Marriage, Love, and Sex in the Sinophone World

A Review of Deborah S. Davis and Sara L. Friedman’s ‘Wives, Husbands, and Lovers: Marriage and Sexuality in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Urban China’
M. Bob Kao

Same-sex marriage has been at the forefront of the global movement for gay and lesbian rights and is arguably becoming an international norm (though perhaps with Western origins and biases) with its legalization in numerous jurisdictions worldwide. Most recently, Uruguay, Brazil, France, and New Zealand legalized same-sex marriage in 2013, followed by England and Wales earlier this year. Legalization has been rapid in the U.S. following the ruling in U.S. v. Windsor last year finding the federal legislation defining marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman” unconstitutional. Thirty-three states now recognize same-sex marriage in addition to seven states that have rulings recognizing same-sex marriage put on hold pending appeals.

An exception to this trend toward marriage equality is Asia, where no country allows same-sex couples to marry. Taiwan has been seen as the most likely jurisdiction to legalize it given the relative social acceptance of LGBTQ people, though the current legislation has been stalled in the Legislative Yuan, much like president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) efforts in 2003.

Wives, Husbands, and Lovers: Marriage and Sexuality in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Urban China, edited by Deborah S. Davis, a sociologist, and Sara L. Friedman, an anthropologist, does not limit itself to same-sex marriage; rather, it discusses the modern development and conception of marriage, love, and sexual relationships from the framework of deinstitutionalization, which in this context is “a process through which previously take-for-granted assumptions about the propriety of premarital sex, grounds for divorce, or even the necessity of marriage no longer prevail.”

The various chapters track how people and society in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China re-examine and reconcile issues such as late marriages, parenthood and fertility, transnational marriages, same-sex marriages, and dating and matchmaking customs in the context of rapid cultural, political, social, economic development in the last two decades. “In this new environment, individuals have far more freedom to script their lives, but these new freedoms also create new anxieties for both individuals and society about how best to approach and understand marriage,” Davis and Friedman argue.

Chapters are organized by the three regions with the implicit purpose of comparing among the three and with other societies. The influence of the societies on one another is evident throughout the book, and the choice of the grouping is not forced given shared histories. The contributors write from the assumption that marriage involves more than just the couple and is located both in the public and the private spheres, with deinstitutionalization destabilizing the boundaries. As a sociological collection, both quantitative and qualitative methodologies are represented, but of particular interest to the general reader may be the ethnographic pieces by James Farrer on Chinese premarital intimacy, Petula Sik Ying Ho on Hong Kong men’s sexual desires and choices, and Hsiu-hua Shen on Taiwanese long-distance marriages divided by the Taiwan Strait, all of which humanize the academic topic through highlighting the people’s voices.

Each geographic section also includes a contribution from the legal perspective. Deborah S. Davis’s “On the Limits of Personal Autonomy: PRC Law and the Institution of Marriage” highlights the proactive role of the state in the shifting trends in marriage and relationships, Grace Shu-Chin Kuo’s “The Alternative Futures of Marriage: A Sociolegal Analysis of Family Law Reform in Taiwan” tracks the heteronormative development of family law in Taiwan, and John Nguyet Erni’s “Marriage Rights for Transgender People in Hong Kong: Reading the W Case” is an account of the legal battle which was a victory for a fully transitioned transgender woman but also for the entrenchment of heterosexual marriage and the gender binary.

Unfortunately, the opportunity for the legal pieces to serve as comprehensive contextual background for each jurisdiction was lost because of their narrow scopes. For example, a lack of discussion on China’s hukou, the household registration system, is glaring. Children born out of wedlock or without a father on the birth certificate cannot register in the hukou system. They are thus unable to access educational, social, and healthcare services, making a discussion on its effects on attitudes toward marriage, intimacy, and procreation appropriate. Similarly omitted is a conversation on the existence of a criminal adultery statute in Taiwan that punishes violators with a maximum sentence of one-year imprisonment. Unique among the three jurisdictions, this law is indicative of the level of state regulation of sexual behavior and undoubtedly has an influence on the perception of marriage and intimacy.

The more significant major flaw of this collection is its heteronormativity. Same-sex relationships and behaviors are mentioned, but largely confined in the introductory piece and the aforementioned chapters on family law development in Taiwan and the right to marry for transgender people in Hong Kong. The lack of attention by the rest of the chapters could have been ameliorated by an honest discussion of this shortcoming in the introduction. However, as it stands, an astute reader would, based on the introduction and title of the book, anticipate much more coverage on same-sex sexuality.

Consequently, the question that should be asked is: What would a chapter on same-sex sexuality in the anthology focus on? A discussion on the same-sex marriage debates currently happening in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other Sinophone societies, given the visibility of the struggles and the connections that can be drawn among the various efforts, would be appropriate.

As J. Michael Cole has pointed out, much of the vocal opposition to same-sex marriage in Taiwan has close connections with the American religious right that uses biblical and pseudoscientific arguments to argue that marriage has always been defined as between one man and one woman. Legalizing same-sex marriage, various opponents contend, would lead to people marrying children or pets and increasing amounts of child abuse. In Taiwan, these arguments are often masked as upholding traditional family values without recognizing the true origins of such purported values.

