When I Li Hsiao came out to his family more than a decade ago, his father didn't take the news seriously. "My dad said, 'Oh, it's a Western thing,'" Hsiao said. But Hsiao didn't think so. He started researching Chinese gay history, and he found not just a few LGBTQ people in the books, but many.
"Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people have always been part of Chinese culture," Hsiao said. "It's not a Western import."
In fact, homophobia, not homosexuality, may have been the Western import.
That common misconception that queerness and gay history are products of Western culture was the subject of a Jan. 15 talk by Hsiao and Maggie Lee, "Coming Home: Chinese Traditionalism & Changing Views of Same-Sex Love" at the Chinatown Public Library. The presentation was an i2i (Invisible to Invincible: Asian Pacific Islander Pride of Chicago) event.
According to Lee and Hsiao, Chinese LGBTQ history can be traced as far back as 722 B.C., during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, when "bisexual behaviors were apparently common."
Hsiao said that dating people of all genders was not only accepted in ancient China, it was expected, especially among rulers. "The notion of a very powerful man limiting himself to one gender or another would have an alien idea," he said.
Throughout the Han Dynasty, 10 openly queer emperors ruled China. At least seven subsequent rulers had male lovers. China also has lesbian marriages on the books as early as 19th century B.C. in Guanghzhou province. Even China's famous last Emperor, Pu Yiwhose life story was depicted in the 1987 film The Last Emperorhad male lovers. (The film does not make mention of this fact.) Pu Yi ruled until 1917.
Lee and Hsiao said that it was not until the adoption of European Marxist ideals that homosexuality became taboo, painting homosexual relationships as "bourgeois" and "immoral."
Lee said that kind of thinking lives on in Chinese beliefs today, but it is not the rule. LGBTQ Chinese face many of the battles being waged for LGBTQ rights worldwide. Same-sex couples cannot marry or adopt in China, and hate crimes generally are not recognized as such. "It's easy to assume that homosexuality is completely taboo [in Chinese culture]," Lee said. But she added, while 40 percent of Chinese believe homosexuality to be "totally wrong," more than 90 percent support equal employment rights for LGBTQ people ."There is no extreme radical thinking that is at the root cause of discrimination."
Lee and Hsiao partially credit Daoism with encouraging acceptance of LGBTQ people in China. Daoist philosophy emphasizes a balance between ying (female) and yang (male), but it also says that every person carries elements of both ying and yang. So having two women or two men together is not necessarily unbalanced.
But just how spirituality in Chinese culture affects views of homosexuality is a conversation that "could take years" to talk about according to Lee. Lee and Hsiao plan on starting that conversation in Chicago in the next few months with more presentations.
But if Lee and Hsiao were clear on one point, it was that Chinese culture, history and literature have included LGBTQ stories in ways that both Chinese and Westerners are not yet aware.
When it comes down to it, Hsiao said, the important part of understanding yin/yang is recognizing that it's not about biological sex. "It's more than what's between your legs," he said. "It's about your body and your soul."
i2i is a community-based Chicago organization for LGBTQ Asian Pacific Islanders to build friendships, community, and activism. More information can be found at www.chicagoi2i.org .