Words to describe facial expressions
Agonized: as if in pain or tormented
Alluring: attractive, in the sense of arousing desire
Appealing: attractive, in the sense of encouraging goodwill and/or interest
Black: angry or sad, or hostile
Blinking: surprise, or lack of concern
Blithe: carefree, lighthearted, or heedlessly indifferent
Brooding: anxious and gloomy
Bug eyed: frightened or surprised
Chagrined: humiliated or disappointed
Cheeky: cocky, insolent
Choleric: hot-tempered, irate
Darkly: with depressed or malevolent feelings
Deadpan: expressionless, to conceal emotion or heighten humor
Despondent: depressed or discouraged
Doleful: sad or afflicted
Dour: stern or obstinate
Dreamy: distracted by daydreaming or fantasizing
Ecstatic: delighted or entranced
Faint: cowardly, weak, or barely perceptible
Fixed: concentrated or immobile
Gazing: staring intently
Glancing: staring briefly as if curious but evasive
Glazed: expressionless due to fatigue or confusion
Grim: fatalistic or pessimistic
Grave: serious, expressing emotion due to loss or sadness
Haunted: frightened, worried, or guilty
Hopeless: depressed by a lack of encouragement or optimism
Hostile: aggressively angry, intimidating, or resistant
Hunted: tense as if worried about pursuit
Jeering: insulting or mocking
Languid: lazy or weak
Leering: sexually suggestive
Mischievous: annoyingly or maliciously playful
Pained: affected with discomfort or pain
Peering: with curiosity or suspicion
Pleading: seeking apology or assistance
Quizzical: questioning or confused
Radiant: bright, happy
Sanguine: bloodthirsty, confident
Vacant: blank or stupid looking
Wan: pale, sickly
Wary: cautious or cunning
Wide eyed: frightened or surprised
Wrathful: indignant or vengeful
Wry: twisted or crooked to express cleverness or a dark or ironic feeling
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References and Allusions to Male Same-Sex Relations in Chinese Literature
I am tired at this point of reading and watching Danmei/Dangai and be exposed to the same “cut sleeve” reference to allude to male same-sex attraction and relationships.
Don’t get me wrong, I thank the creative team and the writers for finding such a unique (?) way of bypassing censorship but there are so many more literary and historical references that they could use to allude to same-sex attraction. I’m kinda over the same old “Cut Sleeve” reference. 😖
Here are some of the most popular allusions used by writers in Chinese literature to reference male same-sex desire.
The Four Male Love Icons of Chinese Literature
I’m pretty sure that, if you are into Chinese history, folk, literature, etc, you have heard of the four beauties of ancient and imperial China. You have the four most beautiful Chinese women and the four most handsome Chinese men.
The same thing is true for the tradition of male same-sex love. Those are:
Mizi Xia (彌子瑕) and Duke Ling of Wey (衛靈公)
Lord Longyang (龍陽君) and King Anxi of Wei (魏安僖王）
Prince Zixi, Lord of È (鄂君子皙), and the Yue man (越人)
Emperor Ai of Han (漢哀帝) and Dong Xian (董賢)
Other literary allusions include:
Pan Zhang (潘章) and Wang Zhongxian (王仲先)
Lord Chan of Anling (安陵君) and King Xuan of Chu (楚宣王）
Hu Tian Bao (胡天保) as Tu’er Shen (兔兒神)
The four revered bottoms of Chinese literature and history are:
Mizi Xia (彌子瑕)
Dong Xian (董賢)
Chan (纏), Lord of Anling (安陵君)
If you ever come across a poem or prose that mentions any of those names to refer to a male beauty, just know that it’s an allusion to their stories. They were considered the peak of bottom literary reference.
The Passion of the Half-Eaten Peach (餘桃癖) 🍑
The story of Mizi Xia and Duke Ling of Wey (534-493 BCE) takes place in the Zhou dynasty in the state of Wey (not to be confused with the other Wei). It was recorded by Han Fei (韓非) in the legalist classic Han Fei Zi (韓非子). The story goes as follows:
Squire Mi gained favor with Duke Ling of Wey due to his beauty. There is a law in the land that states only the duke himself can ride in the duke’s carriage and that, if someone else dares to do the same, they will have their feet cut off. When squire Mi learned that his mother was sick, he took the ruler’s carriage and rushed to visit her. The duke, far from reprimanding him, praised Mi’s filial piety and his willingness to risk his feet be cut off to visit his sick mother. On another occasion, Mi and the ruler were strolling through an orchard. He got a hold of a peach, started eating it, and, upon noticing how sweet and delicious it was, he stopped eating and gave the other half to duke Ling. He praised Mi’s attention and lack of regard for his own appetite in order to please his ruler. When Mi’s looks started to wane, the duke’s love did the same. Then, the squire was accused of a crime and the duke stated it was not surprising since he had broken the law before to ride in the ruler’s carriage and disrespected him by giving him a half-eaten peach to eat.
