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Monday 09 April 2012

Confucianism and Homosexuality

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 24th March 2012

It has often been said that contemporary China is governed by 'Neo-Confucianism", rather than communism. What is Confucianism, and how does it affect the lives of LGBT/tongzhi Chinese citizens?

It would be misleading to call Confucianism a 'religion', as it is more readily comprehensible as a set of ethical precepts that does not necessarily involve religious observance amongst its code of values. It was condensed from the work of ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius (Kǒng Fūzǐ, or K'ung-fu-tzu, lit. "Master Kong", 551–478 BCE). Confucianism is a humanist philosophy centred on the concept that human nature can be cultivated through improvement, self-discipline and restraint and obedience to authority. As well as the Peoples Republic of China, Confucianism has followers throughout East Asia and the Chinese diaspora- Taiwan, Vietnam, Korea, Singapore and Japan. It is worth noting that in the core Confucian Analects, homosexuality is not viewed as a moral "error". As Confucius himself said, "Shi se xing ye" (food and sexuality are natural urges).

Indeed, this is reflected in traditional Chinese mythology, such as the zhiquai stories, or records of strange events, from the Wei-Chin dynasty (265 C.E.- 420 C.E.). Gan Bao's Soushen ji (In Search of Spirits) is chief amongst these and includes some homosexual stories within the zalu (miscellaneous topics) and biji (random jottings) stories that date from the Qing dynasty (1644 C.E.-1911 C.E.). These include the ghost stories of Pu Songling's Liaozhai zhiji (Tales of Anomalies from the Studio of Leisure) and the heresy stories by Ji Yun (1724-1805) in his Yuewei caotang biji (Random Jottings at the Cottage of Close Scrutiny).

Confucianism involves just and honest conduct, observance of traditional rituals and oaths, respect for one's parents, obedience to established authority, observance of duties toward others, hard work, scholarship, moral conduct, and ascent through merit. It should be obvious that Confucianism is a conservative philosophy and there was a heinous strand of misogyny within traditional Confucianism. It stressed female "chastity" and obedience to one's father, husband and senior male relatives, as well as post-widowhood celibacy and other suffocating constraints on female behaviour, while it extolled the values of male companionship and friendship.

However reprehensible contemporary feminist sensibilities might find this obstruction of female independence, traditional Confucianism also tended to take an admirably pragmatic attitude toward matters such as abortion and homosexuality. However, as with many other premodern societies, precommunist China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan did not have a concept of modern 'identity politics' based on one's sexual activities. Historically, Confucians ignored female love and sexual relationships with one another, as well as men who engaged in sexual relationships with other men. However, there was provision that such affairs should not interfere with their perceived responsibility toward their parents to produce children to maintain family continuity. Modern concepts of same-sex marriage, intergenerational extended families that incorporated same-sex partners and their children and responsible same-sex parenting might well be compatible with Neoconfucianism, although to my knowledge, no such elaborated, popular reconciliation has been attempted. That does not mean that it doesn't exist, as this quote from Confucian blogger Useless Tree indicates:

...I think a modern Confucian perspective could accept a gay relationship if it was committed and constructive of lasting family bonds. The type of sex hardly matters. What is important is that people perform humanity-creating social responsibilities. Genetics are less significant than caring social practices; so, adoption is fine - just as it was in ancient China. It would seem, then, that gay marriage and child-rearing could be consonant with a Confucian-inspired ethics (although an over-wrought homosexual identity would be frowned upon).

As with so many other cases of imported homophobia, it proved to be European Christian missionaries who arrived in Ming dynasty China -- a deeply Confucian society --who were shocked at casual male homoeroticism among prominent Confucian leaders within such communities, mirrored by their Catholic and Protestant equivlaents within Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. Same-sex couples were prominent in official accounts and popular literature produced in Confucian societies from antiquity through the nineteenth century, although same-sex couples were not viewed as an acceptable variant of human activity that was equivalent to heterosexual marriage.

If this is the case, then is change possible? Perhaps. It is striking that the newfound popularity of neo-Confuciamism within mainland China is attributable to the profuse amount of literature and philosophical accounts produced by Beijing Normal University professor Yu Dan (b. 1965). In China, Yu Dan Lunyu Xinde (Yu Dan's Insights into the Analects), is a bestseller and sold an estimated ten million copies since it was published in 2007. Yu stresses the relevance of Confucian teachings to contemporary psychological and vocational concerns, like overcoming workplace and personal stress reduction and finding purpose within one's career, and has avoided dubious historical content about female subservience and lesbian/gay relationships. However, Professor Yu Dan's role suggests that Confucianism can adapt to new social realities. Beijing welcomes this development, especially given Confucianism's strong emphasis on obedience to social order, hard work and scholarship. Indeed, it is often remarked that Neo-Confucianism has overshadowed nominal communism as the governing philosophy of Chinese government and society.

There are reformist elements within modern China, such as Professor Li Yinhe, a prominent feminist academic and sexologist, who has repeatedly tried to introduce legislation that would recognise same-sex marriage as a delegate to Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. Her Chinese Same-Sex Marriage Bill (Chinese: 中国同性婚姻提案) was proposed as an amendment to the marriage law to thein 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2008.

At present, though, an elaborated LGBT Confucian synthesis does not seem to be forthcoming, although it may be expressed in the everyday lives of LGBT/tongzhi Chinese citizens who try to live their lives through observance to its moral codes.

Ronnie Littlejohn: Confucianism: An Introduction: London: IB Tauis: 2011.
Confucianism. Gender and Sexuality:
Li Yinhe (Wikipedia):
Useless Tree: California Gay Marriage: Confucius Agrees 15.05.08:

Craig Young - 24th March 2012

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