Legend has it that Hu Tianbao was a soldier who lived in Fujian Province. He fell in love with an imperial inspector. One day, he was caught looking through a bathroom wall so that he could see the inspector’s naked body.
The imperial inspector had Hu Tianbao sentenced to death by beating.
One month after Hu Tianbao’s execution, he appeared to a village elder from his hometown in a dream, claiming that since his crime was one of love, the spirits of the underworld decided to right the injustice by appointing him the god and safeguarder of sex and love between men. According to the folk talkes, Hu Tianbao appeared in the form of a rabbit.
As instructed by the dream, the man to which Hu Tianbao had appeared erected a shrine, and the cult of Hu Tianbao – the rabbit deity, Tu’er Shen – was born.
Some historians believe that the story mythologises a tradition of same-sex relationships between men that was common in Fujian Province. Similar to many other parts of the world, an older man (qixiong) would form a bond with a younger man (qidi), providing mentoring as well as a sexual relationship. To secure the relationship with a younger man, the older man would generally pay a form of dowry to the family of the younger man.
The only known temple to Tu’er Shen is in Taiwan. The temple is known as the Hall of Martial Brilliance.