Traditional Chinese Virtues
China has always been known as an ancient civilization, and a land of propriety and righteousness.
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It abounds in historical heritage including ethical and moral theories advanced in various stages of history and a myriad of moral codes and rules. These have had a profound influence on traditional Chinese culture, and constitute the principal contents of the study of history and literature.
First of all, we have to mention Confucius who lived in the latter part of the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC). He was well versed in the historical records and literature of previous generations. Although he declared himself as a man "interested in ancient learning," he was not a man who swallowed ancient learning without digesting it, but one capable of advancing new theoretical ideas on the basis of assimilating the cultural heritage of the past. Confucius was the first thinker and educator in Chinese history to advance a systematic body of ethical and moral theories.
The study of human relationships m society was of great importance to Confucius. This was closely linked with the time in which he lived. The social chaos during the latter part of the Spring and Autumn Period caused a drastic change in the relationships between people such as rulers and subjects, ruling princes and ministers, and fathers and sons. The rites of the Zhou Dynasty had deteriorated, leaving people nothing to support their ideologies and actions. As a result, a social problem arose crying out for solution: By what principle should people's thought and actions be guided to achieve social stabilitv? Many thinkers of the time gave their answers to this vital question. For Confucius the answer was clear: this principle was "Ren," or benevolence, or perfect virtue. Many people, before him and contemporary to him, talked about "Ren," but none of them explained it so systematically, theoretically, explicitly and concisely as to be easily acceptable to people as Confucius did.
What, then, is "Ren"? Confucius' answer was simple, it was how to conduct oneself. More specifically, it was the standards by which a "superior man" or man of virtue and high learning should live. A discussion of "Ren" must involve the problems of how to conduct oneself, how to deal properly with the relationships between members of a family, between rulers and subjects and between friends.
Confucius' disciples collected many of his philosophical sayings and compiled them into the book called The Analecls. This became the most influential and most popular book in the history of Chinese culture. In The Analecls, although in different circum- stances Confucius used different words to define "Ren," the essence was always the same.
When Confucius spoke of "Ren," he did not proceed from ancestor worship, rather he gave plain explanations of how to conduct oneself. Neither did he proceed from protecting one part at the expense of another part, rather he tried his best to attend to the interest of both sides in the human relationship. His pupils asked him on various occasions, "What is 'Ren'?" He replied, "It is to love all men." One aspect of this was: "What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others." Another was: "A man of perfect virtue, wishing to be established himself, seeks also to establish others; wishing to be enlarged himself, he seeks also to enlarge others." The combination of these two aspects is called "Zhong Shu Zhi Tao" or "the doctrine of loyalty and forbearance," and is regarded as the essence of "Ren."
To adjust such human relationships as between rulers and subjects, or fathers and sons, Confucius required a mutual respect between the two parties in accordance with the principle of loyalty and forebearance. For example, if a father wishes to See filial piety from his son, he should cherish a deep love and kindness for his son. If the son does not wish his father to treat him without love and kindness, he should attend to his father with filial piety. Simi-laxly, if a ruler wishes his subjects to be loyal, he should behave like a ruler and have the moral character befitting a ruler. If a ruler does not behave like a ruler, a subject not like a subject, a father not like a father and a son not like a son, then it will be difficult to maintain stability in a family or in society.
It is clear that Confucius spoke of these in terms of ethics and morality. That is to say, a genuine ruler must observe ethical and moral rules, as must all others. Therefore, by "Ren" Confucius meant morality.
In The Analects, it is recorded: "Zi Zhang asked Confucius about perfect virtue. Confucius said, 'To be able to practice five things everywhere under heaven constitutes perfect virtue.’ He begged to ask what they were, and was told, ‘ Gravity, generosity of soul, sincerity, earnestness, and kindness. If you are grave, you will not be treated with disrespect. If you are generous, you will win all If you are sincere, people will repose trust in you. If you are earnest, you will accomplish much. If you are kind, this will enable you to employ the services of others."' Here Confucius advanced five moral principles, and the general name of these principles is "Ren." But he did not limit his moral principles to these five. Sometimes, he said the five things were to be "benign, upright, courteous, temperate, and complaisant."
