A New Turning Point Note #16

Some reflections on Confucian Ethics and values

My short visit to Singapore has revived my interest in Chinese culture and its continued influence on other Confucian-cultured societies, starting with my own, Vietnam, at the crossroad of the 21st Century. I am curious to know how we, as Vietnamese people of the modern era, look back on our cultural traditions and how much we are aware of the impact of Chinese millennial tradition on our way of thinking. I started by reviewing some literature on Confucianism written by Vietnamese scholars, available in French or English.

Apart from the books that give a general introduction to Confucianism, such as “The Vietnamisation of Confucianism” by Author Nguyen Quoc Anh and “How 18th Century Vietnamese people understood Confucianism” by Author Doan Thi Diem, Pham Van Duc’s “Historical and comparative perspective on Confucian education in Vietnam” gives valuable insights on how Confucian thinking has developed in Vietnam through many centuries, as shown also in Tran van Doan work. Hoang van Phu’s comparative study between the development model of the Vietnamese and that of the Korean State based on Confucian political philosophy is a precious case study for students who want to understand the mechanism of the nation-building process of new Confucian-based societies.

According to Tran Quang Thuan’s Textbook for classical Confucian studies, there are fifteen books that are essentiel for a comprehensive undertanding of studying Confucianism. One can find these English, French, German and Italian books in James Legger’s series “The Sacred Books of the East“.

While many authors agree that the book “Luan Ngu” is the best starting point for studying Confucius’s original thoughts, the rest is crucial for understanding the complete Confucian concept in political philosophy.

For English readers, I am listing here the most common books found on Confucian studies :

  • Arthur Waley (translator), Confucius: Analects, Vintage (1938).
  • Ames, Roger and Rosemont, Henry Jr. The Confucian Role of Ethics. A Vocabulary, Uni. of California Press (2011).
  • Chan, Wing-Tsist. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, Princeton University Press (1963).
  • Ivanhoe, Philip J., Bryan W. van Norden. Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy. Hachette Publishing Company (2000).
  • Nivison, David S. The Ways of Confucianism. Investigations in Chinese Philosophy. Open Court (1996).
  • Van Norden, Bryan W. Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy. Cambridge University Press (2007).
  • Yu, Jinghan. The Ethics of Confucius and Aristote: Mirrors of Virtue. Routledge (2007).
  • Yao, Xinghong. An Introduction to Confucianism. Cambridge University Press (2000).

What are the humanistic values according to Confucianism ?

Confucianism is an ethical and philosophical system based on the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius. It involves a set of values, principles, and practices that emphasize the importance of moral character, social responsibility, and spiritual cultivation.

Humanistic values are at the core of Confucianism and reflect in the teachings of Confucius and his followers. Some of the critical humanistic values in Confucianism include:

1. Ren is the concept of benevolence, which involves showing kindness, compassion, and empathy towards others. Ren is the most essential virtue in Confucianism, as it forms the basis of all other virtues. The equivalent in Vietnamese is Nhan.

2. Li refers to proper behaviour and etiquette, which is necessary for maintaining social harmony and respect for others. The equivalent in Vietnamese is Le.

3. Xiao is the idea of filial piety, which emphasizes honouring and respecting one’s parents, elders, and other family members. The equivalent in Vietnamese is Hieu.

4. Zhong is the concept of loyalty and devotion, which involves being faithful to one’s commitments, obligations, and relationships. The equivalent in Vietnamese is Trung.

5. Shu is the principle of reciprocity emphasizes the importance of treating others as you would like to be treated. The equivalent in Vietnamese is: (?).

Overall, humanist values in Confucianism focus on promoting ethical behaviour, social harmony, and personal development through moral and spiritual cultivation.

Confucius believed that by practising virtue and living in harmony with others, individuals could achieve a more fulfilled and happy life.

What do we know about Confucian Ethics?

