The Gay Child and Xiao (Filial Piety) in Confucianism
Lai-Shan Yip (USA)
Children in Confucian society are expected to practise the virtue of xiao (filial piety). As producing offspring to carry on the family line is considered to be one of the major obligations of filial piety, this has caused great difficulty for gay children in coming out to their parents. This article reviews the concept and role of xiao in the Confucian ideal of social solidarity to de-mythicize the conventional understanding of absolute obedience to one’s parents and the biological imperative of continuing the family line, both for the fulfillment of filial piety. Based on the mutual love and responsibility in filial piety to reject blind obedience as part of filial piety, I argue that a gay child who claims his/her own sexual identity is not against filial piety, though this may go against the wishes of his/her parents. Based on the holistic concern for continuing the well-being of the family line, I also argue that a gay child can continue the ancestral line through passing on the personality ideals and the wisdoms of the ancestors in his/her commitment to public service or the pursuit of social justice for LGBTQ people.
“Giving no offspring is the greatest among the three
violations to filial piety,” is one of the popular quotes among the Chinese
people from a famous Confucian classic, Mengzi.
The virtue of having affectionate love and respect for one’s own parents is
largely assumed to be performed by any child in a Chinese society or any
cultural custom to produce male children has become one of the major
difficulties for many gay children to come out to their parents,
who may expect their sons to get married and bear children in return for their
parental love, and who have never
thought of the possibility of alternative forms of family such as gay or
lesbian parents raising or adopting children. If a gay child happens to be the eldest son or the only son of his parents, the
pressure to carry on the patrilineal family line is even greater on him. Although a daughter is not expected to produce
male heirs for her own parents, she is expected to get married and produce
offspring (in particular, male children) for her husband’s family. Moreover, when obeying one’s parents,
fulfilling their wishes and making them happy are also duties of filial piety, all
these form another layer of difficulty, pressure or complication for children
to go against the wishes of their own parents, who may follow mainstream
cultural norms embedded in heterosexism. Hence, I would like to reflect on such Confucian teachings in relation to
the difficulty many gay sons and daughters are experiencing.
What is Xiao in Confucianism ?
Xiao in Confucianism is the value or
virtue of one’s relation to parents. It is regarded as a foundational value for
self-cultivation at the individual level and for political order at the level
of society. It is an important theme discussed in some of the major Confucian classics, namely
Lunyu (Analects), Mencius, Xunzi,
Xiaojing (Treatise on Filial Piety), Liji
(Record of Rites) and Zhongyong
(Centrality and Commonality).[ii] The basis of filial piety
is developed from one’s sense of roots, and the continuity from one’s own
parents and ancestors, and a commitment to such continuity. Upon a commitment
to the continuity of the family, a sense of indebtedness to one’s parents and
ancestors is developed and demands one to fulfil certain obligations such as
taking good care of one’s body, reproducing successive generations, and
fulfilling the wishes of parents and ancestors.[iii]
Tu Wei-ming, a contemporary Confucian
scholar, argues against a superficial understanding of filial piety that is
limited to the biological dimension. He finds that the teaching from Mencius on
producing male offspring for the family is largely about the ethico-religious
obligations of the son to his father when filial piety is considered as cultivating political
leadership for building the Confucian ideal of social solidarity.[iv] He also points to the very commitment of the
son in his transmission of the work of his father to the well-being of a chosen
heritage, but, with a realistic estimation of the strength and limitation of
the heritage. In other words, filial
piety has a more holistic concern for the family line. Thus, the son critically appropriates the
said transmission in his own context, rather than a nostalgic copying of the
past. The intentions of the forefathers and the related
wisdoms are the cores in the transmission of one’s family tradition. Hence, a filial son is not necessarily an
obedient son. Honoring one’s parents is
not limited to bearing children and producing male heirs, but also, more
importantly, in line with the Confucian
social ideal, using one’s moral rectitude, public service and
ethical leadership to demonstrate the personality ideal of the forefathers and
the special values of outstanding family members.[v]
Xiao also includes the attitudes of ai (love) and jing (reverence) for one’s parents and ancestors. To live ai means having constant concern for the
