented upon the homosexual behavior they encountered among Buddhist clergy and in 1636, Dutch officers Caron and Schouten wrote of Japan’s homosexuality as follows: “Their Priests, as well as many of the Gentry, are much given to Sodomy, that unnatural passion, being esteemed no sin, nor shameful thing amongst them.”  In 1691, Dutchman Engelbert Kaempfer observed effeminate boy prostitutes in the town of Okitsu and noted that the Japanese were “very much addicted to this vice.”  Male tutorships known as shudo are a time-honored custom of Japan and were especially prevalent during the Tokugawa period from 1600-1857 A.D.  During this period accomplished masters, known as nenja, offered apprenticeships to young male disciples or wakashu that frequently involved homosexual relations, especially among the samurai warriors.


Japan was initially resistant to Western influence but opened up to modernization during the Meiji period from 1867-1912.  During this time there was a brief legal enforcement of anti-sodomy laws from 1873-1881 but otherwise, nanshoku or homosexuality has never been illegal on the island nation.  All-female theatre troupes became popular in the early twentieth century and women playing male roles, known as otokoyaku, were sometimes implicated in lesbian scandals.  Male homosexuality was reportedly common among Japanese troops during World War II and crossdressing male prostitutes, called dansho, became evident in large cities immediately after the war.  From the 1960s onward, homosexual and transgender bars, nightclubs and entertainment venues maintained a regular presence in Japanese urban culture.  Lesbian subcultures were also visible and female-to-male crossdressers were known as dansosha.  At the dawn of the twenty-first century, Japan was among the most tolerant of East Asian countries.  Japanese citizens privately tolerated gender diversity and there were no virulently anti-gay religious organizations in Japan as there were in the Christian West.  Modern gay and lesbian communities thrived in cities such as Tokyo, Yokohama and Osaka, and several municipalities in Japan banned discrimination based on sexual orientation and transgender identity.


(Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex, pp. 207-213)

[Continued in Part 6...] 







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