Zhu Youjiao, born December 23 1605, reigned from 1620 – 1627 as the Tianqi Emperor. The 16th Ming emperor apparently subscribed to the ‘passion of the cut sleeve’. He kept one palace for his female concubines and another for the males.
Homosexuality remained legal in China until prohibitions were introduced during the Ming dynasty, more than a century after the Tianqi Emperor’s death. Earlier historical records contain numerous references to imperial homosexuality.
Academic Li Yinhe has written extensively on the history of homosexuality in China.
“In the incredibly long history of my country, the written records of true history and legend both contain a large number of instances of homosexuality.”
Li quotes a witticism about same-sex partners from the Shang Dynasty, 1556 – 1046 BCE.
“Beautiful men cause bankruptcies; beautiful women destroy homes.”
The passion of the cut sleeve
Perhaps the most famous incident of Chinese same-sex love is the romantic legend of the passion of the cut sleeve. Needing to get out of bed but not wanting to wake his sleeping lover, Emperor Ai sliced off the sleeve Dong Xian was lying on. However, two centuries before Ai rent his garment, a Wei emperor appointed his boyfriend the imperial ‘pillow assistant’. Lord Longyang’s name survived as a euphemism for gay men for over two millennia.
Later, a Chen emperor faced a requirement to father an heir. Not feeling up to the job, he demanded the female concubine he needed to impregnate dress as a man to arouse his ardour.
Li Yinhe says that homosexuality peaked under the Ming emperors. Indeed, during the Ming dynasty, an anthologist collected relevant texts from 2000 years of Chinese history in the Records of the Cut Sleeve. The Encyclopedia of Lesbian and Gay Histories and Cultures describes that anthology as ‘perhaps the first comprehensive homosexual history in any culture’.
The Tianqi Emperor
Zhu Youjiao inherited one of history’s greatest empires. But the 15-year-old was illiterate and had received no education in the arts of governance. Nor did he want the role.
It’s a funny job – that of a monarch. Some people will sacrifice anyone, friend or foe, to attain the position. Others, like Zhu, end up hostage to an eminence they loathe through an accident of birth.
It’s not as though the young Emperor was afraid of hard work. However, he preferred woodwork to statesmanship. A eunuch governed in the lad’s place while he toiled in Forbidden City’s carpentry workshops.
In 1627, the Tianqi Emperor almost drowned when he fell out of a boat into a lake while drinking with eunuchs. The 22-year-old died within months, supposedly as a consequence. Remembered mainly as a talented woodworker, no pieces known to be his survive. He sold his handiwork anonymously, keen to ascertain its actual worth.
Read more: December 22 <— On this day —> December 23
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