Confucian Sayings- 儒家的智慧

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‘The Confucian Puzzle’: Filial Piety versus Equal Love ‘儒家难题’:孝道与均爱

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Father-Son Painting

Since the early 2000s, a debate in the Chinese philosophy community has centered around the ‘son-covering-father’ story in the Analects. The passage goes like this:

“The Duke of Sheh informed Confucius, saying, ‘Among us here there 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 [italics added].” (Analects 13.18, Legge, 2014)

The story suggests that concealing a theft is morally acceptable if the thief is a member of your family, which in the Confucian tradition is used to promote the idea of partial love. Unlike Mo-tzu (墨翟) and his theory of universal love, where an equal love for all is the solution to social problems and the evil nature of human beings (Xu, 2007), partial love means that the love one gives to others is unequal. For example, you may fully love your parents, have no love for a stranger, and love your neighbour more than the postperson. However, does love for your parents mean that you should cover for them if they commit a crime? According to Liu (2007), the Confucian writings are well known for commending corrupt actions such as bending the law for the benefit of relatives or appointing people because of their family connections. Professors of philosophy Hall and Ames (1989) also state that “Chinese culture has traditionally been plagued with abuses that arise because of…nepotism [and] personal loyalties from special privilege” (p. 308). In that sense, the virtue of Xiao (filial piety) clashes with the virtue of Ren (benevolence), which promotes impartiality and love in accordance for all. This leads to what Li (2012) calls ‘The Confucian Puzzle’.

To explain why the son was justified in covering the father for his crime, it is important to understand the meaning of Xiao and Ren. Both Confucius and Mencius state that Xiao is the foundation of all other moral virtues. In passage 1.2 of the Analects, for instance, the philosopher Yu says that there “are few who, being filial and fraternal, are fond of offending against their superiors. There have been none, who, not liking to offend against their superiors, have been fond of stirring up confusion” (Legge, 2014). As well as forming the basis for loyalty and obedience, deference to elders and dutiful conduct are also key to forming government: “you are filial, you discharge your fraternal duties. These qualities are displayed in government” (Analects, bk. ii., c. xxi., v. 2). The importance of filial piety and duty is also expressed in Chinese cosmology and social order which legitimises the Chinese patrilineal and patriarchal family system so that family become central to human identity and power relations (Ebrey, 2003).

However, while Xiao forms the building block of morality and personhood, Ren represents the ultimate aim of Confucian thought, which is to express care and concern for other human beings. When Fan Ch’ih asked about benevolence, the Master said “it is to love men” (Analects, 12.22). Embodying Ren means that one not only wishes to establish and enlarge the self, but enlarge and establish others. By becoming benevolent, sincere, and kind, a person becomes a Junzi (君子), that is, an ideal moral actor for all human beings. Because the Junzi works on the root and cultivates filiality and respect for elders (Analects, 1.2), it follows that to be a Junzi starts with the family, before one can develop Ren and care for others.

When explaining the ‘son-covering-father’ story, Confucians must explain why the son’s love towards the father should be put above the sheep owner who, according to Li (2012), has better moral ground to request that the son return the sheep and ask the father to apologise for stealing. The first argument claims that it would be unwise for the son to destroy his relationship with the father by reporting the theft. At the very least, the son can preserve the relationship with the father and then choose to take further action. Adapting Van Norden’s (2008) hypothetical case, consider the following example to support the son for covering for his father:

Suppose that my sibling was part of a cult that was responsible for killing a farmer in the 1980s. This sibling is now a productive member of society, with a good job, and happy family. Finding out about my sibling’s role in the crime, one moral choice would involve reporting the sibling and turning them in. However, for a Confucian, the reaction would be different as it would involve confronting the sibling, discovering why the crime was committed, and asking whether such a thing could happen again. If the sibling has reformed and would never commit such a crime again, it follows that prosecution is not necessary.