well-being of one’s parents and having affection for them. To live jing means treating parents with special
attention, caution (the meaning of jing is really of caution, as how one
“fears” God to a certain extent) and reverence. To
show one’s xiao with ai and jing eventually includes a range of responsibilities such as
keeping in mind the aging of one’s parents, making them joyful in old age,
taking care of their deteriorating health, doing no harm to them, avoiding long
distance travel, preventing them from getting worried by disclosing one’s life
condition, taking care of parents’ lives and making them happy.[vi]
(rites) governs the conduct of everyone in society according to one’s social
status, the special responsibilities to parents are also governed by li that cover those responsibilities
after the death of parents, such as burying them decently, mourning their deaths
and continually offering ritual sacrifices. Moreover, these special
responsibilities towards parents also structure one’s way of living such as
taking good care of one’s body, continuing the family line, perpetuating the
way of life or vision of one’s parents, respecting those whom one’s parents
respect, avoiding dishonorable acts brought to parents, and honoring them
through achievements.[vii] Despite one’s obligation to obey ones’
parents, xiao does not mean blind
obedience as one has to advise or argue respectfully if parents are wrong.
However, one still needs to respect them if they do not listen to one’s advice.[viii]
Reasons for the Importance of Xiao
There are three major reasons that account for the
importance of Xiao in Confucianism.
First, it is a natural response to the special care and affection of parents.
It is a respectable quality of human psychology that should be maintained.
Second, it forms the basis for self-cultivation and the political order. One
starts to learn love and respect in the family and extends these attitudes to
other people in society in the realization of the ultimate Confucian value, ren (humanness, benevolence). Third, xiao serves as the
foundation to cultivate suitable attitudes in government, such as devotion to
the rulers, avoiding arrogance when placed in high rank and conversely, avoiding
disorderliness when located in low rank. Since the meaning of government in
Confucianism lies in transforming the character of people through the
transformative power of good character, proper attitudes towards parents
cultivated in xiao is considered
beneficial to political order. Confucius even thinks that participation in the government
can also be achieved through practicing xiao.[ix]As xiao
is a strategy of practising ren in
the familial arenas and ultimately serves as the politics of humanness and
mutual love in the society, its meanings and significances are assumed to
develop and enrich the meaning of ren. Hence, I assert that the integrity or
importance for fulfilling filial piety should be judged according to how much a
particular act or duty enriches or cultivates humanness, benevolence, mutuality.
I agree with Confucianism in placing special
importance on xiao for human life.
However, I find that the form of Confucianism which has been supported by
rulers since the Han dynasty has developed into a political ideology that
favors and emphasizes obedience to rulers. In a special way, the “Three Bonds”
that have been politicized and used to emphasize the authority of the ruler
over minister, father over son, husband over wife, have shaped these relationships
into hierarchal ones of dominance and subjugation. They have also affected the
understanding and practice of xiao in
the sense that obedience and submission to the authority has become the way of practising
xiao. This has made advice or dispute
with one’s parents or rulers very difficult, and given rise to blind obedience
to the authorities.
As pointed out by Tu, a person is first defined in
relationship within the framework of “Five Relationships” that include: 1.
Father-son; 2. Ruler-minister; 3. Husband-wife; 4. Old-young; 5. Friend-friend.
These relationships are so formed to espouse the respective duties of both
parties for self-cultivation and personal growth. “Five Relationships” is the
ideological background for understanding the authority in “Three Bonds.”[x]Tu further points out that the
ruler’s authority over the minister is righteousness, and that the father’s
authority over the son is biological lineage, nourished by affection.
Hence, in each pair of these relationships, there is mutual
responsibility for mutual flourishing.[xi]
When a gay child chooses to
claim his/her own sexual identity with the implication of not biologically producing
progeny as wished by his parents, he/she may be misunderstood as disobeying his
parents and potentially risking to violate filial piety. Yet, as discussed above, the correct
understanding of filial piety does not mean blind obedience. Thus, claiming one’s own sexual identity
should not be considered as violating filial piety even though one’s parents do
not wish to see this out of their heterosexist bias or out of their fear of the
threats and difficulties their children will face.
