By Alessandro Benedetti
The great philosopher Confucius is taught to have lived until the late age of 70, an outstanding long life for a man living in China over 2500 years ago. His perspective and advices on health and longevity and the ones of later Confucian scholars have inspired a vast amount of medical literature and practical knowledge in the field. Confucianism shifted the paradigms of traditional medicine by introducing the importance of balance and morality, the cultivation of spiritual qualities as well as the exercise of the mind and the body within the framework of a healthy life.
Confucius taught first by example. In numerous passages of the “Analects” it is possible to witness his attention and care for healthy habits, showing his advanced understanding compared to the men of that time.
10.6 In fasting, he always alters his diet and alters from his usual seat when at home.
10.7 If rice had turned sour, he did not eat it. If fish or meat had spoiled, he did not eat it. He did not eat food of bad colour or of bad odour. He did not eat food that was undercooked. He did not eat except at the proper times. If food had not been correctly cut, he did not eat it. […] Though there might be much meat, he did not allow the amount of meat to exceed the amount of rice. He had no set limit for wine, he simply never reached a state of confusion.
10.8 He did not speak while eating, nor when lying down to sleep.
10.10 He did not sit upon a mat that was not in proper position. When villagers gathered to drink wine, he left as soon as those bearing walking staffs departed.
Characteristic to all these passages is the balance with which Confucius conducted himself in all of life’s daily task. He taught that the same equilibrium that we exercise in our diet should be exercised in our emotions. Extremes of pleasure, ager, sorrow or even joy undermine the equilibrium of the mind and should therefore be avoided.
This concept can be summarized with his conception of “the golden mean”, the perfect balance between extremes. The Golden Mean can be further explained with the Confucian concept of “chung” and “yung.”
“Chung” can be defined as “equilibrium” or “balance”. Confucius did not refrain from the pleasures of life, such as eating and sex. However, he sought to achieve balance between extremes, and to avoid excess. A similar concept can also be found in the Daoist belief of the Dao (the way) and the balance of the Ying and the Yang.
“Yung” is “persistence” or “continuing without change.” As explained in “The Doctrine of the Mean” one of the four main texts in Confucian culture, written by Zisi 子思 (also known as Kong Ji, taught to have lived from 481 to 402 BCE), the only grandson of Confucius:
“The path may not be left for an instant. If it could be left, it would not be the path. On this account, the superior man does not wait until he sees things, to be cautious, nor till he hears things, to be apprehensive.” – The Doctrine of the Mean 1.2
This passage suggests that whatever healthy practice we become acquainted with, it must be earnestly and constantly pursued if we are to have it affecting our lifestyle. The appearance of signs of degenerating health should not be the moment in which we start taking care of ourselves for the first time. The fuller benefit of healthy habits is always derived from prevention and long term commitment to their implementation within our daily life.
Meng Zi (Mencius, thought to have lived 372—289 BCE) one of the most highly regarded early Confucian scholars expanded on Confucius’ teachings for a healthy lifestyle by introducing the importance of spiritual wellbeing. Mencius, who also lived till a very old age, saw spiritual wellbeing traveling alongside with physical wellbeing.
“To preserve one’s mind and to nourish one’s spirit is the way to serve nature (heaven). When a man realizes that there is no real difference between a short lifespan and a long one, and does not worry, but wait, cultivating his own personal character, for whatever may come to pass – this is the way he carries out his fate-ordained being.” –Mencius, 7A.1
In essence health is, in the Confucian view, the pursue of the spiritual as well as the physical in a balanced and persistent way. In a world so chaotic, confused and, at times, so distant and forgetful of spiritual values we can still take great advice from the teachings of Zisi, Meng Zi and Confucius and their exemplar health.
To read more on the topic read the following journal articles:
Bao, X. (2003). The conception of healthcare in Confucianism. Zhonghua Yi Shi Za Zhi, 33(1), 24-26.
Ruiping, F. (2002). Reconstructionist Confucianism and Health Care: An Asian Moral Account of Health Care Resource Allocation. Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, 675-682.