On an overcast weekday afternoon, two men in their 20s walked into an unassuming temple nestled in an apartment building in Yonghe City (永和市). "We've been here before. We know the way," they told the priest's assistant, and proceeded to the altar on the second floor. A few minutes later, another young man went downstairs to have his fortune told by Lu Wei-ming (盧威明), a Taoist priest, or fashi (法師). Lu established and tends this shrine, known as the Rabbit Temple (兔兒廟), which is devoted to the rabbit deity (兔兒神) - the patron god of homosexuals.
The god isn't very well known, nor commonly worshipped, but he is based on an historical figure. According to the Tale of the Rabbit God that appears in the Zibuyu (子不語), a collection of supernatural stories written by Qing Dynasty scholar and poet Yuan Mei (袁枚, 1716-1798), Hu Tianbao (?#32993;天保) was an official in 18th-century, Qing Dynasty China. He fell in love with a handsome young imperial inspector of Fujian Province, but because of the inspector's higher status, Hu was afraid to reveal his feelings. After Hu was caught peeping at the inspector through a bathroom wall, he confessed his admiration for the inspector, who had him beaten to death. One month after his passing, the story goes, Hu appeared to a man from his hometown in a dream, claiming that the king of the underworld had appointed him the Rabbit God. As such, his duty was to govern the affairs of men who desire men. In the dream, he asked the man to erect a shrine to him.
As a priest, Lu often heard complaints from homosexual Taoist adherents that there was no god to answer their prayers. Believing one of his missions is to tend to the needs of people alienated from mainstream society, he set out to revive the forgotten deity. As his research suggests, Hu was an upper class historical figure who lived in Fujian from the late Ming Dynasty to the early Qing Dynasty. However, according to Michael Szonyi, associate professor of Chinese history at the department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard, the Rabbit God is a pure invention of Yuan, the poet, since the image of the rabbit deity doesn't appear in any other sources from Fujian.
While some aspects of the story may be fabrications, the existence of the cult of Hu Tianbao in Fujian in the 18th century is well documented in official Qing records.
In his Cult of Hu Tianbao and the 18th-Century Discourse of Homosexuality, which was published in the journal Late Imperial China in 1998, Szonyi discusses the evidence used by the government in its campaign against religious sects. The evidence was given by Zhu Gui (朱珪, 1731-1807), a grain tax who described the iconology of the cult as "two men embracing one another; the face of one is somewhat hoary with age, the other tender and pale." He went on to say that adherents, "on seeing young men desire to have intercourse with them, prayed for assistance from the plaster idol … . Afterwards they plastered the idol's mouth with pork intestine and sugar in thanks."
Later official records suggest that the sect was active in the 19th century, but as Szonyi points out, the chief evidence comes from edicts of imperial officials who tried to suppress the practice, therefore it is impossible to ascertain how the god was perceived from its adherents' point of view.