7/25/15: Upon review this blog has been edited significantly for grammatical correctness and clarity. I apologize for any glaring difficulties and hope that this revised version is easier to follow.
Synopsis: This paper-length blog post covers some of the developments in the gay-marriage debate among contemporary Confucian scholars. Throughout this piece I summarize and reconsider some of the proposed stances that some modern Confucian scholars take towards same-sex marriage. I consider what I call the Mengzi/Child Argument, the Metaphyiscal Argument, the Ren Argument, and the Institutional Argument.
In each case I attempt to provide alternatives to the options provided by the mentioned scholars. First, the Mengzi Child argument relies on a selective reading of the Mengzi that contradicts egalitarian ideals upheld by both the East and West. Second, the Metaphysical Argument runs into Humean problems as it attempts to derive an “is” from an “ought.” Third, the Ren Argument, gives more reasons for approving of gay marriage than for discouraging it, and misunderstands the origins of homosexuality. Finally, the Institutional Argument rests on a slippery slope, and evidence exists to support some degree of institutional change. In the last section, I respond to Vassar professor Bryan Van Norden’s article, proposing that perhaps the orientalism that Van Norden holds Justice Antonin Scalia to is also in the foreground of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s citation of Liji (Duke Ai Asks, 8). Overall, I believe these developments have provided an entry point for the East to engage in constructive dialog with the West, which both parties have fumbled on to differing degrees. All translations are done by me, unless stated otherwise. Those that are done by me include the original text. Original opinions from Chinese scholars can be found here, Van Norden’s piece here, and the original ruling of Obergefell v. Hodges here.
June 26th 2015 saw many new beginnings. First and foremost, the U.S. Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges upheld the right for same-sex couples to marry under state recognized law, deciding by a weak majority (5:4). Given significantly less coverage, however, was the citation of Confucius in the majority opinion and the following debates both domestically and abroad. To my knowledge, this is the first time that any Chinese philosopher has been cited as a source of authority in a Supreme Court case opinion. Furthermore, given the prevalent belief of Confucianism as Chinese common property, it raises the question: “What can Confucius say about gay marriage?”
Opinion pieces have tended to focus on either the quotation from the Liji or the actual institution of marriage itself. For instance, Vassar professor Bryan Van Norden has eloquently summarized a close reading of James Legge’s translation, appropriateness of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s citation, and Justice Scalia’s egregious orientalism. Others, such as Capital Normal University (首都师范大学) professor Chen Ming’s (陈明), have focused primarily on homosexuality more than gay marriage itself, using the court case more as a means to ground relevance. That’s not to say there are not some perspectives that have aimed to do both, and others that have more directly taken on the concept of gay marriage, but the vast majority tends to focus on either the exegesis or contemporary opinion. Here, I hope to outline some of these opinions, give charitable criticism, and offer some answers to the question posed above.
The Chinese scholars that I address here have made their voices heard through the website Confucian Web (Rujia Wang, 儒家网). That noted, the stances of these opinions are decisively anti-gay marriage. As per convention, each scholar makes some appeal to the classical texts, notably the Analects, Mengzi, and Zhou Dunyi’s Commentary on the Xici Zhuan, and notable historical trends both in the west and east.
Of the strongest arguments are ones that admit that there is no clear opinion in any of the pre-contemporary era texts that support anti-gay marriage stances. The reason for this is quite simple, there are no passages that explicitly forbid gay marriage in the classical texts. In short, the closest vestiges of the modern concept of “homosexuality” in China seems to find its roots in the west, as indicated by quite literal renditions of the term in Mandarin (tongxinglian (同性恋) lit. same-gender-affection, jilao (基佬) from the Cantoneese gay-low, and also commonly, just the English “gay.”) That’s not to say that there weren’t instances of homosexuality in pre-modern Chinese culture, but it makes sense that the classical texts do not formulate any explicit forbiddances of gay marriage. If there was a single sentence that said so, there would be no debate, no diversity of opinions, and quite frankly, I wouldn’t be writing this blog.
Therefore, the main task for these scholars is to create a position based on textual artifacts left by the classical writers. In other words, sound methodology shows an effort to acknowledge a form of philosophical construction, grounded in a close reading of the text, and a solid effort to interpret those nuances in a modern context. Of these positions, some are actually very creative (see below, The Metaphysical Argument). Somewhat ironically, various critiques don’t actually restate any, strictly speaking, Confucian opinions, but instead appropriate conservative arguments in the same manner that many historically accused Mou Zongsan of transplanting liberalism onto Confucianism (see Stephen Angle Contemporary Confucian Political Philosophy, 2012, p.31-33). The arguments fall into four distinct categories, which I will call, The Mengzi/Child Argument, The Metaphysical Argument, The Ren Argument, and The Institution Argument.
The Mengzi/Child Argument
Life long fans of Mengzi 2A.6 will be disappointed to find out that this type of argument does not include a baby falling into a well. Rather, it more closely resembles western anti-gay marriage rhetoric. The Mengzi/Child argument concerns the conception and upbringing of children in families with same-sex parents. Huadong Normal University (华东师范大学) professor Fang Xudong (方旭东) is the main proponent of this stance. Wu Gou (吴钩) has touched on this topic as well.
The Mengzi/Child Argument centers on a reading of a famous passage in the Mengzi: “There are three unfilial acts, to not have descendants is the greatest [不孝有三，无后为大]”（7A.26) In Fang’s account, he follows up by including an interpretation from Han dynasty commentator Zhao Qi: “ To not marry and be without children, this ends [the custom of] sacrificial rituals to the ancestors [不娶无子，绝先祖祀].” Bluntly put, the appeal to Zhao as an authority raises issues of modern living.
In my humble experience as an undergraduate, Zhao is rarely appealed to, even in academic circles. Sinophone and polyglot readers will notice that the word I translate as “marry (取) ” is a gendered term in both contemporary and classical Chinese. Qu refers to a man taking up a woman (while jia (嫁) is often used for a woman’s marrying to a man). To accept that Zhao’s interpretation as the only valid interpretation is to leave open the question of a female’s (heterosexual, homosexual, or otherwise) role as a filial daughter. Now –not to put him in a straw-man costume, but humor me for a second– we could assume that Fang might insist that only men can be filial, and therefore achieve moral perfection (sagehood). However, this flies in the face of scholarship, both contemporary and ancient, that has made it clear that there is an equitable place for women in Confucian ethics and more to delve into, beyond Zhao’s interpretation.