Han Fei recorded this story as a cautionary tale of what happens when one depends on the fickle nature of their lord for favor rather than one’s own merits. One day, you are praised and, the other, you are labeled a criminal and beheaded. From this story, we get “the passion of the shared peach (分桃癖)” and “the passion of the half-eaten peach (餘桃癖)” allusions to male homosexuality.
The Passion of Longyang (龍陽癖) 🐠
The next story comes from the Annals of the Warring States, Zhan Guo Ce (戰國策), in the section of the “Strategies of Wei”, Wei Ce (魏策). There is not one author signaled out as the sole writer and it’s theorized that the annals were written by multiple people. This Zhou dynasty story goes as follows:
Lord Longyang and the King Anxi of Wei went fishing on the ruler’s boat. The favorite, at first, was delighted at catching so many fish in a row. However, after he caught a big one, he started to sob and lament. The king asked his favorite why he was crying to which Longyang expressed sadness at the realization that, upon catching the latest fish, due to its incredible size and desirability, he wanted to throw away the previous ones he had caught. Longyang further confessed that he was afraid that the ruler would one day grow tired of him upon learning of other beauties and would discard him away in the same manner he had planned to do with the previous fish he caught before. With an air of resolution, the king Anxi declared that anyone who mentioned other beauties in his presence would be executed along with his entire family/clan.
This dramatic story serves as a way to illustrate how male favorites in ancient China that obtained favor at court and, with it, enormous privilege, would try to hold on to those positions as much as possible. From this story, is where we get the “Passion of Longyang (龍陽癖)” and “a better catch” allusions that are included in poems regarding male love. The former, most notably, in one of the Emperor Jianwen of Liang’s (梁簡文帝) love poems to his favorite.
Song of the Yue Botman (越人歌) 🎶
The following is an extremely interesting story. The earliest text translated into Chinese from a foreign language that we know of comes from “Song of the Yue Boatman” (越人歌). It is a poem of unknown authorship and origin that details the pleasure the singer feels at having met the prince (Lord of È) for the first time. What makes it special is that it’s the only written account we have of the Yue language spoken by the Yue people who are an ethnic group who lived to the South of the Yangtze River. The song isn’t written using the Yue language itself, instead, compiler Liu Xiang (劉向) in his book, Garden of Stories (說苑), used Chinese characters to write down the sound of the words. In Garden of Stories, in the section, “Virtuous Speech” (善說), Liu Xiang details the story of official Zhuang Xin (莊辛) and Lord Xiang Cheng of Chu (楚襄成君). The story goes as follows:
Soon after being enfeoffed (being given land), Lord Xiang Cheng visited his lands decked out in precious garments and sporting a jade sword. Upon arriving at a river, his attendant asked whether there was someone who could help Lord Xiang Cheng cross the river. Official Zhuang Xin, who grew enamored with the sight of his lord in finery, stepped forward and said he was willing to help in exchange for the lord to let him hold his hand. Xiang Cheng was speechless and disgruntled due to the lack of propriety the lower official showed by asking to touch the hand of a man much higher in rank. However, Zhuang Xin asked his lord whether he had heard of the story of the Lord of È and his boatman.
Here is when the author introduces a story within a story.
Lord of È was traveling in his barge when he heard one of his boatmen sing in a foreign language. Intrigued by this, he asked one of his servants to fetch an interpreter. After hearing the translation of the song, the lord grew endeared towards the boatman, hugged him, and covered him in his embroidered quilt (had sex). Once the tale was over, the official Zhuang Xin asked his lord how could it be possible that he thinks he sits higher than the Lord of È enough to refuse a humble official his hand when the Lord of È, who is a prince, had “embraced” (had sex) a low boatman.
Although the English word used is boatman, due to the Chinese language not being gendered, the gender of the boatman is not explicitly mentioned. Although the character 人 can be used to refer to a man, its principal meaning is person or people. Therefore, 越人 is more closely translated as Yue person/people. As such, there have been scholars who believe that the song is most likely sung by a woman and not a man. I don’t agree with this interpretation, however, for multiple reasons.
The first is the context. Liu Xiang added the song, which was written centuries before he was born, to his chapter on eloquent speeches as a tool the official Zhuang Xin used to convince his lord to let him hold his hand. Zhuang Xin found Xiang Cheng attractive and wished to physically express that attraction. Thus, he used the song and the story of Lord of È as a precedent to convince his lord that a low ranking man could take the initiative to begin physical contact with another of much higher rank. If Liu Xiang didn’t perceive the boatman to be male and his relationship to the Lord of È to closely mirror that of Zhuang Xin and Xiang Cheng, then he wouldn’t have included it in the first place.
