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When I first came to Asia, I had a short love-affair with a very trim young swimmer. We really hit it off, the sex was simply fantastic, and after two weeks, over tea and mao dou, I popped the question of whether he wanted to move in with me.
In return I received nothing but a blank stare. Then he made it very clear that his life would follow traditional Asian values, and that there was no question of living with a man—that was simply wrong! (Seducing them in the showers apparently is fine.) He said that he would have fun with men until he was 30, then find a woman, marry her, and father children. Coming from a liberal European family and being openly gay, I was shocked to the core. I could not believe my ears! I did not understand how a gay man could so clear-headedly and cold-bloodedly map out for himself a life founded on denial. I knew then that I had to learn a lot about Asian culture.
2014 has recently seen the arrival of the Year of the Horse. Millions of gay men will return to their families without their lovers. They will spend a week celebrating the Confucian ideal of family: a tangle of submission, power games, emotional blackmail and dependencies called the basis of society, and the most important people in their lives—their partners, the guys they share their beds with—will not be with them.
There is a reason why so many gay Asians end up living outside their home countries. Whereas gays in Western civilizations have to contend only with the idiocies of outdated religious moral concepts, the Confucian tradition which infuses most Asian societies is much more of a social straitjacket, affecting every aspect of life much more menacingly. To absolve yourself of the moral pressures of Christianity or Judaism, you simply need to turn your back on religion. Living a fulfilling, open life in China, Korea, Japan or Taiwan, effectively means violating basic beliefs about family.
And at the heart of Confucianism, which underlies almost all East Asian cultures to a degree, is not a revelation of a benevolent god, but a rulebook of obligations, to serve superiors, honor mother and father, and above all, to fit in and adhere to an age-old plan for life that is the same for everyone: grow up, marry someone of the opposite sex, make babies, buy them a house, force them to marry in turn, and then hope they don’t shove you off to a home for the elderly too soon.
At first glance, some Asian societies seem to be more tolerant of homosexuality than those in the Judeo-Christian sphere. This is an illusion. The main difference between Asian and Western societies is that the traditional religious morality of the West, and even that of the Enlightenment, always make judgments about individual behavior. There is a question of personal morality, which each one of us has to decide for himself or herself.
In Confucianism individual morality is framed only in terms of social coherence and social responsibility. Even though an open-minded parent in an Asian society may not in principle object to her son having sexual contact with men, they will still reject the idea of him remaining single and not having offspring. Offspring, indeed, is everything in Confucianism, the sole purpose of social organization. What many gay Asian men and women are escaping is not a moral condemnation by their peers, but the looming straitjacket of heterosexual marriage.
The recent revival of Confucianism as a state doctrine by China is bad news for the LGBT community. Apart from its social implications and focus on obedience and procreation, Confucianism is essentially a recipe for corruption and state coercion. It has very little respect and almost no room for personal freedoms. The greater good envisaged by old Confucius is, in essence, the greater good of the totalitarian state. Confucianism is an Orwellian network of rules whose sole beneficiary is some imagined ‘great will of the people’. And the only thing all people can agree upon it seems, is obedience and procreation. Without obedience, censorship and coercion in even the simplest social aspects, Confucian societies would not function.
The People’s Republic of China’s Confucian values propaganda machine works through its international network of embassies and cultural centers. Confronted with the loss of social cohesion and moral values in the aftermath of the quasi-demise of communism, China has started to set up Confucian Institutes around the world. They are spreading a message which is no less dangerous, inhuman, and intolerant of individual lifestyles than those of the religious right in America, or that of Islam.
They claim to offer an alternative to ‘Western’ ethics in the form of modern Confucianism. I have attended some of the lectures, and I have been shocked by the conservative, reprobate attitude they espouse. Dismissive of individual freedom and respect, they are intended to justify the power of the state and securely fasten the manacles of traditional family values.
In a Confucian context, being gay is not considered an immoral choice but a refusal to participate in society, a kind of failure not unlike the ‘failure’ to have children. The pressures in Confucian thought are not only directed against homosexuals, but against all people who do not conform to those values, thus holding back and paralyzing society as a whole. The consequence for dissenters is exclusion or ejection. Confucianism rejects personal choices which go against the good of the group and its implicit goal of self-proliferation, so that gay men and women end up leading intolerably unhappy and unfulfilled lives.
When we stand up against conservatives and religious zealots, we must also include Confucianism as a target. China’s economic power and increasing influence in the world give it a voice that is growing stronger day by day. It is a voice which keeps gay Chinese lovers apart, and reduces the chances of fair and equal treatment of LGBT persons in Asian societies. A voice we need to oppose whenever we hear it, because it is the very antithesis of the personal liberties we believe in.
Marten Weber’s 2012 novel Gabriel deals with being gay in China and the challenges of intercultural communication. Visit www.martenweber.com.