The only way this argument works is if the person in question is a family member. For instance, supposing that it was a stranger that stole the sheep or killed the farmer, reacting to the crimes would, in most cases, involve reporting without hesitation. Hence, valuing family relations is of utmost importance to the case as the obligations one has towards family surpasses obligations to all other relationships and institutions. The idea of family as critical to moral integrity and human worth is expressed by the neo-Confucian philosopher Yangming Wang (1996). He states:

“The love between father and son and between brothers is the place where the productivity of the human heart begins, just like the tree’s beginning from a sprout. From there the love of humanity and the care for everything develops, just as the tree’s having branches and leaves.” (p. 27)

Two conclusions emerge from this passage. The first is that as the root of morality, Xiao is a method of cultivating benevolence and compassion towards other human beings. Family life forms a convenient setting to practice Ren through family love. While this does not mean that Ren must grow through family love or one would be unable to practice benevolence in a non-family setting, considering that human nature is innately good (Mengzi, 2A6), family simply provides a contingent place for cultivating Ren “due to natural or social evolution” (Li, 2012, p. 42). So Xiao provides an important setting for practicing morality, but it is not an end to morality itself. According to this understanding, the son can choose not to cover for his father if he has cultivated enough love for others so that he is no longer confined to expressing love in the family setting. Rather than believing that Xiao is the most important moral principle (see Rosemont & Ames, 2008), the reason that the son covers for the father is because his love for others has not been cultivated enough.

The second conclusion from Wang’s passage is developed by liberal Confucian scholars who argue that while Xiao is one of the most important moral principles, it is not more important than any other moral virtues, including Ren, Li, or Yi. As professor of philosophy Tongdong Bai (2008) notes, Xiao can be taken as a “starting point, but not as a supreme end point” (p. 29). In the context of the son-covering-father story, Xiao may be more important than following the principle of justice or caring for the sheep owner because of the nature of the crime and the lack of detail in the story. But, if the father killed the innocent sheep owner, justice and the need to care for the victim’s family would override the principle of Xiao. Ideally, a harmonization of all principles should be achieved where justice, care for others, and filial duty are all valued. This would mean that while the son was justified for covering the father, he should also seek to reimburse the sheep owner and make sure that the theft does not happen again.

For Li (2012), both conclusions fail to justify why the son should cover for his father. In the first case, where Xiao is only a convenient setting for developing love towards others, the son is either capable of reporting his father or has never thought about it. If he is capable and has thought about reporting the father, then he should extend family love towards others and sacrifice the means of family love towards the more important principle of loving others. If the son has not thought about reporting the father, that does not mean that he should not. Thus, based on this understanding, the son is morally obliged to report the father. The problem with this conclusion is that it contradicts Confucius’s recommendation of covering for the father.

According to the second conclusion, where Xiao is of equal importance to all other principles or at least important as Ren, it is unclear how one should decide which principle to compromise in the stolen sheep case. Since Confucius recommends that in this particular context, Xiao should be preserved and love towards others should be compromised, one can speculate that there is something in the story that made Confucius choose Xiao over Ren. For example, perhaps the nature of the crime (theft) is not as bad or life-threatening as murder, and turning the father in for theft could do the father more harm than the sheep owner. But this is only speculative as the sheep could have been the sheep owner’s only income, the last sheep in his stock, and the only meal left for his wife and children. As Li (2012) notes, “it is conceptually unclear with regard to the idea of damage and benefit and with regard to the comparison between the damage to one and the benefit to the other” (p. 45).

In that case, there are no clear answers to the puzzle, at least not by assuming that Xiao should never be compromised. If the situation was truly life-threatening, where the father killed and continues to kill sheep owners in the village, there is no moral reason as to why the son should not report the violent father. Furthermore, assuming that Xiao is the most supreme principle also implies that those without family love or even a family are unable to live as morally as those who do practice Xiao. This is not plausible since there are many people in the world who have moral qualities and do not have or live with their families.

If you would like to submit an answer to the Confucian puzzle, email your answer to Sent responses will be included in future posts.

Three Confucian Poems 孔诗三首诗

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Image: Classical Chinese Poetry. Retrieved July 2, 2017, from here.

