I The Positive Importance of Sexual Desire

Confucian thought recognizes quite straightforwardly that sexuality is a central component of human nature, and that the appropriate expression of sexuality makes a key contribution to a flourishing life. Many passages in the foundational texts reflect this acknowledgment, including the passage I open this essay with, from Mencius 5A2: “A man and woman living together is the most important of human relationships.” Mencius describes sexuality as the characteristic passion of a young adult: “When [a man] begins to take an interest in women, he yearns for the young and beautiful; when he has a wife, he yearns for his wife.”4 One of the few statements appearing twice in the Analects is Confucius’ candid remark, “I have never seen anyone who loved virtue as much as sex.”5 In painting a picture of earthly bliss, Mencius gives marriage a prominent role: “When [Shun] became Emperor, clad in precious robes, playing on his lute, with the two daughters [of Yao] in attendance, it was as though this was what he had been used to all his life.”6

Sexual desire is not merely a fact, however; it is a fact with positive moral importance. Confucius chides a lover mentioned in one of the Poems (or Odes) for not loving enough. Analects 9.31 quotes: “The cherry tree/waves its blossoms./It is not that I do not think of you/But your house is so far away!” Confucius then remarks, “He does not really love her; if he did, would he mind the distance?” Mencius 5A1, quoted above, describes how our desires spur us on in key responsibilities, and in the relationships in which those responsibilities reside, from one stage of life to the next. Here is a more complete quotation:

When a person is young he yearns for his parents; when he begins to take an interest in women, he yearns for the young and beautiful; when he has a wife, he yearns for his wife; when he enters public life he yearns for his prince and becomes restless if he is without one.7

The responsibility to obey and care for one’s parents and to serve one’s ruler are fundamental Confucian duties; this passage shows that the responsibility to marry and to care for one’s spouse is similarly fundamental. The desires mentioned here equip us to pursue and fulfill some of the most important purposes of human life. Hence like the other yearnings mentioned, the sexual desire that provides a central motive in this relationship serves a critical moral purpose.

Confucianism is well known for placing a high value on filial piety— obedience and devotion to one’s parents. While the duty of a child to his or her parents may be more frequently mentioned, Mencius 5A2 indicates that the sexual union institutionalized in marriage is even more important. This point is particularly striking because the passage describes Shun, who is traditionally held up as a model of perfect character, but especially a model of the dutiful son. Shun is an especially powerful model because he remains devoted to his parents throughout his life, even after they and his older brother conspire to kill him, and yearns to heal their relationship. Much of the discussion of Shun in the Mencius focuses on his devotion to his parents and his older brother.8

In the case of his marriage, however, Shun seems to set aside filial piety by not informing his parents:

Wan Chang asked, ‘The Odes say,

How does one take a wife?

By first telling one’s parents.

Of men who truly believe in these words surely no one can surpass Shun. Why then did Shun marry without telling his parents?’

[Mencius replied, ] ‘Because he would not have been allowed to marry if he had told them. A man and woman living together is the

The Family in the Confucian Ethical Order 131 most important of human relationships. If he had told his parents, he would have to put aside the most important of human relationships and this would sour relationships with his parents. That is why he did not tell them.’9

In Mencius’ view, then, even one’s relationship with one’s parents should not take priority over one’s relationship with one’s spouse in cases of deep conflict.10 Shun’s marriage is too important both to his ethical purpose and to his happiness for him to risk letting his unbalanced parents interfere. The frequent mention of our duty to our parents suggests we may need more reminders of it, but in Mencius’ view the bond enshrined in marriage, a sexual bond, is the most important human bond.

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