Humanism: Chinese Conception of

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Humanism: Chinese Conception of

The dominant Chinese conception of humanism is the Confucian theory of ren. The term ren has been translated in various ways, including as "benevolence," "goodness," "virtue," "humanity," "humanness," and "being authoritative." These different translations indicate the complexity of this Confucian theory.

In introducing ren as the central notion of his philosophy, Confucius (551479 b.c.e.) takes it both as a general ethical quality and as a particular one. As a particular ethical quality, the term means "to love one's fellow men" (Analects, 12:22). "Benevolence" is an appropriate translation for capturing this sense of love and affection. Ren as benevolence is distinguished from other particular virtues, such as courage and knowledge, and can be conceived independently of them. More often, however, ren refers to a general dispositional state that embraces particular character traits such as knowledge, courage, filial piety, loyalty, respectfulness, tolerance, trustworthiness in word, and generosity. In this sense, ren is a virtue in its entirety or in its inclusiveness and has also been reasonably rendered or referred to as "virtue" or "complete virtue."

Ren as the dispositional state is based on what a human being is. Both the Doctrine of the Mean (chap. 20) and Mencius (7a: 16)two texts that have been grouped together with the Analects (plus the Great Learning ) as the four core Confucian classicsinclude the formula "Ren zhe ren ye," literally "to be ren is to be a man." This means that ren is the quality that makes a person a true person. It is for this reason that many translators choose "humanity" or "humanness" to render this term. Such a translation is essentially correct, and it effectively points out that the Confucian theory of ren is a form of humanism. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that, while both "humanity" and "humaneness" can refer to the in-born characteristic of a person, the notion of ren, although based on the special human characteristic, is a cultivated disposition, that is, humanity or humanness in its cultivated form. The theory of ren, then, is the combination of humanism and virtue ethics.

Confucius calls a person who possesses the character of ren, junzi (variously translated as "the gentleman," "the profound person," or "the exemplary person"). This term literally means "the lord's son" and refers to the aristocrats or feudal princes. Confucius shifts its meaning to "the man possessing noble human qualities." By doing so, he emphasizes that the good quality of human beings is not limited to one special class but is related to the humanity that all humans share in common. Simply put, because ren is what makes a person a person, junzi, a person of ren, is one who has fulfilled and manifested what is genuinely human.

Underlying Beliefs

Understanding what is genuinely human in the Confucian theory of ren requires knowing ren 's underlying metaphysical and psychological beliefs. According to ancient Chinese belief, Heaven (tian, literally meaning "sky") has an impersonal ordering force. Heaven is said to have its dao (literally, "path" or "road," usually translated as "way," meaning the characteristic mode of existence or action of a thing). Everything in the world has its own dao, or way, as well. Each particular thing's dao is related to the dao of Heaven in the way that the dao of each thing is the individualization of the dao of Heaven in that thing. If everything follows its imparted or natural dao, the dao prevails in the whole world and the world is a harmonious and integrated organism. Following this, the human dao is thought to be the dao of Heaven as individualized in a human life. It is the dao in accordance with which one should lead one's life. If one can live in accordance with the human dao, one also embodies the dao of Heaven. Such a life is meaningful and authentic. In Chinese intellectual history, it was Confucius who first raised the following question: Where is the dao of Heaven as individualized in a human life, that is, the way (dao ) of being a human? From Confucius on, it became the common task for classical Chinese philosophers to find and establish the dao. Chinese philosophical schools in the classical period offered competing accounts of what dao is.

Human dao, the individualization of the dao of Heaven in human beings, is called de (related to the verb "to get"). A person who acquires the dao of Heaven is a person of de. The term appears in the ancient oracle bone inscriptions, referring to the psychic power that an individual possesses to influence and attract other people and even the surrounding environment. In particular, de means the power that rulers hold that enables them to command others without appealing to physical force. Because the exertion of such power is associated with desirable attributes such as kindness and dutifulness, de comes to be used to refer to these attributes or qualities as well, and hence it is usually translated into English as "virtue."

