Like India, where the recent decriminalisation of gay sex is a return to deep historical roots, China has a long tradition of acceptance – at times even celebration – of same-sex love. But it is a tradition that has faded from prominence of late, with some very recent exceptions. One of the most famous Chinese examples of tolerance for homosexual love can be found in the story of the relationship Emperor Ai (27 – 1BC) of the Han dynasty had with a court official by the name of Dong Xian. As the tale – told many times and in many fashions over the millennia – goes, the emperor was spending a quiet afternoon with his lover, who had fallen asleep on his imperial robes, when an official stopped by to remind him it was time for a cabinet meeting.

Instead of rousing his sleeping boyfriend, the emperor cut off his flowing sleeve, and went to meet his ministers sporting an obviously diminished robe. The “Passion of the Cut Sleeve” or just “Cut Sleeve” – duanxiu in Mandarin – became a cultured euphemism for gay love, with Qing dynasty writer Pu Songling penning a famous short story by that title in his classic compilation Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio in 1740.

There’s another common Chinese euphemism called “the bitten peach”, once again hailing from a tale of passion in the upper echelons of society. This time it’s the turn of Duke Ling of Wei (534 – 492BC), who was smitten by his courtier Mizi Xia, a man of legendary beauty who somehow made the Duke wild with desire after sharing a particularly delicious peach.

Even Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) of the Qing dynasty, who ruled for most of the 18th century and had a profound influence on Chinese arts and society, is rumoured to have indulged in a level of sexual fluidity as he became besotted with Heshen, a member of his imperial honour guard. Like other famous male lovers, though, once his protector passed away Heshen was swiftly punished for his unorthodox rise to power, and forced to commit suicide.

The most famous of these stories are all tales of gay affection, an indicator of how lesbian love in China – much as it has been around the world – was less publicly celebrated. Less well-known stories, depicted in erotic paintings or in carved figurines, can be found throughout Chinese history, all with the understanding that homosexual love didn’t matter too much as long as the main Confucian duty of producing offspring was observed. Same-sex love was also largely tolerated as long as it came in the form of an extramarital affair and didn’t turn into a blinding passion, or a more established union that could threaten patriarchal institutions.

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Ironically, Emperor Qianlong also promulgated the first legal condemnation of homosexuality, as same-sex intercourse outside of brothels was outlawed. From the end of the Qing dynasty, new moral codes – heavily influenced by an increasingly puritanical and homophobic West – meant there was little room for gay love and, more broadly, LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bi, transgender and intersex) rights or recognition.

The opera, part of the artistic “floating world”, remained a grey area. Even the legendary actor Mei Lanfang, who became internationally renowned for his nuanced portrayal of female characters, was required to show an outward appearance of heterosexuality throughout his 50-year career that begun in 1905. Mei was twice married, and had 11 children, but certain segments of Chinese literati such as the writer Lu Xun frowned upon Mei’s Western tours over worries the actor would present “too effeminate” an image of China.

Communist puritanical attitudes (partially modelled on Joseph Stalin’s own homophobia) meant that while Chinese society opened up in the 1980s and 1990s, it took until 2001 for homosexuality to be declassified as a mental illness. That, however, was the last bit of legal reform on the subject: for a while, it looked like China, unencumbered by resistance from religious groups or the politicisation endemic to a two-party system, might have approved same-sex marriage.

China’s foremost sexologist, Li Yinhe, tried to advocate for same-sex marriage in the early 2000s, but her efforts foundered on a lack of support from officials. And, as documented by Human Rights Watch in 2017, Chinese hospitals and private clinics continue to offer “conversion therapy” – treatment based on the false assumption that homosexuality is a curable disorder.

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This week, however, saw the movement’s most visible effort in some time, as thousands of Chinese activists joined an online push for same-sex marriage via amendments to draft legislation that incorporates legal protections for LGBTI people. The movement came thanks to the efforts of Sun Wenlin, whose application to be married to his partner was rejected two years ago, and said he “did not want to be reconciled to watching this law sit there silently without anyone paying attention”.

Sun’s post, a guide on how to submit revisions to the legislation, went viral – related hashtags were viewed more than 50 million times on Sina Weibo, while signatories to his campaign to legalise same-sex marriage jumped from 5,000 to over 20,000 in a day.

Taiwan is in the process of amending its marriage laws to give same-sex couples the right to marry, but Hong Kong seems to be battling a mixture of Victorian-era Puritanism, colonial baggage, religious intransigence, and immigration inflexibility that makes its attitude towards gay rights only marginally better than mainland China. The city only decriminalised homosexuality in 1991, but gay marriage is still not recognised under Hong Kong law, which also prohibits a same-sex couple from undergoing fertility treatment and does not have any provisions against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The most visible cases pitting the conservative Hong Kong government against LGBTI people have been centred on immigration. This July, the Court of Final Appeal finally granted British lesbian “QT” the right to a dependent visa, but this was on the grounds of unlawful discrimination rather than same-sex marriage progress.

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The movement may even have the unlikely backing of the business community. As more countries move to legalise same-sex marriage, talent coveted by international firms may choose not to move to Hong Kong if the government remains unwilling to extend spousal dependent visas to husbands or wives. But the time might be ripe for a change; a study by the Hong Kong University Centre for Comparative and Public Law found just last month that, for the first time, more than half of the city’s population supports gay marriage.

Yes, that support is still only at 50.4 per cent, but few people will have forgotten the backlash against tycoon Cecil Chao’s cringeworthy offer of a HK$1 billion “marriage bounty” for any man who would woo his openly lesbian daughter, Gigi Chao. The likes of Gigi, Denise Ho and Anthony Wong show what Hong Kong has that mainland China is still lacking: celebrities openly campaigning for gay rights as well as the social and political acceptance of the LGBTI community.