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Queer characters in the literary classics of the Qing Dynasty
Pu Songling's Liaozhai, Cao Xueqin's Dream of the Red Chamber, and Wu Jingzi's The Scholars are all iconic works with LGBT representation
The following books are not only regarded as the most iconic works of Qing literature, but also counted among the most influential works of Chinese literature across all time periods. And they have something else in common: characters who would fall under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella in modern times.
Dream of the Red Mansions, ranked #1 in the Top 10 Literary Classics of the Qing Dynasty
The semi-autobiographical novel Dream of the Red Mansions (aka Dream of the Red Chamber) is set in a large noble family declining from wealth into poverty. It contains accounts of male homosexual behavior and homoromantic bonding, as well as a homoromantic lesbian couple with a spousal bond. There are also vivid descriptions of heterosexual lust.
Much has been written on the Chinese internet about queerness in Dream of the Red Mansions, though perhaps the word ‘queer’ is anachronistic. During that era, male bisexuality was quite normalized. Yuhan Wang has an English-language slide show Male Homosexuality in Dream of the Red Chamber.
The author 曹雪芹 Cao Xueqin (1710–1765) is listed in both the Top 5 Most Iconic Literati of early Qing and the New History Knowledge website’s list of The Five Most Famous Qing Dynasty Poets. His Dream of the Red Mansions is considered one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature.
18th century queer icon Yuan Mei’s famous Sui Garden once belonged to Cao Xueqin’s family. Ownership passed to Sui Hede after the Cao family fell on hard times. Sui too ran into misfortune, and Yuan Mei bought the ruined Sui Garden at a bargain.
The Scholars by Wu Jingzi, ranked #2 in the Top 10 Literary Classics of the Qing Dynasty
儒林外史 Rulin Waishi, translated into English as The Scholars, is a collection of stories satirizing members of the Confucianist scholar class. The protagonist Du Shaoqing has a gay cousin Du Shenqing who is also a major character. The crafty, fussy and at times bigoted Shenqing is presented as a foil to the honest, easygoing and generous Shaoqing.
The author 吴敬梓 Wu Jingzi (1701-1754) is listed in Top 5 Most Iconic Literati of early Qing.
There is some speculation that that Du Shenqing was based on the author’s real life cousin Wu Qing. Another theory is Du Shenqing is based on infamous queer hedonist Yuan Mei, who lived in the same region as Wu Jingzi. There are substantial differences between Yuan Mei and Du Shenqing though – Yuan Mei never claimed to be predominantly homosexual; he presented himself as pansexual. Yuan Mei also had a hearty appetite and loved eating, unlike Du Shenqing who seemed to suffer from avoidant restrictive food intake disorder.
Liaozhai Zhiyi by Pu Songling, ranked #4 in the Top 10 Literary Classics of the Qing Dynasty
Liaozhai Zhiyi is a collection of supernatural tales and unusual anecdotes which has inspired countless movies and TV serials. It is well known for its many heteroromantic and hetereosexual stories involving fox women and human men. Less well known are its stories of biromantic, bisexual, asexual and transgender characters, some of which are omitted from translations of Liaozhai Zhiyi into modern Chinese or English.
The author 蒲松齡 Pu Songling (1640-1715) is listed in Top 5 Most Iconic Literati of early Qing
The Liaozhai story Huang Jiulang seems to be a cautionary tale about the health risks of gay sex. The author Pu Songling added a tongue-in-cheek commentary to the story, in which he claims that gay sex is repulsive. He wrote 6 lines about the virtues of straight sex, and another 30 lines describing gay sex in graphic metaphors.
Random: Jackie Chan plays a fantastical version of Pu Songling in the 2019 film The Knight of Shadows. Completely ahistorical.
In the coming weeks and months, we might explore some of these stories in greater detail.
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