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Eating the forbidden fruit

Street Talk


Language is delightfully, defiantly mutable. Like when your grandmother tells you about all the gay parties she used to attend as a teenager. You looked at her aghast, “Yes dear, we had tremendous fun back in the day.” It takes your a minute to figure out that she is talking about happy, fun parties, not her early career as a lesbian; but who could blame you? The language for same-sex love can be just as difficult in Chinese.

The Chinese call them 同志 (tóngzhì, comrades) and that’s tricky in a communist country. I mean, if you are a communist, well, then everybody is a comrade—and gay, for some reason. See? Tricky. If you consider yourself a far-lefty, and therefore a comrade and therefore a… Oh god, it is all so confusing.同志 is a slang for all homosexuals, boys and girls alike.

Lesbians are called so many things in Chinese; think delicate. 蕾丝边 (léisī biān) for example, literally means lace. Then there is 百合 (Bǎihé), which means lily, a flower.

Some terms for Homosexuality have a far more historical provenance. Waking up next to a lover, it’s easy to kick them out of bed and never see them again. This, however, is not what happened to Emperor Ai of Han. He, waking up and seeing his lover Dong Xian (董贤) asleep in his arms, simply cut off his own sleeves so as to not disturb his sleeping beauty. To this day 短袖之癖 (Duǎn xiù zhī pǐ, literally, “passion of the cut sleeve”) is a term for homosexuality.

Then there is Mizi Xia (弥子瑕) from the Zhou Dynasty (1046 B.C.-256B.C.), another classical lover of men, and it is a bit fruity. Mizi Xia once bit into a peach and shared it with the King Ling of Wei. The King was hugely grateful, saying “You love me so much that you even forget the delicious food in your mouth and gave it to me.” Now the phrase 分桃 (fēn táo, bitten peach) is a byword for homosexuality. Later, the King turned against Mizi Xia as his looks had faded, but who’s going to let cruel reality get in the way of a good story?

The Liang Dynasty (502-557) poet, Liu Zun (刘遵) wrote a bittersweet poem alluding to gay love, in it there are these lines:

“From an early age he knew the pain of scorn/ Withholding words; ashamed to speak/Favors of the cut sleeves are generous/Love of the half eaten peach never dies.”

So, now you know: if someone tells you he wants to cut off your sleeves while feeding you peaches, well, you might just be in for a very good time indeed.

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