But assuming his argument stands on it’s own, he still has more to say. After summarizing the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions on several cases dealing with the right of same-sex parents to rear children, he states,
“Regardless, Confucians always have had reasons to reject gay marriage…We want what marriage originally signifies, and not some secondary good or a substitution; we want kids raised by their own birth parents, and not adoption…[This] on an individual psychological and societal level has a large influence [即便如此，儒家仍然有理由反对同性婚姻… 我们要的是本来意义上的婚姻，而不是某种次好品或替代品；我们要的是父母亲生的孩子，而不是收养来的…它在个体心理与社会层面都会造成巨大的影响].”
I am honestly not entirely sure about what he means by “what marriage originally signifies.” As Chen Ming has pointed out, marriage in pre-modern China was purposed for “union of two families, not two [different] genders.” If that’s the case, then there’s really no force behind Fang’s argument. Gay individuals are of two families after all. Regarding adoption, however, I refer to Ming dynasty’s Wang Yangming:
“That the great man can regard the Universe, Earth, and the myriad things as one body is not because he intends (yi 意) it so, but because of the natural humaneness of his mind…. Even the mind of the small man is no different. Only he himself makes it small. Therefore when he sees a child falling into a well, he cannot help a feeling of alarm and commiseration. This shows that his humaneness forms one body with the child. It may be objected that the child belongs to the same species. Again, when he observes the pitiful cries and frightened appearance of birds and animals about to be slaughtered, he cannot help feeling an ‘inability to bear’ their suffering. This shows that his humaneness forms one body with birds and animals. It may be objected that birds and animals are sentient beings as he is. But when he sees plants broken and destroyed, he cannot help a feeling of pity. This shows that his humaneness forms one body with plants. It may be said that plants are living things as he is. Yet, even when he sees tiles and stones shattered and crushed, he cannot help a feeling of regret. This shows that his humaneness forms one body with tiles and stones. This means that even the mind of a small man forms one body with all” (Translation by Wing Chan-Tsit, slightly modified by Stephen Angle, Sagehood 2009 p.28.)
Imagine that you yourself, for whatever reason, cannot contribute to the task of having a child in the “traditional” fashion. Perhaps melancholy, you have stepped into an orphanage and seen the conditions in which the orphans live. Maybe, the orphanage is well financed and they receive fairly good upbringing. But it’s clear that they lack the family affection that Confucians see as important to upbringing. So you eventually decide to adopt. It makes sense of course, Wang did stress the unity of knowledge and action (知行合一) .
The only way I see that Fang can have a legitimate issue with my interpretation of Wang Yangming is if he sees the extension of sympathy and the making “one body” with the world as not important to Confucian ethics. And to acknowledge that provides him with the problem of trying to align this position with the wealth of scholarship – again, contemporary and ancient — that says otherwise. The burden of proof is on him to extricate himself from his narrow reading.
The Metaphysical Argument
I find this category interesting. Never in my life before have I heard someone say “homosexuality is metaphysically right,” or “homosexuality is metaphysically wrong,” both of which are awkward sounding statements. Of course, there are scientific arguments, but those in modern day academics are usually distinguished from the philosophical discipline of metaphysics.
Shandong University (山东大学) professor Zhang Xianglong (张祥龙) is the main proponent of this view. Chinese metaphysics is famously based on a system of complements (as opposed to Hegelian dialectics, which are not only confusing, but also “conflicting” by nature). Zhang’s main task is to hash out the degree to which gay individuals need to conform to this system, and to what that necessitates for society. He writes:
“But Confucians don’t believe homosexuals are innately evil [does he think they’re evilness is stamped on them by an external force?]… This phenomena is just a divergence from the full exchanges of Yin and Yang [但是，儒家并不认为同性恋本身是邪恶的…这种现象只是阴阳相交不充分而生出的某种偏离］.”
He proceeds to explain this with a quote from Zhou’s commentary on the Xici Zhuan:
“Hardness and softness mutually pressure each other, change occurs in the center. The system [the Xici Zhuan] interprets these, giving them names, the laws of change and motion occur at the center. Auspiciousness, ominousness, regretfulness, stinginess, these are born from movement [刚柔相推，变在其中矣。系辞焉而命之，动在其中矣。吉凶悔吝者，生乎动者也].” (Thanks to professor Stephen Angle and Zixuan Zhao for consultation and explanation of this quote).
Zhang follows up with an interpretation of this blatantly obscure quote:
“As a result, the entire universe is constituted by the system of Yin and Yang. Therefore, heterosexual married couples –generally speaking – will account for a majority, even a vast majority. But this doesn’t crowd out the minority of men-men woman-woman arrangements; although, they internally have [only] a small Yin-Yang or couple distinction, they’ve left behind the large Yin-Yang process, and have no way to give birth to descendants. Because of this self-destruction of their own descendants, in this situation, they have no way of joining the activities of the larger community［由于整个宇宙是阴阳构生的大结构，所以男女化的夫妇一般说来会占大多数甚至绝大多数，但也的确不能排除少数男男化或女女化的搭配。他们内部虽然也有小阴阳或准夫妇之分异，但因背离大阴阳而无法生育后代。由于这种自绝后裔的搭配，在正常情况下，他们就更不会在族群中泛滥成灾]” (my italics).
However, there’s something troubling about his deduction, which I hope Zhang can answer from inside Hume’s guillotine. Two readings of Zhou Dunyi’s Taiji Diagram are important here: the cosmogony reading and Zhu Xi’s ontological reading. On the first reading, Zhou Dunyi is simply detailing the process by which cosmic forces unfold into the everyday world we perceive, or in Daniel Dennett’s terms, the manifest image. But this more clearly falls into the clutches of the Is-Ought problem; if it’s simply the way things are, then how can we read in any normative critiques of homosexuality?
