Today Ruism (Confucianism) Can Unconditionally Support Same-Sex Marriage

12/30/2017 11:46 pm ET

As a contemporary Ru learner and practitioner, I was delighted to learn that Justice Anthony Kennedy quoted Confucius in his majority decision (2015) legalizing same-sex marriage in the United States. However, the reaction of Ru scholars across the Pacific Ocean has become polarized since the decision was written. I have never read a single Ru scholar in mainland China who supports Kennedy’s argument. On the other hand, I have read of no Ru scholars in the United States who seriously oppose the argument.

The situation for the Chinese side is understandable: gay marriage was never legal in traditional China and thus, Chinese Ru scholars can find many teachings in traditional Ruism which seemingly support their antagonistic stance. In comparison, American Ru scholars are a bit confused, since most of their writings remain in academic circles [1] and hence are usually very sophisticated, just as one would expect them to be. Considering that in the United States Ruist ideas are currently circulating mainly among an intellectual elite, we have to entertain the suspicion that these American scholars may have pigeon-holed their understanding of Ruism into pre-existing liberal tendencies which make Ruism appear supportive of same-sex marriage.

Although I appreciate the effort of my American colleagues to remind us of the Ru tradition’s great potential for holding to a progressive agenda, in this essay I will take a slightly different approach to justify my own agreeable, but Ruist attitude towards same-sex marriage. First, I will speak straightforwardly as a Ruist insider. I grew up in China, am studying in the United States, and am trying to help to incubate a Ru community here. This background may make my claim to be a Ruist insider more believable, although I am also aware that the so-called “insider-outsider” boundary for Ruism was never clear enough to characterize Ruism as a religion. With all these complexities in mind, my main effort in this essay will be to defend the acceptability of same-sex marriage using Ruist terminology. Second, I have no inclination to judge same-sex people’s lives from an outside moralist’s perspective. Therefore, even if I have it in mind to support same-sex marriage using Ruist terms, I will do so with a thought experiment, applying Ruist ethical reasoning, if only to satisfy myself. If my four-year-old daughter turns out to be a lesbian, what would my attitude be in case she seriously wanted to pursue a same-sex marriage in the future?

Before elaborating on my thought experiment, we need to know a basic fact about traditional Chinese society, which was organized mainly according to a Ruist ethos concerning its attitude towards same-sex behavior. In history, Chinese society tolerated same-sex behavior, but did not allow same-sex marriage. Rulers liked to keep same-sex servants in their inner-rooms, and governmental-officials were quite fond of searching for same-sex partners. As long as this behavior did not lead to a depraved life-style of licentiousness (淫, yin) which might have undermined the fulfillment of other political and social obligations, it was fairly well tolerated by the Ru literati class. Even in ordinary households, we find historical records of cases similar to “civil unions” in the West in which a gay couple was allowed a certain degree of acknowledgement in the local community. However, same-sex marriage was always strictly forbidden. The reason for this is understandable: during most of her history, China was under-populated. Hence, allowing same-sex marriage would have been equivalent to discouraging procreation, a devastating social policy in an under-populated agricultural economy.

This history yields one significant point for contemporary Ru scholars’ discussion of gay marriage: the same-sex behavior tolerated by the traditional Ru literati was actually bi-sexual. This is because a man, in addition to his same-sex behavior, still needed to be married to a woman to raise a normal family. In this sense, the issue of same-sex marriage, based upon the assumption that a self-identified gay would claim from the nation-state a right of marriage to another same-sex individual, is an entirely new idea for the Ru tradition. Therefore, Chinese scholars can neither refer to a policy of toleration in traditional China towards same-sex behaviors to vindicate a supportive attitude towards gay marriage today nor use its straightforward prohibition of gay marriage to support an alternative view. In either case, the argument will be out of context and misplaced.

Though historical arguments may not contribute much to the current discussion, the Ru masters’ philosophical teachings are still worthy of consideration. It is true that we can rarely find any direct discussion among historical Ru masters concerning same-sex behavior. So I was thrilled to have found a reliable historical record in the Ruist classics concerning Confucius’ own attitude towards a gay adolescent. Relying on this record, we can safely conclude that, in regard to implementing universal ethical criteria for encouraging human beings to be more humane, Confucius would have held no discrimination against same-sex people.

