How Fujian was once an LGBT mecca (where people worshipped a rabbit god)

Society & Culture

In China, the Rabbit God — Tu'er Shen — is a relatively obscure deity. But at one point in history, it held special significance, particularly for same-sex couples who looked to it for guidance and true love. Remnants of the Rabbit God can still be found today, if one looks hard enough.

Rabbit God Tu'er Shen
Illustration by Derek Zheng

Last month, two women claimed custody of a baby girl in Fujian court. One was the child’s mother by blood, the other by birth. In April 2019, Dati transferred her embryo to Xiaomei, who gave birth in December and later registered the child as her own. Dati took it to court, but Xiaomei claimed she had actually been Dati’s lover. The Huli District People’s Court ruled in favor of the birth mother. After all, not only did the birth certificate list Xiaomei as the mother, but she was still breastfeeding. Unfortunately for Dati, the court noted that China has no legal framework for same-sex custody battles.

This is not to say China has made no progress on LGBTQ rights. Homosexuality was legalized in 1997 and delisted as a mental illness in 2001, and a recent survey found 67% of Chinese support same-sex marriage, compared to 61% of Americans.

But for the world’s second-largest economy, China still has miles left to go. LGBTQ media remains censored, Beijing responded to Taiwan legalizing same-sex marriage last year by saying China will not follow suit, and, this past August, the country’s largest LGBTQ festival, Shanghai Pride, was shut down without explanation. The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, which specializes in LGBTQ research, ranks China 101 out of 174 nations for LGBTQ tolerance. The U.S., meanwhile, ranks 21st.

Yet for most of China’s history, it was more progressive than Europe. Ancient Greece and Rome may have been famously tolerant, but the hammer of prejudicial justice came down early. In 390 CE, Theodosius the Great outlawed blood sacrifices, witchcraft, and fortune-telling by birds, and made “passive” homosexual sex punishable by public burning. It was the dawn of Christian morality in Europe. But China would not explicitly ban gay sex for another 1,400 years — with the fall of its last golden age and the rise, in Fujian Province no less, of a rabbit-worshipping religious sect.

Rise of the rabbit cult

To be precise, the sect worshipped one rabbit, the deity known as Tù’er Shén 兔儿神. This name literally means Baby Rabbit God, although baby rabbits are technically known as kittens or leverets, and some scholars therefore refer to Tù’er Shén as the Leveret Spirit. (Personally, I think “cult of the kitten” has a nice ring to it.)

Our primary source on this religious sect is the 1788 literary work Zǐbùyǔ 子不语, or What the Master Did Not Discuss, by the scholar Yuán Méi 袁枚. The title comes from a line in the Analects of Confucius that reads, “The Master did not discuss the strange, feats of strength, riots or spirits” (子不语怪、力、乱、神 zi bù yǔ guài, lì, luàn, shén). It’s a collection of stories involving headless men, Chinese vampires (僵尸 jiāngshī), goblins, ghosts, demons, revenge, betrayal, and homosexuality.

There are, of course, older references to same-sex love in Chinese literature. There’s the story of Longyang, who wept in fear that King Anxi of Wei might leave him for a more beautiful man, prompting the king to forbid any mention of other beauties under penalty of death. Or Emperor Ai of Han, who cut off the sleeve of his robe rather than disturb his sleeping lover Dong Xian. Or Mizi Xia, who shared half a peach with his lover Duke Ling of Wei. To this day, same-sex love is known in China as “the passion of Longyang” (龙阳癖 lóngyángpǐ), “the passion of the cut sleeve” (断袖之癖 duànxiù zhī pǐ), or “the divided peach” (分桃 fēntáo). But these are isolated cases, involving nobility, whereas Yuan was describing commoners.

