Thursday, 29 November 2012

Cult of the Rabbit God

Having started the month with a gay saint I’ll end with a gay god.

Homophobes have always criticised the lifestyle of us gay folk, usually claiming that we’re all at it like rabbits (chance would be a fine thing!) Which is rather ironic because in late imperial China the slang term for a gay man was “rabbit”.

This may be the reason why in Taiwan today Taoist men and women venerate a deity who appeared in a dream as a rabbit – or Tu Er Shen.

It’s difficult to determine which came first – the slang term or the deity. They may both date back to an old Chinese folk tale which was first written down in the late 18th century in a collection of supernatural tales.

One of these tales was about a man called Hu Tainbao who lived in Fujian province. One day an imperial inspector arrived in the province, a very handsome man. Hu Tianbao lusted after him but couldn’t express his feelings in public because they were not of equal social status.

Instead Hu decided to spy on the inspector while he bathed in the hope of seeing him naked. After making a hole in the bathroom wall Hu Tianbao watched the official, but he was spotted. In desperation Hu declared his feelings for the inspector, at which the official ordered Hu to be beaten to death.

But the story doesn’t end there. About a month later one of the elders from Hu’s home village had a dream. In it a rabbit appeared claiming to be the spirit of Hu Tianbao. Apparently, the lord of the underworld had just appointed Hu as the deity who presides over same-sex relationships. In the dream the rabbit tells the village elder to build a shrine to Hu’s new godly status.

This was the legendary beginning of the cult of Hu Tainabao in the Fujian province that existed by the 18th century. The main temple shrine was at Kangshan, a village just outside Fuzhou, the provincial capital. Presumably this was the home village of Hu Tianbao.

The instances of male marriages in the province were known and written about in imperial China but not officially approved. The imperial authorities tried to crack down on such practices. One imperial official called Zhu Gui wrote about the cult of Hu Tianbao after he was appointed to the province in 1765. He put himself forward as a champion of the people’s morals. In his “Prohibition of Licentious Cults” Zhu reported that “debauched and shameless rascals” prayed to a plaster idol of Hu to help them find “illicit intercourse”. These “rascals” then smeared pig’s intestines and honey over the idol’s mouth. Zhu removed the idol, and had it smashed to bits and thrown into the river.

After this the cult of Hu Tianbao went underground, was forgotten or even ignored. Perhaps it was because of this that a new legend arose saying that the villagers who built Hu’s shrine were sworn to secrecy. They couldn’t tell anyone about Hu or the reason for the shrine being there, except to those they knew wanted Hu’s specific help.

A few years ago a professor of Chinese history stated that the connection between Hu Tianboa and a rabbit deity Tu Er Shen was invented by the writer of the supernatural tales and that it didn’t exist beforehand. Perhaps Hu was invented as an alternative to the heterosexual Matchmaker God, or the Rabbit of the Moon – Tu Er Ye.
The Shrine of Hu Tianboa in Taiwan. Courtesy feastoffun.com

Today the Rabbit Deity – Tu Er Shen – and Hu Tianbao are remembered with a shrine in Yonghe City in Taiwan. It was set up by a Taoist priest some years ago, and regularly receives visits from male – and female – couples wanting Hu Tianboa to bless their relationships.

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