China’s gay emperor known for his ‘cut sleeve’

Society & Culture

Ai of Han's reign has been interpreted by historians as opening the door to court corruption and dynastic crisis. But he is remembered today mostly for a tale of passion and love.

In AD 9, Wáng Mǎng 王莽, once the powerful prime minister of the Western Han court, overthrew the dynasty and declared himself ruler. The reign of this ambitious but conniving reformer is the interlude between the Western and Eastern Han dynasties — but that he could become emperor in the first place was due to the power vacuum left by a previous emperor. Ai of Han had no children (we assume), and though his reign was rocky, he has achieved immortality in modern China due to his devotion to a male lover.

Who was Ai of Han?

Ai (born Liú Xīn 刘欣) never really knew his parents. According to his biography in the Han Shu (written as early as a century after Ai’s death), his father died when he was only four, and he hardly saw his mother. He was raised by his grandmother, the overbearing Consort Fu. At 18, he impressed his childless uncle Emperor Cheng when he was on a trip to the capital, appearing knowledgeable and virtuous. An important point was that Consort Fu endeared herself and gave substantial gifts to Cheng’s most influential advisors, who began singing his praises, too. The favorable image this conjured won Cheng over: Ai ascended the throne in 7 BC at the age of 20.

It was a good start. He decreased the power of the former empress’s Wang clan, taking more of a hand in court affairs while keeping capable ministers in his employ. But he was pliant to the will of Consort Fu (or so the Han Shu suggests), who busily hollowed out the Wang’s power base, eventually getting herself installed as Grand Empress Dowager, against established protocol. Ai was plagued with indecisiveness, alternating in his rulings frequently, leading to instability at court, since he was the final source on all decisions.

Then, favoritism reared its ugly head in the form of a male lover named Dǒng Xián 董贤, described in the Han Shu as “a soft and gentle person, and good at charming people.” Initially employed as private secretary to the Crown Prince (courtesy of his father’s position in court as a historian), he came to Ai’s attention in 4 BC. An emperor with a male lover wasn’t unusual. As historian Sima Qian notes in Records of the Grand Historian, “It is not women alone who can use their looks to attract the eyes of the ruler; courtiers and eunuchs can play that game as well. Many were the men of ancient times who gained favor this way.” There are sources of rulers taking male lovers since the Zhou dynasty, who were allowed to cheekily flout codes of conduct around their head of state as long as they stayed young and beautiful. By the Han, it was all but a matter of routine: all 10 previous emperors of the dynasty had male favorites.

The practice wasn’t limited to the court. Bret Hinsch argues in his influential and highly readable Passions of the Cut Sleeve that upper-class men were free to take male lovers when the concept of romance was socially flexible, possible with both a man or a woman without the moral stigmas of religion (condemnation would come either with Buddhism, the Mongols, or Western modernization, depending on the academic consulted). The practice of emperors taking male lovers continued long after Ai was gone, the custom of a politically influential male consort so common that court historians would write biographies about them up until the Song dynasty.

But Ai was different. Despite their trysts with men, all previous Han rulers had produced heirs; Ai never had any children with his empress. “By nature Emperor Ai did not care for women,” noted the Han historian Bān Gù 班固. In the space of a year, Dong Xian and his wife — who had several children together — moved into the palace, his relatives showered with titles and influential positions, with an imperial palace — equal in size to the emperor’s — built in his honor.

Dong’s power reached dangerous levels. By 2 BC, aged just 22, he was the one making all the decisions, appointed Prime Minister, Supreme Commander of the Army, and the capital’s security chief, to whom “all the officials were presenting their affairs,” according to the Han Shu. Ai would hear no words against him, imprisoning and demoting those who tried to protest Dong’s astronomical rise. When Prime Minister Wang Jia tried to curtail Dong’s rise in 2 BC, Ai made Wang commit suicide.

Dong’s youth among the gray heads stuck out like a sore thumb. According to the Han Shu, a supreme leader (called chanyu) of the Xiongnu, attending a banquet with Han ministers, was so impressed that a man so fresh-faced was capable of reaching such a high standing that he told the translator, “The Grand Secretary [Prime Minister] is young, so he should take the place of a great scholar.” Ai said that although Dong was young, he had earned his place through his wisdom. The chanyu rose to his feet and “congratulated the Han for having a wise minister.”

The favoritism at court and the unrestrained political and purchasing power of the Fu and Dong families had an impact on the country. In 3 BC, the virtuous minister Bào Xuān 鲍宣 sent a memorial to the throne that would come to be known as “Seven Deprivations and Seven Deaths.” It described a world turned on its head, a court that had banished men of virtue and was dominated by lackeys who taxed the common people to the hilt: “The world today calls the unwise as able and the wise as unable.” Ai did not punish Bao, knowing he was a “famous Confucian” (executing him would have been a catastrophic statement), but did nothing until an earthquake the next year seemed to confirm divine displeasure at the immorality of the Han court. Ai dismissed several favorites and attempted reform. But Bao Xuan’s suggestions of curtailing the number of servants and acres of land imperial officials could own was abruptly overruled by imperial favorites.

The source material implies that Ai’s favoritism and homosexuality undid the entire Western Han. Plagued by an unknown illness all the way through his short reign of six years, Ai announced on his deathbed in 1 BC that Dong was to succeed him as emperor. But Dong, without the backing of his powerful lover, was just a paper tiger, snuffed out by the court as soon as Ai breathed his last, he and his wife forced to kill themselves.

The Cut Sleeve

Ai would have been just another weak ruler at the tail end of one of China’s many dynastic cycles if it hadn’t been for the story of the Cut Sleeve. The kernels of the legend can be found in the Han Shu: Dong Xian “was often in bed with the emperor. When [Ai] wanted to get up, he did not want to move [Dong Xian], but he broke his sleeve and got up. This was the extent of his love and affection” (or maybe it says something about the abundance of splendid silk robes at the Han Emperor’s disposal). Supposedly, after ministers found out about this mark of love — that to avoid waking Dong by moving his arm, Ai cut off his sleeve — this started a fashion trend.

Through the dynasties, one of the most common euphemisms for a homosexual has been “cut sleeve” (断袖 duàn xiù). Ming and Qing dynasty authors would title erotic homosexual stories as “Records of the Cut Sleeve.” Police in Republican Beijing would label homosexual behavior as “predilection of the cut sleeve.” Although the term still occasionally pops up online, it is more an intriguing curio than a challenger to “tongzhi” (“comrade”) as the standard modern euphemism.

It is intriguing how this incompetent emperor, whose passions have been interpreted in the histories as opening the door to court corruption and dynastic crisis, has been remembered for a tale of passion and love. Today in China, as in many places, homosexuality is merely tolerated rather than accepted: gay clubs can remain open, provided they stay out of the public eye. But China’s long history of homosexuality gives hope to many in the LGBTQ community, in a country that only removed the orientation from an official list of “mental illnesses” in 2001. Emperor Ai’s legacy isn’t all doom and destruction.

Chinese Lives is a recurring series.