Category Archives: history


How China Became Homophobic: A (Not-So-) Suprising History

Interesting: History of Homosexuality and Tolerance/Intolerance in China: an email exchange between a Fellow Faculty Member (FFM) and me:

The Chinese view on polygamy was notoriously different from the Christian West’s — the more concubines the merrier — so I’d be surprised if they didn’t perceive homosexuality as a natural taste, as variable as food preferences.

FFM sent me an email  asking about the Chinese view of homosexuality because Singapore has a very intolerant official policy on it. Some of my students asked about this after class or in class, so I’m sharing it. Here’s the whole (slightly edited) email conversation.


Hi Clay!

[A friend] and i were discussing the Singapore policies regarding gays and wondered if they had any root in classical Chinese thinking, Confucianism, etc.

I’m looking for a parallel to the Old Testament Christianity roots for that bias–wondered if you could shed some light, as our resident China expert.

Best regards,


My response:

Can’t say I know SG’s gay policies beyond recalling having read that gay bars are illegal, etc.

Pure speculation, but it seems safe to say that Confucian family values–in which no sons equals no lineage and the end of the family line–would at least discourage not marrying and reproducing, since there’s no greater shame than not passing the name to the next generation.

Note that does not mean homosexuality is necessarily condemned in and of itself. The Chinese are and have been notoriously silent on sexuality throughout their history (at least in their literature), but this again seems to be a reflection of the need to project a proper decorum by keeping such private matters private.

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that homosexuality is conceived of in a way entirely different from our own traditions’ connotations of sin and abomination. The Chinese view on polygamy is notoriously different–the more concubines the merrier–so I’d be surprised if they didn’t perceive homosexuality as a natural taste, like food preferences.

It’s one of the many areas I’ve yet to explore (I find the contrasts of Eastern and Western gender norms — especially the masculine ones — more interesting, and sexuality seems a subset of that in my eyes). But I can offer you a book I got a couple years ago on the topic of homosexuality in traditional China (lesbianism, I just noticed, is treated in the appendix), but I haven’t read it. If you do browse it, I’d love to hear what you learn.

Sorry to be of so little help.



Clay, this was a useful source.

The bottom line seems to be that there was a long history of deep tolerance for homosexuality, even extending to marriage and property rights.

Not surprisingly, there were varying accommodations to ‘gayness,’ including at least one period when adolescent boys regularly took lovers and then moved on to hetero behavior when it was time to have a family.

There is strong evidence for Puyi of the Qing dynasty being openly gay, so the author makes note that the behavior ran from top to bottom of society.

Enter the West:

The missionaries, sailors (!) and merchants were all revolted by the acceptance of sodomy (male-male sex) that they saw, and so started to campaign against it.

Ultimately, these laws got some traction and acceptance in conjunction with local intolerance of the excesses of the Ming dynasty.

By 1912 or so, the tradition and tolerance was disappearing quickly.

The author notes that the current laws in Taiwan, HK and PRC have roots not in Marxism but rather as secularized versions of Leviticus (one of the books of Moses in the Hebrew Bible/Christian Old Testament) and (Late Medieval Christian theologian) Thomas Aquinas.

Ironically, the PRC now blames the West for importing sordid western values into China, ‘causing’ homosexuality.

Vague local laws against hooliganism and outrageous acts are used to keep the gay population in line, and like Singapore, the Chinese maintain that the overall percentage of gayness in Chinese is much lower than the worldwide population.

Thanks for the insight, my summary then is:

1. Western laws reviling gayness were imported during the colonial period.
2. They gained force in the revolt against the excesses of the Ming dynasty.
3. PRC political spin blames (recent, post-Christian) Western exhortations of tolerance for gayness as ‘degraded imports of the West’.
–All contribute to anti-gay bias in the region.


So: China tolerated homosexuality until the West came 500 years ago and imposed its Christian views. China then started discriminating. Now that the West is abandoning its Christian discrimination against gays, it’s criticizing China’s intolerance–which China largely got earlier….from the West. Weird.