The Analects has this dao/de (way/virtue) framework at its core in its discussion of what a human being is, as in the following passage: "How can a man be said either to have anything or not to have anything who fails to hold on to virtue [ de ] with all his might or to believe in the dao with all his heart[?]" (19:2). Both dao and de, however, are formal concepts. When Confucius sets out to reflect systematically upon what human dao or de is, that is, the way of being a human, he must provide a substantive specification of its content.

The theory of ren is a specification of what Confucius thinks human de or human dao is. (This explains why both de and ren in the Analects can be translated as "virtue." De is a formal conception of virtue, whereas ren is Confucius's understanding of what it is in a substantial sense). Hence, Confucius's theory of ren, that is, his humanism, is about the dao, or way, of being a human, and in his pursuit of human dao, he appeals to ren (the virtuous disposition that makes a human being a true human being).

Achieving Ren

How, then, does one achieve ren? Confucius's first reply is that to achieve ren is "to return to li " (Analects, 12:1). Li refers to the traditional ritual and cultural practices, fully developed in China's early Zhou dynasty (founded in the eleventh century b.c.e.). Its core is a humane social hierarchy modeled on family relationships. "Let the ruler a ruler, the subject a subject, the father a father, the son a son" (12:11). "To return to li " means to be shaped or transformed by traditional values. Moreover, to be a person of ren also involves an emotional aspect. According to Confucius, to be ren means to "love your fellow men" (12:22). The love is based on one's filial love for parents and brothers and is extended to all human beings (1:2, 1:6). Furthermore, ren involves an intellectual aspect: "The Master said, 'In his dealings with the world the gentleman is not invariably for or against anything. He is on the side of what is appropriate [ yi ]'" (4:10). This intellectual aspect enables a Confucian agent to avoid following traditional values blindly.

The cultivation of ren is not an isolated process. The path toward human realization goes through family, community, tradition, state, and even the whole world. To promote human realization, the Confucian school teaches, in addition to the classics that record traditional values, six arts in its curriculum: ritual, music, archery, charioteering, calligraphy, and arithmetic. To a great extent, this corresponds to the Renaissance studia humanitatis.

Because Confucius's ethics has a metaphysical basisthat ren is the manifestation of Heaven's dao in a human beingit presupposes that humans must have the root of de or ren in their original nature that comes from Heaven. Confucius himself holds that humans have a natural potential for becoming good: "Is ren really far away? No sooner do I desire it than it is here" (Analects, 7:30). Nevertheless, although everyone has the root of ren, it is through learning and practice that one can manifest and actualize it. Thus, Confucius says that "men are close to one another by nature [ xing ]. They diverge as a result of repeated practice" (17:2).

The Beliefs of Mencius

Mencius (c. 371c. 289 b.c.e.), the most influential Confucian after Confucius, focuses on a specification of what this natural basis of ren is. Mencius is known for his view that xing (usually translated as "nature" or "human nature") is good. He believes that in everyone's natural endowment there is an organ called xin (heart/mind) that carries with it four inborn seeds (duan ) for moral behavior: the heart of compassion (also called "the unbearable mind"), the sense of shame and disgust, the sense of compliance and respect, and the sense of right and wrong. These seeds are not infused into people from outside, but were there from the beginning (Mencius, 6a/6). Human beings do not have to learn or work in order to get them; in fact, they have them just as they have four limbs (2a/6). When these seeds grow and become mature, they turn into four major virtues: benevolence, dutifulness, observance of propriety, and wisdom. These are not four independent virtues, but four different aspects of the general virtue of ren.

When Mencius says that human nature is good, he does not mean that everything that is inborn is good. He is fully aware that human nature itself is a complex, inclusive not only of elements that are good but also of elements that are either morally neutral or have little moral value. When he says that xing (human nature) is good, he refers only to one part of this complex, the part that is composed of the four seeds and the flourishing of which makes a noble person (junzi ).

