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  • The Cult of Hu Tianbao and the Eighteenth-Century Discourse of Homosexuality *
  • Michael Szonyi (bio)

Like many Qing officials upon transfer or promotion, when Zhu Gui (1731–1807) was appointed grain tax circuit intendant of Fujian in 1765 he declared his intention to improve the moral shortcomings of the people under his jurisdiction. Zhu, probably best known as the brother of Zhu Yun, one of the compilers of the Siku quanshu, promulgated a “Prohibition of Licentious Cults,” criticizing the respect the people of Fujian paid to such cults (yinci). One of two cults in the provincial capital of Fuzhou which particularly aroused his ire was the cult of Hu Tianbao:

The image is of two men embracing one another; the face of one is somewhat hoary with age, the other tender and pale. [Their temple] is commonly called the small official temple. All those debauched and shameless rascals who on seeing youths or young men desire to have illicit intercourse with them pray for assistance from the plaster idol. Then they make plans to entice and obtain the objects of their desire. This is known as the secret assistance of Hu Tianbao. Afterwards they smear the idol’s mouth with pork intestine and sugar in thanks.

Zhu learned from his subordinates that the deity was worshipped in a temple at Kangshan, just outside Fuzhou’s east gate. He confiscated a plaster image and a wooden tablet of the deity and had these brought to the yamen, where in full view he split them into two pieces. The pieces were then thrown into the Min River below two of Fuzhou’s major bridges. 1

In the eighteenth century, the city of Fuzhou was the site of an organized cult to a deity whose chief power lay in his ability to grant the wishes of men [End Page 1] who desired to have sexual intercourse with young men. The chief evidence on this cult comes not from its adherents, but from the proclamations of state officials who attempted to suppress it, so it is impossible to determine how the deity was understood by those who worshipped him. But in dealing with the cult, these officials considered its appeal, and thus problematized the wrongdoing of these adherents. The brief records they made provide a window into the elite discourse of homoerotic desire in the eighteenth century, and the view is surprising. One strand of thought among the complex discourses of the time argued that homoerotic desire had its basis in human nature, an approach that has much in common with the modern concept of sexual orientation. Parallels to this view can be found in early vernacular fiction from Fuzhou, suggesting that there was a certain congruence between intellectual and popular understandings. This and other strands did not disappear in the transition to modernity, but strongly informed later conceptions.

Most historians identify a major disjuncture in the early modern period in legal and social attitudes towards men having sex with men. Furth has argued that a new unease towards homosexual relations appeared as early as the late Ming, perhaps through association with the rising power of eunuchs and hence part of a broader dynastic and social decadence. 2 Other scholars locate the disjuncture not in the Ming but in the early to mid Qing, an argument first put forward by van Gulik. 3 Thus Hinsch sees “a more stringent application of Neo-Confucian rhetoric regarding the family, imported Manchu concepts of sexuality and a reaction against individualistic Ming permissiviness.” This sexual conservatism coupled with “a new literary language and influences from Western morality . . .was soon to sever most links with the homosexual tradition of antiquity.” 4 Vivien Ng also suggests that legal provisions demonstrate a repressive conservative backlash in the Qing against earlier more liberal attitudes. Both male and female sexuality were constrained by a strict neo-Confucian sexual orthodoxy. State and society became homophobic in the Qing. 5 Matthew Sommer’s recent work on judicial constructions and social stigma shows that while official anxiety about homosexual intercourse grew during the eighteenth century, there was considerable continity between new laws and much older, widespread concerns. Perhaps more importantly, Sommer also challenges the use of...

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