Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

Religious Beliefs

What is the nature of the human person in Confucian tradition?

Chinese tradition uses the word xing to describe human nature in its most fundamental form. The term combines the concepts of “life/progeny” with “heart/mind,” the two basic constituents of the person. Confucius further described the fully developed person using the term ren, a Chinese word that combines the characters for “human being” and “two.” A full person, therefore, is one who exists in society, in communication with others. Human beings are always works in progress, ever shaping themselves in pursuit of an elusive goal of perfection. Ren, sometimes translated as goodness, human-heartedness, or even love, is that which activates the other four of the so-called five great virtues—devotion, justice, wisdom, and propriety. Only in light of ren does law function properly, as a guide rather than as a straitjacket. Ren’s two components, jung (individual) and shu (the virtue of reciprocity) allow human beings to enact the principles known as the “mean,” the ability to hold feelings in abeyance, and the “measure” by which one can express emotions in balance.


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