Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

Would Confucius condone same-sex marriage?

  • Long-time Post reader and letter writer Mark Peaker squares off with arch-conservative lawmaker Junius Ho Kwan-yiu over LGBTQ rights as Ho cites Confucianism in his defence

There is a row brewing between Hong Kong’s arch-conservative lawmaker Junius Ho Kwan-yiu and one of the most prolific letter writers to the South China Morning Post, Mark Peaker. In one of his many letters to this newspaper now collected in a book titled Peaker of the Peak, the former banker told Ho to shut up and apologise over his vocal opposition to LGBTQ rights.

Ho was incensed and co-wrote a long opinion piece in China Daily rebutting Peaker, citing Confucianism and Confucian values. Let me just say I never have much interest in LGBTQ rights. Call me a simpleton but my position is that whom you want to sleep with and marry is none of my business. And you are free to choose your own self-identifying pronouns. You name them, I use them.

But the question as to whether Confucius and/or Confucianism condemns same-sex marriage does interest me, purely as philosophical, historical and sociological questions. But first, let’s be fair to Ho. I don’t think he is going after LGBTQ people in their own bedrooms to lock them up. He is making the case against institutional and legal support for LGBTQ rights in Hong Kong.

Titled “Heterosexual-marriage system is a sacred Confucian tradition”, the pair wrote: “As a lawmaker in a cosmopolitan city, Ho has an obligation to make it clear that the vast majority of Chinese people in Hong Kong have been brought to believe, and do believe, that the Confucian heterosexual marriage system is sacred. Ho also has a sacred obligation to guard against the invasion of any corrosive and negative cultures spread by same-sex marriage. In particular, he will try his best to close the door to any possibility of letting the heterodox culture of same-sex marriage corrupt the minds of our young people.”

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Without arguments, Ho and his co-writer simply claimed Chinese/Hong Kong society is Confucian and that by extension, it must reject same-sex marriage because Confucianism does. As a lifelong student of philosophy, I think I can safely say that none of these claims are obvious, but are highly contested. Ho spends half of his article citing, if you can believe it, English common law, the US Bill of Rights, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, even Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems and US Supreme Court Oliver Wendell Holmes, to defend his right to condemn LGBTQ rights.

But we all might have benefited more if he could show us the proper Confucian stance on same-sex marriage, instead of dogmatically taking it for granted. And speaking of the US Supreme Court, in 2015, writing for the majority opinion legalising same-sex marriage, Justice Anthony Kennedy actually quoted Confucius. How much he knew about the ancient Chinese sage is debatable, but here was an opportunity for Ho, a lawyer, to pontificate on the very issue he raised, and he missed it!

I believe Kennedy actually misquoted Confucius because the text he probably used was a mistranslation. Nevertheless, I think he got the sage’s essential point, and he was right to use it to build the court majority argument for legalising same-sex marriage. Of course, he also quoted other ancients, such as Cicero, but that’s another story.

In The Li Chi, or The Book of Rites, Confucius never said, “Marriage lies at the foundation of government,” at least not literally. A more accurate translation is: “Rituals are the foundation of governance.” But one of the rituals is marriage which forms the family which, in turn, is the foundation of the state. And in context, Confucius was discoursing on the marriages of rulers to a feudal lord.

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But if you uphold the sanctity of marriage and the centrality of family, how can you condone same-sex marriage? Doesn’t it undermine both key values of traditional Confucianism?

Well, let’s consider polygamy, and compare it with same-sex marriage. They might not have liked it, but traditional Confucians tolerated polygamy, understood as husband and wife, and one or more concubines. No doubt Ho would not support polygamy in the same way he opposes same-sex marriage, and he is being logically consistent here.

However, polygamy posed similar challenges to the sanctity of marriage and the centrality of family as same-sex marriage; and if you accept that point, Confucianism is no help for Ho. And of course, you can also cite foot binding. The point is that you can’t cherry-pick the defining practices of a whole tradition in terms of your own preferences.

However, Ho may be on safer grounds with the “five relationships” of Confucianism, of which the three key relationships are those between husbands and wives, parents and children, and subjects and rulers.

On this view, marriage has to be between a male and a female; and one of the filial duties of sons is, of course, procreation to ensure there is an heir to continue the family name. Homosexuality goes against them. But even here, there are some flexibilities.

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Confucians used the model of the yin and yang, which traditionally was understood, in our context of discussion, as female and male. At least that was the popular understanding. Philosophically, though, yin/yang are not absolute and determinate, but ever changing and transforming. Quite simply, no yin is absolutely yin and no yang is absolutely yang. As a philosophical doctrine, it’s the very opposite of Western essentialism. The sexes are not fixed but fluid.

Historically, not all Confucians were hostile to homosexuality, as many dynasties took a much more lenient view of the sexual practice. I imagine quite a few of them were gay. I believe it’s modern China that took the harshest condemning view on homosexuality. (I am, of course, no expert, and historians and learned readers, please correct me if I am wrong!)

And of course, to what extent is modern China Confucian or rather anti-Confucian and anti-traditionalist, if we contrast modernity with traditionalism?

In any case, if I am correct, there is no mention of yin/yang in The Analects, only the family. The formation of a family is key to character-building. If you are outside a family, you cannot develop into a proper human being and therefore become a useful citizen/subject because you don’t know what your proper role in life is.

Family, therefore, is a civilising institution for human beings. That takes us back to Kennedy and why I think he was correct even with his misquotation. The family civilises everyone, regardless of genders and sexual preferences. Why should society deny LGBTQ people from forming families of their own and make them, like everyone else, more civilised human beings?