In a folk tale from 17th century Fujian, a soldier is in love with a provincial official, and spies on him to see him naked. The official has the soldier tortured and killed, but he returns from the dead in the form of a leveret (a rabbit in its first year) in the dream of a village elder. The leveret demands that local men build a temple to him where they can burn incense in the interest of "affairs of men". The story ends:
According to the customs of Fujian province, it is acceptable for a man and boy to form a bond [qi] and to speak to each other as if to brothers. Hearing the villager relate the dream, the other villagers strove to contribute money to erect the temple. They kept silent about this secret vow, which they quickly and eagerly fulfilled. Others begged to know their reason for building the temple, but they did not find out. They all went there to pray.
According to What the Master Would Not Discuss (Chinese: 子不語), a book written by Yuan Mei during the Qing dynasty, Tu'er Shen was a man called Hu Tianbao (胡天保). Hu was originally a man who fell in love with a very handsome imperial inspector of Fujian Province. One day he was caught peeping on the inspector through a bathroom wall, at which point he confessed his reluctant affections for the other man. The imperial inspector had Hu Tianbao sentenced to death by beating. One month after Hu Tianbao's death, he is said to have appeared to a man from his hometown in a dream, claiming that since his crime was one of love, the underworld officials decided to right the injustice by appointing him the god and safeguarder of homosexual affections.
After his dream the man erected a shrine to Hu Tianbao, which became very popular in Fujian, so much so that in late Qing times, the cult of Hu Tianbao was targeted for extermination by the Qing government.
The deity can be seen as an alternative to Yue Lao, the matchmaker god, for heterosexual relations.
A slang term for homosexuals in late imperial China was "rabbits" which is why Hu Tianbao is referred to as the rabbit deity, though in fact he has nothing to do with rabbits and should not be confused with Tu'er Ye, the rabbit on the moon.
Images of Hu Tianbao show him in an embrace with another man. The sense that the villagers must keep the reason for the temple secret in the story may relate to pressure from the central Chinese government to abandon the practice. Qing official Zhu Gui (1731-1807), a grain tax circuit intendant of Fujian in 1765, strove to standardize the morality of the people with a "Prohibition of Licentious Cults". One cult which he found particularly troublesome was the cult of Hu Tianbao. As he reports,
The image is of two men embracing one another; the face of one is somewhat hoary with age, the other tender and pale. [Their temple] is commonly called the small official temple. All those debauched and shameless rascals who on seeing youths or young men desire to have illicit intercourse with them pray for assistance from the plaster idol. Then they make plans to entice and obtain the objects of their desire. This is known as the secret assistance of Hu Tianbao. Afterwards they smear the idol's mouth with pork intestine and sugar in thanks.
The story may be an attempt to mythologize a system of male marriages in Fujian attested to by the scholar-bureaucrat Shen Defu and the writer Li Yu. The older man in the union would play the masculine role as a qixiong or "adoptive older brother", paying a "bride price" to the family of the younger man- it was said virgins fetched higher prices- who became the qidi, or "adoptive younger brother". Li Yu described the ceremony, "They do not skip the three cups of tea or the six wedding rituals- it is just like a proper marriage with a formal wedding." The qidi then moved into the household of the qixiong, where he would be completely dependent on him, be treated as a son-in-law by the qixiongs parents, and possibly even help raise children adopted by the qixiong. These marriages could last as long as 20 years before both men were expected to marry women in order to procreate.
Keith Stevens reports seeing images like these in Fujian speaking communities in Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand and Singapore. Stevens refers to these images as 'brothers' or 'princes' and calls them Taibao (太保), which is probably a perversion of Tianbao. Stevens was usually told that the two figures in an embrace were brothers, and only in one temple in Fujian was he told that they were homosexuals. A photo of an image from a temple in Kaohsiung is provided by Stevens on p. 434 of his article.
Sadly, the history Hu Tianbao has been largely forgotten even by the temple keepers. However, there is a temple in Yonghe District, Taiwan that venerates Hu Tianbao. The temple is known as the Rabbit Temple (兔兒廟).
- Hinsch, Bret. (1990). Passions of the Cut Sleeve. University of California Press. p.133
- Szonyi, Michael "The Cult of Hu Tianbao and the Eighteenth-Century Discourse of Homosexuality." Late Imperial China - Volume 19, Number 1, June 1998, pp. 1-25, The Johns Hopkins University Press
- Kang, Wenqing, 2009, "Obsession: Male Same-Sex Relations in China, 1900–1950", Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, pp 19, 37-38.
- Szonyi, Michael. "The Cult of Hu Tianbao and the eighteenth-Century Discourse of Homosexuality." Late Imperial China (Volume 19, Number 1, June 1998): 1–25.
- The Ultra Supreme Elder Lord's Scripture of Precepts(太上老君戒經), in "The Orthodox Tao Store"(正統道藏)
- The Great Dictionary of Taoism"(道教大辭典), by Chinese Taoism Association, published in China in 1994, ISBN 7-5080-0112-5/B.054
- Hinsch, Bret. (1990). Passions of the Cut Sleeve. University of California Press. p. 127.
- Hinsch, Bret. (1990). Passions of the Cut Sleeve. University of California Press. p. 131- 132.
- Stevens, Keith. "The wrestling princes". Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society - Volume 42, 2002, pp.431-434
- Yuan Mei (袁枚), Zi Bu Yu (子不語)
- Szonyi, Michael "The Cult of Hu Tianbao and the Eighteenth-Century Discourse of Homosexuality." Late Imperial China - Volume 19, Number 1, June 1998, pp. 1–25, The Johns Hopkins University Press
- Tu Er Shen (Rabbit God) by Yuan Mei, Translated by Nathaniel Hu A translation of Tu Er Shen story from Zibuyu.