Confucianism is based on writings which are attributed to Confucius (551-479 B.C.), the first great educator, philosopher, and statesman of China, and his followers, including Mencius (372-289 B.C.), a political thinker who believed in democracy. Confucianism dominated Chinese sociopolitical life for most of Chinese history. [Source: Zhonghua Renmin Gonghe Guo, Fang-fu Ruan, M.D., Ph.D., and M.P. Lau, M.D. Encyclopedia of Sexuality =]

Confucius and Mencius themselves expressed rather a positive view of human sexuality. For example. The Master (Confucius) said: 1) "After people are clothed and fed, then they think about sex"; 2) “I have not seen one who loves virtue as he loves sex” (Confucian Analects Book IX, chapter 17); and “3) Food and drink and the sexual relation between men and women compose the major human desires” (The Book of Rites, one of the major Confucianism classics, chapter 9). In The Works of Mencius, one of the major Confucianism classics (book 6, part 1), we find: “Eating food and having sex are both of human nature.” It was not until much later that sexual conservatism became a feature of Neo-Confucian philosophy. The crucial change was initiated by several famous Neo-Confucianists, including Ch’eng I (1033-1107), and Chu Hsi (1130-1200). Ch’eng I summarized the Neo-Confucian viewpoint as “Discard human desires to retain the heavenly principles.” =

When asked whether it was justifiable for a widow to remarry when pressed by poverty and hunger, he replied, “It is a small matter to die as a result of starvation, but a serious evil to lose chastity toward one’s dead husband by remarrying.” Chu Hsi stressed the inferiority of women and the strict separation of the sexes, and forbade any manifestation of heterosexual love outside of wedlock. Chu Hsi laid the foundations of Neo-Confucianism as the sole state religion. It encouraged a puritanical and strictly authoritarian form of government, including the establishment of censorship and thought control. However, the government had difficulty enforcing these views on the lower class or sciao-ren (the non-exemplary class of people). =

Websites and Sources: USA Today piece ; Sex Incidents in China ; Sex Industry ; Chinese sex toy maker lacyshaki.en ; Books: “Sexual Life of Ancient China”, written by Robert van Gulik in the 1920s; “The Illustrated Handbook of Chinese Sex History” by Professor Liu Dalin and “Sex China Studies in Sexology in Chinese Culture” by Fang-ju Juan, The Sexology Research Institute of China is at People's University in Beijing. Sex History and Literature Ancient Sex Culture ; Chinese Sex Literature ; Sex in Ancient China Book Review Prostitution in China : Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Shanghaiist blog ; Homosexuality in China History of Gay life in China

Is Confucianism Sex Negative?

Fang-fu Ruan wrote in “Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”: Generally, it has been said that Confucianism is sex-negative. This is not quite true, since Confucius never spoke against sex and felt the whole subject was open to discussion. The Chinese frequently cited some of the sayings from Confucianism's classics as being supportive of people's sexual desires and rights because Confucius said that everyone loved sex. Unfortunately, in most English translations, the Chinese character se has been translated as "beauty, " although "sex" is more accurate. Confucius also said, "Food and drink and the sexual relation between men and women compose the major human desires, " while his disciple Mencius wrote, "Eating food and having sex is nature of human beings." The word sex was left out of most English translations until recently. [Source: Fang-fu Ruan, “Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”, Haeberle, Erwin J., Bullough, Vern L. and Bonnie Bullough, eds.,

“Mencius's attitude toward sex was both positive and permissive. In fact, some sayings from Mencius concerning marriage are supportive of sexual life. For example: "That male and female should dwell together is the greatest of human relations"; "There are three things which are unfilial, and to have no posterity is the worst of them"; and "When a son is born, what is desired for him is that he may have a wife; when daughter is born, what is desired for her is that she may have a husband."