In this article, Paul Carus provides a translated account of three poems recorded in the stone engraved inscriptions of the temple of Confucius at Qufu. Each poem expresses Confucius’s disappointment in life. After becoming a minister in the state of Lu, Confucius found that the duke and others in government did not possess the seriousness and responsibility necessary for their positions, and so he resigned. The following verses from the inscriptions have been published and edited by Confucian scholars.


After Confucius moved to Wei, an unjust governor sent his compliments and invited him to come back to Lu. Confucius refused the offer, convinced that if he did accept the invitation it would only end in disappointment. To express his feelings, Confucius wrote ‘The Song on the Mountain’:

“Would rise to the lofty peak,

Where cliffs and ravines debar.

So Dao though ever near

Is to the seeker far.

How wearisome to me

Those mazes which allow no exit.


I sigh and look around,

The summit in full view;

With woodlands it is crowned

And sandy patches too,

And there stretch all around

The highlands of Lian Fu.

Thickets of thorns prevent

Any ascent.


No axe is here

A path to clear;

The higher we are going,

The worse the briars are growing.

I chant and cry,

And while I sigh,

The tears are flowing and the nose is running.”


*Tai San is the name of the mountain situated between Lu and Wei.


On his way back to Lu from Wei, Confucius stopped in a valley and saw orchids growing on the wayside. He stopped and said, “Orchids should be royalty’s fragrance, but here they are mixed up with common herbs.” He then took his lute and composed a song for the orchids:

“So gently blow the valley breezes

With drizzling mist and rain,

And homeward bound a stranger tarries

With friends in a desert domain.

Blue heaven above! For all his worth,

Is there no place for him on earth?


Though all the countries did he roam

Yet he found no enduring home.

Worldlings are stupid and low,

They naught of sages know.

So swiftly years and days pass by,

And soon old age is drawing nigh.”

Confucius then went back to Lu.


When Confucius fell sick, the governor visited him. Dragging himself with a walking stick, he sang:

“Huge mountains wear away


The strongest beams decay.


And the sage like grass withers.


Confucius died seven days later.


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Understanding Metaphor in Confucius and Aristotle 隐喻的比较研究

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Image: Norton Museum (2011). Qianlong Meritorious Servitior. Retrieved April 20, 2017 from here.

Native speakers of all languages commonly use metaphor when communicating about the world (Lakcoff & Johnson, 1980). While such metaphorically used words and expressions vary across different languages and times, metaphor “opens up a whole new world of meaning…(allowing) each individual to add colour and detail to the picture it draws” (Bergmann, 2008, p. 219). Metaphors do this by inviting readers to make inferences about how two different things could be alike.

For example, the interpretation of the Shakespearean phrase “Juliet is the sun” is dependent on one’s knowledge and experience of the sun: as an awesome sight, warm, and vital to life. Instead of providing a direct comparison (“Juliet is like the sun”), the metaphor casts on the subject ideas and associations of the sun so that Juliet, like the sun, is understood in the way that Romeo sees her, highlighting what Rina Marie Camus (2017) calls “perspectival thinking of the subject” (p. 4) or ways of seeing things from another’s point of view. While providing new ways of seeing things, metaphors also relate to common phrases and experiences, reinforcing how communities and groups use “socially shared way(s) of thinking” (Stern, 2000, p. 131).

In comparative studies, many authors including Yu Jiyuan (2010) and Edward Slingerland (2011) have examined shared metaphors between Confucian and Aristotelian texts. However, unlike Yu and Slingerland who assume that metaphors are used to create the same images and meanings between texts, supporting the theory that metaphors are valid across time, space, and culture and ultimately derive from common bodily experiences, Camus argues that metaphors are ‘context-sensitive’. That is, they are based on images whose configuration and resonance heavily depend on a larger context of traditions that use that metaphor. Camus focuses on archery as her main example.

