With divorce rates spiraling, the biography of ancient sage Confucius resonates once again.
- By Alexa OlesenAlexa Olesen was a foreign correspondent for the Associate Press in Beijing for eight years and has been a reporter for Foreign Policy. She now works for ChinaSix, a New York-based consulting firm.
The scandal is more than 2,500 years old; but to the Chinese Internet, it feels fresh and exciting. State media People’s Daily has called it an "ancient celebrity divorce storm," and one reader on microblogging platform Weibo asked, hopefully as a joke, whether it was "just a rumor." This tempest in a fine China teacup is the perpetually surprising fact that Confucius — the famous Chinese philosopher born in 551 B.C. whose teachings in The Analects emphasized the primacy of family obligations — was a divorced single dad.
The story of how Confucius married at 19, had a son, and split from his wife has been around for thousands of years. But it found renewed resonance in China when the Ministry of Civil Affairs announced on June 17 that 3.5 million couples had filed for divorce there in 2013, up 12.8 percent from the previous year. The ministry added that this capped 10 years of steadily rising divorce numbers. Less than a month after those figures came out, an essay by Li Jingheng, a young history scholar in the large city of Chengdu, Sichuan, from April 2011 got recycled and began pinging around the Chinese Internet. It showed up on a forum hosted by state-run People’s Daily and a popular news feed on mobile chat platform WeChat.
The facts themselves are old news, but Li’s essay, which reads more like self-help than scholarship, has won over modern readers. One wrote on Weibo that the piece was "lively and interesting. When the image of the sage is filled out with such detail, it narrows the distance between saints and mortals." Another Weibo user cryptically but movingly wrote, "As someone who has led the life of a restless loser, I took no small comfort in reading this story. For so many years, I’ve felt that I let my mother and father down."
Because most details of Confucius’s marriage and divorce have been lost to history, Li uses a few scant clues — in Chinese idiom, "spider silk and horse tracks" — to construct a portrait of Confucius as an open-minded humanist, someone who valued compassion over ceremony. Li writes that Confucius raised his son, Bo Yu, as a single dad after the sage divorced his wife for unknown reasons. (Sam Crane, an expert on ancient Chinese philosophy at Williams College, and others have argued that Li is making a leap to label the arrangement "divorce," but records do indicate that the sage was long estranged from his wife.) After Bo Yu’s death many years later, when the scholar was 67, Confucius gave his daughter-in-law permission to remarry. The marriage of Confucius’s grandson, Zi Si, also ended in divorce, Li writes, creating three generations of unions that did not fit the socially acceptable norm.
It’s a somewhat radical reimagining of the scholar and his family. It certainly runs counter to the popular image of the infallible robed philosopher who laid the foundation of a patriarchal system that still pervades much of Chinese society today. Li argues that Confucius’s era was more tolerant than people realize and that some mistakenly confuse Confucius’s ideas with those of neo-Confucian conservatives who took his precepts to extremes. He writes that Confucius was compassionate and lacked the "hypocritical moralism of the philosophers in the Song and Ming dynasties." He notes that in ancient China, new brides could chose to leave their marriage within the first three months if they didn’t get along with their spouse. Scholars in Confucius’s time were more hedonistic, he writes, and unabashed about their fondness for food, drink, and sex: "Passion between a man and a woman was considered natural." Li also argues — not terribly convincingly — that Confucius showed something of a feminist side in the Book of Rites when he noted that men should lie with their concubines, even the older ones, once every five days until the woman reaches her 50th year. This showed that Confucius believed the sexual needs of mature women "ought to be met," Li explains. He concludes that this is "helpful background" for understanding Confucius’s divorce and why he allowed his daughter-in-law to remarry.
The story has gained traction against the backdrop of spiraling divorce rates but also comes amid growing fatigue and disillusionment over outdated moral commandments emanating from the ruling Communist Party. A sweeping anti-corruption campaign that kicked off in late 2012 has been targeting bribe-takers, but also adulterers. Half a dozen officials were expelled from the party this summer for adultery, the state-run China Daily said. On Aug. 6, Shen Peiping, former vice governor of southern Yunnan province, was booted from the party for the same. But this morality campaign marks a level of state-mandated prudishness that strikes many as absurd. In this social context, it’s likely reassuring for people to learn that even Confucius, who is widely respected and venerated in China — schoolchildren recite his teachings and President Xi Jinping recommends that cadres read him — struggled with matrimony.
Crane told Foreign Policy that Li’s article reflects high anxiety in today’s China over a perceived decline in ethics and morals. "The rising divorce rate could be seen as a moral failure," Crane said. But, he said, Li seems to be arguing that "no, we’re not worse off today" and "maybe the kids today are all right from an ancient point of view." Crane cautioned that not all scholars are going to buy this version of Confucius and his thinking. "I assume there will be some harrumphs from people who see themselves as Confucian with a capital ‘C,’" he said.
Li is not the first to engage Confucius’s personal history and lend it a contemporary gloss. In the 1930s, the novelist Lin Yutang gave a talk in Shanghai titled "Confucius as I Know Him" that touched on the ancient sage’s split from his wife. Lin expounded that it was likely Confucius’s appetites, broadly defined, that doomed his marriage. "He was an epicurean not only in music, in his love of curios, his passion for the antique, but also even in the personal matters of eating and clothing," Lin said, adding that it was likely Confucius’s "over-refinement in the matter of food that caused his divorce." (Lin, it is worth noting, was himself married to a cookbook author.)
Chinese today continue to reimagine the sage. Stephen Angle, chair of the Center for East Asian Studies at Wesleyan University, told FP that Confucianism appeals to many Chinese, but they wonder which brand of Confucianism to embrace: "the old-fashioned, rigid" neo-Confucian school or the original version which was actually more "flexible and progressive." Angle said Li’s article at its core appears interested not in gossiping about Confucius’s dirty laundry but in sketching a vision of ancient China where people were "much more flexible about relations between men and women." That interpretation seems a much better fit, Angle said, for China in the 21st century.