The Role of Language in Understanding Confucian Thought

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How does the use of Chinese language impact the way in which Confucian thought is understood? For this week’s post we would like to pose three different questions and show how the role of language affects the way in which each is interpreted. It is not the only determinant, but it is important to consider language when considering each concept.


Is Confucianism to blame for a lack of gender equality in the Eastern World?

Gender equality is an issue worldwide and societies must place a high priority on creating gender neutral language in order to see improvements. The Analects may have lacked gender-neutral terminology; however current texts and documents experience the same struggle. The role of women determined by Chinese language is discussed in a video by Global History and Geography 9.  The video discusses how two different Chinese pictographs translate into a word with combined meaning. For example, the character for “women” is combined with the character for “child.” The pictograph image is made up of two parts. When these two characters combine, the definition of the word is “good.” What is good in Chinese is characterized by a pictograph of a woman and a child.

These characters can help us give meaning to ancient Chinese beliefs and an idea of the reasons for different customs. The video points out that these interpretations are not only relevant in China, but also in the Western world (the U.S. in particular). (Click on the images to view the video)

 The traditional role of women in china
the traditional role of women in america

Are you ever guilty of using gender bias language?


Decoding the Language of Profit

What role does language play in the idea that Confucianism prohibits profit making?

Mencius replied, “Your Majesty, why must you speak of profit? Indeed, there is nothing but humanity (ren) and right (yi). May Your Majesty simply speak of humanity and right. Why must you speak of profit?” (1) These words became the bedrock of what is meant by profit in the Chinese language. Profit had become a tainted term.  Yet these words could well have provided a misleading context for understanding the meaning of profit. In the Analects, profit is often confined to two main ideas: the benefit of oneself and economic gain. Should profit be qualified in this way? Is it really defined as economic gain to one person? Confucian thought often applies a negative connotation to profit but fails to describe profit in terms of society’s gain. Yet profit can be used to describe economic and social benefit. With the principle of Yi (righteousness) in place, a business can expand long-term profits while eliminating the destructive consequences of illegal profit seeking and unfair competition (2). At first glance, based on the language that is used, the Analects may give the impression that all profit is unscrupulous. However, upon closer inspection, one may realise that profit is not regarded as immoral if ethics are considered and relationships are mutually benefited.

The Loss of Li

Notice that Li is often translated as ritual. Does that imply that “Li” is no longer applicable to the present day? Li, too, is often misunderstood. It is often translated simply as ritual, however Li is an abstract concept that can be translated and applied in various ways. It is not empty or old fashioned, but represents a reaffirmation of values to that community. As explained by Johnson Chang, Li goes beyond the English word “ritual” to include everything from etiquette, education and morality to a cosmic vision of a balanced world order (3). The concept of Li determines how one is expected to act in a given relationship, common ‘rules of proper behaviour’. In other words, Li can be viewed as a person’s morality. Confucius advocates the necessity of Li as a stepping stone to social harmony (4). The meanings of words play a significant contribution to how we generate ideas and opinions. People may mistakenly translate words into a prescribed meaning and not take into account the various meanings the word embodies. Can you think of other concepts where language plays a large role in your perception of something? Let us know by leaving a comment!


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