Early Chinese thinkers have often used archery as a metaphor when discussing ethics. Scholar and poet Yan Xiong, for instance, stated:

“Cultivate character (xiushen) and let it be your bow. Rectify your thoughts and let them be your arrows. Establish appropriateness (yi) as your target. Settle, aim, and let the arrows fly. You are certain to “hit the mark” (zhong).” (Yangzi Fayan, 3.1)

While the bow is a common aspect of ancient cultures, archery in China has long been related to military skill, moral behaviour, and good political governance. As Sinologist Cecilia Lindqvist states in her book China: Empire of Living Symbols, the character for bow is a common symbol on graves from the late Zhou era, and can also be found on oracle bones and bronzes. Early classics such as the Book of Documents and the Book of Odes also feature references to archery, creating strong associations between the bow and political authority by recurring mention of archery contests.

Given the commonality of archery in early Chinese culture, it is not surprising that bow metaphors are used in the Confucian text The Analects to highlight practices of morality. In the translated version by James Legge, a passage of The Analects states:

“There is nothing that gentlemen compete over (zheng), if at all, it is in archery…when ascending to the shooting platform and upon descending offering drink- such competition is truly of gentlemen.” (3.7)

While making sense on the literal level, the passage can also be read as a comparison of the archers and the gentleman, where both figures interact properly with peers according to correct ritual. For Camus (2017), more substance can be drawn from this passage by noting the audience being addressed in this passage – young men being groomed for office, and the political strife during the Warring States period in which the passage is set.

Considering that archery contestants were expected to bow to their opponents before and after shooting turns, while wine was offered to losers who were obliged to drink (Selby, 2000), the passage would have generated images of friendly relations, kindness towards inferiors, and the importance of accepting one’s fate, inviting rulers and ministers to think about right conduct and the life of subordinates.

In this sense, understanding the meaning of associations by referring to contextual information can help clarify passages of ancient texts for modern interpreters. For The Analects passage 3.7, respectful behaviour of archers was an easy way of summing up Confucius’ perspective on moral governance as it appealed to experiences that were publicly accessible and well-known (Stern, 2000).

Unlike in China, archery was less valued in ancient Greece. While the bow was used in Greek mythology and the epic tales of Crotus the Archer, and Hyacinth the lover of Apollo who became accomplished when he learnt how “to shoot with a bow…and also to play the lyre” (See, 2014, p. 93), archery was never seen in great athletic competitions like the Olympics. As Historian Waldo E. Sweet (1987) notes, “the feeling seemed to be that it was a cowardly weapon, with which a weak man could kill a brave warrior at a distance” (p. 177).

With later developments in Greece’s military history however, archery became a utilized weapon in warfare and territorial patrol. State-sponsored physical education, which trained young men to become well-regarded citizens, also featured archery (Wooyeal & Bell, 2004).

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle appeals to the sport in his discussion on achieving good:

“Surely, then, knowledge of the good must be very important for our lives? And if, like archers, we have a target, are we not more likely to hit the right mark? Is so, we must try at least roughly to comprehend what it is and which science or faculty is concerned with it” (Passage 1.2, line 1094a)

In her discussion, Camus (2017) notes that the metaphor fixes attention on the participants of moral inquiry who are compared to archers posed to strike. The ethicist aims at the Good which symbolises the target, while the means to the target symbolised by the arrow is knowledge. The familiarity with archery practices and events would have resonated with the original audiences and made for a dramatized explanation of the importance of reaching the aim. Success in the inquiry was just as important for ethical individuals and communities as it was for archers’ lives and state security (Camus, 2017).

While common themes arise between the use of archery as a metaphor in Confucius and Aristotle, including moral striving, the preparation of young men as civic subjects, and physical activity as a component of moral life, the relevance of this metaphor is based on different sets of images and inferences.

For Confucius, archers were a prototype for gentlemanly behaviour as rituals and right conduct were ways of fostering necessary traits for leaders. Rather than focusing on the act of shooting, The Analects passages on archery relate to the life and conduct of a gentleman (that is, a morally noble person) in power.

The Aristotelean text, on the other hand, highlights that archery relates to the nature of ethical inquiry and excellence. The virtuous agent is like the skilled archer in that the rightness of his deeds are like the arrows that hit the mark. The emphasis in this sense is on the aim of the bow rather than the rituals and processes around the act of shooting. Further, a later passage in the Nicomachean Ethics (10.7) highlights a more complete understanding of happiness that goes beyond acts that are aimed at some end, showing “the limits of archery as metaphor for excellence and happiness” (Camus, 2017, p. 16).