Confucian ethics are a set of moral and ethical codes that emphasize the importance of loyalty, filial piety, respect for elders, and social harmony. In addition, Confucian ethics stress the importance of education and self-cultivation as ways to improve one’s character and achieve moral excellence. Confucian ethics have significantly impacted Chinese culture and influenced the development of Chinese society and government over the centuries. Today, Confucian values are an essential part of Chinese culture and are notable in various aspects of Chinese society, including family relationships, education, and business practices.

Confucian ethics comprise five moral codes, also known as the Five Constant Virtues, in Chinese culture that create a harmonious and ethical society. These five moral codes are: 

1. Ren  or Humanity or Benevolence: Individuals must behave with kindness and empathy towards others, always seeking to help those in need. The equivalent in Vietnamese is Nhan.

2. Yi  or Righteousness, emphasizes honesty and integrity. Individuals must uphold ethical standards and act with fairness to all. The equivalent in Vietnamese is Nghia.

3. Li or Propriety or Etiquette, emphasizes how individuals behave in society and the standards of behaviour they must uphold. Li includes proper social etiquette, dress, and mannerisms in public. The equivalent in Vietnamese is Le.

4. Zhi or Wisdomm, emphasizes seeking knowledge and understanding to make informed decisions and live a virtuous life. Zhi is the result of lifelong learning and self-reflection. The equivalent in Vietnamese is Tri.

5. Xin or Integrity or Sincerity, emphasizes being true to oneself and others and always upholding one’s commitments and values. The equivalent in Vietnamese is Tin.

These five moral codes are essential for individual ethical conduct and help create a harmonious society based on mutual respect, virtuous behaviour, and social order. The equivalent in Vietnamese is Ngu Thuong.

In a traditional Confucian society, the education of girls emphasizes the Three Primary Obligations (in Vietnamese: Tam Tong) in their relationship within the context of marriage and family:

1. Obedience to their father before marriage, their husband after marriage, and their adult sons after their husband has passed away. The equivalent expression in Vietnamese is Tai gia tong phu.

2. Having many children to ensure the continuation of the family line and taking responsibility for the education and upbringing of those children. The equivalent expression in Vietnamese is Xuat gia tong phu.

3. Maintaining virtue and moral excellence, which includes exhibiting modesty, humility, loyalty, and compassion towards others. This obligation also involves refraining from behaviour that could bring shame or dishonour to the family. The equivalent expression in Vietnamese is Phu tu tong tu.

The four virtues (in Vietnamese: Tu Duc) linked to feminine behaviour are Cong (skills), Dung (beauty), Ngon (speech), and Hanh (ethical behaviour).

It is important to note that these obligations may vary depending on Confucian societies’ cultural and historical context, differing in modern-day interpretations of Confucianism that often emphasize gender equality and reject the strict gender roles of the past.

How do Confucian thoughts influence modern political thinking?

One of Confucius’s most important contributions to political thought is his emphasis on moral leadership and good governance. He believed that political power must base on virtue and that rulers should lead by example, treating their subjects with kindness and fairness.

In addition to his emphasis on moral leadership and education, Confucius’s philosophy also has implications for political legitimacy, social hierarchies, and the relationship between the individual and the state. As a result, his ideas continue to be studied and debated by scholars in various fields, including political theory, ethics, and comparative politics.

Confucius also stressed the importance of education for rulers and the general population. He believed that education was the key to personal and social development and that a well-educated population was the foundation of a prosperous and stable society.

The Confucian Concept of Tian Ming

The term “tian ming” is made up of two characters: “tian” means “heaven” or “divine,” and “ming” means “destiny” or “fate.” Together, these characters imply that an individual’s destiny is not determined solely by their own choices and actions, but also by a larger, overarching force that is beyond their control.

 The Confucian concept of tian ming (天命) refers to the idea of fate or destiny that is ordained by heaven or the divine order. Confucius believed that everyone had a predetermined destiny that was related to their social status and personal characteristics. He believed that by accepting one’s fate and following the proper path, one could attain happiness and peace of mind.

Confucius believed that individuals should strive to fulfill their destiny by living virtuously and according to their social role. This included following the rules of conduct set forth by Confucianism, such as practicing filial piety, observing proper etiquette, and upholding social hierarchy. By doing so, an individual could achieve harmony and balance in their life, and contribute to the greater social order.

