From a tycoon’s daughter to a pop star, a middleaged actress and the domestic helper community, lesbians have been in the news recently. Hong Kong’s lawmakers recently voted down a motion calling for a public debate on equal rights for people of all sexual orientations, arguing that now was not the time for such a discussion.
While it’s a stretch to say lesbianism has been accepted in Chinese society, it was not unknown in pre-modern China. Women in love or engaging in sexual activities with each other are described in learned writings and vernacular novels of the late imperial period, and some are quite explicit in their prose. Interestingly, women who weren’t part of traditional family units and were therefore less bound by Confucian propriety – including Buddhist nuns, Taoist priestesses, witches and prostitutes – figure prominently in these writings.
In the imperial palace, there was only one resident male, the emperor, to hundreds, sometimes thousands, of women. A few lucky women might be blessed by imperial favour, but for most of them life was an endless drudgery of stifling loneliness. In this respect, the palace wasn’t very different from women’s prisons, where situational lesbianism thrives. There are numerous records of palace women, from empresses to maids, engaging in duishi – literally “opposite eating” – with one another. It is a matter of speculation as to whether duishi refers to a poignant candlelit dinner shared by two women in a gloomy palace apartment, or something altogether different. Whatever it meant, those who got found out usually came to a tragic end.