On the other hand the ontological reading is slightly trickier. Zhu Xi equates the first stage, the Supreme Ultimate (太极) with Pattern (理). Zhu Xi’s concept of Pattern both encompasses normative and descriptive phenomena. On Zhu Xi’s reading, the Taiji Diagram just outlines the general trends that everything follows. Yin-Yang, the Five Phases, etc. are simply manifestations of Heavenly Principle. However, this still begs the question. Even if we accept that Zhu Xi’s interpretation is correct, what grounds the argument that exclusively heterosexual marriage is the one and absolute Pattern that the institution of marriage should be based upon? Zhang has a bit more work to do in making his point. (For responses to possible objections, see The Institution Problem).
There is something to be appreciated, even in Zhang’s overbearing anti-gay polemic. He makes room for what I have italicized in the long quote as small and large Yin-Yang relationships. Read charitably, I believe what he means has to do with how people complement each other. As said before, Chinese metaphysics is a system of complements. Perhaps – what I hope he means— is that individuals in homosexual couples in the scope of a larger cosmos complement each other in less ways (for example, x, y, z , minus gender) that heterosexual couples (x, y, z, plus gender) do. In other words, “small” and “large” should best be understood as a quantitative claim, not a qualitative one. Regardless he still needs to flush out why the entire cosmos supports him in protesting gay marriage.
The Ren Argument
Right off the bat it sounds odd to state that the cardinal Confucian virtue of Ren discourages gay marriage. The Ren argument attempts to treat homosexuality from the perspective of personal sympathy. As a disclaimer to most of my readers from the western world, I’d like to encourage them to view these statements with a bit of sympathy themselves; it’s not apparent that there’s any malicious intent on behalf of its exponents. However, this argument does illustrate that that there are major differences in how Americans and Chinese treat the etiological causes of homosexuality. Chen Ming writes in favor of this position.
Chen Ming’s opinion hinges on a paradoxical interpretation of the classics and modern science. On one hand he advances an opinion that runs counter to his contemporaries; heavy prejudice directly contradicts the basic tenets of the Analects. Quoting from said text, he writes, “What one does not desire, do not press onto others [己所勿欲，布施于人]”(12:2), adding “[This] is ren’s basic principle and requirement […恕道是仁最基本的原则和要求].” However, Chen raises questions about how far we can actually extend the stipulations of ren:
“If naturally caused homosexuals call for sympathy, then socially caused homosexuals call for regret. I feel that most homosexuals are constructed [a result of social influence]. Society and culture should take care of and restrict this [homosexuality]. As such, the legalization of gay marriage is a counter intuitive systemic arrangement. [如果说基于自然原因的同性恋是叫人同情的，那么基于社会原因的则叫人惋惜— 我感觉许多的同性恋是被建构塑造出来的，文化和制度应该对此有所关照和约束。而同性婚姻合法化显然是一个与此背道而驰的制度安排]” (my italics).
First, Chen’s quotation of Analects 12:2 ironically looks more like a reason to support gay marriage rather than oppose it. It’s not entirely clear how we can be “sympathetic” in the way that 12:2 calls for and still deprive certain individuals of rights to marriage. The passage calls for a conceptualization of something undesired, and a negative (in the sense of restricting) action that manifests a minimal respect. 12:2 destroys his argument rather than buttressing it.
Second, I humbly believe that professor Chen has made a mistake in his first premises. By enlarge the consensus among the scientific community is that homosexuality is not a choice. Appeals to science are notoriously hard to make in Chinese philosophical discourses: In The Continuity of Being Tu Wei-Ming (杜维明) attempts to ground his ecology in a “metaphor for modern science,” as does Michael Kalton in his piece Extending the Confucian Tradition. For more information on pre-modern China and (why it doesn’t have) science, see here. Similarly, while appealing to a biological basis for homosexuality, I might caution professor Chen that his claim runs the risk of over relying on western social science’s theories of social constructionism (the language he uses literally says “construct-created [建构塑造].” This, I admit is a methodological hazard that seems to ail anyone attempting to do cross-cultural philosophy. To make myself perfectly clear, the reasons proposed for gay marriage in this paragraph are not purely Confucian ones.
The Institution Argument
The Institution Argument is the most common argument and by far the one that deserves the most attention. I believe it’s the most relevant of the four arguments, in particular to American and Chinese readers. The final argument borrows rhetoric from conservative American concerns about the legalization of gay marriage, in particular one claim by Justice John Roberts. Exponents of this argument include Wu Gou and, Zhang Xianglong.
Most articulation of their position revolves around Robert’s dissenting opinion in the actual case. Lengthy in stature, it concerns the stability of marriage as a social and political institution. While I believe their justification differs, essentially Roberts, Wu, and Zhang all share this concern for the instrumental value of ritual as a means of expressing love between two individuals, and the flourishing of children as a result of these relationships. Instead of trying to summarize his whole opinion, I think best to let Justice Roberts speak for the aforementioned scholars as they have done:
“It is striking how much of the majority’s reasoning would apply with equal force to the claim of a fundamental right to plural marriage. If ‘[t]here is dignity in the bond between two men or two women who seek to marry and in their autonomy to make such profound choices,’ ante, at 13, why would there be any less dignity in the bond between three people who, in exercising their autonomy, seek to make the profound choice to marry? If a same-sex couple has the constitutional right to marry because their children would otherwise ‘suffer the stigma of knowing their families are somehow lesser,’ ante, at 15, why wouldn’t the same reasoning apply to a family of three or more persons raising children? If not having the opportunity to marry “serves to disrespect and subordinate” gay and lesbian couples, why wouldn’t the same ‘imposition of this disability,’ ante, at 22, serve to disrespect and subordinate people who find fulfillment in polyamorous relationships?
I do not mean to equate marriage between same-sex couples with plural marriages in all respects. There may well be relevant differences that compel different legal analysis. But if there are, petitioners have not pointed to any. When asked about a plural marital union at oral argument, petitioners asserted that a State ‘doesn’t have such an institution.’ But that is exactly the point: the States at issue here do not have an institution of same-sex marriage, either.”
Despite the rhetorical spin that liberal media has given Roberts’s position, and the frantic tone of urgency that Wu and Zhang interpret into his opinion, I believe he has a point. Marriage preforms a certain role in our society by conferring certain benefits – in the words of Alasdair MacIntyre both “internal to practice,” and “external to practice” – for the commitment to particular values. The benefits conferred presuppose a minimal level of civic engagement (i.e. going through some sort of ceremony) in the community in question. Therefore, the conditions, restrictions, and nature of these rituals are changed when we change the form of the ritual itself. Read charitably, and admittedly without prior knowledge of Roberts’s own personal history, I read that he is trying to seek out a universal meaning of marriage in virtue of its role in a large system of institutions.