The second reason why I don’t think that the Yue boatman was a woman is because Chinese scholars who read the tale back in its original form and with the same historical and lexical sensibilities, considered the boatman to be a man. Multiple Chinese writers included references to the “Song of the Yue Boatman” story with Lord È in their own writings to explicitly symbolize male love such as Ming dynasty scholar Feng Menglong (馮夢龍) in his History of Love (情史) anthology, Emperor Jianwen of Liang’s poem to his favorite catamite (孌童), Liang dynasty poet Liu Zun (劉遵), and influential Qing dynasty poet Yuan Mei (袁枚). They have all used fragments of the story such as the expression “embroidered quilt” in conjunction to Lord of È’s name as well as other male-love allusions in their poems. This indicates that Chinese scholars themselves, even those who lived closer in time with Liu Xiang, interpreted the tale and the boatman to be symbols of male love. From this story we get the “embroidered quilt” expression, Lord of È, and his boat as male love allusions.
The Passion of the Cut Sleeve (斷袖之癖)✂️
The next story was featured in History of the Former Han (漢書), also knows as The Book of Han, by Ban Gu (班固) in Volume XI, “Annals of Emperor Ai” (哀帝紀). Dong Xian’s autobiography and the story are written on the section dedicated to favored courtiers.
Emperor Ai of Han favored greatly a minor official by the name of Dong Xian and they often slept together. One afternoon, after waking up from a nap, the emperor noticed that one of his sleeves was caught under the head of Dong Xian who kept sleeping beside him. Rather than disturbing his lover’s sleep, the emperor decided to cut off his sleeve. From this story we get the terms, “cut-sleeve (斷袖)” and “the passion of the cut-sleeve (斷袖之癖)”
That’s it, that’s the story. Compared to the others, I don’t understand why it’s so iconic and well-known, probably because Dong Xian’s biography as a male favorite was much more detailed than others contained in the book.
Mount Luofu Joint Burial (羅浮山合葬) ⛰
This tale originates from the Three Kingdoms and Six Dynasties period in Chinese history and was recorded in a compilation titled Anthology of Tales From Records of the Taiping Era (太平廣記) by Song dynasty scholar Li Fang (李昉). The tale goes as follows:
A beautiful and poised scholar by the name of Pan Zhang drew the attention and admiration of others, not only due to his bearing but also due to his talent as a teacher and writer. Wang Zhongxian of the state of Chu came to know of the scholar’s reputation and requested to become his student and learn together. Upon meeting for the first time, they fell in love at first sight. Afterwards, they decided to live together in the same home where they shared the same sheets and pillow while being intimate with each other. They grew so close to one another that people would say they loved each other as much as husband and wife. After they died, the townsfolk buried them together at Mount Luofu (羅浮山). On the peak, there grew a tree soon after with green leaves and long branches that embraced each other. Considering this a miracle, the townsfolk started to call the tale the “Shared Pillow Tree”.
Such a wonderful and happy story between teacher and student! One of the few ones with a happy ending and overall positive feelings in Chinese literature. It reminds me of an alternate reality 2ha where Meatbun doesn’t rip out our hearts. Also, many of these stories of male love either take place in Wei or Chu; interesting…From this tale, we get the “shared pillow tree” reference.
The Yellow Springs (黃泉) 🔥
Another story that comes from the Annals of the Warring States and takes place in the state of Chu (again) is the one of Prince Chan or Tan (壇), Lord of Anling, and King Xuan of Chu. This specific account is mentioned in the section of “Strategies of Chu”, Chu Ce (楚策), and goes as follows:
Prince Chan or Tan, was favored by King Xuan of Chu. However, as he grew older, he became increasingly worried that he may lose favor once the physical signs of aging started to show. In an attempt to establish a deeper connection with his king, he consulted with the ruler’s advisor, Jiang Yi (江乙). The older man told him that his position in Chu was precarious because he had no family members in the state, nor had arisen at court due to talent. Instead, he received a high salary and others were made to bow before him when he walked past simply because he received the king’s favor. However, the position of a favorite, just as that of a concubine, was never assured. Jiang Yi proceeded to advise Prince Chan that what he needed to do was to say that he would follow the king to the afterlife. Essentially, to claim that he would sacrifice himself for the ruler. Three years passed and Chan had yet to do what Jiang Yi told him because the opportunity to say something like that had not yet arrived. One day, the king went hunting. Upon shooting an arrow at a great distance that landed in an ox’s head, the king, pleased with his accomplishment, asked who could possibly share his joy 10,000 years and 1,000 autumns from then. Seizing the opportunity Chan answered that he was willing to go to the afterlife (黃泉) and sacrifice himself for his king. As a result he was promoted and given the lands of Anling. From that day on, the people of Chu held him in great esteem.
