Homosexuality in East Asia
Homosexuality has been referred to since the earliest recorded history in East Asia. We’ll take a look at China, Japan, and Thailand.
The Chinese have a long history of homosexuality prominent not only in literature, but they have multiple terms for the practice thereof, each with a story of origin.
“Pleasures of the Bitten Peach” – this euphemism refers to the Duke Ling of Wei and his favorite, Mizi Xia. in the Zhen Dynasty around 500 BCE. They were out walking one afternoon. Xia saw a ripe peach hanging from a tree. He plucked it, took a bite, and finding the peach incredibly juicy and flavorful, offered it to the Duke, who was overcome by the action.
“Passion of the Cut Sleeve” – During the Han Dynasty (260 BCE – 220 CE) Emperor Ai had a favorite, Dong Xian, who would often sleep with the Emperor. In one instance, Xian had fallen asleep on the sleeve of the Emperor’s robe. Rather than wake Xian up, the Emperor cut off the sleeve of the robe to get up.
Homosexuality was also prominent in Chinese literature. The Dream of the Red Chamber is one of China’s Four Great Classical Novels, and features homosexual situations. However, as with most civilizations, an intolerance towards homosexuality shows, during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) and with the rise of Christian and Islamic practices.
In Japanese culture, mentions of relationships among men date back thousands of years. It was often referred to as shudo or nanshoku – a strong bond between a seasoned and a novice samurai. The terms have been associated with pederasty, or a relationship between an adult male and an adolescent boy. These relationships were both consensual and non-consensual. As with most cultures, the terms and ideas referred to behaviors more than sexual preference.
Japan is also the home of kabuki, a form of acting that started out with all female actors (1603 – 1629). The actors played both male and female roles, and often contained erotic content. The presiding shogun didn’t like the fact that the females also prostituted, and often times during the performances, the audience would begin to fight and riot over who would sleep with which actor. Women were subsequently banned from kabuki, and the shift went to cross-dressed young males, known as onnagata, and from 1629 to 1673, yero-kabuki was the norm. In this form of kabuki, adolescent males were used to play female roles, and those with effeminate qualities were preferred. However, these boys were also used as prostitutes, and as the skits still contained erotic material, rioting continued over who would sleep with who. Eventually, kabuki theater used older, all male actors, and these men still played female roles.
Japanese art depicts many images of homosexual culture, and there were no direct laws prohibiting same-sex practices, but sodomy was punishable by law for a short time.
As of late, a style known as ‘visual kei’ appeared in Japan. In the late 1980’s, men
and women would dress in flamboyant, androgynous clothing. The style is said to have originated in Japan’s form of ‘glam rock’ but has turned into an entire subculture, where the focus is more on a person’s traits, personality and abilities, as opposed to beauty and sexual appeal.
Thailand may very well be the most accepting country in terms of history. Never in the history of the country has homosexuality or transgenderism been punishable by law. In fact, transgenderism has been openly accepted as a third gender.
Kathoey is a term that loosely translates to “ladyboys” and refers to transgender or effeminate gay males. It is a strong subculture and has been for ages. Kathoey work in typically female jobs, in salons, as dancers in bars, and restaurants. The term originally was reserved for intersexed males, not transgendered males. However, it now encompasses male to female transgenders as well.
The reason for such tolerance is often placed on the country’s practice of Buddhism, however the religion does not state anything specifically for or against homosexuality. It is the adoption of the ‘do unto others’ practice that shows such tolerance.
While same-sex relationships are tolerated and openly accepted by the people of Thailand, they are not officially recognized to receive the same benefits as opposite-sex couples.
The next installments will focus on Europe, starting with ancient Greece and Rome.