In Hong Kong, opponents of gay rights, including same-sex marriage, use similar rhetoric. Roger Wong, father of Umbrella Movement leader Joshua Wong, is convener of the Family School Sexual Orientation Discrimination Ordinance Concern Group, an organization dedicated to opposing the passage of the anti-discrimination ordinance protecting LGBTQ individuals because, in their view, this would be the first step toward legalizing same-sex marriage.

According to the minutes of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong for a meeting discussing Hong Kong’s obligations to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Right, Wong’s group “did not consider it appropriate to legislate against discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation. [Mr. Wong] stressed that heterosexuals’ rights to freedoms of expression, and thoughts should not be restricted and should be protected.” This is a straw man argument, as the ordinance is meant to protect against discriminatory acts and speech that rise to the level of harassment and is not a speech code.

The group, in a 59-slide PowerPoint presentation available on the Internet, also claims that any anti-discrimination ordinance violates the Hong Kong Basic Law, Hong Kong Bill of Rights, freedom of speech, freedom of belief, freedom of education, and freedom of thought. It also warns that if the legislation were to pass, schools would not be able to discriminate based on a teacher’s sexual orientation and service providers would not be able to refuse service to gay people.

Similar religious arguments have also been raised in Sinophone communities outside Hong Kong and Taiwan, as demonstrated by the rhetoric that helped the passage of Proposition 8, a California ballot measure that defined marriage as between a man and a woman, in 2008. Supporters of the proposition targeted ethnic Asian minorities by spreading lies and pseudoscience made popular by the religious right. Hak-Shing William Tam, one of the official proponents of the ballot measure and member of the American Return to God Prayer Movement, wrote in a Chinese language newspaper:

In a macro environment in which homosexuality is gradually accepted as being normal, child molesting by gays is gradually being viewed as normal in academia. Children who were subjected to sexual abuse only know to socialize with other men through sex. When they grow up, they would do the same to other children by molesting children of the same sex. Therefore, gay people grow in numbers even as most of them do not have children of their own.

Tam also espoused similar homophobic views in 2010 when he testified in the subsequent trial challenging the proposition. He asserted that legalizing same-sex marriage would lead to legalizing polygamy and incest, which he claimed was the result in the Netherlands when same-sex couples were allowed to marry. Rev. Yeh Kao Fang of Family Keepers International used the same rhetoric when the organization released Chinese-language television advertisements in 2008 urging voters to support the measure by equating same-sex marriage with incest, marrying children, and polygamy. These clips are still available on YouTube today.

Without a doubt, opposition to same-sex marriage and same-sex relationships is transnational, with the bigotry from the opposition all deriving from the same source in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Chinese American communities, that of the religious right. They also share the characteristics of being vocal religious minorities within their communities that combine these religious arguments with calls for maintenance of traditional Chinese values that supposedly defines marriage as between one man and one woman, a fact contradicted by the role of families in marriage and the legal nature of polygyny in Hong Kong until 1971 as shown in the collection.

To truly understand the deinstitutionalization of marriage in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China means taking into account the role of this rhetoric and the responses to it. The response so far has not been as united as the attacks. Just as the opposition is working together, whether overtly or merely adopting the same language and tactics, proponents of marriage equality should also be working more closely in solidarity. The shared histories and attitudes toward marriage in Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan, as the anthology shows, means the fight to expand its definition should also be shared.

There is no reason that the Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights cannot work more actively and visibly with groups such as API (Asian and Pacific Islander) Equality in California and activist groups in Hong Kong and China to join together in response to coordinated attacks of similar origins. Research on arguments against the opposition should be consolidated, strategies for bringing test cases to court or proposing legislation should be coordinated, and experiences, whether victories or setbacks, should be shared. This should be done openly to combine the strengths of the individual struggles in the face of the evangelical juggernaut. The efforts to police the boundaries of what is considered appropriate marital and sexual relations have been and will continue to be transnational, and supporters for same-sex marriage need to counter such bigotry on a level playing field to have maximize efficacy.

A discussion like this on the transnational struggles for same-sex marriage in Chinese-speaking societies would have been apt in the collection, but given that this transnational movement as imagined does not yet truly exist, the fault rests not with the editors. Hopefully, one day, an entire monograph on the success of a Sinophone transnational movement for marriage equality will be published.



Marriage and Sexuality in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Urban China

Edited by Deborah S. Davis and Sara L. Friedman

344 pages. Stanford University Press, 2014


M. Bob Kao is a PhD researcher in law at Queen Mary University of London and a former non-profit attorney in California. He blogs at Taiwan Law Blog.

One Response to “Marriage, Love, and Sex in the Sinophone World”

November 21, 2014 at 3:16 am, Wayne said:

This is the sweet and sour of societal evolution. It leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth knowing that some societies once considered blacks less than human, women belonged pregnant and barefoot while being denied equality and the right to vote. Up to today where LGBTQ in most of the world are not being recognized for being born as they are like African descendants and women of yore. For today’s repressed though, it is of little comfort that one day their light will shine just as the fruits of black and female communities protestations eventually ripened and overcame, and so shall the LGBTQ communities. But, it is certainly a drag that enlightened and repressed people must suffer the ball and chain of ignorance through societies meandering mud of time.


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