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Jen (Chin., ‘benevolence’). A central virtue in the Confucian tradition, also commonly tr. as ‘humanity’, ‘human-heartedness’, ‘love’, ‘altruism’, etc. The Chinese character is formed by combining the elements ‘human’ and ‘two’, suggesting a reference to the quality of human relationships. In early Confucian texts, jen is employed in two senses: (i) as the particular human virtue of benevolence or goodness which is embodied to some extent in all people (but perhaps especially in the nobility); (ii) and more importantly, as the moral life ideally embodied.

Confucius freed jen from the exclusive possession of the nobility, rendering it a moral quality that can be pursued as a goal by human beings regardless of their social position. As a general term, jen, for Confucius, embraces both i (‘righteousness’) and li (‘propriety’).

In the thought and teaching of Mencius, jen is made into one of the four cardinal virtues.

Other schools of thought quickly criticized the Confucian understanding of jen. Mo Tzu saw the Confucian jen as socially divisive because of what he took to be its partiality, and taught ‘universal love’ (chien ai, literally, ‘a love that does not make distinctions’) in its stead.

Taoists such as Lao-Tzu and Chuang-Tzu challenged the Confucian understanding of jen on the grounds that it was part of wei, the sort of contrived action they sought to avoid.

Nevertheless, chen-jen (real or perfect person) is admired as the one who bears all things with equanimity.

In later neo-Taoist texts (hsüan-hsüeh), jen refers to the universal extension of love, by which one forms mystically one body with Heaven and Earth.

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