29. Confucianism in East Asian love narratives

Accepting hierarchies ◆ society before the individual ◆ Confucian sexism ◆ Confucian ideal couples ◆ basic Confucian values

Key terms introduced in this chapter:

  • Confucian duty (yi)
  • Confucian uprightness (yi)
  • Doctrine of the Mean
  • faithfulness (xin)
  • harmony (he)
  • human-ness (ren)
  • propriety (li)
  • moral restraint / moderate behavior / reserve (jie)

Key terms mentioned in this chapter that should now be familiar:

  • Confucian loyalty
  • East Asia

*In this chapter, there are more than the usual number of Chinese characters. However, it remains the practice of this course to have no expectation of students that they learn any *East Asian script (Chinese, Japanese, or Korean). They are, though, sometimes expected to use the romanized version of these words.

29.1. Acceptance of hierarchical relationship

There are five basic relationships (wulun) defined by Confucianism. All are governed by mutual obligation (reciprocity):

  1. Ruler and Subject
  2. Father and Son
  3. Elder Brother and Younger Brother
  4. Husband and Wife
  5. Friend and Friend

There are several aspects of this schema that are very relevant to our interpretive work.

First, according to this system, social harmony is achieved when each individual is properly fulfilling his or her role. In other words, social pressure to perform normatively according to your role is intense.

Second, the *values related to the roles is pre-determined: a ruler must be benevolent, a subject must be submissive and appreciative, a so on.

Third, one can see that except for the last of the five, all are in a superior-inferior relationship. (Husband and wife are to be understood in that way.)

In short, the system brings peaceful relationships so a peaceful society, the system is founded on normative behavior that honors orderliness, and the system turns on the acceptance of hierarchical relationships. Sometimes I ask my high diverse classroom whether they “feel good” when doing something for a superior. About half of my students say that it does indeed feel good to behave in ways that affirms these sorts of hierarchies. So, just to be clear, acceptance of superior-inferior relationships, in essence, is not grudging for members of cultural groups where the *status of Confucian values is that they are begin affirmed. This does not mean one will love one’s boss; it means that one accepts the necessity of a boss-worker relationship for the larger good.

29.2. Society comes before the individual, social order is paramount

By extension of the above, one is a member of a group and one has a defined duty to that group. The five relationships cover, in theory, all possible relationships. In the classic Confucian system there is no relationship that does not carry with it expectations, obligations, even duties (although these may be small or large.)

This “society before the individual” way of thinking is not unique to Confucianism or even East Asia. This was true in premodern Western Europe as well. I have argued earlier that the first real split from this sort of full acceptance of authority having broad, almost absolute reach was with the Magna Carta of England, but more pertinently through the French Revolution, German Romanticism, and fractures in the dominance of Christianity created by philosophers, particularly Nietzche. The pervasive hyper-individualism of Western culture has challenged and weakened the status of Confucian respect for hierarchy but the love of orderliness with is deep roots in very old worldviews beginning with ancient Chinese cosmology, have proved to have exceptional staying power.

It should be noted that “society” is a topical term. In practice, much of the time what “society” means is one’s family but it is understood that the notion of family itself is supported by society as a whole.

29.3. Sexism (low social status and limits placed on women)

Let us get one thing out of the way right from the beginning — Confucianism encoded into patterns of expected behavior the various forms of sexism, if not misogynist attitudes, that were pervasive in *East Asia (and not just there but that is the region we study). Confucianism, as practiced not articulated in philosophical essays, ranked the claims and needs of women as secondary to the needs of men. Women’s ability to speak and act was limited, sometimes severely. Their social position was highly dependent on having a relationship with a man or men (that is, son, husband and/or father, sometimes ruler as well). In narratives, their physical and/or mental suffering was often the coinage of the story rather than something of genuine concern. Examples of institutionalized sexism are so frequent there is no need to offer proof.

Here were the legally accepted reasons for a Japanese husband being able to divorce his wife according to the major legal document Taiho Ritsuryo 大宝律令) of the Taiho period (701), laws based on Chinese legal code. (The official language of this period of Japan, by the way, was Chinese.)

  1. Has not given birth to children.
  2. Is lascivious in her demeanor.
  3. Is useless to the father-in-law.
  4. Is too talkative.
  5. Has a tendency to steal things.
  6. Is frequently jealous.
  7. Has an incurable disease.

A woman could remarry if she had not heard from her husband in five years, or, if there were children, in three years.