“It was only much later during the Song Dynasty that official or public sexual attitudes began to change, gradually becoming more negative and repressive. The crucial change was initiated by several famous Neo-Confucianists, including Chou Tun-i (1017-73 A.D.), Ch'engHao (1032-185 A.D.) and Ch'eng I (1033-1107 A.D.), the founders of Neo-Confucianism; and Chu Hsi (1130-1200 A.D.) who, as the major interpreter and systematizer, was the true father of Neo-Confucianism. Ch'eng I summarized the Neo-Confucian viewpoint in a remark in his Posthumous Papers: "Discard human desires to retain the heavenly principles." When asked if a widow was justified in remarrying when pressed by poverty and hunger, he replied, "It is a very small thing to die as a result of starvation, but a very serious evil to lose chastity toward one's dead husband by remarrying."

“Chu Hsi repeatedly emphasized his agreement with Ch'eng I. For example, Chu Hsi wrote to a friend urging him not to permit his widowed sister to remarry, justifying his viewpoint by quoting Ch'eng I's opinion, which he described as an unchangeable principle. Chu Hsi's strictly Confucianist interpretation of the classics was more rigorous than any that had gone before. He stressed the inferiority of women and the strict separation of the sexes, and forbade any manifestation of heterosexual love outside of wedlock. This narrow attitude is especially manifest in his commentaries on the love songs of The Book of Poetry, the oldest repository of Chinese verse. It was probably first compiled in the early sixth century B.C., collecting 305 poems and folksongs dating from between the 16th and 11th centuries B.C. to the sixth century B.C. Like the I-Ching (see "China and Sex"), it is counted among the five Confucianist classics. Chu Hsi reinterpreted the love songs of The Book of Poetry as political allegories. The foundations of Neo-Confucianism he laid resulted in it becoming the sole state religion and encouraged a strictly authoritarian form of government, which included the establishment of censorship, thought-control, and repressive policy.”

Early Confucianism and Female Roles

In sexual matters, Confucianism is quite “puritanical.” A “good” young girl is not only expected to keep her virginity until she gets married and to get married only once in her life, she is not supposed to make herself attractive, even to her own husband. Confucianism does not consider sexual activity as wrong, but love and tenderness are treated with mistrust, and physical displays of them are considered at least questionable. This rule applies not only to showing affection in public, but also to its display in the privacy of the home. As early as in the seventeenth century, male and female poets protested against it. [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 1997 ]

Joshua Wickerham wrote in the “Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History”: “Confucianists valued humans above animals because of their capacity for moral cultivation. Under the Confucian tradition, female education in literature, music, or the arts was for low-class performers, concubines, and prostitutes. Confucius believed that a woman's morals were worth cultivating, but her intellect was not. Should a woman gain an opportunity to cultivate her morals through art, letters, and music, she would rank just below a cultivated man. [Source: Joshua Wickerham, “Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

“The Eastern Han (25 B.C.-220 A.D.) was the beginning of official government rhetoric against females. Officials denied women formal education because they were theorized as being dull and unteachable, despite Confucius's belief to the contrary. These early Confucianists taught that non-procreative sex was corrupting and that women's greatest gift was giving a husband a male heir. Of prime importance were roles, familial relations, the moral autonomy of all, and treating others as one would like to be treated. As can be seen in the section "I See on High, " in the Odes, China's greatest Confucian moral tome, Confucius can be seen as at best favoring men and at worst being misogynistic when he said "Disorder does not descend from Heaven. It is born of women." Contrary to popular belief, Confucius was criticized in his own life for the respect he showed to women.

Taoism and Sexuality and Love

Fang-fu Ruan wrote in the “Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”: In China, Taoism has both a philosophical and a religious tradition. The philosophy of Taoism is outlined in Lao-tzu's Tao-te Ching, offering a practical way of life. Later, its teachings came to be utilized in the popular religion called Tao-chiao. In the Chinese tradition, the two have been separate, but in the West they have often been confused under the one name Taoism. Both philosophical Taoism and religious Taoism included in their classics many positive ideas about sex.”

