Tu'er Shen (Chinese: 兔兒神, The Leveret Spirit) or Tu Shen (Chinese: 兔神, The Rabbit God), is a Chinese deity who manages love and sex between homosexual people. His name literally means "rabbit deity". His adherents refer to him as Ta Yeh (Chinese: 大爺, The Master).
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 What the Master Would Not Discuss (Chinese: 子不語), written by Yuan Mei (Chinese: 袁枚) during the Qing dynasty, Tu'er Shen was a man named Hu Tianbao (胡天保) 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 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 authorities to abandon the practice. Qing dynasty 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,
Although Tu'er Shen is popularly revered by some temples, some Taoist schools may have considered homosexuality as sexual misconduct through history, probably deeming it is outside marriage. However, many Taoism scriptures do not mention anything against same-gender relations, mostly maintaining neutrality.
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 Hokkien-speaking communities in Taiwan, Malaysia, 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.
The history of Hu Tianbao has been largely forgotten even by the temple keepers. However, there is a temple in Yonghe District, Taiwan that venerates Hu Tianbao in his traditional guise. The temple is known as the Hall of Martial Brilliance (威明堂).
In 2006, Lu Wei-ming founded a temple for Tu'er Shen in Yonghe District in the New Taipei City in Taiwan. Roughly 9,000 gay pilgrims visit the temple each year praying to find a suitable partner. The Wei-ming temple also performs a love ceremony for gay couples at the world's only religious shrine for homosexuals.