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Coming Home: a rediscovery of sapphic yearning in Ancient China

Lush, incandescent islands of possibility in a sea of quiet despair.

Art by Ellie Zheng

Growing up as a first-generation Chinese-Australian, one of the ways that I connected with my elderly Chinese-speaking grandparents was through stories. My grandfather, who was gruff and said very little, would often sit me on his knee and put Journey to the West on the dusty, old box-TV, which followed the adventures of the mischievous monkey king Sun Wukong and his companions. At bedtime, my grandmother, a warm woman with golden laughter and eyes that crinkled with mirth, would regale me with Chinese children’s stories filled with talking rabbits, monkeys and turtles. Every Mid-Autumn Festival, she would hold me and tell me to look at the moon. ‘Look,’ she would say. ‘Do you see the rabbit in the moon?’ It was through these stories, that I began to dream about the world.

Like many other Chinese-Australians, I find myself in my adult years to be estranged from my heritage and family history. In an attempt to remedy this, I have recently taken an interest in Chinese mythology. I have always been fascinated by the way that humanity makes sense of a nonsensical world through stories, and these ancient Chinese stories have become an enchanting lens through which I have come to understand queerness as something that has always existed; something that is intrinsic to our world as the air we breathe. Despite centuries of colonialism serving to reinforce an atmosphere of queerphobia; be that through the imposition of gender binaries or attempts to maintain ‘ethical’ standards of regulating sexual behaviour, queer people persevere, just as we have for millennia. 

In my late teenage years, I realised that I wasn’t straight. From my first growing pains of curiosity and questioning, stories have laid themselves down as stepping stones on my journey towards self-acceptance of my queer identity. I have found refuge in many fictions – I empathised with Nico Di Angelo’s unrequited crush on Percy Jackson, cried with The Perks of Being A Wallflower’s Patrick and chose to believe that Liana and Alexa were actually cottagecore lesbians in Barbie and the Diamond Castle. Their love and struggles have whispered to me, telling me that I’m not alone. But in a recent rude awakening, I’ve realised that many of the stories that I’ve loved have been very white; a direct result of European imperialism, in which only whiteness (and that which whiteness desires) is considered valuable. As a queer Chinese woman, I grapple with unique dimensions of patriarchy and queerphobia that are coloured by race. 

In an attempt to remedy the internalised Western exceptionalism that has saturated every atom of my existence, I have sought out Chinese mythology and old stories; lush, incandescent islands of possibility in a sea of quiet despair.

In contemporary China, patriarchy, queerphobia, and Western imperialism etch themselves onto queer lives in new and painful ways. But despite its prevalence, intolerance towards queerness does not have roots in ancient Chinese traditions. Rather, homophobia arrived with the Christian values of colonial missionaries from the West. To paint a brief history: academics such as Bret Hinsch find that homophobia became established in China during the late Qing dynasty and the early Republic of China as a result of Westernisation efforts, shaping contemporary Chinese attitudes and social values that are intolerant toward queerness. Thus emerged a 20th century in which homophobia was enshrined in law, with homosexuality being banned in China until 1997. Up until 2001, homosexuality was also considered an official mental illness. 

Though the iron fist of institutional homophobia has been loosened to an extent, the stigmas around queerness remain in contemporary Chinese social values. But much to the horror of conservatives today, male homosexuality was widely practiced by the nobility and normalised in Ancient China; a fact that is well documented in ancient stories, folklore and mythology. Before Timothee Chalamet, there was the Zhou dynasty-era story of the Bitten Peach; a romance between Duke Ling of Wey and a beautiful man named Mizi Xia. In the Chinese pantheon of deities, the rabbit god Tu Er Shen oversaw the romantic and sexual relationships between men, and the celestial Xian were known to choose young men as lovers. 