Wang Ping wrote: “In [D]aoist sexual alchemy, human bodies become symbolic furnaces where elixir could be extracted through sexual union between yin and yang. This practice was later turned into cai yin shu, a sheer harvesting of yin from female bodies through intercourse. A man gathered or stole yin from as many women as possible to repair his broken yang until he gained health, longevity, and even immortality.’ [Source: Wang Ping, Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), p. 92]

According to the “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”:“Taoism had some definite ideas about sex. For example, the wife's purpose is to please the husband and conceive more children. If the wife is barren, the husband can have a concubine or mistress to bear children, especially sons, for him. Both philosophical and religious Taoism included in their classics some positive ideas about sex. For example, from Lao tzu's Tao Te Ching. “All things have their backs to the female and stand facing male. When male and female combine, all things achieve harmony”. And from Taiping Jing (The Canon of Peace and Tranquility), an early classic of religious Taoism: “Through the way of copulation between husband and wife, the Yin and Yang all obtain what they need and Heaven and Earth become peace and tranquility;” “Based on one Yin and one Yang, Heaven allows both man and woman to exist and to be sexually attractive to each other, therefore life can be continued." [Source: Zhonghua Renmin Gonghe Guo, Fang-fu Ruan, M.D., Ph.D., and M.P. Lau, M.D. Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 1997]

Yin and Yang and Sexuality, Gender and Love

Yin-Yang is a major philosophical concept developed during the Zhou dynasty (1027-221 B.C.). Joshua Wickerham wrote in the “Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History”: Yang, as a pictograph, originally represented the sunny side of a hill, and yin the side in shadow. Yin evolved to mean everything from cosmic female power, yielding, and interior, to the receptive, deficient, cold, dark, yanic, earth, and moon; yang came to mean cosmic male force, initiation, exterior, heat, excess, penetration, light, phallic, heaven, and sun. As during sexual intercourse, the receptive partner receives yet supplies the dominant, so too the penetrating yang cannot exist except in relation to receptive yin, and vice-versa. As the moon receives and transmits the sun's rays, so do yin and yang carry on this cosmological dualism throughout time. Thus, gendered elements are seen in the very fabric of the universe. [Source: Joshua Wickerham, “Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

The concepts of Yin and Yang may be found in the majority of important Chinese classics, including such a major classic of Confucianism as the I-Ching, and such a Taoist classic as the Tao-te-ching. Thus, the Yin-Yang philosophy is among the most important unifying concepts of Chinese culture. According to the Yin-Yang philosophy, all objects and events are the products of two elements, forces, or principles: Yin, which is negative, passive, weak, and destructive; and Yang, which is positive, active, strong, and constructive. It was very natural for the Yin-Yang doctrine to become the basis of Chinese sexual philosophy. The Chinese have used the words Yin and Yang to refer to sexual organs and sexual behavior for several thousand years. Thus Yin Fu, “the door of Yin” means vulva, Yin Dao, “the passageway of Yin” means vagina, and Yang Ju, “the organ of Yang” means penis. The combination of these words into the phrases Huo Yin Yang or Yin Yang Huo He - ”the union or combination of Yin and Yang” - describes the act of sexual intercourse. [Source: Zhonghua Renmin Gonghe Guo, Fang-fu Ruan, M.D., Ph.D., and M.P. Lau, M.D. Encyclopedia of Sexuality =]

In the context of sexuality, yang is identified with semen or seminal essence (jing, yin), which is why Daoists are encouraged to have intercourse often but without ejaculating. The aim is to build up jing but retain yang through not ejaculating, but at the same time enabling the woman to reach orgasm and give off her yin essence, which additionally strengthens the man. Another Daoist practice is to get a young man and woman together and to gather up their sexual secretions and swallow them - a practice that is believed to prolong life for the Daoist. Jacobus X. (1898) reported that it was still very common at the end of the 1800s, although he did put it strongly as a “strange freak of eroticism” : “The old Celadon is accompanied by a servant or strong coolie, who copulates with a woman in his presence, and then retires ... When once the agent is retired, well and duly paid, the old debauchee is left alone with the woman, who is still resting upon the field of battle. Then the man approaches, and eagerly receives in bucca sua, the liquid which runs ex vulva feminae. */

