Saturday 20 February 2010

The LGBT History Series (20) - Dong Xian

The Series's biographies were feeling a bit white, middle class, western, post-industrial revolution, so I decided to shake things up a bit.

Dong Xian (23BC - 1BC) was a politician in the Han Dynasty of China. Most scholars agree that Xian's rise in power from an obscure minor official to Marquess, the highest imperial official below the emperor was due to his homosexual relationship with Emperor Ai, rather than his abilities.

An idiomatic term for homosexuality in Chinese is 'duanxiu zhi pi' (fetish of the cut sleeve) which originates from an episode between Ai and Xian, where Xian was asleep resting on Ai's sleeve, so instead of waking him, Ai cut off his sleeve. Aww.

Both men were married, but Emperor Ai built Dong Xian and his wife a palace adjacent to the Imperial Palace, and Ai continued to lavish Xian with gifts of large amounts of money, jewels and jewellery, swords and silk costumes.
In 3BC, Ai wanted to make Xian a Marquess but could find no excuse for the awarding of the title, so he had a rumour spread about Liu Yun, a provincial prince, that he was using witchcraft. Yun was consequently demoted to commoner status and committed suicide whilst Xian took up the title.

Despite the title, Xian didn't fulfil any of the civic duties expected of a Marquess, instead he accompanied Emperor Ai all day, every day. In 1BC, Ai died suddenly and Xian was the most powerful man in the empire. Paralysed by grief, Dong was unable to stop Empress Dowager Wang seize the imperial seal and take control. Dong was relieved of his post, the next night Dong and his wife committed suicide and were privately buried. The new line of emperor had his body disinterred to check he was dead and re-buried him within a prison.