But China, from ancient dynasties to today, has always been patriarchal. The consequence of it manifests in a clear absence of sapphic tales and stories of women loving women. This is not to say that there are no recounts of lesbianism and sapphic love in Ancient China and its mythology. One afternoon, I stumbled across a legend that tells of a mystical island known as Women’s Kingdom inhabited only by women. This island cannot be reached by ship, but travellers have occasionally found themselves whisked away by whirlwinds and stranded on this island. This wondrous account of a microcosm in which women are free to pursue their sapphic dreams and yearnings, has lingered wistfully in my mind. 

The stories of sapphic relationships in Ancient China sing to me like swan songs; in The Fragrant Companion, the lovers Cui Jianyun and Cao Yuhua are forced to marry the same man, or else be forced apart. In assurance to her lover, Cui Jianyun utters a despairing wish: ‘Let you and I be husband and wife in the next life.’ In Chinese folklore, heterosexual polygamy emerges as a common theme; women who are kept apart by patriarchal society have no choice but to marry men. Rarely have sapphic lovers been allowed to exist outside of the shadow of a man. Yet, their romances have often been described as being deeper than the connection between husband and wife. A love that burns so brightly, I wonder how they don’t feel that the very air has been sucked out of their lungs.

Riven by time and oceans, my experiences as a queer Chinese woman are worlds apart from these women whose yearnings are immortalised in folklore. Unlike Cui Jianyun and her lover, many of the complications I face are the legacy of Western imperialism, especially when it comes to coming out. For my Chinese family, ‘tradition’ has been a constant in their lives for decades; a precious heirloom that they have guarded fiercely and proudly. Change is not something that they bow easily or comfortably to. Though coming out is often viewed as a singularly important moment of self-liberation, for queer people of colour, coming out to your family isn’t always an option. 

Entering university, away from the prying eyes of old school mates who had known me since I was eleven years old, was my first step towards self-liberation. In my second year, I’d decided to take a Gender and Cultural Studies class as an elective. In one lecture, the lecturer talked about queerness in modern Asia, addressing the legal recognition of same-sex relationships in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. Of the three, only Taiwan had legalised gay marriage, but the binding act of marriage was not so important as what it represented; a commitment of kinship. 

The overarching conclusion of that week was that marriage wasn’t necessarily the final destination of queer liberation. Weddings, like an act of coming out, are symbolic performances and public rituals for family and friends. The lecturer called this performance, in front of family and friends, ‘coming home’ as opposed to coming out. 

When I talk about coming out, a memory of my dad driving me home from a protest for gay marriage always pops into my head. The conversation, like many of our conversations of late, grows tense and frustrating; my Cantonese is limited and queerness is not an easy topic for my conservative Dad to talk about.

‘Women should marry men, and men should marry women. But I don’t care about what all those people do, as long as it’s not my children.’

In the heat of the moment, I almost come out to him. I almost blurt out: ‘But I like women. So how far are you willing to stand by your words?’

I didn’t say it though. Because if I did, Dad’s threat would no longer live in the realm of the hypothetical. And despite everything, I want to cling to this limbo just a little longer.

That memory lingers years later, when I am openly queer to my friends and to most people that know me. On sleepless nights, I sometimes lament what my life might have been if homophobia had never arrived on Chinese shores, if my family didn’t clutch their homophobia so tightly. Dad is so proud of the millennia-long history of the Middle Kingdom – I think it would shock him to learn just how queer that history is.

On those nights, my thoughts often drift to Cui Jianyun’s desperate wish: ‘Let you and I be husband and wife in the next life.’ But I don’t want to wait until my next life to be able to love. I want to be able to love in this one. In many ways, I am estranged from my family, as both a queer person and someone who grew up with little interest in my Chinese heritage. But rediscovering mythologies and stories from Ancient China has been a step towards making peace with myself in my entirety, and rediscovering something that I hadn’t even realised had been stolen from me. And while I’m not out to my family yet, I hope that one day I will be. I hope that one day, I’ll be able to come home.

A version of this article was originally published in 1978 The Sydney Arts Student Society Diverse Sex and Genders Journal (2020).