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Gender and Sexuality

Written by: Jeffrey Richey

Some say Confucianism is not a religion, since there are no Confucian deities and no
teachings about the afterlife. Confucius himself was a staunch supporter of ritual,
however, and for many centuries there were state rituals associated with
Confucianism. Most importantly, the Confucian tradition was instrumental in
shaping Chinese social relationships and moral thought. Thus even without deities
and a vision of salvation, Confucianism plays much the same role as religion does in
other cultural contexts. The founder of Confucianism was Kong Qiu (K'ung Ch'iu),
who was born around 552 B.C.E. in the small state of Lu and died in 479 B.C.E. The
Latinized name Confucius, based on the honorific title Kong Fuzi (K'ung Fu-tzu), was
created by 16th-century Jesuit missionaries in China. Confucius was a teacher to
sons of the nobility at a time when formal education was just beginning in China. He
traveled from region to region with a small group of disciples, a number of whom
would become important government officials. Confucius was not particularly
famous during his lifetime, and even considered himself to be a failure. He longed to
be the advisor to a powerful ruler, and he believed that such a ruler, with the right
advice, could bring about an ideal world. Confucius said heaven and the afterlife
were beyond human capacity to understand, and one should therefore concentrate
instead on doing the right thing in this life. The earliest records from his students
indicate that he did not provide many moral precepts; rather he taught an attitude
toward one's fellow humans of respect, particularly respect for one's parents,
teachers, and elders. He also encouraged his students to learn from everyone they
encountered and to honor others' cultural norms. Later, his teachings would be
translated by authoritarian political philosophers into strict guidelines, and for much
of Chinese history Confucianism would be associated with an immutable hierarchy
of authority and unquestioning obedience.

Women were at the bottom of the Confucian hierarchy. Exemplary behavior and uncomplaining
obedience was expected of them. By custom, aristocratic men and women lived separately. Men
had multiple wives and concubines, but women were not allowed to see men other than their
close relatives, husbands, or masters, or the palace eunuchs. Homosexuality was discouraged, but
not specifically condemned as "sinful." Abortion was also discouraged, except in cases where the
mother's health was endangered.
For Confucians, spiritual development begins at home, and the home traditionally has been seen
by Confucians as the paradigmatic arena of social relations. Social relations, of course, are rarely
exchanges between equals, in the Confucian view, but instead tend to be interactions between
superiors and inferiors. The so-called "Five Relationships" described by Confucians as the
complete range of human interaction include four that entail hierarchy (ruler/subject,
parent/child, husband/wife, elder sibling/younger sibling) and only one that need not entail
hierarchy (friend/friend). The ideal Confucian state, with its "natural" hierarchy of ruler and

subject, mirrored the home, with its "natural" hierarchy of husband and wife, and older and
younger children.

Moreover, in the ideal Confucian home -- a

microcosm of the state -- women were expected to demonstrate obedience before all other
virtues, and at every stage of life. As children, girls were required to obey their fathers; as wives,
women were required to obey their husbands; and as widows, women were required to obey their
grown-up sons. At no point in her life was a woman, according to the traditional Confucian view,
expected to function as an autonomous being free of male control. It was because of social
values such as this that 20th century social reformers in China and elsewhere condemned
Confucianism so vigorously.

Although Confucianism arose in a patriarchal culture and

always has embraced patriarchal values, to some extent, this portrait of women in Confucian
society does not necessarily reflect the historical reality of women in China, much less Vietnam,
Korea, or Japan, from the very beginning of the Confucian tradition up to the present day. Rather,
it describes women's lives as experienced during the last several hundred years of traditional
Confucian cultural history in East Asia. Prior to that, women enjoyed a relatively greater degree
of freedom in Confucian societies, and some women actually played prominent roles as
Confucian thinkers, although this was unusual, partly because of the subservient position of
women presented in various idealizations of society proposed by Confucian thinkers.
Kongzi himself had little to say about women, apart from his observation that few men were as
fond of virtue as they were of female beauty (Lunyu 9:18). It was the fateful synthesis of
Confucianism with Taoist cosmology during the Han dynasty by Dong Zhongshu (179-104

B.C.E.) led to the gender dichotomy of men as yang (active, powerful, accentuated) and women
as yin (passive, weak, diminished). Dong reduces what are, at best, suggestive cosmological
associations to gender essentialism: "The husband is yang and the wife is yin." Later on during
the Han dynasty, the imperially-sponsored text known as the Baihu tong (Comprehensive
Discussion in the White Tiger Hall) amplifies Dong's dichotomy and its social implications:
"Yang takes the lead; yin acts in concert. The male acts; the female follows." Yet, in the very
same era, a Confucian woman, Ban Zhao (45-114 C.E.) wrote her Njie (Lessons for Women), in
which she advocates education for women as well as for men and furthermore does so using
Confucian arguments. Even so, it must be acknowledged that Ban's text mostly served to
reinforce the growing Confucian conviction that women best fulfilled their spiritual potential by
becoming dutiful wives and mothers.

By 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 socalled "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.


For Further Study

Primary Sources
Brooks, E. Bruce and A. Taeko. The Original Analects: Sayings of Confucius and His
Successors. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
Dong, Zhongshu. "An In-Depth Investigation into Names" and "The Meaning of the Five
Phases." Trans. Mark Csikszentmihalyi. In Readings in Han Chinese Thought, ed. Mark
Csikszentmihalyi (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2006), 7-9, 175-179.
________. "[Excerpts from] Luxuriant Gems of the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu
Fanlu)." Trans. Sarah A. Queen. In Sources of Chinese Tradition, Vol. 1: From Earliest
Times to 1600, 2nd ed., eds. Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1997), 295-310.
Legge, James, trans. The Chinese Classics, Vols. 1-5. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press,
Lynn, Richard John, trans. The Classic of Changes: A New Translation of the I Ching as
Interpreted by Wang Bi. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Van Norden, Bryan W., trans. Mengzi with Selections from Traditional
Commentaries. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2008.
Waley, Arthur, trans. The Book of Songs. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company,
Watson, Burton, et al, trans. "[Excerpts from] The Classic of Documents." In Sources of Chinese
Tradition, Vol. 1: From Earliest Times to 1600, 2nd ed., eds. Wm. Theodore de Bary and
Irene Bloom (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 29-37.
Watson, Burton, trans. The Tso Chuan. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.
________, trans. Hsn Tzu: Basic Writings. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963.
Secondary Sources
Elman, Benjamin A., ed. Rethinking Confucianism: Past and Present in China, Japan, Korea,
and Vietnam. Los Angeles: UCLA Asian Pacific Monograph Series, 2002.
Jensen, Lionel. Manufacturing Confucianism: Chinese Traditions and Universal
Civilization. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997.
Nylan, Michael. The Five "Confucian" Classics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001.
Sivin, Nathan. "On the Word Taoist' as a Source of Perplexity." History of Religions 17 (1978):
Smith, Wilfred Cantwell. The Meaning and End of Religion. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press,