Cut-sleeve 断袖 (duàn xìu) is a euphemism that refers to male homosexual individuals and male same-sex love in Chinese culture. The term dates back to the late Han Dynasty, around 10 BC. It originated from “The Passion of the Cut Sleeve” (斷袖之癖), a short story that follows the love between Emperor Ai (漢哀帝) of the Eastern Han Dynasty and his male lover, Dong Xian (董賢.) Emperor Ai ascended the throne when he was 20, and Dong Xian was a junior court official. The latter quickly obtained power and rose up the ranks because of his personal relationship with the emperor. Both men had wives, which was not out of the ordinary; before and after Emperor Ai’s rule, it was relatively common practice for emperors to take male loves. However, unlike his predecessors, Emperor Ai was the only one uninterested in producing an heir.
The two men often took afternoon naps with one another. After one of these naps, Emperor Ai emerged from his light slumber in order to attend a court proceeding. His sleeve was caught under Dong Xian, who was still asleep. Not wanting to disturb his lover, Emperor Ai instead gently cut off his sleeve so that he could leave without waking the other up.
The sweet and tender story unfortunately had a tragic end. Emperor Ai’s favoritism of court official Dong Xian led to political backlash, and there were accusations of corruption within the government. Emperor Ai abruptly died of sickness at twenty-four and designated his lover Dong Xian to accede the throne, but the court couldn’t accept this upstart junior as their ruler and devolved into chaos. Dong Xian and his wife would commit suicide the next day. Today, the second to last emperor of the Eastern Han dynasty’s historical legacy is not colored by his questionable political choices and premature death, but his passion, love, and dedication for his male lover.
The term “cut-sleeve” has since been used through the ages. Authors from later dynasties would often call tales that featured a male homosexual relationship “Records of the Cut Sleeve.” In 1740, Pu Songling, a, author from the Qing Dynasty, published a short story called “Cut Sleeve” (黄九郎) that is regarded as a satirical account of homosexuality in China.
The usage of “cut-sleeve” today is outdated and not very common, but there have been a couple references to the term in recent media. In the 2019 live-action adaptation of popular xianxia author Mo Xiang Tong Xiu’s novel Mo Dao Zu Shi, The Untamed, there is a subtle reference of “cutting sleeves” in which one of the characters, Wei Wuxian, playfully pretends to snip at another character’s sleeve. Although the term is not derogatory, most youths do not self-identify with the term. More commonly used is “tongzhi” (通知) which translates to “comrade” and is a more encompassing term of all sexual minorities, not just male homosexual individuals.