China and Inner Asia

Organized Panel Session

3 - The Secret Codes of Female Same-Sex Intimacy in Chinese Late Imperial Literature

Friday, March 23
10:30 AM - 12:30 PM
Location: Park Tower 8226, Lobby Level

In late imperial China, traditional Chinese Orthodox does not allow women to have sexual desires and consider women only as family members to fulfill the reproductive services for the patriarchal polygamy family. Under these circumstances, some sexually unsatisfied women have turned to same-sex practices. The question that remains is how to distinguish the genuine desire of women who only prefer women with the women who only consider same-sex desires and practices as a substitute for heterosexual relations. Moreover, we need to unravel what kind of same-sex desires literates in the late imperial period have chosen to represent and why.


This paper examines the same-sex desires and practices among women in late imperial Chinese literature and traces the elements of such representations and analyzes the developments of female same-sex intimacy. It discusses different types of same-sex desires and intimacy represented in the late imperial Chinese literary representations and tries to uncover the hidden codes in both male and female writers’ works in different genres. It concludes that male literati ridicule, belittle and fantasize about female homoerotic relations and are not able to represent their desires with dignity. Some female writers show homoerotic sentiments in their poetic writings, but the ambiguity of the poetic language complicates the interpretation. However, the hinges and codes of homoerotic tender feeling towards the same-sex and the literary tradition of female same-sex representations may establish a new understanding of homoerotic love and gender norms in contemporary China.

Wendy Sun

University of California, Santa Barbara, California

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