Confucian Humanism (excerpts) and Views of Modern Sinologists
confuciusBorn in 551 B.C. in the state of Lu, in the southern part of the present Shandong province in eastern China, Confucius was poor in his youth, but entered the government of Lu and by the time he was 50 had reached high official rank. Due to political intrigue, he was soon forced to resign and go into exile. For 13 years, he traveled from state to state, hoping to realize his ideal of political and social reform. Succeeding in nowhere, he returned to Lu where he died 3 years later in 479 B.C.
君子不器。Gentleman is not a pot, utensil, or instrument
富与贵是人之所欲也、不以其道得之、不处也。贫与贱是人之所恶也、不以其道得之、不去也。Riches and honors are what men desire. If it can’t be obtained in the proper way, they should not be held. Poverty and meanness are what men dislike. If it can’t be obtained in the proper way, they should not be avoided. Analects, Book IV
Virtue is the root; wealth is the result. If he makes the root his secondary object, and the result his primary, he will only wrangle with his people, and teach them rapine.
The virtuous ruler, by means of his wealth, makes himself more distinguished. The vicious ruler accumulates wealth at the expense of his life.
The commander of the forces of a large state may be carried off, but the will of even a common man cannot be taken from him.

——The Analects

叶公语孔子曰、吾党有直躬者、其父攘羊而子证正之。孔子曰、吾党之直者异于是、父为子隐子为父隐、直在其中矣。The Duke of She informed Confucius saying “Among us here are those who may be styled upright in their conduct. If their father have stolen a sheep, they will bear witness to the fact.” Confucius said “Among us, in our part of the country, those who are upright are different from this. The father conceals the misconduct of the son, and the son conceals the misconduct of the father. Uprightness is to be found in this.” Analects, Book VIII, chapter XVIII
大学之到、在明明德、在亲民、在止于至善。知止、而后有定、定、而后能静、静、而后能安、安、而后能虑、虑、而后能得。物有本末、事有终始、知所先后、则近道矣。 古之欲明明德于天下者、先治其国、欲治其国者、先齐其家、欲齐其家者、先修其身、欲修其身者、先正其心、欲正其心者、先诚其意、欲诚其意者、先致其知、致知、在格物。 物格、而后知至、知至、而后意诚、意诚、而后心正、心正、而后身修、身修、而后家齐、家齐、而后国治、国治而后天下平。《大学》What the Great Learning teaches is, to illustrate illustrious virtue, to renovate the people, and to rest in the highest excellence. The point where to rest being known, the object of pursuit is then determined; and that being determined, a calm unperturbed-ness may be attained. To that calmness there will succeed a tranquil repose. In that repose there may be artful deliberation, and that deliberation will be followed by the attainment of the desired end. Things have their roots and their branches. Affairs have their end and their beginning. To know what is first and what is last will lead near to what is taught in the great learning. The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the kingdom, first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things. Things being investigated, knowledge became complete. Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere. Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were rectified. Their hearts being rectified, their persons were cultivated. Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated. Their families being regulated, their states were rightly governed. Their states being rightly governed, the whole kingdom was made tranquil and happy.

—–The Great Learning

故君子不可以不修身,思修身不可以不事亲,思事亲不可以不知人,思知人不可以不知天。天下之达道五,所以行之者三。曰君臣也,父子也,夫妇也,昆弟也,朋友也,五者天下之达道也。知、仁、勇三者,天下之达德也。所以行之者一也。《中庸》The duties of universal obligation are five, and the virtues wherewith they are practiced are three. The duties are those between sovereign and minister, between father and son, between husband and wife, between elder brother and younger, and those belonging to the intercourse of friends. Those five are the duties of universal obligation. Knowledge, magnanimity, and energy, there three, are the virtues universally binding. And the means by which they carry the duties into practice is singleness.