As alluded to above, marriage is in fact a ritual. In fact the passage that has spurred all of this debate originally states, “Marriage, this is at the center of government! [礼其政之本与！].” Likewise, Confucius in The Analects does make a clear effort to comment on ritual. In one passage he states, “The linen cap is that prescribed by the rules of ceremony, but now a silk one is worn. It is economical, and I follow the common practice” (James Legge, 9.3). So based on this segment alone, Confucius does encourage that we can change certain elements of rituals without effecting the their given meanings.
However, some in the dialogical fashion of the Sui dynasty might protest and offer the second half of that passage:
“Bowing below the hall is prescribed by the rules of ceremony, but now the practice is to bow only after ascending it. That is arrogant. I continue to bow below the hall, though I oppose the common practice”(James Legge, 9:3).
Here Confucius certainly shows reluctance to altering ritual structures. Yet unlike the hat-episode, Confucius seems reticent to change the ritual because of what it brings its participants to recognize. Despite this, I still haven’t saved us from falling off of Wu and Zhang’s slippery slope. I’m still begging the question: does polygamy directly follow gay-marriage?
I can best illustrate it this way: American fine dining etiquette is very particular and has a variety of strict norms. Some of these include starting with the outermost utensils, making one’s way inward as the meal progresses, refraining from picking up the bowl if a soup dish is served, conforming to a particular dress code, maintaining a certain volume with others at the table, etc. One day it suddenly becomes mandated by the federal government that it’s unreasonable for employees to ask customers to leave such establishments on the ground that some customers prefer to start from the innermost set of utensils and work their way outwards. So, it becomes permissible to eat in that way, and for the most part these customs remain unchanged, until one day someone decides that they would rather pick up the bowls and egregiously slurp their soup, instead of leave it on the table as has been historically required. As a result, an employee at one of these fine establishments in Kentucky is sued by a covert lobbying group, the case taken to the Supreme Court (at this point Scalia would probably not want to put up with this type of absurdity anymore and would have resigned), and eventually implemented as a law on the basis of stare decisis. Eventually this leads to people drinking wine from bottles placed on the head of their person sitting opposite to them, pirate suits as the standardized dress code, poodles as waiters/waitresses, chocolate fountains as a civil right, 2pac and Biggy Smalls rising from the grave, and the collapse of civil society. Not to mention that at this points people just don’t eat food at restaurants anymore.
I imagine that some will protest, “Max, that’s absurd. There’s a clear point where none of the things you list necessarily follow from what you list prior.” And that’s exactly my point. The question of “number of participants,” is fundamentally different from “sexual orientation of the participants,” yield different answers, and reveal different grounds of continued inquiry. Roberts, Wu, and Zhang are right to call into question the limits of liberalism, but their case needs more explanation.
Orientalism, Othering, and Open Discussion Across Cultures
I would like to conclude – I know, finally right? – my discussion by revisiting some of the objections that Vassar professor Bryan Van Norden brought up here. His article does not directly take a stand on gay marriage. Instead Van Norden is more concerned with a close reading of Liji .
Van Norden identifies Justice Scalia’s remark, “The Supreme Court of the United States has descended from the disciplined legal reasoning of John Marshall and Joseph Story to the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie,” as one of clear orientalism; the exoticization and alienation of the historical East. In order words, to read Scalia’s crude comment otherwise would require the reader to give him a very charitable reading.
However, Van Norden is somewhat ambiguous about Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. In the section Did Kennedy Get Confucius Right? Van Norden holds that Kennedy’s interpretation is consistent with Confucian ethics (which might be contrast with what happened to the first chapter of the Dao De Jing during the hippy movement). On the contrary though, Chen Ming has illuminated the fact that marriage in pre-modern was China seen as a union of two families, not two individuals. In this light, Kennedy seems to abstract from the original text a bit more than it’s context provides.
Why Confucius? Why not one of these guys? Obviously Kennedy meant no malicious intent. But what could really be achieved by appealing to a philosopher from before the Common Era who in this country is either unfortunately unknown, or known only as a comical conduit for crude jokes? One of my friends from China, a Politics major at my college could only charge him with, “Appealing to quasi-universalistic values,” something that stuck with me ever since. I don’t charge Kennedy with orientalism, but I do want to consider the notion that orientalism might be lurking in the background.
It’s a start that shows Chinese thought is becoming more widely recognized in the western world. However as the world becomes more globalized it’s important to take note of both differences and similarities. It does no respect to the “other” to identify them as immutably opposite to us. At the same time, it’s equally damaging to assume there are no differences whatsoever. A balance has to be struck that respects both.
I would like to end this blog with the hopes that both sides engage pursue solutions to how their traditions might engage in constructive dialog, respecting both each other’s origins and unique problems that they face. This is hardly realistic as an immediate reality, given the unfair generalizations applied in both directions, tense political climate, and xenophobia that naturally resides in nationalistic sentiments. But, as Confucius made clear in Analects 2.4, cultivation is a matter of long, enduring commitment.
This report and discussion is a real treat. Thank you, Max !!
A few small reactions:
You write, “the classical texts do not formulate any explicit forbiddances of gay marriage. If there was a single sentence that said so, there would be no debate, no diversity of opinions, ….”
Why wouldn’t there? Is your thought that since nobody was interested in the question at all, if one sentence had crept in nobody would have taken any notice? Or is your thought that the tradition is so blindly traditionalistic that once a respectable person says something and dies, nobody will dare disagree, no matter what the thing is? Or is your thought that the general view was presumably, inarticulately, uniformly hostile to gay marriage, so that if someone had articulated the point, nobody would have demurred?
It seems to me the appeal to Mencius 7A26 assumes that the same-sex marriage is the parties’ only marriage (and also that parties to same-sex marriages can’t have lineal descendants (and properly adopted).