I Ching, Sexuality and Gender

Joshua Wickerham wrote in the “Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History”: “This yin-yang cosmology also forms the metaphysical basis in one of China's oldest and most influential texts, the Yi Jing (I Ching), or Book of Changes. The I Ching as a divination system explains worldly action, potential, and ultimately changes itself by quantifying the constant intermingling of heaven and earth as individual male and female elements. These elements are represented as lines, either broken (yin) or unbroken (yang). Three lines form a trigram; two trigrams form a hexagram. [Source: Joshua Wickerham, “Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

“Because of its complex gender components, the hexagram ji-ji is one of the most representative. It goes by many names, including: union, fulfillment, or completion. Ji-ji is comprised of the trigram kan (water, female, broken lines surrounding an unbroken) above li (fire, male, unbroken lines around a broken). Between kan's broken yin lines, one can find the central male yang element as an unbroken line. Thus, water rests above the male fire, li, which contains the unbroken female line at its heart. Many have noted how these trigrams correspond to sexual coupling. The penetrator, like fire, flares up quickly, but is extinguished by water, an example of satiation by the receptive. The receiving partner, like water, is slow to heat and slow to cool. These complex yin and yang elements are no accident.

“In ancient China, gender was not biological, but instead the outward expression of this cosmology, which informed the model of national and household hierarchy. Over time, female work, such as sewing, was increasingly confined to the "inner" and male work like agriculture to the "outer." These socio-biological norms held currency even after the last decades of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), when modern medical terminology began replacing ancient notions.

“The I Ching is of indeterminate age and origin, and versions of the text have existed for at least four millennia. Historically received texts with their additions by later scholars differ greatly from earlier versions. These provide fundamental insight into the origins of China's two most influential original philosophical systems, Taoism and Confucianism. Adherents of these social systems competed along with the less popular of the "Four Great Thoughts, " Mohism and Legalism, during the Hundred Schools of Thought of the Warring States Period (475? — 221 B.C.).

“Because gender was not seen as coming from the body, its forces could be tapped at will. The importance of assuming characteristically male or female attributes became a hallmark of later Taoist literature. Likewise, Confucius elevated certain aspects of the female because this power exemplified the virtue in being subordinate to ones superiors. Under the Confucian system, everyone, including the emperor, had to submit to the male force or "Will of Heaven." Examining Taoism and Confucianism provides insight into everyday sexuality for ancient Chinese.

Buddhism and Sexuality in China

Most Buddhist schools denied sexual desire, and traditionally Buddhist monks have been celibate. But, it is not the case of the school of Mi-tsung (Mantrayana, or Tantrism). Sex was the major subject of Mi-tsung. Mi-tsung was very similar with some sects of Taoism, and stressed the sexual union. Even Mi-tsung said that Buddhatvam yosidyonisamas-ritam (“Buddheity is in the female generative organs”). In China, “ Tibetan Esoteric Sect” (Tibetan Mi-tsung) flourished in the Yuan Dynasty, especially from the time of Kubilai Khan (A.D. 1216-1294). Women call their vagina the “yoni” and invoked “Tantric practitioners”. [Source: Zhonghua Renmin Gonghe Guo, Fang-fu Ruan, M.D., Ph.D., and M.P. Lau, M.D. Encyclopedia of Sexuality =]

According to the Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Through Buddhist-nun monasteries, Buddhism exerted a strong influence for the equality of men and women. Although the monasteries were skeptically regarded by the Confucianist elite - one of the common defamations being that the nuns were involved in lesbian sexual practices - Buddhism gave women another role model besides that of wife and mother. This was especially true for elderly widows who were entering Buddhist orders. On the other hand, their influence on the priesthood seems to be difficult to detect. [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 1997 */ ]