Yuan’s description was not homophobic, though it may seem that way given that he grouped the story with tales of ghosts and demons. In fact, Yuan was actually pretty woke, and his book was a deliberate challenge to institutional oppression. Yes, he was part of the system. He came from a good family, passed the imperial exam, was named to the prestigious Hanlin Academy, and took office overseeing a suburb in Nanjing, the intellectual heart of China. But at age 33, Yuan resigned and spent the rest of his life painting, writing, and teaching poetry to young women, which in itself was fairly scandalous.

More than this, Yuan despised the corrupt court ministers and sanctimonious Confucian scholars — the Trumps and Jerry Falwells of their day — so rather than investigate the canonical classics, he decided to shine a light on the stories of the people. It would have been like a classical violinist playing punk rock. One contemporary, the scholar Zhāng Xuéchéng 章学诚, wrote, “There has never been anyone who, in broad daylight and beneath the warming sun, has dared to go to this extreme…indulging in such perverse, depraved, obscene and licentious ideas!”

On the surface, Yuan was simply exalting daily life in China. The stories regular folk told and enjoyed. Campfire tales, if you will. But he was also communicating a message of inclusivity. As historians Kam Louie and Louise Edwards write, “He clearly regards love and sexual pleasure as parts of the human condition that should be celebrated rather than denied or restricted.” Indeed, several of the stories in Zibuyu feature homosexuality, but it was the story of the Rabbit God that, years before, caught the attention of a certain Qing official who changed the course of Chinese history.

So, what was that story?

It begins with a censor in the early Qing Dynasty who passed the imperial exam at a young age and became provincial governor of Fujian. Not long after, he noticed that whenever he rode his sedan chair on an inspection tour or sat in the main hall, there would be a young man named Hu Tianbao usually hanging around. The governor didn’t think too much of it until one day, during a trip to a nearby county, he found Hu hiding in his bathroom, hoping to see the governor naked. When questioned, Hu confessed his love.

“Ever since I first saw you,” Hu said, “I have not been able to forget you. I know that, like the sweet olive shrub, you are beyond a common bird like me. But I cannot help myself.”

The governor, outraged, had Hu beaten to death beneath a dead tree. But about a month later, Hu appeared in a dream to a local villager and said that because his love had been true, he had won the respect of the lords of the afterlife and been given the title Rabbit God. He was now in charge of the affairs of men who love men. He told the villager to build a temple in his name and burn incense to attract those who needed his help.

Chasing rabbits

Back to that Qing official. In 1765, a civil servant named Zhu Gui became Fujian’s new tax grain official. Zhu is a legend in Chinese history. The perfect civil servant. Despite his status, he lived in a humble home with tattered bedquilts, donated generously to the government, and once said, “Court affairs are important, but money doesn’t matter.”

But Zhu’s was a time of obscene corruption. His great rival, for instance, the Manchu official Héshēn 和珅, is often cited as the most corrupt figure in Chinese history. So, upon taking office in Fujian, he set out to enforce orthodox Confucian principles. He scanned Fujian’s moral landscape and fixed his gaze upon the cult of the Rabbit God.

Within a year of taking office, Zhu enacted the “Prohibition of Licentious Cults.” It was China’s first-ever law explicitly banning gay sex.

So began China’s legal codification of homophobia. But Zhu Gui did not completely eradicate the sect. For one thing, gay men in China are sometimes referred to as tùzǐ 兔子, or “rabbits.” And, to this day, there remains at least one temple in his name.

Rabbit Temple (兔儿庙 tù’er miào), as it is known, sits along a tributary of the Tamsui River in the Yonghe District of Taipei, Taiwan. There, Taoist priests make offerings before the altar of the Rabbit God, holding up boxes full of tiny pieces of paper with prayers written on each one. The priests set the prayers on fire, repeating a series of sacred words as the papers burn away. Then they pour rice wine on the smoldering ashes, which they say is the Rabbit God’s favorite drink.

And each year, same-sex marriages are performed at the temple while lonely travelers arrive on pilgrimages, hoping to find true love.