UPDATE: Since this post was originally published in October 2016, there have been huge pro and anti marriage equality demonstrations in Taiwan. Taiwan’s president Tsai Ying-wen has stalled on putting through legislation, and now the issue will be put to the test in 5 referendums on the issue, 2 for, 3 against marriage equality, to be held alongside the minicipal elections on November 24th.
Is Confucius dead? Well, of course he is! His bones are long since dust. But is the power of the Chief Teacher now over, that giant who cast a long and often-luminous shadow over 2,500 years of history?
The West had a similar moment: “God is dead!” said Nietzsche, his moral authority killed by reason and humanism in the Enlightenment. But now perhaps it is East Asia’s turn, or more specifically, that of Taiwan. Has the traditional influence of this venerable old Grand Master been killed by the new modernity? Generational change and the Internet? Or is the old dude’s ideology still ruling the roost?
Rather than inventing the whole thing himself, Confucius actually formalized and polished up a pre-existing “golden age” system of values from the Zhou dynasty. This system went on to strongly influence the politics and society of China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam, as well as overseas Chinese communities worldwide, most notably in Singapore. He is the most famous ancient Chinese person in the world: if you asked a 12 year old in Appalachia, they’d probably know his name!
Like most traditional Chinese systems, Confucianism is richly complex, a mixture of spiritualism, ritual, social values, and practical wisdom. But one aspect stands out very clearly, hierarchy. Hierarchy in Confucian society was defined within the larger context of five key relationships: Ruler to subject, father to son, husband to wife, older brother to younger brother, and friend to friend. (This latter relationship was the only egalitarian one.) Other relationships mattered of course. Teachers were respected, mothers too. Daughters also had to respect dad. But everyone was put into their slot, their position on the team, and had to play that position. That was what made for a harmonious society.
Like most hierarchies though, the harmony was less wonderful if you were lower in the pecking order, and worse still if you had no formal place in it all. This was an important reality for women in general, lesbians in particular, and for gay men as well.
In Confucian society, a woman were generally respected as an obedient, humble and hardworking wife or daughter. Her role in society was to obey, and above all, produce a male heir for hubby.
Obviously this is no longer the case in Taiwan. Many Taiwanese women are getting married later, some are getting married but not having kids, and some are not getting married at all! Part of this is economic: it’s tough to have kids in today’s economy. But some of it has to do with freedom, the desire not to be encumbered by a man or children. Women deciding for themselves not to be mothers or wives? Aiyo!
In fact, the current president is an unmarried woman! She has a trans-woman on her cabinet, Audrey Yang, minister of digital affairs. None of this seems to fit in terribly well with a conservative approach to Confucian values. Nor does the growing acceptance of same sex couples.
But then perhaps that’s because we tend to imagine Confucian values more strictly than they are. Confucian views on being queer were less shame-oriented than in the West. Gay men who married and had kids in Imperial China were not typically stigmatized. Punishments by the law were fairly light, and seldom applied. There was no great judicial fervor to “root out” gay men. And if it was rumored that some women were “special friends” with each other, this was merely a matter of gossip, not even a crime. In fact, as long as it was invisible, it was as if it didn’t even exist.
But however tolerant society was, being LGBTQ was still considered something to be ashamed of, something against nature, something to be hidden.
Not anymore! At the LGBT Pride Parade in Taipei, they sure ain’t hidin’ and there’s not a trace of shame to be seen! On Halloween weekend, an expected 80,000 members of the LGBTQ community – and their friends, family and other supporters – march through the heart of Taipei in an extremely colorful throng. It’s more than a show of pride, it’s also a show of millennial power: the power of youth, the power of numbers, the power of solidarity!
The parade started in 2003 and dramatically highlights the fact that Taiwan has perhaps the best LGBTQ scene in Asia. This extends well beyond the emblematic bars and nightclubs. Overall, there is a significant level of tolerance and acceptance of alternative lifestyles. Homosexuality is legal. LGBTQ workers are protected against discrimination by law. Transsexual people can legally register a change of gender. Gays and lesbians can serve in the military. These formal factors are augmented by the aforementioned general “Who cares?” attitude.
However, there’s still a long way to go. The fear of being bullied keeps many kids in the closet in high school. Post high school is a more common time to come out, with sex legally permitted, less supervision, and more support groups available. But there is still trouble with upsetting family members, so some gays and lesbians never fully come out to their parents. Although discrimination at work is illegal, it is hard to prevent. Is malicious gossip discrimination? If the boss doesn’t promote a gay man to the rank of manager, is it because of sexual orientation, or a performance issue?
So while the level of tolerance and human rights here in Taiwan is fairly good, I think it’s a case of Confucius just being in a mellower mood recently, not actually dead.
Something that would change all that would be marriage equality. Proposals are pending for a bill that would recognize same sex marriages, but they have run up against silent opposition. Key people – most likely older men, as ever the defenders of “old school” values – seem to be blocking it from the shadows. More visible are some rabidly-homophobic fringe Christian groups. President Tsai has yet to make any bold public steps to confront this. If she did, it would cement Taiwan’s position as a leading progressive Asian nation.
What would Confucius say about actually having same sex married couples protected by law, having kids with two moms or two dads? Now that would be a big nail in the old boy’s coffin!