Category Archives: religion


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 Minding the Body

A thought that keeps returning to me lately: “From Confucianism to Daoism to Buddhism to Martial Arts and Taijiquan to Acupuncture and Massage and Traditional Chinese Medicine: the Chinese have always been so mentally one with the body.”

It’s more astonishing because we in the West have not been this attuned, owing to our religion’s historical (and literal) demonization of it. Only very recently–the last two or three centuries–have we tried to make peace with it.
Ma Yuan: Walking on a Path in Spring

Love at First Read–A Daoist Thanksgiving

The Great Clod burdens me with form, labors me with life, eases me in old age, and rests me in death. So if I think well of my life, for the same reason I must think well of my death.
— the Zhuangzi, Ch. 6, transl. Burton Watson*

On Beauty, Tragedy, and Inspired Irresponsibility


Zhuangzi, Daoism’s second sage, dreams he’s a butterfly. Or is the butterfly dreaming it’s Zhuangzi? Zhuangzi isn’t sure.

One of the beauties of teaching Chinese history, for me, is that I make my living doing something I passionately love to do. Not only would I do this job for free — I would even pay to do it.**

But this beauty has a tragic side too: the demands of the teaching profession allows precious little extra time to write regularly about the daily riches of the mind flowing through the hours in the classroom. My beloved John Keats, that sublime, gorgeous, tragic English Romantic poet who died so young — only 24! — expresses this tragedy well in his sonnet, “When I Have Fears” [emphasis added]:

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain;

When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love;–then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

That “teeming brain” is the real pay of teaching Chinese history and thought. That “fear” of “ceas[ing] to be” before being able to write out the thoughts flowing from the daily work is the tragedy.

So, stack of papers to mark and lesson-planning template currently demanding my time? For the moment, be damned. Because I have just fallen in love with the mind of a man named Chad Hansen, after reading the first five pages of his ground-breaking 1992 study, A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought. Continue reading

Yin Yang

Student Blog Highlights, Homework-Free Update, and Free Podcast Hosting and Embedding

My last post‘s experiment with embedding‘s audio player failed. Somebody in the forums was kind enough to point me to the help page showing how to get the player to include a playlist, so now I can share — and also share some mild ecstasy at the quality of learning and student blogging in my new (almost-) homework-free classroom.

Using for Podcast Files logoThis is so worth sharing. Those of you geeky long enough to have been burned when once-free hosting services went premium-only (e.g., Ning), belly-up, or whatever, don’t need me to tell you that a free host committed to remaining free — and well-funded enough to honor that commitment — is hugely important. Otherwise, hours, weeks, months, and years of building content can go up in smoke.

So seems to be a very fine solution — especially for audio (vids can go on Youtube, Vimeo, Blip, whatever, but audio-only seems strangely less welcome on most sites). Its “about” page lays our that it’s a non-profit with very strong institutional support and a mission to be around forever, so I don’t fear getting burned again.

Lecturing Alone

As I mentioned last post, I prefer to lecture alone by simply recording voice memos on my iPhone when the spirit moves: distracted students don’t distract me, and don’t distract students who want to listen. Students can also listen when the spirit moves them. It’s win-win. So I made a channel on, the iPhone Analects, and uploaded all my voice memos to them.¬†They have a nifty batch upload function that makes the job fast and easy. **Warning: Don’t use iTunes’ AAC format, because won’t convert them for play in the Audio Player. Using .mp3 worked for me, and iTunes will convert AAC to mp3 with a click. Search help or the menu options and it’s easy to figure out.**

Voice memos can also be a way to differentiate and extend for those who want to go further or deeper. I don’t assign most of what I record; I simply invite those who like the stuff we’re learning to listen to a sincere adult think aloud about the stuff because he likes it too — and doesn’t speak like a textbook, encyclo- or wiki-pedia, but instead like a person with questions, hypotheses, insights, curiosities, emotions, jokes, and wonder about it all. As one student put it in my class, “you’re further down the path than we are, and seem more to be learning with us than teaching us what you’ve finished learning.” That’s a paraphrase, but a faithful one. That kid nailed it. (And I thank the Big Lump* for giving me the best three Chinese history classes this semester that I’ve ever had. We do teach each other by discussing this stuff together. I do see new things they show me that turn on light bulbs left and right. It’s worth the early grave because the extra work makes the present so much finer. See this class blog post for links to some wonderful student blog reflections on our three hours reading original Taoist texts. And note that this writing is done at home, while in class we read together without computers, and discuss it without computers. They use the computers at home to blog about the f2f in class. And the quality of writing this semester is way more insightful than in the past. It’s their only homework. We do all reading in class together. I’m italicizing because dammit, I love this, and so do they. We’re working less and learning more, and more enjoyably at that.)

Embedding the History of China Podcast Player, with Full Playlist First:

–the tricky part: you have to add playlist code to the basic embed code.’s audio tips page explains how.

Embedding the Podcast Player with Single Tracks:

“Sentimental Confucius”:

Not perfect — it doesn’t include the file name, for example — but they seem to be working on improving it (and again, see the audio tips page to see how to change the code for single tracks).

Closing Shots

I’m now encouraging students who feel like they’re stronger talkers than writers to make their own accounts and embed their own talks on their class blogs. So far, only one has taken me up on it — a great, smart kid who I love listening to in class, and who does seem to shine more brightly in speech than in script.

And for the social kids who would rather discuss than write or talk solo, I’m looking into Oovoo as a free Skype alternative that records video conferences cross-platform. Our school is 1:1, but doesn’t (yet, I pray daily) mandate a single machine, so this Mac and PC-compatible free download is a Big Lump-send.*

Yin Yang*What’s this “Big Lump”? It’s Ivanhoe’s and Van Norden’s translation of what Zhuangzi calls the Tao, from which all the myriad things — life, the universe, and everything (including us) — emerges, and to which it all reverts. I love the creative freedom of this translation, and how it has fun with Zhuangzi’s ideas by matching them with similarly fun English wordplay.