The Gay Love Letters of Bo Juyi to Yuan Zhen and others
Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (1998), Edited by Rictor Norton
There is a very ancient and honorable homosexual literary tradition in China, and gay love poems are contained in the country's earliest surviving anthology. Most gay men fulfilled their kinship interests (still the major factor in Chinese life today) by getting married, but they also maintained romantic homosexual affairs. The two major tropes for homosexual love "sharing peaches", and "the passion of the cut sleeve" come from the story of Mizi Xia who gave a half-eaten peach to his lover Duke Ling of Wei (534–493 BC), and the story of how the Emperor Ai (reigned 6 BC to 1 AD) cut off his sleeve rather than wake his sleeping favorite Dong Xian. These ancient images demonstrate that male-to-male love rather than just sex was important for establishing a specifically gay identity, and how imaginative metaphors are at least as important as pejortive labels. For two hundred years the Han Dynasty was ruled by ten openly bisexual emperors, and detailed biographies were written about their favorites. During the Tang Dynasty, more records survive describing gay life and romantic friendship outside of imperial circles. The Chinese poet Bo Juyi (772–846) was one of the scholar-officials who served in the vast Chinese civil service, and became Governor of Suchow in 825. His fellow bureaucrats often were sent to provincial towns in the widespread empire, and he exchanged with them poems or verse-letters which are full of the expressions of romantic love. To his friend Qian Hui he sent a poetic souvenir of one winter night they spent together. His friend Yu Shunzhi sent him a bolt of patterned purple silk as a token of remembrance, and Bo Juyi replied how he would make this gift a symbol of their friendship. His greatest love was his fellow student Yuan Zhen (779–831). They were both Collators of Texts in the Palace Library at the northern imperial city of Ch'ang-an, and they exchanged intimate poetry for several decades when different careers separated them and Yuan Zhen was sent to the eastern city of Lo-yang. Bo Juyi wrote to his beloved, "Who knows my heart as I think of you? / It’s a captive falcon and a caged crane." Even after a long separation they both became commissioners in different provinces, and it could take almost a year for their letters to reach one another Bo Juyi would sometimes dream that they were still together: "Awakening, I suspected you were at my side, / reached for you but there was nothingness." Both poets got married; Yuan Zhen loved his wife but she died after only a few years; Bo Juyi's wife "read no books" and he seems to have had no special intimacy with her; he built a cottage near a monastery where he would go to be alone. In his poem "Night Rain" (812) Bo Juyi speaks of his longing for Yuan Zhen: "There is one that I love in a far, far land; / There is something that harrows me, tied in the depths of my heart. / So Far is the land that I cannot visit him; / I can only gaze in longing, day on day. / So deep the sorrow that it cannot be torn away; / Never a night but I brood on it, hour, by hour." In 814 Bo Juyi sent Yuan Zhan a sum of money equivalent to half a year’s salary, "Not that I thought you were bent on food and clothes, / But only because I felt tenderly towards you." They were reunited briefly in 819, when both carved a poem on the rock outside a cave; they met again in 821–2 and in 829. The two men had made a pact to live together as Taoist recluses in their retirement, but Yuan Zhen died after a sudden illness before this plan could be put into effect. Bo Juyi wrote two formal dirges to recite at his beloved's funeral and three songs for the pall-bearers to sing.
BO JUYI TO QIAN HUI
[early ninth century]
Night deep the memorial draft finished;
BO JUYI TO YU SHUNZHI
Thousand leagues, friend's heart cordial;
BO JUYI TO YUAN ZHEN
Since I left home to seek official state
YUAN ZHEN TO BO JUYI
Other people too have friends that they love;
BO JUYI TO YUAN ZHEN
Last night the clouds scattered everywhere,
When I awoke, I still had not spoken in reply.
SOURCE: Trans. Howard S. Levy, Translations from Po Chü-i's Collected Works, 4 vols. (repr. New York, 1971); and Arthur Walley, The Life and Times of Po Chü-i (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1949).
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