Ethics and Community

Zhou Dunyi's Taijitu (Diagram of the Great Ultimate): Public DomainBy the time of the wholesale Confucianization of Chinese (and later, all of East Asian) society beginning in the Song dynasty, it had become commonplace for Confucian thinkers such as Zhu Xi to make pronouncements such as the following:

To do wrong is unbecoming to a wife, and to do good is also unbecoming to a wife. A woman is only to be obedient to what is proper.

Other Song "Neo-Confucians," such as Cheng Yi (1033-1107 C.E.), promoted female virtue by praising women who did not remarry following the deaths of their husbands. Transforming widows into Confucian martyrs, Cheng went so far as to say that it would be better for a widow to die of starvation (because she had no husband to support her) than to "lose her virtue" by abandoning her dead husband to marry and obey another man. Such sentiments eventually led, during the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, to the Confucian cult of female chastity, in response to which the Chinese government offered tax exemptions and memorial monuments to the families of women who were widowed prior to the age of thirty and remained unmarried until the age of fifty.

The association of Confucianism with these kinds of social views and practices help drive progressively-minded East Asian thinkers far from the tradition in the 20th century. Until recently, few liberal-minded Chinese women would have considered endorsing Confucianism, instead seeing it as a morally bankrupt feudal ideology with nothing to offer women (or men). However, the recent revival of Confucianism as a popular ideology in mainland China has been driven, in part, by the immense appeal of media produced by none other than a woman, Beijing Normal University professor Yu Dan (b. 1965), whose book, Yu Dan Lunyu Xinde (Yu Dan's Insights into the Analects),has sold an estimated 10 million copies since its publication in 2007. In her writings and her television and radio broadcasts, Yu has tended to stress the application of Confucian teachings to contemporary concerns such as stress reduction and finding meaning in one's job, and has avoided more controversial aspects of the tradition, such as its historical view of women. Yet the very fact that a woman stands at the center of the current Confucian revival in China speaks volumes about the capacity of Confucianism to grow beyond its past limitations. The view of the tradition as dynamically transcending its original contexts is shared by many so-called "New Confucians" such as Tu Weiming (b. 1940), who have argued for the compatibility of Confucianism and modern attitudes toward gender.

As in so many other respects, the Confucian tradition (like East Asian cultures in general) has tended to take a practical view of controversial issues such as homosexuality and abortion. Like most premodern societies, traditional China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan did not conceive of personal identity as being grounded in one's sexual activities. Thus, no analog to the modern Western notion of "homosexuality" can be found in premodern East Asia. Historically, Confucians had little to say about women loving other women, and did not condemn men who engaged in sexual relationships with other men, as long as such affairs did not interfere with their filial responsibility to produce heirs to maintain family lineages. Indeed, Christian missionaries who arrived in Ming dynasty China -- a deeply Confucian society -- were shocked at the casual acceptance of male homoeroticism among those held in great esteem by Confucian communities, as were their counterparts in Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. Certainly, same-sex couples are prominent in both official chronicles and popular literature produced in Confucian societies from antiquity through the 19th century, although same-sex coupling was never regarded as an acceptable substitute for male-female sex or a legitimately exclusive form of sexuality. 

It was not until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when contact with modern Western social values became widespread across East Asia, that people in these traditionally Confucian societies began to adopt systematic prejudices toward homoerotic activity. Today, many cultural conservatives in East Asia have accepted both the contemporary Western notion of homosexuality as a category of personal identity and the once-dominant, now-discredited Western view that homosexuality is a psychological disorder. It is easy to see how a tradition such as Confucianism -- which (especially in recent centuries, when its social influence was at its most powerful and widespread) has endorsed essentialized gender dichotomies that privilege stereotypically "male" qualities and activities over stereotypically "female" qualities and activities -- might be compatible with bias against homosexuality, especially male homosexuality. At the same time, it is important to note that a fixation on homosexuality as socially deviant and morally repugnant is alien to the Confucian tradition and reflects the influence of Western cultures far more than indigenous values in East Asia.


Study Questions:
1.         What are the "Five Relationships"?
2.         Traditionally, how has Confucian thought viewed women?
3.         Have there been any notable female Confucian thinkers?
4.         Traditionally, how has Confucian thought viewed sexuality?

Back to Religion Library