As just one further illustration, here is a passage from clause Article 366 of a Chinese Qing dynasty legal code, regarding punishments for adultery:

If the guilty pair have not been seized in a place where the illicit sexual intercourse took place [but were apprehended someplace else], they will not be punished. If the adulterous wife become pregnant (then although there is proof as to the woman, there is no proof as to the man), the punishment is inflicted on the woman alone.[1]

Many of these attitudes of dominance and restraint remain in part or in full force in the modern narratives (text and film) we encounter in this class.

Of all features of Confucianism, this sexism, above all, is what most often and most intensely affects the shape and progress of our narratives. The women in our narratives often work with limited resources and external constraints to action, even constraints as to what they were allowed to think and feel. (if they are taught, for example, to feel guilty about feeling jealous, etc.)

29.4. Confucianism rarely glorifies the couple as a couple

Next, Confucian values are designed to regulate human relationships in way that promotes social harmony, not spiritual progress. Social norms, and the expectation to meet them, weigh heavily on Confucian ethical choices. This can end up being at odds with romantic feelings. Although we do not have the same glorified narrative structure of “the two of us against the world” that we see so often in Western romantic narratives (think “Bonnie and Clyde”) we do often get couples that feel separated from the world in some way — it is just that such a situation is rarely glorified. Confucianism has trouble validating the behavior of rebels because of its intense interest in social orderliness (he 和).

29.5. Confucian ideals in action within the romantic couple

In romantic situations, Confucianism visualizes the happy and stable bonded couple as:

  • sacrificing for one another,
  • showing integrity in communication and promises (honesty),
  • showing compassion or sympathy or empathy or understanding or other forms of warmth, and,
  • fulfilling the expected roles: the man will shield and care for the woman and the woman will defer to the man, the diligent husband will provide for the household, working outside the house, and the diligent wife will complete household and child-rearing duties and to some degree manage the house.

Passion (very strong emotional attachment or sexual attraction) is not really part of the system or a legitimate rationale for a relationship. These strong feelings need to be contained, somehow, in the above patterns.

Disappointment, recrimination, anger, or revenge come most frequently when one or many of these normative relationship expectations are not met.

29.6. Confucian ethical values (a list)

While there is an “official list” of the primary Confucian virtues (called “the five constants[2] wuchang 五常), this is not the most relevant set of Confucian terms for our course purposes.

29.6.1. Rén / Jen 仁 — benevolence, human-ness, warmth, kindness, understanding

Benevolence, love of humanity, deep understanding of human relationships. This is a very important category to us which includes sympathy, empathy, and benevolence. A romantic relationship without ren feels cold, mechanically performed, and lacking “heart.” Korean and Japanese culture place a huge emphasis on the affective component of this warmth. Jeong (情) is one way of taking about this in Korean; kokoro (心) or nasake (情け) are terms in Japanese. Of course the term is originally Chinese — qing — and, as we will see, there is a rich history of thought and literature around it. the point here is the high emotionality attributed to the term

Usually ren is considered the highest of the Confucian virtues but this is somewhat misleading: the virtues are so interrelated it is difficult to create a true hierarchy.

The official course term for this ethical value is: “human-ness (ren).”

29.6.2. Jié 節/节 — moderation, constancy, self-regulation, moral restraint, moral integrity

This might be considered a way of proper conduct.  It is restraint, deporting oneself properly, staying within bounds:

“When joy, anger, grief, and happiness…are aroused and remain within their proper bounds, this is harmony” 喜怒哀樂之。。。發而皆中節,謂之和‎.”[3]

Moral-restraint (jie) sets itself against passion and passionate decisions. According to this *value, it is not a good idea to jump onto the motorcycle of a man you do not know and let him drive you away from your house as we see occur in 3-Iron (Bin-jip, 2004). Moral-restraint (jie) works lock-step with the “*Doctrine of the Mean,” or “Golden Mean,” or “Middle Way” (zhongyong 中庸) in its proscription to avoid emotional intensity and extreme behavior:

The Doctrine of the Mean can represent moderation, rectitude, objectivity, sincerity, honesty and propriety (Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 2008). The guiding principle of the mean being that one should never act in excess.[4]

The official course term for this ethical value is: “moral restraint (jie)” of “moderate behavior (jie)” or “reserve (jie).”