The exposition reports asides and replies to objections, but it doesn’t seem report Zhang’s main or core argument. (Maybe he didn’t give one?) So it’s hard to know whether Zhang’s actual argument would be vulnerable to the following challenges:
It seems to me it’s not entirely obscure how sympathy is supposed to be involved in Chen Ming’s argument. The heart of Chen Ming’s argument seems to be an assumption that other things equal, the world is worse off having more homosexuality. Does he explain that premise? The sympathy operative in his argument is presumably sympathy for the people who would suffer by the world’s being worse off. For example, if he thinks homosexuality tends to promote war, or bad weather, or awkward lives for the homosexual people, the sympathy would be for the potential victims of war or famine, or the gay people who would not have been gay were gay marriage not recognized.
Thanks for such positive feed back! This is actually my first blog ever and I was nervous to upload it in a public space with such well-learned individuals. I’ll do my best to respond to some of your concerns, questions, and comments.
Regarding the absence of passages on homosexuality:
The point I’m primarily trying to make is that based on my humble discretion and understanding of Chinese philology, I can only really trace an ossified conception of homosexuality back to the West. The first mention of the word “gay” occurs in a German paper in the 1850’s (probably in German), so if we buy into this philological theory then this explains why we don’t see any mention of anti-homosexual sentiments in pre-Modern China. You can’t have a passage that says “homosexuality is immoral,” if you don’t have a word for “homosexuality.” I’ll admit that I didn’t search all of the classics for anything that resembled the statement (except for Mengzi 7A.26), but a good handful of the scholars I mentioned seemed to come to the same conclusion. Part of the process of philosophical construction is the cautious tailoring of relevant passages to fit the interlocutor positions of modern questions, and that’s what these professors and I have been working at.
The best I can do to answer your last question in this section is that it seems that the prevalent belief among modern Chinese (note: not Confucian but Chinese) communities is that homosexuality is dangerous because it damages the transmission of the bloodline, or in short having children. This in-itself seems to be something received from the Mengzi, but no one would say “DO IT BECAUSE MENGZI SAYS SO.”
This is the case for Fang Xudong, but other scholars have directly linked it with marriage. I think what they have in mind is that marriage is necessarily a prerequisite to having children (which is just biologically not the case).
His argument is completely outlined in the section labeled The Institution Argument. He’s mainly “worried” that homosexuals can’t fully engage in public life because they’re only actualizing the small yin-yang relationship, and not the whole generative process itself.
I think your argument would definitely give Zhang a run for his money, depending on how strictly we construe the ideas of Yin and Yang. For example, based on my understanding of Zhou Dunyi he doesn’t say that there must be an exact proportion of 50% yang to 50% yin. Even when he says “One yin, one yang is called the ‘Dao’ 「一陰一陽謂之道」,” I don’t think that he’s saying “1:1 yin yang proportions are called the Dao.” These dichotomies are just what cause the process of generativity in Chinese metaphysics. I haven’t read it myself, but I hear that Brook Ziporyn’s latest work gives a great coverage of this.
You’re completely right that it’s not completely obscure, considering what his first premises are. But that’s why I have (a bit unprofessionally) just attacked a premise instead of the arguments itself. He thinks that a lot of homosexuals are simply manufactured by social forces “我感觉许多的同性恋是被建构塑造出来的，文化和制度应该对此有所关照和约束.” Yeah, I suppose if we accept that then it’s a bit easier to sympathize with his viewpoint. But that still begs the question, what is it about homosexually that brings a sort of “badnesss” into the world. Does bisexuality bring about something like, “half-badness?” What does that even mean?
Well thanks again for the fine work and service. This is all quite fascinating, aside from being important, and your discussion is deep and clear.
Oh – on Zhang’s argument, yes it does seem to be there – mainly under Metaphysics – and I seem just to have missed it. Ha! Sorry! I’m really not used to that kind of metaphysics, and I was a little lost. My “objections” seem beside the point.
On the idea that people can’t write that homosexuality is immoral if they don’t have a word for it—I think I don’t agree. One can say that it’s an abomination to the Lord for a man to lie with a man, etc. Granted, that’s behavior not taste, etc., but behavior and institutions are what we’re talking about.
Same-sex marriage doesn’t block biological reproduction or child-rearing, and it can join families. What it can’t do is join families in biological reproduction. I suppose that could seem extremely important in a society, or a world, based on the idea of family lines.
But how much can mixed marriage do to join family lines, when the picture of family lines is patrilineal? Does the Confucian or the Chinese tradition really see marriage more as the joining of families, than as the transfer of a woman, or the completion of the task that is a daughter?
I’m going to answer your question about “joining families” first: I think the distinction that scholars would make is between the stipulations of the Confucian texts, and the stipulations of Chinese culture. I’ve had one of my professors in East Asian Studies say, “Oh well Confucian led to the oppression of women in pre-modern Asia.” That’s not entirely true. It’s the case that there were power structures maintained by an adherence to the Confucian texts, but they in themselves did not lead to the oppression of women. A certain reading of them did. Overall there’s a received meaning and what the text actually says. How we access the second is up for grabs.
Your claim on my methodology is a legitimate concern. Lemme see if I can do my best to explain what I mean.
So to make sure that we’re being precise, my claim is that there is no phrase explicitly forbidding same-sex marriage because there’s no concern to be voiced. Even if we had something like the Bible passage you quote, then we have to ask a series of questions to make sure there’s an overlapping resemblance between the passages. First, that passage wouldn’t forbid “marriage” it would just forbid coitus with anyone of the same sex. Accepting that it did talk about marriage, is it talking about male-male, and female-female relationships? Because that’s what we mean by “homosexual” today.
Furthermore, if there was a passage, such as, like, I don’t know, 「二男上床之戀，非義之乎！」 then I think the anti-gay scholars would have jumped on it by now.
What I’m thinking of is something similar to what Philip J. Ivanhoe does to the deontologists with reason in “Ethics in the Confucian Tradition.”
Hope that helps.
I don’t see that I was confusing texts with culture, or anything like that. Pointing out the distinction seems to be your whole reply in the first half? So I would repeat my thoughts and questions (addressed to the world in general—when are they going to get off their duffs and join us?).
As for method, I don’t see any problem with your method, and I wasn’t questioning your claims about what’s absent from the philosophical tradition. (But now that you mention it, I look and find in Dikotter’s review of Hinsch the sentence “Fewer references to homosexuality appeared in official histories from the Tang dynasty onwards.”)