Mencius singles out this part from the complex of human nature because it is the part that makes a human being a human being, and because it distinguishes human beings from other animals (Mencius, 2a/6). Although humans have these inborn seeds, the seeds are fragile and it takes great human effort to make them grow. A person who completely casts away these seeds is not much different from the beasts (6a/8). A person who preserves and develops these seeds becomes an excellent person (4b/19). It is the four seeds that form the characteristic feature of being a human, and to be a person of ren is to actualize these seeds.

Because ren has such a natural basis that is imparted from the dao of Heaven, the actualization of ren is not just a moral ideal, but a state in which one is unified with Heaven. This state is called cheng ("self-completion," also translated as "sincerity" or "creativity"), in which one completely actualizes one's humanity, one's self-understanding, and Heaven, and in which one can help other people fulfill their humanity. Cheng is an ever-renewing and ceaseless process of self-understanding and creativity. In this way, a person becomes a counterpart of Heaven and Earth, or a participant in their creative activity, in the sense that as Heaven and Earth help things in the world grow and flourish, persons of ren fulfill others as well as themselves.

To sum up, Confucian humanism pursues a desirable kind of humanity and involves features such as a belief in the goodness of human nature, confidence in the power of education and self-cultivation in actualizing human goodness, an emphasis on traditional community and family values, the requirement of altruist love and affection, and a strong belief in the organismic unity of man and nature. This Confucian human ideal was further elaborated by subsequent Confucians in different dynasties, most notably by the Neo-Confucianism of the Song-Ming period (9601644). In coping with the challenge from Buddhism, Neo-Confucianism sought to provide a more solid and detailed cosmological basis for Confucian humanism.

Contemporary Revival of Confucianism

In the second half of the twentieth century, there was a revival of Confucianism, both in East Asia and in the United States, called "New Confucianism," or "The Third Epoch of Confucian Humanism." The revival of Confucianism was greatly encouraged and promoted in the 1970s and 1980s by the industrial success of the states located in the circle of Confucian culture. Led by Tu Wei-ming, Confucian scholars explored the relationship between Confucian humanism and the East Asian entrepreneurial spirit and argued that Confucianism provided an alternative view of Enlightenment rationalism and modern Western liberalism. They further maintained that Confucianism, the main concern of which is the well-being of humanity, can answer many serious challenges in the contemporary world community, and that Confucian values should be universalized.

The contemporary value of Confucian humanism can also be appreciated from its similarity to the virtue ethics of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.). Aristotelian virtue ethics, which has seen its own revival within contemporary ethics, is attractive for two main reasons. First, it concerns the goodness of the agent's whole life rather than focusing on moral acts, as modern Western ethics does; second, its consideration is centered on the character and virtue that a person must have in order to live happily or to flourish, rather than contending that the task of ethics is to formulate rules and principles to govern moral acts. The Confucian humanist ethics shares these two features. Its main concern is to find the human dao, that is, the path a person's life should take, and this dao is through the cultivation of ren, the virtuous disposition based on humanity. Indeed, the Confucian view that ren is what makes a human being a true human being is similar to Aristotle's definition of human virtue (areté ) as the excellent performance of human function as a rational animal, although Confucians emphasize not only rationality but also emotion and human relationality. It is in elaborating the notion of ren that Confucianism reflects and discusses issues such as human nature and its fulfillment, the role of social custom and traditions, moral character and cultivation, emotion, habituation and education, the mode of moral reasoning, family, friendship, the role of ethics in politics, and so on. These are precisely Aristotle's main concerns in his exposition of virtue. To a great extent, Aristotelian ethics is taken as a model by contemporary virtue ethics precisely because these important ethical concerns have been left out or at least marginalized in dominant modern moral theories. A virtue ethics approach to Confucianism can help bring out the contemporary significance of Confucian humanism.

See also Chinese Thought ; Consciousness: Chinese Thought ; Virtue Ethics .


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Tu, Wei-ming. "The Third Epoch of Confucian Humanism." In his Way, Learning, and Politics: Essays on the Confucian Intellectual, 141159. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Jiyuan Yu

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Humanism: Chinese Conception of

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