Dong’s power reached dangerous levels. By 2 BC, aged just 22, he was the one making all the decisions, appointed Prime Minister, Supreme Commander of the Army, and the capital’s security chief, to whom “all the officials were presenting their affairs,” according to the Han Shu. Ai would hear no words against him, imprisoning and demoting those who tried to protest Dong’s astronomical rise. When Prime Minister Wang Jia tried to curtail Dong’s rise in 2 BC, Ai made Wang commit suicide.
Dong’s youth among the gray heads stuck out like a sore thumb. According to the Han Shu, a supreme leader (called chanyu) of the Xiongnu, attending a banquet with Han ministers, was so impressed that a man so fresh-faced was capable of reaching such a high standing that he told the translator, “The Grand Secretary [Prime Minister] is young, so he should take the place of a great scholar.” Ai said that although Dong was young, he had earned his place through his wisdom. The chanyu rose to his feet and “congratulated the Han for having a wise minister.”
The favoritism at court and the unrestrained political and purchasing power of the Fu and Dong families had an impact on the country. In 3 BC, the virtuous minister Bào Xuān 鲍宣 sent a memorial to the throne that would come to be known as “Seven Deprivations and Seven Deaths.” It described a world turned on its head, a court that had banished men of virtue and was dominated by lackeys who taxed the common people to the hilt: “The world today calls the unwise as able and the wise as unable.” Ai did not punish Bao, knowing he was a “famous Confucian” (executing him would have been a catastrophic statement), but did nothing until an earthquake the next year seemed to confirm divine displeasure at the immorality of the Han court. Ai dismissed several favorites and attempted reform. But Bao Xuan’s suggestions of curtailing the number of servants and acres of land imperial officials could own was abruptly overruled by imperial favorites.
The source material implies that Ai’s favoritism and homosexuality undid the entire Western Han. Plagued by an unknown illness all the way through his short reign of six years, Ai announced on his deathbed in 1 BC that Dong was to succeed him as emperor. But Dong, without the backing of his powerful lover, was just a paper tiger, snuffed out by the court as soon as Ai breathed his last, he and his wife forced to kill themselves.
The Cut Sleeve
Ai would have been just another weak ruler at the tail end of one of China’s many dynastic cycles if it hadn’t been for the story of the Cut Sleeve. The kernels of the legend can be found in the Han Shu: Dong Xian “was often in bed with the emperor. When [Ai] wanted to get up, he did not want to move [Dong Xian], but he broke his sleeve and got up. This was the extent of his love and affection” (or maybe it says something about the abundance of splendid silk robes at the Han Emperor’s disposal). Supposedly, after ministers found out about this mark of love — that to avoid waking Dong by moving his arm, Ai cut off his sleeve — this started a fashion trend.
Through the dynasties, one of the most common euphemisms for a homosexual has been “cut sleeve” (断袖 duàn xiù). Ming and Qing dynasty authors would title erotic homosexual stories as “Records of the Cut Sleeve.” Police in Republican Beijing would label homosexual behavior as “predilection of the cut sleeve.” Although the term still occasionally pops up online, it is more an intriguing curio than a challenger to “tongzhi” (“comrade”) as the standard modern euphemism.
It is intriguing how this incompetent emperor, whose passions have been interpreted in the histories as opening the door to court corruption and dynastic crisis, has been remembered for a tale of passion and love. Today in China, as in many places, homosexuality is merely tolerated rather than accepted: gay clubs can remain open, provided they stay out of the public eye. But China’s long history of homosexuality gives hope to many in the LGBTQ community, in a country that only removed the orientation from an official list of “mental illnesses” in 2001. Emperor Ai’s legacy isn’t all doom and destruction.
Chinese Lives is a recurring series.