I was objecting to an explanation, but I seem to have misunderstood what you were explaining on the basis of what. I thought that at 9:18 you were explaining the absence of concern and statements about same-sex sex, love, marriage, etc. on the basis of the absence of a specific vocabulary about that. (Yes?) The point I was trying to make in reply was that it’s easy to comment on such topics in the absence of a specific vocabulary, and there’s a long history of that in the West.
I think it’s a very interesting (cultural) question why there was so little interest in such topics, in old China.
On filial piety and making descendants: we could of course distinguish between making a parent not be without descendants, and maximizing the number of her descendants. If my brother has a son, then arguably in one sense I’m off the hook. On the other hand, a greater number means greater certainty of long-term continuation of the family line, and there’s never perfect certainty.
The idea that filial piety requires maximizing descendants goes back at least to the Mozi, hence (?) before the Mengzi. The Mozi appeals to the point as though it were already the standard view.
What does Ivanhoe do there?
Hi again, Max,
I didn’t understand yesterday why you were talking about text v. culture, but I think I see now. You had reason. In speaking of transfer of women or of daughters as tasks, I probably seemed to be making a snide attack, and one might well have thought I was attacking Confucian philosophy on the basis of Chinese culture. But, I say, I wasn’t doing anything like that.
I do sometimes attack aspects of the Confucian tradition on this blog; more often I attack attacks on Western philosophy as having some grotesque flaw in comparison to Chinese philosophy. I think what has led me to the curmudgeonly blog role I currently occupy is not any sense that Confucianism or the Chinese tradition poses a cultural or philosophical danger. Rather I feel I came to the role because of what seem to me the many and popular grave misrepresentations of Western philosophy in comparison to Chinese philosophy—especially but not only because the misrepresentations often involve attacks on basic liberalism, basic liberties.
I think I’ve been careful about not simply holding a philosophy accountable for contemporary cultural practices, e.g. holding the ideas in the U.S. Bill of Rights directly responsible for the racism, sexism, slavery, imperialism and genocide with which the Bill’s advocates and proudest champions have so long been so closely tied.
For me combativeness is part of the cheery philosophical temperament; but so is the kind of nerdy Martian distance exemplified in my list of potential objections to the Zhang argument, the kind of distance that might raise questions like, Would it be better if one or three or seven sexes were biologically necessary for reproduction? It’s in more or less that spirit, rather than an interest at digs against a largely bygone culture, that I asked, or wondered aloud, “But how much can mixed marriage do to join family lines, when the picture of family lines is patrilineal? Does the Confucian or the Chinese tradition really see marriage more as the joining of families, than as the transfer of a woman, or the completion of the task that is a daughter?”
Anthropologists write of the “transfer of women” without snideness; that’s where I got the phrase. The idea is just to get a picture of the shape of social life as the tribe sees it; and of course it’s a cold hyperbole.
I was asking a real question, not a rhetorical question. I’m pretty completely ignorant of the long Confucian tradition after the earliest bits, and I know very little about the long history of Chinese kinship structure, gender roles, etc. I know, or think I know, only a hair more than what any well-educated middle-aged American would “know.”
Offhand, it seems to me that a deeply patrilineal conception, as I imagine to have been prevalent in the Chinese educated classes for most of history, does not set great store on the “joining of families” as an effect of marriage, because the female line does not (yes?) define the extent of the family. On the other hand, I’ve read in old poetry of the sending of daughters as brides for foreign kings, as a way of trying to secure alliance at least. So I’m wondering: based on (a) historical sociology and/or (b) textual remarks not directly on the question of marriage and joining of families, is it plausible or implausible to guess that the Confucian philosophers would genuinely have regarded the joining of families as an important part of the purpose of marriage?
Hi Bill, I’m going to try to reply to both of your posts at the same time:
First, no offense was taken at all, these are all legitimate questions and it’s my job to clarify these statements as necessary. On the contrary, this is my first blog post. Ever. So I’m actually really happy that you’re giving me so much attention.
Second, I guess I should clarify that my explanation in the main blog post should best be interpreted as a speculative certis perbus claim (despite how adamantly I suggest it). To be honest, I’m not particularly invested in my lexical theory as the ultimate ur-reason why we have no instances of anti-gay marriage statements in the Confucian tradition. I’m sure there are better reasons and I can think of a few off the top of my head, but while I was writing that was the one that caught my attention.
Third, I’m under the impression that the notion of transfer of women is something more engrained in East Asian (not just China) culture, and that Confucianism has been something like a time-capsule for the preservation of patriarchal structures. But in order to absolutely that it was Confucianism that directly caused this would require that we have explicit statements from a certain, (at the very least) historically widely read text. In other words, we must have a mandate from Confucius, Mengzi, (even) Xunzi, etc that says, “women are property,” or anything that baring a good family resemblance to that. I can think of no passages from the Analects, Mengzi, or Xunzi that seem to suggest the sort of thing, except for the scene in the Mengzi were Yao offers Shun his two daughters in marriage. But then we would have to ask, what is different about the status of a sage rather than a common person? In short, the passage doesn’t seem to suggest everyone to engage in a transfer of women as anthropologists suggest.
Now, if we’re talking about the received, traditional understanding of the classical texts, then it’s obvious that “joining of two families” seems to be in practice more like the transfer of women. You will of course never find any post-1949 Chinese scholar endorse this practice as it would run counter to party doctrine.
Fourth: on Mengzi and Mozi. The “brother situation” is an interesting one, and it makes sense in a context where we see responsibilities as collective. But scholars such as Bryan Van Norden are more of a fan of agent basing Confucianism, as it makes more sense when talking about our acknowledgment of consanguineous affiliation and other themes such as commitment (志). So it seems to me that there would still be a reason to have children even if your brother had one.
As for Mozi, I’m not as familiar. But the question I would ask is, do Confucians adopt the “many” sentiment that the Mohists endorse? What I mean is, are there any texts that sign on to this idea? Last, and perhaps you could clarify this for me, the passage(s) seems to be advocating that the ruler does this for the interest of his parents’ safety. It is not clear that this is an imperative for the average citizen, and that the agency is subsumed in the role of the monarch (at least if we accept that the translation is only talking about one 仁者).
Also, the home-boy Jiang Qing has written an opinion on gay marriage:
Summary to follow.
Hi Max, I’m looking forward to hearing about Jiang Qing’s piece!