Furthermore, when we look
closer at some stories of the Confucian parents who have gay children, their filial
love has not only provided critical
support for their children who encounter tremendous difficulties in a
heterosexist society and culture, but also fuelled their own transformation in
letting go of their old biases and opening up to new and empowering worldviews
and relationships. Therefore, filial
piety should be practised in mutual love, instead of a unidirectional, hierarchical
demand of love and responsibility. Special caution
and awareness are needed regarding the distortion caused by the politicization of
Confucianism when we affirm xiao as a
basis for political order, in order for us to avoid blind obedience to
authority or to one’s parents who
are the authority figures in the family.
As shown above, xiao is not
necessarily limited to the biological understanding of continuing a family line
by producing offspring and male heirs, but rather a behavioral and spiritual manifestation of the personality ideal of the ancestors and their
wisdoms for building up societal solidarity.
Hence, when a child seeks to serve the public with integrity and
contribute towards building humanity, he/she is already
honoring his/her own parents, performing filial piety, regardless of biological process of producing progeny. When a gay child is committed
to pursuing social justice for LGBTQ people and offering his best in such
services to the wider community in order to eliminate discriminations and build
solidarity, he or she can be rightfully
considered as honoring his own ancestors and continuing
the ancestral line in its gifted quality.
In sum, xiao
is a valuable quality for self-cultivation and the political order in the sense
that it can cultivate love and respect on both individual and societal levels.
While obedience to one’s parents and ruler is demanded, xiao does not encourage blind obedience. In an era of divisions and
conflicts resulting from various ideologies and from different social
locations, we need to practise xiao
with critical consciousness in order to deal with these conflicts in
various human relationships and live as one human
family of mutuality and humanness.
[i]Mengzi, “Li Lou I, 26”
in Mengzi. [ii]Kwong-loi Shun,
"Xiao (Hsiao): Filial Piety," in Encyclopedia
of Chinese Philosophy, ed. A. S. Cua (New York, London: Routledge, 2003),
793. [iii] Ibid. [iv]Owing to the patriarchal culture in the ancient China, the parent-child
relationship usually refers to father-son relationship. In fact, both son and daughter are expected
to observe filial piety to their father and mother. [v] Wei-Ming Tu, Centrality and Commonality: An Essay on
Confucian Religiousness (Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1898),
p.41-5. [vi]Ibid., 793-4. [vii]Ibid., 794. [viii]Ibid. [ix]Ibid., 794-5. [x]Wei-Ming Tu,
"Probing The 'Three Bonds' And 'Five Relationships'" in Confucianism and the Family, ed. Walter
H. Slote and George A. De Vos, Suny Series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture
(Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1998), 122-31. [xi]Ibid., 131-2.
Kwong-loi. "Xiao (Hsiao): Filial Piety." In Encyclopedia of Chinese Philosophy, ed. A. S. Cua, 793-5. London,
U.K.: Routledge, 2003.
Wei-Ming. "Probing The ‘Three Bonds’ And ‘Five Relationships’" In Confucianism and the Family, ed. Walter
H. Slote and George A. De Vos, 121-36. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New
York Press, 1998.
Wei-Ming. Centrality and Commonality: An
Essay on Confucian Religiousness. Revised and
Edition. Albany, N.Y.: State University
of New York, 1989.
Lai-shan Yip is a founding member of Emerging Queer Asian Religious Scholars (EQARS). Originally from Hong Kong, Yip is currently a PhD student at
the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. Her research interests maneuver among
sexuality, Catholic moral theology, Chinese religions, queer studies,
postcolonial studies and feminism. She is the author of “Listening to the Passion
of Catholic Nu-tongzhi: Developing A
Catholic Lesbian Feminist Theology in Hong Kong,” published in Queer
Religion: Homosexuality in Modern Religious History, edited by Donald
Boisvert and Jay Emerson Johnson, Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2012.