The story features, both a cautionary tale and a lesson on the importance of listening to advice and waiting for the right opportunity to seize the moment. From this story we get “Anling” as term used to allude to same sex love but also to symbolize devotion, self-sacrifice and loyalty.
Rabbit God (兔兒神)🐇
Another story that originates on the south of China is that of Hu Tianbao, also known as the Rabbit God (or deity). The tale where he’s featured and that gave rise to his legend was compiled by influential Qing dynasty writer and scholar Yuan Mei in his collection of supernatural stories titled What the Master Would Not Discuss (子不語). Despite it being compiled and published in 1788, the tale has its origins as part of Fujian Province (福建省)‘s oral tradition. It goes as follows:
During the Qing dynasty, there lived a handsome provincial official in Fujian. A lowly soldier, by the name of Hu Tianbao, became instantly attracted to him. He followed the official wherever he went, even to other districts. After a while of being stalked, the official grew increasingly worried but dismissed it. While the official went to the toilet, Tianbao hid nearby behind some bushes in order to get a glance at the official’s buttocks. However, Tianbao was caught and interrogated. He confessed his love, attraction, and admiration for the official but the latter was disgusted by Tianbao’s affection and wanted none of it. He condemned the soldier to death. A month later, Tianbao appeared as a rabbit at night in the dream of one of the villagers of his hometown. Although resigned to his fate and agreeing that the punishment of death was just, Tianbao declared that his actions were born from a pure feeling and that love between men should not be condemned. He asked the man to build a temple in his honor from which he would help men find a male significant other. The temple was erected and became so popular in Fujian that the Qing authorities targeted it for regulation.
From this story, we get the terms “Cult to Hu Tianbao”and “the Rabbit God”. Rabbits were used before this story was even compiled in late imperial China to refer to homosexuals in general. If you are ever wondering, “what is up with all of the rabbits in Danmei/Dangai media?” There you go, now you know.
Other literary allusions to male love and sex include:
Mandarin Ducks (鴛鴦) 🦆
Although these animals have been used throughout Chinese literature and history as symbols of love in general, both same-sex and heterosexual, it was first used to symbolize “fraternal love”. The ancient Chinese considered mandarin ducks to be symbols of love and loyalty because they believed the animals mated for life.
The Rear Courtyard (后庭) 🍌🍑
One popular phrase writers used, mostly towards the end of Chinese imperial history, to allude to anal sex and buttocks was “the rear courtyard” (后庭). Variations include “the pleasures of the rear courtyard” and “playing in the inner courtyard”. You will find those expressions in multiple works by Ming and Qing dynasty poets and writers.
Male Mode & Southern Mode (男風) & (南風)💨
Literally translated to “male wind” and “southern wind” they are both references to male-homosexuality. For some reason, the south of China has been more historically and culturally inclined to same-sex love than other places. We find this from the many mentions of the state of Chu in early works of literary reference to male love, in the lesbian Golden Orchid Society (金兰会) in Guangdong Province (广东省), and in the male-male marriages of Fujian province. In fact, homosexual practices were such a staple of southern Chinese provincial life that multiple writers satirized it in their works such as Qing dynasty playwright Li Yu (李漁).
And that concludes this veeeeeeeery long post. If you read all of that then, damn, you really are bored lol. But I thank you, nonetheless. I apologize if I mixed traditional and simplified Chinese characters. I tried to use traditional characters for the names to preserve their aesthetic appearance and authenticity. I will leave some of the resources I used for this post. I welcome you to take a look at them whenever you want.
With that being said, I only scratched the surface of literary references with this post. There are many, many more, however, I touched on the general ones. With how rich the male same-sex love Chinese literary field is, I cannot help but grow frustrated and tired at the lack of usage by modern Danmei/Dangai creative teams. Let’s leave the cut-sleeve to the side for a while and focus on the other awesome male-love references in Chinese literary history. Ok?
Anyways, 拜拜 👋
Birrell, A. (1982). New songs from a Jade Terrace: An anthology of early Chinese love poetry. Routledge. [Translation of Birrell of Xu Liang’s classic anthology of the same name]
Hinsch, B. (1990). The passion of the cut sleeve. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Owen, S., & Swartz, W. (Trans.). (2017). The poetry of Ruan Ji and Xi Kang. (S. M. Allen., P. W. Kroll, C. M. B. Nuget, S. Owen, A. M. Shields, X. Tian, D. X. Warner, Eds.) De Gruyter.
Stevenson, M., & Wu, C. (Eds.). (2013). Homoeroticism in imperial China: A sourcebook. Taylor & Francis.
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