On Meaning-Focused History

“Conceptual, not factual”–we were urged to prioritize it at the beginning of the year, and again at a faculty meeting this week. Yet we’re making MCQs and canned timed essay prompts straight out of 1970. Why?

Sent to my colleagues — many of whom will rightly say “He doesn’t need to preach this to me, because I’m in the choir!” — as we shift to planning semester 2. I’m curious how many history teachers out there are fighting the same battles, and am all ears as to tactics that have worked for you in this battle against the 1970s.

I have a dream that meetings planning semester 2 start on the conceptual and inquiry level, not the factual and knowledge level. (In other words, that they follow UbD as we’re expected to do.)

It could make for beautiful meetings if everybody came to a meeting with a response to an agenda item such as,  “What’s the most interesting, challenging, provocative, real essential question you can come up with for the Age of Imperialism*?”

I’d love to hear people offer their answers–especially if their angle is more exciting than mine. Off the top of my head, I would answer for this one, for example, Continue reading

Back to Blogging Again–Elsewhere, and Elsewhat

But not here. I’m blogging with my History of China students here. Why?

Crazy, beautiful backstory: Several eons ago, I wrote a “Must-Reads Before Dying” post that the inimitable Stephen Downes challenged for its omission of Confucius. I met his challenge with a cheeky “Confucius? Really? Too stuffy for students” type response:

And Stephen, notice the sentence before this update? Of course there are omissions…. The Dao De Jing? A deep book, but too ponderous and opaque next to the joyous alternative of Zhuangzi. The Analects? Sure, though far from a literary masterpiece.

Fast forward to, oh, the last three years teaching the entire history of China six times over (it’s a semester course, so I get to watch that epic story twice a year). With each turn to the “100 Schools of Thought” of Classical China, during its very un-classical and downright barbarous Warring States Period, I’ve had the pleasure of re-visiting Master Kong’s Analects and, with each re-visit — and re-read, and reading of new translations (my god, the Ames and Rosemont philosophical translation is rich), and re-annotation — and I’ve had the pleasure of esteeming and enjoying him more and more. (Prof. Robert Eno of Indiana University has an excellent, free “teaching translation” here.)

So, Mr. Downes: a mega mea culpa. You were so very right — and your philosophical background, which you recently pointed to in a Stephen’s Web post defending the value of a philosophy major, showed that value in your challenge to that “Must-Reads” post. Do I still love Zhuangzi and Laozi and the Daoists? Absolutely. But Confucius has grown on me with each new read until now, he — and Mencius and Xunzi — are even more “must-read before dying.” The bloody Chinese hit the jackpot in terms of ancient wisdom. Crazy cool.

So anyway, yeah: not much calling to write about technology in education any more (obviously, as the silence shows). But to use it to write alongside, with, to, and for students? And anybody else interested in what the world’s oldest living civilization may have to offer the young upstarts like our own? Oh, yes.

Anyway, that’s how this blog started, years ago. It was for my students. I began because I was making my freshmen in Korea blog about history and literature, and pulled the old “practice what you preach” thing by blogging alongside them.

Now, though, it’s China and the West in the ultimate civilizational stand-off. Drop by and join the conversation if you’re interested (and here’s the class blog, chocablock with readings to catch you up if you want an education in Chinese history that has nothing to do with textbooks and everything to do with provocative reads and questions).

Consider that an invitation. Here’s the card:

Writing China screenshot

Eine Kleine Rap Music

Confession: I’m no fan of student rap projects. So how nice to be compelled to send this email “grading” Ashley’s and Rachel’s Russian Revolution rap:

email grade


Here’s what I’m talking about.

On other fronts:

Since starting this job in Singapore three years ago, I’ve been overwhelmed with graduate school–Master’s in Ed Leadership will finally be done in July–and with the typical demands of teaching and annually refining new courses and, less typically, of forming PLCs and learning how that works by doing it.

That has left an average of maybe five minutes a week, over these years, of free time.

Now that the degree is done, I hope to get back to writing–possibly in a new space, though, and on new topics based on new loves. Just FYI, in a sort of “I’m not dead yet” way.