29.6.3. Yì 義/义 — uprightness, righteousness, knowing right/wrong, doing what is right regardless of personal benefit (duty)

Doing what is right, doing what is asked or expected of you directly by those who have authority over you or indirectly via social norms. This is huge since love almost always evokes expectations of certain types of behavior of one’s partner and those expectations are very often grounded in Confucian notions of duty. Christian chivalry probably adds the idea of honor to this (although I haven’t really thought this through carefully): the knight accepts the needs to rescue the damsel in distress: it is both his duty and a way to protect his honor. This idea of “honor” is not always present in East Asian love narratives. Honor itself is (in military codes regarding courage, in public reputation, in “saving face”) but it is not often formulated as “a man perseveres his honor by doing his duty to his woman”. I think that is probably rare. “Duty” usually means the man and woman are committed to supporting the house in specific ways (and here “house” means one’s partner, the household finances and reputation, the children, all of that).

Doing one’s duty within a romantic relationship (or any relationship for that matter) need not be onerous. Fulfilling one’s duty can be a satisfying way of showing respect, devotion, love, understanding, or affording comfort, consolation, or well-being. “Doing one’s duty” can have a constraining of militaristic ring to it in English. In some circumstances it is better to interpret it as “while it might be difficult, it is my pleasure to fulfill my duties within this relationship”.

The official course terms for this ethical value are: “Confucian uprightness (yi)” or “Confucian duty (yi)” depending on the context.

29.6.4. Xiào / hsiao 孝 — *filial piety, respectful love towards parents

Recognition of one’s debt to one’s parents and grandparents within the family. Obedience to one’s parents and grandparents. This awareness or attitude is sometimes extended to others that have authority over one. Xiao is considered the most natural, strongest, most reliably present, most essential type of love. Xiao is often considered to be the binding virtue of all relationships and, in practice, manifests as acceptance of, and obedience to, authority in most or all of its forms. (It is extended in many ways in various forms of Confucianism—the paternalistic nature of the Japanese company that helps one find a spouse, for example.)

However, I would like us to emphasize the reciprocity of xiao. Here is a chart that explores the reciprocity of the “five relations” of Confucianism (notice that four of the five are hierarchical):

If we emphasize reciprocity, we can have, as a working definition, love between parent and child, with the parent’s desire and duty to protect and nurture the child and the child’s grateful awareness and loving response to this powerful parental love. So, love within the family, love between parent and child.

What makes xiao particularly interesting in love narratives, and I think this is under-discussed in the scholarship on love, is how the parent-child relationship can manifest within the romantic couple relationship. The desire to protect and the desire to be protected, the desire to possess and the desire to be possessed, the pleasure of exerting authority and the pleasure of submitting to authority, the complex power balance of a relationship, the attractiveness of strength and the attractiveness of weakness — all of these can be part of emotional and/or erotic intimacy. We talk about this somewhat extensively in this course, particularly in our discussion of Japanese amae (甘え, love as being indulgent in a relationship, as inviting and receiving protection) and Korean han (恨, anger resulting from a sense of injustice), but not just in those terms.

Addenda — I received this email once from an ex-student of this course who had graduated:

I am currently studying at the National University of Singapore and interning at the Tan Tock Seng Hospital this summer. … There are many obvious and subtle things that are very different here in Singapore compared to the States. A notable difference in the way the social and health system is constructed here. For example, the Maintenance of Parents Act mandates children take care of their parents. It very much refers back to the Confucian principle of “xiao” filial piety. It’s very interesting to see it in place, as opposed to just reading or watching it through the media, like in Chunhyang.

The official course term for this ethical value is: “filial piety” or “xiao.”

29.6.5. Xìn / hsin 信 — *fathfulness, trustworthiness, integrity, keeping promises

Keeping one’s word, trustworthiness, fulfilling one’s promise. Note the Chinese character: it includes “word” within it. *Faithfulness in most cases is related to promises spoken, written or suggested (that is they could be put into words if necessary). The entire Confucian system does not work unless promises given are promises kept.

*Faithfulness is very relevant to love narratives. We can understand issues of fidelity / infidelity, betrayal, trust, trust- worthiness, deception (including seduction, secrets) as related to faithfulness in one way or another.

The official course term for this ethical value is: “faithfulness (xin).”

29.6.6. Lǐ 禮/礼 — *propriety, rites and rituals, “proper” relationships, upholding social rules

Upholding social order, especially by honoring customs, rituals, social norm; knowing one’s place and acting accordingly (inferior respects superior, superior cares for inferior). This can suppress relationships (think “In the Mood for Love” 20th c China, film), and often marks illegitimate relationship behavior as taboo, etc. It is a powerful constraint—the “eyes of society”. On the other hand, it is also a powerful way to show love. A man who respects his woman, a woman who respects her man—when they show this through proprietous behavior, relationships can feel strong and very satisfying, even if the word “love” is never used between them.

