Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Southern Swallow and His “Cut-Sleeve” Affair

I received an inquiry from a reader of The Academician about the use of the term "cut-sleeve affair" when referring to homosexuality during the Sung (Song) Dynasty (12th Century) China, the setting for the novel. Perhaps I should have added a footnote in the book. However, the work is a "novel," not a textbook. Although the term, and another one, "sharing a peach," are clear in their application, I owe the non-sinological world an explanation.

Homosexuality in China has been regarded variously during its long and eventful history. Unlike in the West, none of China’s traditional religions and philosophy regards homosexuality as a sin. However, in an agrarian Confucian society, there are certain obligations within relationships that homosexuality precludes — procreation being one. Homosexuality is not the only area that has been evaluated in light of fulfilling one’s obligations to produce children. Buddhism has been subject to a similar and, actually greater hostility, until it modulated into its particularly Chinese brand of the religion. During Ancient times (Warring States and Han), homosexuality wasn’t necessarily accepted, but it was broad based enough on the Imperial level that it was hard to ignore. The term "sharing a peach" came into vogue after a young man, Mi Tzi-xia, offered Duke Ling of the State of Wei a partially eaten, but juicy peach as an entrée to a same-sex relationship. More famous, and as such a more widely applied term, came with the young Emperor Ai, the last Western Han Emperor (9 CE), whose male concubine, Tung Xien, was prominent at court. As the Han Histories state it, Tung Xien fell asleep in Ai-tsung’s arms and, rather than disturb his sleep, the Emperor had his robe sleeves cut away in order to depart. This term for homosexual relationships — a "cut sleeve affair" entered into common parlance since.

During the Sung (Song) Dynasty, the period of The Academician, there was ambivalence about "cut-sleeve affairs." In the novel (as it would be in life), Li K’ai-men does his Confucian duty, marries and cohabitates with his wife and produces two sons, as it should be. His male lover, Fu Lin-t’o, finds himself in a strange limbo between Li’s love and his place in the Confucian order of things. He is not discriminated against and becomes part of the household, but still finds prejudices at every turn, even in the feng-shui notions of keeping heaven balanced. The Southern Swallow series is built around the long life of this cut-sleeve affair and its resilience against all odds. Homosexuality, as open and common, reached its zenith during the Ming Dynasty, when the court was as gay as King Frederick of Prussia’s. There was also a brand of same-sex marriage in Fu-ch’ien Province referred to as "Fu-ch’ien Marriages." With the Manchu conquest in 1640 under the Ch’ing (Qing) Dynasty, homosexuality was dealt a blow. Anything suggesting Ming hedony was suppressed by the more conservative conquerors. While the Ch’ing were importing Western cannon and clocks, they also were importing Jesuit views on homosexuality. In 1740, the K’ang-xi Emperor proscribed homosexuality and it was criminalized (not by death, but with strokes with the bamboo rod). There has been much debate as to whether the new laws were enforced. Still, homosexuality was criminalized in China until 1997 and in Hong Kong until the repatriation in 2000.

So from earliest times to the present, China has had a different view of homosexuality than the rest of the world. It was never a wholesale endorsement, but like many other social institutions, it was required to conform to strict societal relationships, which it did better than some other peculiar Chinese dishes like Buddhism (an Indian import). The euphemisms "a cut-sleeve affair" and "sharing a peach" were used in polite reference, not like Western euphemisms (light in the sneakers etc.). One of my aims, amongst others, in authoring The Academician was to develop a tung-xing-lien (companionable relationship – the Chinese word for homosexuality) during a more enlightened age. The novels span between 1124 – 1172 CE, a time when Western civilization was searching through the mud for its sandals and homosexuality was punishable by lighting the fires and burning the sinners.

Edward C. Patterson
More information on The Aacdemician

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