A leading Confucian academic’s defense of polygamy and arranged marriage continues to stoke tensions, months after he made the comments last year in an article titled “Only Confucianism can settle modern women.”
The comments by scholar Jiang Qing thrust traditional Confucianism onto China’s modern stage, pitting conservatives defending patriarchal traditions against feminists who call such practices archaic and misogynistic.
The debate comes at a time when the Communist Party is trying to rebrand itself as part of Confucius’ legacy, reversing decades of hostility and neglect that saw angry mobs destroy the sage’s temples.
Jiang is one of the leaders of a Confucian revival in Chinese mainland. His article in August 2015 angered many by extolling the merits of polygamy. He claimed that while polygamy didn’t originate from Confucian principles, in traditional Chinese culture, concubines enjoyed protection and stability. “In Islamic societies that practice polygamy, there is less family breakdown,” claimed Jiang, who added, “Relationships between husband and wife are better than in the West.”
Three months after Jiang made his remarks, fellow Confucian conservative Qi Yihu joined the fray when he said that “polygamy, like democracy, is not the best system, but rather the least bad.”
Both Qi and Jiang see an increase in divorce as a problem. Others see it as a sign of progress. Peng Xiaohui, a professor of sexology at Central China Normal University told the Global Times, “The rise of the divorce rate showed that more women began to defend their rights to equality.”
Laws and cultural norms surrounding marriage have changed dramatically over the last century. Marriage law reform in 1950 banned multiple wives and concubines, as well as child marriages, while an amendment in 1980 opened up the possibility for divorce on grounds of incompatibility. Another amendment in 2001 made faithfulness obligatory and prohibited cohabitation with a third party. On March 1, 2016, new laws against domestic violence came into effect, offering protections not only to married couples but also to cohabiting partners.
Conservatives like Jiang aren’t the only ones to have raised the idea of polygamy in recent times. Last October, Zhejiang University scholar Xie Zuoshi proposed that women should take multiple husbands. Despite substantial coverage of “leftover women,” or unmarried women over the age of 27, in reality there are far more bachelors than single women, partly as a result of preference for male offspring. By 2020, China is projected to have 30 million more men of marriageable age than women.
When contacted by Sixth Tone, Jiang declined to comment further on what Confucian teachings would look like in practice for contemporary women and men, saying that he was only interested in addressing “academic questions, not personal questions.”
But for many Chinese women, Jiang’s remarks were personal, perceived as a commentary on how they should live. For Jiang, “to be a good daughter, a good mother, and a good wife is both a woman’s natural attribute and ultimate value, from which she draws her highest sense of accomplishment and belonging.” It’s an argument for conservative values that will sound familiar in many countries, albeit with Chinese characteristics: a focus on harmony and interdependence between yin and yang, and a premise of social stability rather than divine revelation.
A statue of Confucius at the Confucius Temple in Beijing, May 18, 2015. Mai Tian/VCG
Jiang’s article received over 1,200 comments, with many branding him as — among other things — a “feudal moralist.” The text also triggered a cascade of opinion pieces.
Zhang Hongping, a feminist and scholar of Chinese culture, was one of the many women to respond to Jiang’s commentary. In an article in China’s Legal Weekly, she responded to his “preposterous” essay, calling for the need to recognize women’s value and potential in both domestic and public settings, and arguing that women’s contributions to civic life had enriched society as a whole.
But Zhang also cautioned against dismissing Confucianism entirely, referring to it as a “rich and complex philosophy” with a lot to offer in terms of personal cultivation, ethics, and social responsibility.
“We have to be selective,” Zhang told Sixth Tone. “We want a multicultural approach that absorbs the best ideas from multiple philosophies and traditions, whether it’s Confucianism, Taoism, or Legalism, whether it’s native or foreign.”
Jiang attributed the criticism he’d received to the discrepancy between traditional culture and Western ideas. The idea that gender equality is a Western import is a common accusation thrown at Chinese feminists: In 2015, when five young feminists were detained by authorities for over a month without formal charges, they were allegedly interrogated about whether “foreign forces” had directed them. Their bail conditions, which included travel restrictions, were lifted on April 13, 2016, a year after they were released, and they may still be charged.
From the May Fourth movement in 1919 to the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, China in the 20th century saw an intellectual push for modernization, accompanied by a strident rejection of tradition, including Confucianism. Mao’s Red Guards even destroyed statues at temples in Confucius’ hometown of Qufu. But the party changed its tone in the 1980s, and the last few years have seen a growing interest and pride in Chinese cultural traditions, with even President Xi Jinping visiting Qufu.
State backing is especially significant given that the party still bans religion among its members. Though some see rujia — the intellectual tradition of Confucius, Mencius, and other thinkers — as a philosophy rather than a religion, the definition is debatable, as tension between Confucianism and religious groups would suggest. Following protests by Confucians against a proposed Christian church in Qufu, Jiang himself proclaimed that he would never visit the sage’s hometown again should plans to build the church go ahead.
However, it seems the party is content to treat Confucianism as fully compatible with official atheism. Amidst breakneck change, Confucian tradition feels like a sort of anchor — and after the Cultural Revolution’s harsh repression, even a little conservativism can seem quite progressive by comparison. As a distinctively Chinese philosophy, Confucianism’s emphasis on the relationship between individual and state also speaks to modern-day patriotism, offering the government a sense of distinguished lineage.
Some Confucian philosophers internationally are attempting to find similar roots for Chinese feminism. Li Chenyang is an associate professor of philosophy at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, where he studies the relationship between Confucianism and sex. He wrote that feminism and Confucianism actually share several common features — in particular, both see people as “socially connected” rather than separate individuals.
Li-Hsiang Lisa Rosenlee, author of “Confucianism and Women” and a professor at the University of Hawaii – West Oahu, elaborated on this connection, advocating a vision of “Confucian feminism” that would draw together both ethics to affirm an ideal “personhood” based on the values of reciprocity, appropriateness, and trustworthiness. Her theory untangles core Confucian values from a historical context that has long subjugated women.
As neo-conservative Confucians invoke themselves as the patrons of Chinese high culture, Confucian feminism hopes to emerge as an alternative that synthesizes the egalitarian impulses of feminism with the cultural weight of a 2,500-year-old tradition. Sichuan University doctoral student Zheng Lijuan is part of the next generation of Confucian scholars. She questioned, "Before knowledge, before truth, how can there be any distinction between men and women?"
With additional reporting from Li You.
(Header image: Women attend a ceremony dedicated to Confucius at the Confucius Temple in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Sept. 28, 2014. Tan Xi/VCG)