I’m still puzzled — had I or someone you discussed suggested that Confucianism had directly or indirectly influenced the kinship system? Now that you bring it up I imagine Confucianism probably had a conservative effect, as you say. But I really don’t know anything about that.
I think when anthropologists speak of the “transfer of women” they don’t mean to imply that women are slaves, or are like slaves. Rather it means that what happens in marriage is that a woman ceases membership in one family and becomes a member of another. (Because of the first of these steps, marriage doesn’t mean the joining of families.) The phrase “transfer of women” may suggest further that the normally the marriage is arranged without the woman’s input, but I’m not familiar enough with the literature to be sure.
I came across the Mozi passage in the course of researching the intellectual environment of Analects 1.2. I think 1.2 regards benevolence as being analogous in some way to xiao-ti, as the Mozi passage argues that a son’s filiality is analogous to a ruler’s benevolence. I don’t think the Mozi is talking about a ruler’s filial piety, or about safety; but on the latter point maybe I’m missing something?
I’m under the impression that Confucianism, as it did have an almost unbroken presence in ancient Chinese history, did have an effect on the kinship system. Honestly I’m not entirely sure what this effect is. But the historical meaning of the classical texts do not necessitate contemporary readings. There are closer and closer readings, and what I’m holding off against is that the ancients had the closest one.
Undisputedly, Chinese did historically perceive themselves as having a transfer of women. There’s a phrase in Chinese “Women are like poured-out water.” What it means is that once you throw them out of the house, you can’t get them back.
I think you have a good point, but I still see room for people to shove aside the incongruity. We might ask, why can’t we have both (a transfer of women and bonding of families)? In a sense the guy doesn’t have much of a choice either, it just so happens that the woman goes to live with the male family post-marriage. I mean, someone has to go live with someone else right? I hope I’m not giving you the impression that I don’t see the strength in your argument, it just needs a bit more grounding.
I agree there is an analogy between the two passages. The main difference I see between Mohist and Confucian conceptions of filial piety is the sense of who is obligated. At least based on the translation of 仁者 as magnanimous ruler, it seems that Mozi is mainly concerned about the morality of the ruler, and uses the filial son as an archetype to grasp his meaning. Confucians on the other hand seem to be predisposed to obligating everyone to a standard of morality; filial piety is especially important for the ruler, but everyone should ideally be a filial son/daughter.
A side comment: one other thing that I found was interesting is that Analects 1.2 talks about xiaoti as if it’s the “root” of benevolence. I.e. we would start from these characteristics, and the virtue of benevolence would flourish from that. On the other hand, Mozi starts with a presupposed definition of benevolence (again, not sure if they mean the same thing in these two passages, but on that assumption) and then looks at filial piety as if it’s antecedent to it. Just somethings to ponder.
Jiang Qing adamantly opposes gay marriage. He first starts by chastising Justice Kennedy for misusing the Liji passage, titling the appropriate section, “Please Great Judge Don’t Egregiously Accuse Confucius.” His view is that the passage only talks about traditional male-female marriage(“孔子此处所说的婚姻，是儒家所理解的婚姻，即男女异性结合组成的婚姻，而非同性结合组成的婚姻”). According to Jiang, marriage in Confucius’s eyes is grounded in the transcendental nature of the Heavenly Dao (“因为孔子认为人类婚姻的形上基础根植于超越神圣的天道”).
Jiang admits that although the ancient Chinese tolerated homosexuality, implementing legal changes to legalize gay marriage is a preposterous idea. In short, he cites four reasons why, that he calls the “Four Destructions”: 1) The Destruction of the Heavenly Way(天道的毁灭性), 2) The Destruction of Natural Attribution (自然属性的毁灭性), 3) The Destruction of Human Civilization (类文明的毁灭性), and 4) The Destruction of Institutionalized Modern Marriage (类现行婚姻制度的毁灭性). In short, 1) is a metaphysical argument (see above The Metaphysical Argument). 2) is an aesthetic argument; Jiang believes that our tendency towards the opposite gender is a naturally endowed disposition that necessitates nature’s “masterpiece(杰作).” 3) takes marriage as a fundamental part of human civilization in general, and therefore requires the conservation of a tradition of heterosexual marriage. 4) builds on 3) by saying that marriage as an institution would then be destroyed as well.
After proposing this fate, Jiang attempts to take a closer look at the reasons why we are seeing this rising trend in western countries. His opinion is that the western value of “equal rights (平等人权)” and the weakening of religious institutions has led to the proliferation of gay marriage in certain western countries. Those familiar with Jiang’s work might have already predicted that he doesn’t hesitate to call these out as moral fictions. He states,
“Western human rights’s understanding of ‘human’ in reality does not exist. In real every day life, we only see the concretely distinguished ‘human’, and not the omnipresent, abstract ‘human’. (西方的人权平等思想所理解的人，在现实生活中实际上是不存在的。我们在现实生活中，看到的只是具体特殊的人，而非抽象普遍的人).”
By “the concretely distinguished person” and “omnipresent abstract person,” I best understand this as something similar to what Kantian philosopher Christine Korsgaard means by a practical role. In Jiang’s eyes, we are only the roles we fulfill (American, mother, student, etc) and not something that predicates them. This being said, he uses this reason to shove aside the challenges proposed by human rights, and gay rights by extension.
As many know Jiang is an advocate of a Confucian theocracy. Correspondingly he notes that popular sovereignty (“主权在民”) and the separation of church and state (“政教分离”) has weakened the power base which the church might otherwise have been able to use to, what he views, avert this disaster. As an example he cites how modern day Ireland circumvented the once authoritative church, making the latter a nominal power.
His solution is to reinstate theocracy, and treat gay people according to the “The guarantee of the ‘situational, unidentical nature among things’s differing but universal appropriateness. (保障“物之不齐物之情”的差别性世界的正当性).” In other words, because Confucians value distinction, and homosexuals are distinguished from heterosexuals, the former will receive according treatment. However, he never states in concrete terms what this treatment entails.
In short, he is tolerant of homosexuality, and intolerant of western democracy, the separation of church and state, and human rights.
