What would Confucius say about America’s decision to legalise same-sex marriage?

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If Confucius were around today, would he be supportive of a modern idea of love? Confucius, as opposed to many thinkers in the West, didn’t see marriage as primarily a religious institution (1). In fact, last week Justice Anthony Kennedy implied that Confucius saw marriage as the foundation of government. He cited Confucius in the Marriage Equality Ruling where he wrote the majority opinion for the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges case.

“The centrality of marriage to the human condition makes it unsurprising that the institution has existed for millennia and across civilizations. Since the dawn of history, marriage has transformed strangers into relatives, binding families and societies together. Confucius taught that marriage lies at the foundation of government. 2 Li Chi: Book of Rites 266 (C. Chai & W. Chai eds., J. Legge transl. 1967).”

After the historical US ruling was made, several Chinese got online to voice their opinions.

Fang Zhouzi, a high-profile Chinese science writer, tweeted, “The Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage says, ‘Confucius said that marriage is the Foundation of Government.’ But the original Chinese version actually referred to etiquette instead of wedding, which can be translated into the ceremony (of marriage). Judges got it wrong.” (2) Others argued that the recognition that marriage is not static is central to Justice Kennedy’s ruling. One writes, “The history of marriage is one of both continuity and change. That institution—even as confined to opposite-sex relations—has evolved over time.” (3) On Weibo, a group that calls itself “Fans of Chinese President Xi Jinping” conducted an online poll to gauge whether users supported same-sex marriage legalisation in China. Nine out of 10 top commenters voted “Yes”, and it received thousands of “likes.” According to Weibo, about 50,000 people participated in the poll. Some Weibo users posted pictures of Chinese yuan bills folded into a rainbow pattern (2).

Credit: Buzzfeed
Credit: Buzzfeed

To answer the question posed in the title of this blog, we must first consider the core elements of Confucianism and also the implications that can be applied to represent the present day. One key aspect of Confucius’ teachings is his focus on family and filial relationships. Xiao, or filial piety, is an important component of Confucius’ overall vision of societal harmony (4)  Although Confucius recognised the importance of the relationship between “husband and wife”, the relationship between wife and husband is not necessarily about a female sex and a male sex. It is about the relationship that embodies this partnership. Similar roles of the partnership that Confucius taught can apply to same sex couples. Same gendered relationships are families that can be societally harmonious. If a person of virtue would like to produce offspring, he or she is able to adopt. When considering and applying Confucian values today, a modern Confucian perspective may very likely accept a same sex relationship, as long as the relationship itself was committed and constructive of lasting family bonds.

“What is important is that people perform humanity-creating social responsibilities. Genetics are less significant than caring social practices; so, adoption is fine – just as it was in ancient China. It would seem, then, that gay marriage and child-rearing could be consonant with a Confucian-inspired ethics.” (5)

Our question may go unanswered by Confucius himself, but Chinese philosopher at Williams College, Sam Crane, posed a similar question and here is what he had to say –

“Would Confucius be okay with gay marriage? It seems a wildly anachronistic query and, if situated in the historical context of ancient China, might be immediately rejected. But a modern Confucian perspective, one that seeks to distil the core elements of The Analects and apply them universally, could be affirmative.” (5)

What are your thoughts to our question? Tell us how you feel by leaving a comment!

To hear what Dr Rosita Dellios, International Relations expert and Confucian scholar has to say regarding this topic, please click here.

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