Both Confucius and Confucianism attached great importance to moral character, believing that one should not go against the principles of morality when dealing with matters. Morality should not be forgotten under any circumstances, especially when one is in a desperate plight. The pursuit of fortune is a general desire of man. However, it must be restrained by morality. A fortune is acceptable when the means by which it is amassed is acceptable according to moral rules. But it is never acceptable when the means break these rules. Man lives for morality, not for fortune, and only in this way does life have value. For this reason, Confucius said: "The mind of the superior man is conversant with righteousness; the mind of the mean man is conversant with gain."
According to Confucius, righteousness can be united with gain. However, a superior man should refrain from seeking only gain while neglecting righteousness. In fact, he did not refuse the richness of a State and the ordinary people. When he arrived in the State of Wei, he observed, "How numerous are the people!" Ran You, who was driving his carriage, said, "Since they are thus numerous, what more shall be done for them?" The blaster replied, "Enrich them." Ran You asked further, "And when they have been enriched, what more shall be done?" The Master replied, "Teach them”.
It can be Seen that for Confucius ”Ren” in fact was a general name for myriad of virtues, and a standard for the value of man. At other time, he refers to this standard as the Dao(principle, or truth, or the right way). He said, “ A man can enlarge the principles which hr follows; those principles do not enlarge the man” Man is the subject, with the ability to understand and promote the truth. It is for this purpose that man set the Dao as the final goal of his whole life. The Dao, however, cannot be easily recognized or understood by man. Only by studying and exploring diligently, can man discover and experience the truth. It this sense, the Dao is more valuable than the life of a man. A man’s life is limited but the Dao is eternal. Therefore, Confucius said with a deep sigh: ”If a man in the morning hears the right way, he may die in the evening without regret.” A man is quaiified to be called a man of “Ren” only when he has discovered or experienced the truth. Such a man has transcended his own nature, becoming someone with nobleideals and high morality. Such a man, when the realization of his ideal requires that he sacrifice his life, he will do so without hesitation so as to follow his faith in the Dao. Over the long evolution of history, this outlook on life and death had gradually fashioned a common belief cherished by all the Chinese heroes and men of morality, which has become a spiritual motive force of the ongoing progress and development of the Chinese nation.
The advent of Chinese moral education must be attributed to Confucius. Later, many thinkers and educators came to know that it was imperative to promote the level of intelligence and morality of the people if civilization was to be promoted. Cai Yuanpei (1868-1940) a well-known modern educator, once said: "Moral education is fundamental to the perfect integrity of a man. With out morality, a man, even with a well-developed body and mind, is of no good use, but may take the advantage to venture evils." The Chinese nation has its own traditional virtues, such as honoring the integrity of the nation, reverence to the elderly and respect for teachers, helping and supporting the orphaned, the childless and the disabled and changing prevailing habits and customs.
The reason why the Chinese nation is different from the ancient Greeks, Indians and other peoples in the world lies in its different psychological quality being formed during the past thousands of years. Of the "common psychological qualities," there is the factor of honoring the integrity of a nation. Over the past thousands of years in the history of mankind, China has Seen a number of national rejuvenation movements in which many national heroes were produced because of their honoring national integrity. What we mean by national integrity is to have a moral sense of and acting for safeguarding the dignity and independence of the Chinese nation. Particularly, the "noble spirit" advocated by Mencius has encouraged and inspired so many later national he roes to uphold the spirit. Wen Tianxiang (1236-1283), a minister and writer of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) never wavered when he was put in prison. In his work The Song of Moral Sense, he says: "In the universe, there exists a noble spirit, Endowed with it, everything takes its own form of existence. When it lowers, it becomes rivers and mountains. When it rises, it becomes the sun and stars. When man is endowed with it, he becomes a man of noble moral sense. It permeates everywhere, in heaven and on earth." He believed that with this noble moral sense, a man is determined to sacrifice his life at any time for the truth he always seeks. "Since olden days there's never been a man but dies; I'd leave a loyalist's name in history only."