Overall, the concept of tian ming emphasizes the importance of accepting one’s fate while also striving to live a virtuous life and fulfill one’s responsibilities to society.

 The Confucian Concept of Ethical Leadership

The term “tian ming” is made up of two characters: “tian” means “heaven” or “divine,” and “ming” means “destiny” or “fate.” Together, these characters imply that an individual’s destiny is not determined solely by their choices and actions but also by a more significant, overarching force beyond their control.

The Confucian concept of tian ming (天命) refers to fate or destiny ordained by heaven or the divine. Confucius believed everyone had a predetermined destiny related to their social status and personal characteristics and that one could attain happiness and peace of mind by accepting one’s fate and following the proper path.

Confucius believed that individuals should strive to fulfil their destiny by living virtuously and according to their social role. This included following the rules of conduct set forth by Confucianism, such as practising filial piety, observing proper etiquette, and upholding social hierarchy.

By doing so, an individual could achieve harmony and balance and contribute to a more significant social order.

Overall, the concept of tian ming emphasizes the importance of accepting one’s fate while striving to live a virtuous life and fulfil one’s societal responsibilities. This applies to all levels of hierarchy in the Confucian social settings.

For example, similar to the duties that a subject must fulfill toward the Monarch, a Chinese Monarch has a set of obligations towards his subjects. These obligations include the following:

1. Provide for the people’s basic needs: The monarch’s obligation is to ensure that the basic needs of his subjects, such as food, shelter, and clothing, are met.

2. Promote the welfare of the people: The monarch’s duty is to work towards the welfare of his people by creating an environment that supports their physical, emotional, and social well-being.

3. Govern justly and with virtue: The monarch must govern justly and with integrity, promoting moral and ethical behaviour and ensuring justice.

4. Cultivate moral character: Confucianism emphasizes the importance of moral character, and the monarch must cultivate it within himself and promote it among his subjects.

5. Foster education and culture: The monarch must promote education and culture, encouraging the learning of literature, music, art, and history among his people.

6. Maintain social order: The monarch must maintain social order by promoting social harmony and resolving conflicts peacefully.

Overall, the recommended standards for ethical leadership in Confucianism expects the monarch to act as a wise and benevolent leader, putting the needs of his people above his own and promoting their happiness and well-being.

Q1: Is staging war part of the obligations of a monarch in Chinese ethical leadership?

 A1: No, staging a war is not considered an obligation of a monarch in Chinese ethical leadership. The ancient Chinese philosophy of Confucianism emphasizes the importance of maintaining peace and stability while promoting the people’s well-being.

Confucian ethical leadership focuses on wisdom, benevolence, integrity, justice, and respect for others. Therefore, Chinese ethical leadership prefers peaceful and diplomatic solutions over war and violence.

 Q2: How can we interpret the continuing state of war in Chinese history ?

A2: The continuing state of war in Chinese history can be interpreted in several ways.

One way to understand it is to view it as a result of the geopolitical location of China, which made it vulnerable to invasions and internal conflicts. Another way is to view it as a consequence of the social and political structures of Chinese society, including the power struggles among different factions and the emphasis on military strength.

One possible interpretation on the recurring state of war in Chinese history may be found in the ancient belief in the concept of mandate of heaven. According to this concept, a ruler was granted authority to govern by the heavens, and the ruler’s ability to maintain order and harmony in society was a sign of his legitimacy. If the ruler has not fulfilled his duty according to the Heaven’s mandate, the tian ming, conflict and chaos will arise leading to uprisings and rebellions that lead to the deposit of the ruler who had failed his mandate.

Another perspective on the continuing state of war in Chinese history may be explained through the concept of dynastic cycle. Chinese dynasties often rose to power due to their military strength, but over time, they became corrupt and weakened, leading to the rise of new dynasties.

This cycle of rise and fall of dynasties often involved military conflicts and wars. In summary, the continuing state of war in Chinese history can be interpreted as a complex result of various factors such as geopolitical location, social and political structures, and cultural beliefs and traditions.

