Until adopting European values late in their history, the Chinese did not even have nouns to describe a heterosexual or homosexual person per se.

Rather, people who might be directly labeled as such in other traditions would be described by veiled allusions to the actions they enjoyed, or, more often, by referring to a famous example from the past.

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There exists a dispute among sinologists as to when negative views of homosexual relationships became prevalent among the general Chinese population, with some scholars arguing that it was common by the time of the Ming Dynasty, established in the 14th century, and others arguing that anti-gay attitudes became entrenched during the Westernization efforts of the late Qing Dynasty and the early Republic of China in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The earliest law against a homosexual act dates from the Song Dynasty, punishing "young males who act as prostitutes." The first statute specifically banning homosexual intercourse was enacted in the Jiajing era of the Ming Dynasty.

Although Taoist alchemy regarded heterosexual sex, without ejaculation, as a way of maintaining a male's "life essence", homosexual intercourse was seen as "neutral", because the act has no detrimental or beneficial effect on a person's life essence.

In a similar way to Buddhism, Taoist schools sought throughout history to define what would be sexual misconduct.

Individual panel from a hand scroll on homosexual themes, paint on silk; China, Qing Dynasty (eighteenth to nineteenth centuries); Kinsey Institute, Bloomington, Indiana, United States Homosexuality in China has been documented in China since ancient times.

According to one study, homosexuality was regarded as a normal facet of life in China, prior to the Western impact of 1840 onwards.A third of the men surveyed, as well as 9% of the women surveyed said they were in the closet about their sexuality.18% of men surveyed answered they had come out to their families, while around 80% were reluctant due to family pressure.; literally: "female comrade"), which was first adopted by Hong Kong researchers in Gender Studies, is used as slang in Mandarin Chinese to refer to homosexuals. However, in Mainland China, tongzhi is used both in the context of the traditional "comrade" sense (e.g., used in speeches by Communist Party officials) and to refer to homosexuals.Thus, poems such as Tang Dynasty poems and other Chinese poetry may be read as either heterosexual or homosexual, or neutral in that regard, depending on the reader's desire.Another complication in trying to separate heterosexual and homosexual themes in Chinese literature is that for most of Chinese history, writing was restricted to a cultivated elite, amongst whom blatant discussion of sex was considered vulgar.The most common of these references to homosexuality referenced Dong Xian and Mizi Xia.