The story is that in 484 BCE, Confucius’ home state of Lu was attacked by its neighboring state of Qi. Because of inner political conflict among its three aristocratic families, Lu could barely organize an effective defense. The son of the prior Lord of Lu, Gong Wei (公為), was one of Lu’s aristocrats and he was determined to fight on the battlefield. While on the road, Gong Wei saw how Lu’s people were suffering from the war, which turned his mood to deep grief and compassion. He said: “(The state of Lu) has already imposed too much labor and too many taxes on its people! Now officials cannot command from above, and soldiers dare not die on the battlefield. If this is so, how can the state of Lu govern its people? Since I have already made my promise to fight the battle, should I not exert my utmost effort?” After speaking these words, Gong Wei called on his “Favorite Boy” (嬖僮, bi-tong, a same-sex servant), Wang Qi. They rode in the same chariot and fought to the death together. After Lu successfully defended itself, people asked Confucius whether they could bury Wang Qi, who was then about 16-19 years old, as an adult to commemorate his courageous and righteous deeds. Confucius said, “As he was able to bear his shield and spear in the defense of our state, why not do as you wish, and bury him as one who has not died prematurely?”[2]

This story is telling because what Confucius is suggesting is to upgrade the conventional burial ritual held for adolescents to the more elaborate funeral associated with adults. This had the effect of celebrating Wang Qi’s established virtue of “Loyalty” (忠, zhong) towards his state regardless of sexual orientation. My conclusion is that if a gay couple is able to cultivate family virtues such as “Filiality” (孝, xiao) just like any other couple, I find no reason that Confucius would disapprove of their marriage.

So, now, to complete this essay, let me lay out the rest of my thought-experiment: If my daughter turns out to be a lesbian, what would be my reaction if she asked for a same-sex marriage? First, I think I would be very glad that she had grown mature enough to make such an important decision as that of committing herself to a long-term family life with her partner. This would be so whether she chose to become or was born a lesbian. In either case, her decision indicates that she is able to establish herself while simultaneously nurturing an intimate relationship with another person. Doing so manifests the Ruist virtue of “Sincerity” (誠, cheng) and “Empathetic Extension” (恕, shu). My daughter will be being sincere to her genuine self by extending her love to her significant other. Besides, wanting to make a life-long commitment to her same-sex partner indicates the existence of stable relationships in the same-sex community. This helps the community nurture the virtue of “Differentiation” (別, bie), which, according to the Ru tradition, should be carefully cultivated in order to avoid sexual promiscuity or other dissolute lifestyles.

Furthermore, I would also be very glad if my daughter and her partner decided to adopt a child or to have their own child using modern medical techniques. Statistics show that the quality of parenting among same-sex couples is as good as that among heterosexual couples, so I would be confident that my daughter will be able to provide the deepest “Parental Kindness” (慈, ci) and the best education for her children. In this sense, I have no concern that, because of her same-sex marriage, my daughter would not allow me to have a grandchild and thus to enjoy the virtue of Filiality.

However, even if my daughter and her partner decided not to have a child, this would still not be problematic. They could still contribute their talents to their local communities and to human society in general such that the virtue of Filiality is implemented in a more diversified way. For example, they could help take care of childless elders, they could help raise children from needy families, or they could organize educational programs to benefit their local communities. Most importantly, they could concentrate upon their own careers so as to leave a rich cultural legacy for future generations of human beings. According to the Classic of Filiality, the best manifestation of the virtue of Filiality is to “perfect one’s person and walk on the Way so as to make one’s fame known in future ages and thereby glorify one’s parents.” This is obviously achievable by a lesbian couple, even one with no children. So if they can do all that, what else could be expected?

However, as I am writing this essay, I clearly know that other, less progressive Ruist scholars will not hesitate to denounce me. They will say, “Mencius once said that the greatest unfilial deed is to be childless, so how can you convince yourself of the above argument?” I think we need to read Mencius’ words (together with the quoted ones from the Classic of Filiality) in context. Since the greatest manifestation of Filiality is premised upon the sustainability of human civilization, getting married without any intention to procreate is extremely problematic for an under-populated civilization. This may be the reason that Mencius urged filial people to have many children. Now, however, human civilization is clearly over-populated. It is the main responsibility of a state to decide whether and how to encourage procreation. As for married couples, they should not be forced to have children as a way of dispelling concerns that their childless family may undermine the sustainability of human civilization.

Actually, supporting same-sex marriage, as in the thought experiment concerning my daughter, not only provides my daughter with multiple opportunities for cultivating all the aforementioned Ruist family virtues. In a more general sense, it also helps to highlight some essential virtues that have been under-emphasized by traditional Ruist teaching. For example, the ideal of “gender equality” implied by same-sex marriage will prohibit unacceptable marital practices such as polygamy or polyandry. Also, the ideal does not allow of any hierarchy in the inter-personal relationship of heterosexual couples. And understanding that will definitely benefit the Ru tradition in its contemporary practice.

So, based on all these considerations, I find that at each stage and in every case concerning my daughter’s lesbian marriage, there will always be plenty of opportunities for her to cultivate her Ruist family virtues. Therefore, if she wishes to be married and asks me whether her same-sex marriage can be celebrated in a traditional Ruist wedding ritual, my answer will be exactly the same as the one once given by Confucius: “Why not do as you wish?”

[1] Bryan Van Norden’s article “Confucius on Gay Marriage” is a delightful exception in this regard.

[2] 春秋左傳・哀公十一年, and the story can also be found in 禮記・檀弓下.

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