Reverence to and supporting one's elders are also one of the virtues of the Chinese nation. During the Zhou Dynasty, there was "the rite of supporting the elderly," taking into consideration their need for nutrition only because of their getting weak and feeble. When the elderly lost the ability to work, it was only natural and reasonable to take care of them and respect them in society. They had rich experience of life, and the young should seek counsel from them and take note of what was useful in their teachings to educate future generations. There were many works in ancient times on the virtues of respecting and supporting the elderly.
China is a country with many ethnic groups. Changing prevailing habits and customs can help promote cultural exchanges between them. To learn from each other's strong points to offset one's weaknesses is greatly beneficial to the progress of civilization of the whole Chinese nation. Early in the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), King Wuling of the State of Zhao (r. 325-299 BC) urged his people to wear the short-tailored costumes of the neighboring tribes and to learn their skills of horsemanship and archery. In the past, warriors of all the states in central China had used horse-driven chariots, wearing loose gowns with large sleeves when they went into battle. This made action very inconvenient. The king found that the tribes often defeated their enemies using fewer troops, and this was because of their short-tailored costumes and skills in horsemanship and archer)'. Having realized this, he called on his people to adopt the same customs. As a result, the State was made stronger. At the same time, the success of the State of Zhao encouraged many other states to introduce the same practice. The reform, therefore, brought about a renovation of war tactics in China and increased the merging, of ethnic groups.King Wuling was brilliant enough to sec and act on the necessity of a change of prevailing customs and ritual system in order to meet the needs of the time.
In the history of Chinese culture, many examples have been recorded of the Han people learning from the strengths of other peoples and vise versa. ]"or instance, Songtsam (;ambo (c. 617-650), a most outstanding personality, in Tibetan history, initiated a marriage connection with the Tang Dynasty and introduced a series of reforms of the customs and prevailing habits in Tibet such as learning Han culture, working out a legal system, and inventing its own writing system. This not only developed the Tubo Kingdom (seventh to ninth centuries) but also promoted the friendly relations between the Han and Tibetan peoples.
During the latter part of the Warring States Period, Confucian scholars advanced the ideal of "Da Tong," or "Great Harmony." They believed that in such a world of Da Tong, men of talent and ability would be chosen to govern the state. The people would be sincere, and cultivate unity and cooperation. The love people held for members of their families would be extended to those outside their families, so that they would come to love and be kind to everyone. In this world of Da Tong, the elderly would be looked after properly until their death and the able-bodied would be employed and the young would be educated. Widows and widowers, the childless, the orphaned and the disabled would be cared for and properly supported.
In such a world, natural resources would be fully utilized. People would be pleased to make contributions to the prosperity of society. There would be no thefts, no riots, and no wars. For Confucians, Da Tong was the ideal world. To some extent this was unrealistic as there was no way that ancient scholars could have created such a world. However, it demonstrated the ancient people's opposition to the exploitation society in which they lived, and their longing for a good and ideal world.
With the ideal of a world of Da Tong, Confucianism by no means intended to escape from the reality of society and sock after a utopia. Since morality and ethics were so important to Confucianism, its doctrine emphasized the obligations that were due to society and how people really behaved. Taoism, another important strain of traditional Chinese thinking, denies the value of morality, legal systems and knowledge. Nevertheless, it does not advocate standing aloof from the world. Instead, it advocates entering the world by renouncing the world. As for Buddhism, its introduction, to China had a great influence on Chinese culture, but it has been modified to such a degree that it has become Chinese Buddhism, in which the content of renunciation of the world has been reduced. Therefore, in traditional Chinese culture, there has never been any genuine philosophy of renunciation of the world.
In ancient China, a maxim which had a great influence on intellectuals was Mencius' statement: "Be good to and serve all when you are well off. Be decent and fulfil your obligations 'to society when you are poor." A decent person, even if he cannot govern the State and bring peace to it to realize his ideal, should not spare his efforts in cultivating his own morality and should undertake his duty and obligations to family and society.
It has been said that traditional Chinese culture is one of morals and ethics. This argument is not wholly without foundation. All humanistic parts of the culture including its history and literature are permeated with a moral and ethical ethos.
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