—-The Doctrine of the Mean

子曰:古之学者为己、今之学者为人。Confucius said: “In the past learning was for one’s own sake; today learning is for the sake of others.” Analects, Book XIV
MenciusBorn in 371, Mencius was a native of the state of Zou, in the present southern part of Shandong province. He was link to Confucius through his study under a disciple of Zi Si, who in turn was Confucius’ grandson. He was an eminent scholar, traveled to other states, vainly trying to get a hearing for his ideas among their rulers. He died in 289 B.C. (?) and represents the idealistic wing of Confucianism.
To walk in the great path of the world; when he obtains his desire for office, to practice his principles for the good of the people; when that desire is disappointed, to practice them alone; to be above the power of riches and honors to make dissipated, of poverty and mean condition to make swerve from principle, and of power and force to make bend–these characteristics constitute the great man.
由是观之、无恻隐之心,非人也;无羞恶之心,非人也;无辞让之心,非人也;无是非之心,非人也。恻隐之心、仁之端也;羞恶之心、义之端也;辞让之心、礼之端也;是非之心、智之端也。From this it can be seen that whoever is devoid of the heart of compassion is not human, whoever is devoid of the heart of shame is not human, whoever is devoid of the heart of courtesy and modesty is not human, and whoever is devoid of the heart of right and wrong is not human. The heart of compassion is the germ of benevolence; the heart of shame, of dutifulness; the heart of courtesy and modesty, of the observance of the rites; the heart of right and wrong, of wisdom.
Life is what I want; righteousness is also what I want. If I cannot have both, I would rather take the righteousness than life. I like life indeed, but there is that which I like more than life, and therefore I will not seek to possess it by any improper ways. I dislike death indeed, but there is something I dislike more than death, and therefore there are occasions when I will not avoid danger.
That is why Heaven, when it is about to confer a great office on a man, always first tests his resolution, exhausts his frame and makes him suffer starvation and hardship, frustrates his efforts so as to shake him from his mental latitude, toughen his nature and make good his deficiencies.
牛山之木尝美矣,以其郊于大国也,斧斤伐之,可以为美乎?是其日夜之所息,雨露之所润,非无萌蘖之生焉,牛 羊又从而牧之,是以若彼濯濯也。人见其濯濯也,以为未尝有材焉,此岂山之性也哉?虽存乎人者,岂无仁义之心哉?其所以放其良心者,亦犹斧斤之于木也,旦旦 而伐之,可以为美乎?其日夜之所息,平旦之气,其好恶与人相近也者几希,则其旦昼之所为,有梏亡之矣。梏之反复,则其夜气不足以存;夜气不足以存,则其违 禽兽不远。人见其禽兽也,而以为未尝有材焉者,是岂人之情也哉?故苟得其养,无物不长;苟失其养,无物不消。
There was a time when the trees were luxurious on the Ox Mountain. As it is on the outskirts of a great metropolis, the trees are constantly lopped by axes. Is it any wonder that they are no longer fine? With the respite they get in the day and in the night, and the moisening by the rain and dew, there is certainly no lack of new shoots coming out, but then the cattle and sheep come to graze upon the mountain. That is why it is as bald as it is. People, seeing only its baldness, tend to think that it never had any trees. But can this possibly be the nature of a mountain? Can what is in man be completely lacking in moral inclinations? A man’s letting go of his true heart is like the case of the trees and the axes. When the trees are lopped day after day, is it any wonder that they are no longer fine? If, in spite of the respite a man gets in the day and in the night and of the effect of the morning air on him, scarcely any of his likes and dislikes resemble those of other men, it is because what he does in the course of the day once again dissipates what he has gained. If this dissipation happens repeatedly, then the influence of the air in the night will no longer be able to preserve what was originally in him, and when that happens, the man is not far removed from an animal. Others, seeing his resemblance to an animal, will be led to think that he never had any native endowment. But can that be what a man is genuinely like? Hence, given the right nourishment there is nothing that will not grow, and deprived of it there is nothing that will not wither away.
“In point of position, you are the prince and I am your subject. How dare I be friends with you? In point of virtue, it is you who ought to serve me. How can you presume to be friends with me?”

Mencius, 5B:7

荀子 Xunzi 298-238 B.C.
“The nature of man is evil; his goodness is acquired through hypocrisy.” Xunzi
人之所以为人者,非特以二足而无毛也,以其有辨也。夫禽兽有父子而无父子之亲,有牝牡而无男女之别。故人道莫不有辩,辩莫大于分,分莫大于礼。Man is not truly man in the fact that he, uniquely, has two feet and no hair over his body, but rather in the fact that he makes social distinctions. Birds and beasts have fathers and offspring, but not the affection between father and son. They are male and female, but they do not have the proper separation between males and females. Hence in the Way of Humanity there must be distinctions. No distinctions are greater than those of society. No social distinctions are greater than the Li (rituals).



When there is doubt in cases of litigation, be less lenient with the younger brother rather than older brother, with nieces or cousins rather than with uncles, with the wealthy rather than the poor, with the stubborn and conniving rather than the foolish and simple-minded. When there are disputes over property and business, protect the commoner rather than officials so as to prevent bankruptcy and foreclosure. When there are controversies over reputation and personal image, give the benefit of the doubt to the officials rather than plebeians so as to preserve moral integrity.

