Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

Religious Beliefs

Is there a distinctively Confucian ethic?

A Confucian formulation of the universal Golden Rule at first strikes the ear as rather negative and passive: “Do not do to others what you do not want done to you.” But the Confucian ethic turns out to be overwhelmingly active and positive because of its emphasis on cultivating the natural human capacity for virtue.

The Master’s positive approach revolves around several key concepts. First and foremost is li, principle or propriety, consisting of a whole range of directives for human behavior. Much of li arises from the customs that embody the spirit of community. When people can rely on propriety in all relationships, as enshrined in time-honored practice, they experience assurance and freedom in their relationships. Confucius gathered a huge catalogue of social rituals, not out of antiquarian curiosity, but as a way of preserving what he considered the best of tradition. Ritual propriety is not meant to confine, but to give a sense of lightness and freedom. Without li, he thought, there can be no justice, no morality, for a society without propriety has no foundation in respect.

Of equal importance is the notion of shu, reciprocity in interpersonal relationships. Reciprocity is essential to putting li into action, for it governs the “five principal human relationships and the ten associated virtues.” In the father-son relationship, the father must cultivate kindness, the son reverence. The elder brother must deal gently with his younger brother, who responds with respect. A mutuality of faithfulness and obedience should characterize husband-wife relationships. Let all elders be considerate of those younger, and expect deference in return. Finally, a ruler must strive to treat subjects with benevolence and benefit from their loyalty as a result.


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