Justinian Huang’s ‘The Emperor and the Endless Palace’ is the spicy Chinese history lesson we didn’t know we needed

Writer Arthur Tam talks to the rising star debut author about his time in Shanghai, "flippant medieval fuck boys," and how he manifested the queer Asian world he wants to live in

From left, Andrew Ge and Ben Yi as Dong Xian and Emperor Ai in Justinian Huang's book "The Emperor and the Endless Palace," which follows two lovers who find each other throughout history over multiple lifetimes.

Lizzie Pachter

Words by Arthur Tam

I met Justinian Huang back in 2015. He was living in Shanghai working for Pearl Studios overseeing productions for animations like Kung Fu Panda 3 and Abominable, while I was living in Hong Kong as a journalist. I was excited to meet him because we shared a lot of similarities. He's a writer, I'm a writer. He's from the San Gabriel Valley, I grew up partly in the San Gabriel Valley. We're also both around the same age and moved to Asia around the same time seeking opportunities when it seemed like Los Angeles lacked them. Asia, with its vibrant bustling energy, seemed much more appealing. Moreover, we had cultural roots there, and we instinctively knew that our racial background and cross-cultural experiences would be more appreciated there than it would be here.

A lot of our Asian American peers at the time had the same idea, and the 2010s became a type of golden era for the diaspora to thrive in our respective countries of heritage. Huang seemed to have no limit in the advancement of his entertainment career, eventually becoming the head of development for Pearl Studios and later becoming the vice president of creative at Sony Pictures Animation. But work was only part of the joys of living in Shanghai. He had friends, dated, loved, and found a big, interconnected queer Asian community. It felt good being part of the majority for once and recognizing the power of having that space.

However, the feel-good era didn't last long. The CCP started making aggressive anti-LGBTIQA messaging, clamping down on bars and clubs and intimidating folks who just seemed queer, going as far as deporting gay expats according to Huang. Foreign media and entertainment also became less welcome as the Chinese government increased censorship and expanded surveillance. Even popular homegrown content like palace dramas became banned. Overall, China became a much more hostile place for anyone or anything that veered off the arbitrary, yet strict code of conduct enforced by the government.

Then the nail in the coffin came when COVID hit, and overnight Huang's career and social life in Shanghai disappeared under total lockdown. So, he moved back to Los Angeles and hit what he recalls as one of his lowest points in life. After going stir-crazy at home, he decided to redirect his energy and process what he missed about China into writingweaving together a queer romance fantasy (the genre so hot right now it has its own portmanteau, romantasy), spanning across three timelines in The Emperor and The Endless Palace.

The brilliantly written story is as sensual and erotic as it is gripping and tragic. Huang remixes Chinese history and folklore, combining demons and deities with sexually depraved empresses and lots of sexy hot men. Huang takes what he knowshis heritage, his relationships and his heartbreaksand blends them into an ancient mystery that seeps into a tale about political intrigue and a modern-day queer awakening. The fun part is trying to figure out how all the pieces fit together.

With the release of his new book, I got to catch up with Huang again after almost a decade to discuss spicy sex scenes and Asian queer identity throughout the ages.

This article has been edited for clarity and length. 

An Asian woman and three Asian men dressed in period Chinese clothing sit and stand together on stone steps, against a dark and wooded background.

From top, Cat Tea, Justinian Huang, Ben Yi and Andrew Ge as Grand Empress Dowager Fu, a eunuch, Emperor Ai and Dong Xian, respectively in Huang's book, "The Emperor and the Endless Palace."

Lizzie Pachter

Arthur Tam: Did you always plan to have one of the most powerful men in Chinese history, the emperor, and turn him into a hot twink?

Justinian Huang: That's one reason why I wrote this book. When I came out at 21, I was told by my family that Chinese people aren't gay it's a Western affliction. So, when I heard about Emperor Ai (a gay emperor of the Han Dynasty, his relationship with his lover is referred to as "the passion of the cut sleeve") and the man he loved and how epic their story was, I knew queerness has always been a part of our culture. And what's more, is that these gay men were worshipped as living gods.

They were only around 19 and 20 when they met. They were babies. This was around 4CE in the Han Dynasty, right before Christ. Their affair brought down the first Han Dynasty. It's so fucking epic, but not a lot of people know about it, so I wanted to write about it. I want to show that we queer Asian folks are the protagonists of our own epic stories.

AT: There's a lot of queer erasure in Chinese history and history in general. I mean, the Goddess of Mercy (Guanyin) is basically trans. She's a doll.

JH: Yeah, their two-spirits vibe. It sucks growing up and feeling like my identity disappointed my heritage because I'm very proud of my culture. I am very proud to come from a Taiwanese family with roots in China, so I wanted to write a story that celebrated it. My point about this book is to show Asian queerness throughout the ages. It has always been part of our history.

AT: In terms of heritage, did you watch a lot of Chinese period dramas growing up?

JH: I grew up watching palace dramas with my grandma. Empresses in the Palace (Zhen Huan Zhuan) was my favorite. The thing about those palace dramas is that they're always about the brilliance of women. Women weren't allowed to fight with swords, so they fought with their beauty, wit, and their tenacity to survive.

You know the Grand Empress Dowager Fu is a real person who existed right? I liked her backstory and did a lot of research and interviews with scholars about her. She's a domineering matriarch genius. I love the cavalier way she talks, which was inspired by Chinese period dramas. It's the vibe I wanted. 