Impact of Confucian Studies in Western Universities

Confucian studies have gained significant attention during the past few decades, particularly in Philosophy, Religious studies, and East Asian studies. Universities such as Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia have established Centers for East Asian Studies focusing on Confucianism. Many courses are available to undergraduate and graduate students, covering topics such as Confucian ethics, Philosophy and Classical texts. In addition, some joint programs have been established with Chinese, South Korean and Taiwanese Universities to promote Confucian studies and facilitate academic exchanges. Among them, the Confucian Institute is a non-profit organization that has a significant presence in American Universities and has promoted Chinese cultural and linguistic education to facilitate mutual understanding between the East and the West.

However, the recent US-China Trade war has created some controversial opinions on the influence of Chinese culture and way of life that have led to measures being taken to reduce the activities of the Confucian Institute among American Universities.

As a researcher with a Confucian cultural background, I have studied most of my life in the West, and am trying to understand the main arguments against or for Confucian studies.

Here is a summary of the two poles:

For supporters of Confucian studies, Confucian ethics add up to the ethical dimensions, as Confucianism places great emphasis on the moral and ethical development of individuals that make up a healthy and virtuous society. Studying Confucian texts help individuals to cultivate virtues such as benevolence, righteousness, honesty and loyalty, which can enrich their personal lives and relationships with others in society. Furthermore, Confucian ideals have profoundly impacted East Asian culture, history and philosophy. Studying Confucian ideas helps individuals understand the values, traditions and customs that have shaped this rich cultural heritage. Confucian ideals embrace social harmony and the importance of social order. Therefore, studying Confucian political philosophy can help individuals gain an appreciation of the social structures that promote stability in the relationship between individuals and the state and help them navigate complex social interactions and relationships in harmony with each other. More importantly, Confucian thinking is a complex, multilayered tradition that requires careful study and critical reflection. By engaging in Confucian studies, individuals can learn new ways of thinking and gain insights into their intellectual development. Supporting arguments conclude that the studies of Confucianism provide a valuable framework for personal and academic growth and can deepen our understanding of historical and cultural traditions.

Arguments from opponents of Confucianism criticize the Confucian model as outdated with a discrimination of the role of women in Confucian societies. This argument seems to contradict the substantial role that women play in today’s economy. Indeed, in newly industrialized economies such as Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea, we note the important positions that women currently hold, for example, the president of the Philippines, Corazon Aquino, the prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto and many company leaders. In addition, women in Asian societies enjoy a highly respected status as mothers and primary breadwinners in some communities. So the overall argument that women are disadvantaged in Asian societies may be unfounded as the role of women is defined differently concerning their female attributes than that of the male in Asian culture. Moreover, the methodology of research on a topic such as Confucianism must leave ground to academic freedom of researchers to conclude whether his ideas are relevant to the societies or not.

As to my personal interest in Confucian studies, I find that studying this topic helps me understand the specific behaviour of myself and my compatriots compared to other Asian people of Confucian cultures. Reading Chinese and Southeast Asian history helps me understand the common heritage we have shared for over a thousand years, and one big part of it was related to the teachings of Confucius, which we refer to as Confucian ethics. Confucius’s education not only helps to define how we should behave as an individual, but his reflections on peace and harmony in the world are also clear pointers (or ethical rules) for those who wish to have some moral direction in life. However, while I strongly support these arguments from an individual perspective, I also take note that modern ideas on human rights tend to criticize the Confucian model as placing too much emphasis on conformity and obedience, which can stifle creativity and innovation, especially if the arguments on “tian ming” are used to justify a totalitarian approach in governance for the sake of the “advance of humanity” .

Source: Personal Readings on Political Philosophy in Confucianism, global values, the three-religion traditions of the East, comparative studies in Asian studies.

Have a good day,

Anita H.


Published by Anita H.

Expert in Intercultural Communication, navigating between 4 cultures and 5 languages which I use daily for work and leisure. Author of blogs on wordpress and blogspot on SBI Training Solutions Projects: vietnamhoc, yourvietnamexpert, yourvietbooks, sbi-training.com.

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