Bil Browning

From Genghis Khan to the cult of the cut sleeves

Filed By Bil Browning | August 31, 2007 5:10 PM | comments

Filed in: Media, The Movement
Tags: Chinese gays and lesbians, Qing dynasty, Song dynasty, violence

I stumbled across a story today that I found interesting and thought I'd share it with our readers. Researchers have reconstructed Genghis Khan's code of laws and found that homosexuality was punishable by death.

Homosexual acts were punishable by death under Genghis Khan's rule, according to researchers who spent more than a year compiling the legendary Mongolian conqueror's code of laws, the official Xinhua News Agency said Thursday.

Article 48 of the code said men who "committed sodomy shall be put to death," according to experts at a research institute in the Chinese region of Inner Mongolia.

The experts at the Research Institute of Ancient Mongolian Laws and Sociology said the ban was put into place because Genghis Khan wanted to expand the Mongolian population, which was about 1.5 million at the time.

The rival Song Dynasty, which dominated today's central China, was 100 million strong, Xinhua said. Khan's 13th century empire stretched across Asia all the way to central Europe.

That last couple of paragraphs was what caught my interest. Notice that the law wasn't put in place for any of today's typical reasons for condemning gays and lesbians. There's no mention of holy texts, no laying the blame onto a higher deity who apparently loves everyone but you, and no attempting to quote dubious "scientific" facts. Khan wanted to increase the population - the same reason the Jews had for outlawing homosexuality. (I won't go into the twisted logic behind "We want more people so if you don't reproduce we're going to kill you and reduce the population.") But note that the rival dynasty had almost 100x more citizens. What were the major differences between the Chinese and the Mongolians?

One of the first things I always think of in regards to Chinese society and homosexuality are the cut sleeve boys and "the passion of the half-eaten peach." Have you heard of those stories?

One early term, "The Half -Eaten Peach" started in the Zhou dynasty(500BC) and was recorded in the ancient work titled Han Fei Zi. The story goes that whilst out strolling one day, Duke Ling of Wei (534-493BC) and his favourite male concubine Mixi Zia stopped by a fruit laden peach tree. Xia took a bite of a peach and on discovering how delicious and sweet it was, immediately offered the fruit to the Duke. The ancient text records that the Duke exclaimed "how sincere your love is for me that you forgot your own appetite and thought only of giving me good things to eat". This expression of love known smply as "The Half Eaten Peach" survives even today as a reference to homosexuality.

In the Han dynasty (220-260 BC) Emperor Ai(6BCE-1CE) was responsible for another poetic expression, "Tuan Hsiu" translated as 'The Passion of the Cut Sleeve'.The emperor had woken up one day to find his beloved male concubine asleep on his sleeve. Unwilling to disturb the sleeping youth, the emperor cut off the sleeve of his royal robe. So deep and thoughtful was the love of the emperor for his concubine that "Passion of the Cut Sleeve" became a favoured court statement by the Han literati as a term for male love.

Chinese civilization mirrored the Greek and Roman styles of dealing with homosexuality and bisexuality. After all, "homosexuality" is a recent name that modern society has given to anyone who has same-sex attractions. Throughout history, however, most civilizations haven't seen things as black and white as we do currently. A good explanation comes from the International Gay & Lesbian Review:

Essentialists have argued that certain individuals have an inborn, or essential, aspect of their character that makes them gender nonconformist and/or homosexually oriented. On the other hand, social constructionists argue that all people have a pansexual potential, which societies shape, or construct, in wildly divergent ways. The constructionist perspective is useful for understanding socially-approved forms of sexual and gender roles that a society encourages for the majority. And in fact, research has shown, the majority of individuals do conform to whatever sexual style their culture tells them is proper, no matter how divergent those behaviors might be. Thus, Hinsch found that, before 1900, the dominant social construction for males in China was bisexual. Most Chinese men did not see themselves as being divided into strict categories of "homosexuals" and "heterosexuals," but evidenced a relaxed erotic attraction to both sexes.

Now keep in mind that the time periods for the "cut sleeve boys" spans from the Zhou dynasty (which started in 1122BC to the end of the Qing dynasty in the early twentieth century. This fully covers the time period Gengis Khan ruled in Mongolia. And yet the Chinese had over 100 million folks - by all means a flourishing society - during Khan's time period. Does anyone else see the corollary between human rights abuse and a thriving population? As we look around the United States today, aren't the more welcoming and tolerant states attracting new businesses and citizens while those of us *ahem* residing in more intolerant areas aren't seeing lots of job creation and an upsurge in new residents?

I'd say maybe we should be likening some of the major religious right leaders to Genghis Khan, but none of them have the intelligence, courage or fortitude shown my the Mongolian leader. Sadly, they do have the thirst for the blood of those less powerful than they are, eh?

(I'm no expert in Chinese society or history, by any means. I do, however, have a Chinese friend who regularly reads the blog so hopefully he'll pipe in and correct anything I screwed up too horribly...)

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Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | August 31, 2007 7:09 PM

You pretty much made my point that, prohibiting homosexuality would have little or no effect on overall population growth, as so many homosexuals reproduce themselves anyway. Whether this is because the majority of us are actually bisexual or pansexual, or we're forced into het relationships we really don't want, the end result has historically been the same: we have kids.

I think this sort of biological reductionism is just a smoke-screen to justify homophobia.

My point exactly, Brynn. I'm stuck on comparing the two societies. Khan's - who felt he had to kill men who had sex with men (because woman on woman action was okay) to increase his population and the Chinese who condoned and encouraged bisexuality and had more people than they knew what to do with.

One thing that sticks out in my head though is that the Chinese didn't go anti-gay until the Communist revolution. The Communists weren't supposed to be religious at all - especially not Christian - and yet they adopted a code of morals straight out of the Bible. I wonder why that happened like that...

I love your overall point, and the contrast between the civilization of the Chinese and the aggressiveness of the mongols is telling, and it is very interesting that it extended toward tolerence for bi behavior in china, and discrimination in Mongolia.

but I should say that it's a bit unfair to just compare the overall populations of China and Mongolia. Mongolia is a very harsh country where it is difficult to put together any agriculture, while China has vast expanses of very fertile land. It is much, much easier to have dense populations in China than it is in Mongolia. The harshness of life in the Central Asian steppes is part of the reason that Gengis Khan decided to invade in the first place.

Also, it should be noted that the Mongolians actually conqured China during this period, killed the royals of the Song Dynasty and would become the Yuan dynasty under Kublai Khan.

After watching a biography special on Ghengis Khan, I was left with a lot of curiosity regarding the relationship he had with his blood brother Jamuka. Never before had I heard references to Ghengis Khan that suggested he had a homosexual relationship. This show did not specifically proclaim the men to be lovers but did say they were inseparable and slept under the same blanket. Furthermore, Ghengis eventually had to end the relationship due to the jealousy of his wife.

If the information is accurate, this would seem to indicate clearly that Ghengis had a gay sexual relationship. The two men became bitter warring rivals after they parted ways. Jamuka eventually died by execution when his own people turned him in to Ghengis. This was very hard on Ghengis who first killed those who had betrayed Jamuka and offered to spare his life. Jamuka chose death.

Ghengis Khan's ban on homosexual acts may well have been entirely for practical procreation purposes. The historical perspective above suggests it could also have roots in the pain caused by his own homosexual relationship. Either way, something beyond general intolerance seems to be at play here.