In that case, despite being used as a common expression across ancient periods, Camus’s article shows that understanding the context of metaphors can reveal more about the meaning and intention of ancient passages than previously thought.

Confucian Sayings- Quote of the Week

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The Great Learning

International Confucian Program in Qufu

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The 2017 Nishan Confucian Studies Summer Institute International Program provides an exciting opportunity for international teachers and students of Chinese history and culture to spend a month at an established Confucian Academy. Run by the Nishan Confucian Studies Summer Institute in Qufu, China, the program aims to help participants gain a clear understanding of the historical evolution of Chinese thought and culture through an in-depth examination of Chinese canonical and interpretative texts.

With the rise of China as major force in the world’s political and economic order, the program adopts an alternative approach to examining and analysing Chinese philosophical texts to appreciate their aesthetic and structural differences. By gaining a deeper understanding of Chinese natural cosmology, history, and philosophy, participants will view the emergence of a dynamic contemporary China in a different light.

The month long training program will be led by Professor Rodger T. Ames (Peking University) and Tian Chenshan (Beijing Foreign Studies University) as participants take part in interactive seminars, group discussions, cultural activities and events.

To apply for this unique opportunity and learn more about the program please follow the link.



Confucianism and Domestic Violence

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Domestic violence against women remains a major societal issue in the modern day, as witnessed by the latest media reports about celebrities and the Australian Government’s active media campaign on television and online.

In China, landmark domestic violence legislation was introduced in March this year, reflecting the need to address the problem in their society. Europe has created the ‘Council of European Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence’ with a total of 42 countries signing the treaty as of last month.

So what would Confucius say about domestic violence, and in particular, violence against women?

The Confucian philosophy teaches its followers that the maintenance of social order, harmony and peace derives from respect and strong emphasis on the following five relationships:

-Ruler to subject
-Father to son
-Husband and wife
-Elder brother to younger brother
-Friend to friend

It dictates that people should act towards each other within these relationships in harmony and peace at all times, thus in an environment where any act of violence would not be accepted. Respect and harmony is achieved through adopting the five virtues namely:

Ren 仁– Benevolence and humaneness, defined by the philosopher himself as “one should see nothing improper, hear nothing improper, say nothing improper, do nothing improper” and “not to do to others as you would not wish done to yourself”

Li 禮 –  Rites, which has undergone extensive interpretation throughout history but can be translated as following “customs” and “rules”. Following the “rules” in our society would include adhering to the common law such as the laws that protect women from violence.

Yi – Moral disposition to do good, and also to recognise what is right and good and using moral intuition to do the correct thing in all circumstances.

Chi 智 – Moral wisdom, by sourcing knowledge of right and wrong via the famous Confucian quote, “By three methods: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”

Xìn 信 – Integrity, by displaying honesty and faithfulness.

It can be easily understood that anyone who practices all of these virtues would be unlikely to engage in any form of domestic violence, and particularly in this context, within the relationship between husband and wife.

However, consider the latest one minute Australian Government television advertisement below.

Under closer examination, it can be seen that this advertisement supports how disrespect and not adhering to the virtues in all of Confucius’ valued relationships can contribute to domestic violence tendencies. For example:

– A young boy disrespects a young girl by pushing her over, thus not practicing
‘Ren 仁’ in a friend – friend relationship.

-A father making a disrespectful comment about women to his son, thus not ‘saying nothing improper’ as per Confucius’ teachings.

-A young man not practicing “Yi 義” when he fails to use his moral intuition to correct his “brother’s” disrespectful actions against a woman in a group situation.

The advertisement further conveys that society needs to break the cycle of domestic violence by discouraging disrespectful behaviours from a young age. This can be aligned to the virtue of Chi 智, whereby humans need to reflect on their past actions and apply their knowledge gained to improve their moral wisdom.

This is one of many examples how Confucianism is still relevant to modern society behavior today.