And here’s where I get to write my own opinion:
Jiang’s blog as a whole comes across to me as homophobic and ironically simultaneously excessive and incomplete. It seems more than anything that he fears an imaginary doomsday prophecy that he himself conjures up in which gay people one day rise up and destroy the fabric of reality. Well, if that were the case, why do they even need marriage to do it?
Otherwise, he attempts to push his greater political ideology in an inappropriate place in a manner that practically screams , “WE NEED A THEOCRACY.” without sufficient defense of these ideas. I’m particularly worried about objections that western philosophers (I’m thinking mostly Posner, Dworkin, Rawls) might push onto him. For instance, how can he defend his narrow interpretation of the human condition?
But I found the blog post entertaining to say the least. Jiang’s blog was the most well written out of all the blogs on Rujia Wang in my opinion. Either way, if anyone has any questions I’d be more than willing to answer them.
Thanks very much for this, Max.
I was struck here by what seems to be Jiang’s sense of kinship with other religions, Western religions. I wonder whether he feels that they somehow have a glimmering of Heaven, or that there is something inherently insightful in “religion” as such, quite aside from which religion it is. Or maybe all that’s going on here is that he’s noticed that many religions happen to be on his side on the question of gay marriage.
I really don’t understand what Jiang is saying about abstract humanity. For example—does he not believe we share a common endowment from Heaven? That question doesn’t sum up my puzzlement about what he’s saying. I feel pretty well lost.
I gather that a number of readers of this blog have some familiarity with Jiang’s work, and might be able to help address these questions.
Yeah, Jiang’s main point is that the absence of religion in modern democracies have led to a power vacuum (read this in one of his papers two semesters ago). Democracy is an anathema to Jiang, which is kind of ironic because he poses a system which looks pretty democratic to me.
What I think he means by “abstract humanity” is that there’s no identity that presupposes our practical roles. In other words, I’m not a human that can be protected by any notion of human rights, I’m just an American, or anything that others could view me as. What this means for him is that the west has to screw off when China commits certain “human” rights violations. At least based on his proposed treatment of gay people, I think that he thinks that we should treat people “according to their natural endowment,” and it seems unclear if he wants to admit we have even an overlapping common endowment.
Max, you write, “What I think he means by ‘abstract humanity’ is that there’s no identity that presupposes our practical roles.”
I suppose you don’t mean that he thinks this:
I think you might mean he thinks this:
I do not understand line (B). One main problem for me is that I don’t know what “identity” is supposed to mean here. I think Western moral and political thinkers who theorize about “all people” do not usually speak of “identity” in that connection—nor about “abstract humanity,” for that matter. These terms don’t directly point to anything one can find and then interpret in Western discourse about universal rights, duties, etc.
The term “identity” is used mainly by sociologists and psychologists rather than philosophers, I suppose; and usually it is supposed to point to what people regard as important about themselves that distinguishes them from some others (usually something they have in common with many others too). A person’s having one “identity” is not as a rule taken to preclude her also having others.
For Kantians such as Korsgaard, the moral law defines the practical role we all have in common. Yes?
Oops, “abstract humanity” might of course point to something one can identify in Western discourse, Kantian in particular. Kant speaks of the humanity in people–not of the “abstract humanity,” but the thing he’s referring to is abstract.
Actually what I mean is:
He doesn’t believe in abstract humanity, which is to believe that:
(C) there is no identity that presupposes our practical roles. We ARE our practical roles.
I think that to conceive of an idea of abstract humanity as Kantian is useful. I think what I was struggling to articulate last week is that this concept seems to be something that exceeds the influence of philosophy on its own. In other words, it has a form of its own within our everyday use of the term. But Kant is definitely a useful way of understanding what Jiang is reacting against.
As for Korsgaard, the practical role does not come from the moral law. We have to see ourselves in practical roles in order to make certain imperatives intelligible. So for example, if we willed ourselves to “take care of ones (our) parents,” we would have to see ourselves in the practical role of a child. She famously uses practical roles to assert that we can in fact lie to thwart evil. It’s sort of interesting because contemporary moral philosophy as a whole has began to look at “practical role”esque ideas.
Not commenting on the previous discussion as such, I just wish to make the point that on the basis of the Analects, it may be possible to draw the conclusion that Confucius would unfortunately be against gay marriage. I am making this assumption on basis of two verses in particular.
In XV.7, Confucius extolls chronicler Yu for remaining upright even when his state was not following the Way. According to E. Slingerland (Confucius Analects with Selections from Traditional Commentaries, 2003, p. 177), Yu felt remorse for not having able to make his ruler, Duke Ling, to cast away his male lover, Mi Zixia. (Of course, the story of Mi Zixia is one of the best known descriptions of homosexual love affairs in early Chinese history, and just one of several similar accounts.) So it is possible that Confucius was referring to the love-affair between the ruler and his favourite when saying that the Way was not followed.
In XV.11, Confucius makes a parallel between the licentious songs of Zheng and glib men. As some of the songs of Zheng are arguably homoerotic, it may be that Confucius was referring to the male favorites of the rulers with glib men. As is clear from other sources (see next paragraph), it was at least sometimes considered a problem that the court favorites (who may have used not only their glibness but also their good looks) gained too much influence.
The other sources include, inter alia, a story in Zhanguoce where it is stated, quoting the History of Zhou, that “a handsome youth ruins an old man” (周書有言，美男破老; CText.org: 秦 1, 田莘之為陳軫說秦惠王), or in Guoyu, where it is told how the king despises his advisers and socializes instead with wanton youth (今王棄高明昭顯 … 而近頑童窮固; CText.org: 鄭語 1). Remarkably, the Guoyu story accuses the king of “rejecting harmony and seeking his own kind (instead)” (去和而取同). Usually it is said that 同 (similarity) refers to “yes-men” (as in Zuozhuan, CText.org: 昭公二十年 2), but from this Guoyu story we can see that that the difference between 和 (harmony) and similarity has also been used to refer to hetero- and homosexuality. Therefore, it is not out of the question that it reflected the thinking in the times of Confucius.
All in all, I understand this is all far from conclusive, but at least one cannot exclude the possibility that Confucius would indeed be anti-gay marriage.
It’s not the homosexuality that is censured in any of these examples: it’s the distraction from more appropriate pursuits (such as, in the case of a ruler, governing his kingdom). Excessive heterosexual activity is always strongly censured as well.
I’d encourage you to read my book!