The official course term for this ethical value is: “propriety (li).” Hé 和 — harmony, orderliness

This is perhaps the most dominant Confucian *ethical principle and affects all others. Orderliness itself does not originate with Confucianism. Daoism, with its brazenly universal notion of correspondences, has already posited a highly ordered cosmos. (The apparent erratic behavior of Daoist immortals is because they have transcended all ordinary social rules, not because they have a low view of them.)

A main characteristic of the Han Yijing scholars was their determination to link the Yijing to correlative cosmology. Promoted by Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒‎ (ca. 195–105 BCE), correlative cosmology established a direct correspondence between the natural and human worlds. In the words of Sarah Queen, correlative cosmology “sought to align the human realm with the normative patterns of the cosmos” to develop a sharpened awareness of “the mutual responsiveness of heaven and humanity.” With the sharpened awareness, human beings would see the direct impact of nature on their lives and vice versa. This belief in the mutual responsiveness between nature and humankind is based on two assumptions: First, the cosmos is regarded as an orderly and stable structure. Its orderliness and stability are shown in the regular succession of the 4 seasons, the 12 months, the 365 1/4 days. Second, similar to the cosmos, the human world is an orderly and stable structure. Despite the vicissitudes on the surface, the human world is balanced, systematically organized, and predictable, as evidenced in the life cycle and the rhythm of work and rest.[5]

Orderliness contrains passionate choices, bringing to a couple in love an imperative to be “reasonable” and non-disruptive in behavior. The emotional disarray that comes with romantic swoons and romantic trouble is seen as debilitating and unhealthy. The 10th-century Japanese poet gives lyrical expression to the disorienting pain of love when he writes:

If we could have a world devoid of cherry blossoms,
how easy our hearts of spring would be[6]

The official course term for this ethical value is: “harmony” or if the point is to squarely situation the value within the Confucian system, then “Confucian propriety (li).”

29.6.7. Zhōng / chung 忠 — *loyalty, acting for the benefit of in-group superiors

Commitment to the benefit of another who is superior to you and who, for the purposes of the act treat as superior to you; acting to enhance another person, institution, or ideal. Elsewhere I have discussed how we will use this term to mean strictly these actions by the inferior to support the superior. (It should be said that individual of equal status can do engage in loyalty — mutual respect is possible, mutual loyalty is possible. But in practice we don’t often seem men submitting to the authority of women in our narratives. It does happen now and then, however.) However, in premodern texts it is entirely legitimate to talk about loyalty of the woman to the man, but rarely of the man to the woman since that reverses the defined hierarchy of the relationship. There are no “women on pedestals” in East Asian premodern narratives, although there may be women who have a total grip on the heart of the man. … Loyalty can certain show up in modern films. However, please don’t use it loosely just to mean “committed to the relationship”. Use if when you want to indicate a hierarchical attitude + the desire to behave in a way that enhances the superior’s life or standing.

The official course term for this ethical value is: “Confucian loyalty.”

29.7 A worksheet

Some of you might find it interesting to explore Confucian terms and how they might relate to Western notions of love or your own notions of love by using the below worksheet and drawing arrows or situating the red-boxed text in appropriate locations between the two columns on the sheet. You can create your own red boxes based on practically anything related to love that comes to mind, or borrowing terms from Sternberg’s triangle.

The worksheet is in the resource folder for the book and looks like this:

Worksheet for exploring the relationship between traditional Confucian values and various terms and concepts regarding Western contested-love

  1. Don S. Browning, Martha Christian Green, and John Witte, Sex, marriage, and family in world religions (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 424-425.
  2. An aside — Notice the 常 in the terms. This shows how at odds Confucianism and Buddhism can be, since the core principle of Buddhism — impermanence / everything in constant change — is 無常, literally "not constant".
  3. Liji [Book of Rites], “Zhongyong,” 32.1, as quoted and translated in Michael David Kaulana Ing, The Dysfunction of ritual in Early Confucianism (Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2013), https://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199924899.001.0001/acprof-9780199924899.  The underlined words are the translation for jie.
  4. New World Encyclopedia contributors, "Golden Mean (philosophy)," New World Encyclopedia, accessed Marcy 12, 2018, http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Golden_mean_(philosophy)
  5. Geoffrey Redmond and Tze-ki Hon, "Cosmology," Teaching the I Ching (Book of Changes), (Oxford Scholarship Online, November, 2014), https://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199766819.001.0001/acprof-9780199766819.
  6. Japanese Poems Old and New (Kokin waka shu, 11th-century Japan), no. 53.


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Interpreting Love Narratives in East Asian Literature and Film Copyright © 2019 by John R Wallace is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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