Neo-Confucianists and the Evolution of Family Life

Joshua Wickerham wrote in the “Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History”: Comparatively very little is known about the structure of the Chinese family before the Song Dynasty (960-1279), when printing was invented and written sources became more widespread. It is known that the male was the undisputed official head of the household. Rank, though varying over time and locality, was generally reckoned based on gender and age. The oldest patriarch directed the family's finances. Younger brothers were subservient to older brothers. Mothers could beat their own sons, even in adulthood. Until the Warring States Period, it was legal for a man to kill his own son. Several generations lived together in a single house. Daughters were "married out." [Source: Joshua Wickerham, “Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

“Daughters were generally undesirable because of economic and patrilinial considerations. Only males could carry on the family name and daughters required dowries to attract male suitors — or a suitor's parents, as was usually the case. Unwanted daughters were often killed at birth or sold into slavery at age five or six. These trends strengthened with the rise of Neo-Confucian orthodoxy, starting as early as the Tang dynasty when scholar Han Yu (768-824) beginning calling for restraint in "unbridled passions."

“Gaining strength in the Southern (Later) Song dynasty (1127-1279), neo-Confucianists promulgated an extreme form of the ancient philosophy. From references in the classics that men and women should not freely associate, scholars and officials justified gender segregation in all spheres of life. This required them to overlook almost all references to romantic and sexual love in the poetry of the classics. Under succeeding dynasties, Neo-Confucianism generally gathered cultural currency. Talk of sex became taboo. Foot binding became widespread. Female infanticide became more common. Remarriage became rare as elites erected new monuments to the chaste female and the windowed martyr. Zhu Xi (1130-1200), one of the most influential Neo-Confucian scholars of his day, set the tone of the times in "Reflections on Things at Hand, " when he wrote that "a man with passions has no strength, whereas a man of strength has no passions." The Neo-Confucianists departed from earlier schools with their rigid morality and a belief in the innate goodness of humans. Confucius believed goodness must be cultivated. In general, Neo-Confucianists naturalized gender distinctions, providing less opportunity for per-formative departure from gender roles.

“Zhu Xi's teacher, Sima Guang (1019-1086), taught that, at seven years old, boys and girls should no longer eat together. At eight, girls should not leave inner chambers, and should not engage in song and dance. He taught that remarriage was bad for both men and women alike. Girls should learn women's work, which meant cooking, cleaning, and "instruction in compliance and obedience." Though feminist historians attack Neo-Confucianists as deeply misogynistic, critics like Patricia Buckley Ebrey claim that the Neo-Confucianists' concern with remarriage reflected an extension of preexisting patriarchal concern for female welfare. Remarriage was seen as a threat to the financial stability of the family. These feminists also ascribe too much power to elite philosophers; one of Zhu Xi's disciples actually remarried.

“In this complex time, women held roles as slaves, empresses, mothers, wives, merchants, and beggars, but their general sphere was that of the household. According to Neo-Confucianists, chaste and productive women laid the foundation for a nation. Women had their own work, like weaving, which played as important or more important a role in the economy of late imperial China than did much "male" agricultural work. This Neo-Confucian philosophy, though pervasive, was not omnipresent or totally stifling. In many ways, masculinity was still seen as degrees of femininity. The well-positioned man took on elements of the female to gain favor and show loyalty to his superiors. But a man had the ability to change masters, whereas women were confined to the husbands (and husband's family) they were betrothed to and eventually married. Men, meanwhile, were still free to sleep with whomever they wanted. During Neo-Confucian times, concubines, who had historically been confined to the households of the most elite, became more affordable for the common man. Concubines who had been trained in singing and literary arts could be rented for the day or the hour, thus blurring the distinctions between concubinage and prostitution.

Image Sources: All Posters com, Search Chinese Art except 3000 B.C. vessel, Columbia University, and marriage poster, Landsberger Posters

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

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