AT: Imagining a Chinese grandmother with silver teeth getting off by watching two men go at it, wasn't the spiciness I knew I needed. 

JH: It just came to me. I knew she was going to have one of the characters give her a sex audition. This is also historically accurate. The imperial family would watch women, or in this case, men, and assess their sexual skills to learn.

But then I thought, what if she's into it? Like a kinky voyeur. Then I understood who this woman is I want to write about.

There's a sex scene that involves the empress and two of the characters that's so scandalous. I've gotten random DMs of people sending me their therapy bill because that scene is so deranged.

AT: A lot of the sex scenes drive the plot rather than being gratuitous. Did you pay a lot of attention to that?

JH: Absolutely. It's meant to inform who these characters are. One is having a profound coming-out experience. Another is a flippant medieval fuck boy, exchanging his penis for information. That's character-building. You might not like him at first, but let him grow, and see what happens to him. I’m a queer boy writing about queer boys and I want to make things spicy from the beginning.

An Asian man in an open white top and blue pants is being fed a peach by another man in gray and black chainmail.

From left, Ben Yi and Andrew Ge as Emperor Ai and Dong Xian in Justinian Huang's book "The Emperor and the Endless Palace."

Lizzie Pachter

AT: I felt that a lot of consideration went into the Chinese euphemisms for sex and sensuality. Did it worry you that some folks might not get it?

JH: Some early reviewers of my book took a lot of umbrage with me using peaches and plums to describe body parts, but that's historically accurate. The most famous Chinese erotica is called The Plum in the Golden Vase and it's exactly what you think it's referring to. We had gay colloquialism years before Call Me By Your Name.

AT: You've had the chance to live on both sides of the Pacific. You got to taste what it's like being Asian American, a minority, and then living in Shanghai with other queer Asian folks as a majority. How much did that experience inform this book?

JH: I'll never forget the first time I went to a circuit party in Thailand and I was just like, holy shit. There was a sea of beautiful Asian men. Imagine a world where the gay Asian man is God and he's celebrated in this magical queer underworld where everyone holds space for each other and celebrates each other as beautiful Asian men. I wanted to manifest that for Los Angeles, so I wrote it.

My parents only think of my time in China through my work. But I remember that time with the men I fell in love with. For me to go from being a minority in America to my ancestral homeland and being around other empowered Asian men was so heady and so fascinating to fall in love with them.

AT: How did you deal with reverting to the minority state of mind in the U.S.? Was it a counterculture shock?

JH: One of my self-defense mechanisms is that I have always just believed in the superiority of queer Asian men. We are so special. We're the fucking shit. I think that it was after my China experience and coming back to America that I just appreciated us all the more.

This book is a love letter to meto us. If I had not moved to China, I don't think I would have ever written this book. So, it all happens for a reason. It all does.

AT: Why a queer Asian romance fantasy for your debut as a writer?

JH: Write what you know. But also, when people think about Asian folks… they think of gay Asian folks like we're not allowed to own our sexuality. The straights or the non-Asians project onto us. That's why I wanted to write a book that was just fully unapologetically sexy and that portrayed Asian men as full of confidence and swagger. I'm taking you to all these different worlds a magical forest, an ancient palace, but also a world that exists todayour queer spaces.

One reason I'm hustling it so hard is because if this book does well we're going to get a bunch of queer Asian romances. There aren't a lot right now, so I want to amplify it as best I can. I don't know if there's even one book by one of the major publishers that stars all Asian queer men.

AT: So, you're pushing the queer agenda. 

JH: I'm pushing queer stories about imperfect people. The love in Endless Palace is just as messy as it is swooning. I always say that we're all the same souls trying to love ourselves.

The coming-of-age story in the book is based on the two men I fell in love with as I was living in China. How much I loved them, and how I felt like I failed. I thought that one of them was going to be my true love.

And to process that I thought of putting these two boys I love, their personalities into the emperor and his lover. And very quickly, the book just started coming out. It all spilt out of me.

AT: Is it fair to say your book incorporates a lot of Buddhist philosophy like reincarnation and karma?

JH: Sure. It's the feeling of metaphysical recognition when you remember someone from a previous life. It is about the fact that when you love someone very deeply it's because you're intertwined together from previous lifetimes. You and me…. This lifetime we have is just one sentence in an unending novel. That love feels so ancient.

AT: What's on the horizon for you now?

JH: I just sold my second book, and I'm on deadline to finish that. I left a pretty good gig to become a full-time novelist, so I'm grateful I have this opportunity. Endless Palace is planned to be a trilogy and the second book takes place in the same universe, but it's more family drama. Think Succession meets Beef. A powerful Asian family behaving badly with high stakes. It's spicy.

Published on March 26, 2024

Words by Arthur Tam

Arthur Tam is a queer Chinese American journalist at the intersection of LGBTIQ+ politics, fashion, and pop culture. He's currently based in New York City, but spent eight years in Hong Kong working for Time Out as an editor focusing on music, fashion, film, and LGBTIQ+ issues. He's also been published in i-D Vice, The Washington PostQuartz, Dazed and Confused and Another Magazine. When he isn't writing, he's running his Asian-inspired swimwear brand, Tight Tams.