Hai Rui, political figure, government official and trial judge of Ming Dynasty

Frederick W. Mote

The Problem of Evil, and Consequences of A World without Sin

moteThe late Dr. Hu Shih, eminent historian of Chinese thought and culture, used to say with sly delight that centuries of Christian missionaries had been frustrated and chagrined by the apparent inability of Chinese to take sin seriously. Were we to work out fully all the consequences for Chinese society of the model offered by an organismic cosmos functioning through the dynamism of harmony, we might well be able to relate the absence of a sense of sin to it. For in such a cosmos there can be no parts wrongfully present; everything that exists belongs, even if no more appropriately than as the consequence of a temporary imbalance, a disharmony. Evil as a positive or active force cannot exist; much less can it be frighteningly personified. No devils can struggle with good forces for mastery of humans and the universe, and people’s errors, unlike sin in other worlds, can neither offend personal gods not threaten a person’s individual existence. The question of immortality in a future that “really counts”–if one is lucky enough or good enough to transcend the material present reality–does not even arise. The being true in the Great Tradition, countertendencies in the popular religions in China’s highly congruent culture were correspondingly weakened. The consequence of such a definition of the problem of evil for the Chinese character seems to be something like the issue at stake in the frequently encountered distinction between shame cultures and guilt cultures. Whether this formula, derived by anthropologists from observations of relatively simple cultures, will have lasting value when applied to a civilization as complex as that of traditional China may be questioned. But it suggests that further hypotheses about Chinese traditional character and personality types might well be guided by some reference to a cosmology which apparently releases people from the mechanical workings of fear and sin doctrines, and offers them a less threatened and less threatening personal relationship to their cosmos. Yet Chinese ethical philosophy in all periods stresses the necessity to engage in self -examination and self-correction; the philosophic foundations for a moral responsibility were not lacking.

———- Intellectual Foundations of China, pp.21-22

plaksThe Chinese [narrative] tradition has tended to place nearly equal emphasis on the overlapping of events, the interstitial spaces between events, in effect on non-events alongside of events in conceiving of human experience in time. In fact, the reader of the major Chinese narrative works soon becomes conscious of the fact that those clearly defined events which do stand out in the texts are nearly always set into a thick matrix of non-events: static description, set speeches, discursive digressions, and a host of other non-narrative elements. … The ubiquitous potential presence of a balanced, totalized, dimension of meaning may partially explain why a fully realized sense of the tragic does not materialize in Chinese narrative. Such characters as Prince Shen-sheng, Hsiang Yu, Yueh Fei, and even Chia Pao-yu clearly possess the qualities of the tragic figure to one extent or another. But in each case the implicit understanding of the logical interrelation between their particular situation and the overall structure of existential intelligibility serves to blunt the pity and fear the reader experiences as he witnesses their individual destinies. In other words, Chinese narrative is replete with individuals in tragic situations, but the secure inviolability of the underlying affirmation of existence in its totality precludes the possibility of the individual’s tragic fate taking on the proportions of a cosmic tragedy. Instead, the bitterness of the particular case of mortality ultimately settles back into the ceaseless alternation of patterns of joy and sorrow, exhilaration and despair that go to make up an essentially affirmative view of the universe of experience.

——- Chinese Narrative, Critical and Theoretical Essays

hansenOne absolutely central aspect of the concept of moral autonomy in Western philosophy involves distinguishing morality proper from conventional mores. … This basic element of autonomy in Western ethical theory generates the distinction between codes of etiquette, fashion, and customs, on the one hand, and morality on the other. Etiquette, fashion and customs are products of history. They are, from moral point of view, accidental. One can always ask whether one ought to follow accepted and established prescriptions. It does not follow from mere existence of any such system that its prescriptions are morally correct. It may fairly be asked if Confucius’s traditionalist political philosophy has this distinct concept of morality at all.

Chad Hansen, “Punishment and Dignity in China” in

Individualism and Holism

For instance, the Frenchman Maupassant’s Une vie is human literature about the animal passions of man; China’s Prayer Mat of Flesh, however, is a piece of non-human literature. The Russian Kuprin’s novel Jama is literature describing the lives of prostitutes, but China’s Nine-tailed Tortoise is non-human literature. The difference lies merely in the different attitudes conveyed by the work, one is dignified and one is profligate; one has aspirations for human life and therefore feels grief and anger in the face of inhuman life, whereas the other is complacent about human life, and the author even seems to derive a feeling of satisfaction from it, and in many cases to deal with his material in an attitude of amusement and provocation. In one simple sentence: the difference between human and non-human literature lies in the attitude that informs the writing; whether it affirms human life or inhuman life.

___Zhou Zuren “Humane Literature”, 1918, Modern Chinese Literary Thought. ed. Kirk Denton. Stanford UP, 1996. Pp.155-6

Chinese literature today is lifeless and stale, unable to stand next to that of Europe. . . . . The problem of Confucianism has been attracting much attention in the nation: this is the first indication of the revolution in ethics and morality. … The classical literature is pompous and pedantic and has lost the principles of expressiveness and realistic description. Eremitic literature is highly obscure and abstruse and is self-satisfied writing that provides no benefit to the majority of its readers. In form, Chinese literature has followed old precedents; it has flesh without bones and body without soul. It is a decorative and not a practical product. In content, its vision does not go beyond kings, officials, spirits, ghosts, and the fortunes or misfortunes of individuals. As for the universe, or human life, or society–they are simply beyond its ken. Such are the common failings of these three kinds of literature.

___Chen Duxiu “On Literary Revolution,” Modern Chinese Literary Thought. p.144