To understand Confucian philosophy you need to start with Confucius and his teachings that have exerted deep influence on society in the past and present.
Bin Song, Ruist (Confucian) practitioner and philosopher, has formulated a reference chart to help one understand primary Confucian teachings and to better equip those to practice this wisdom in daily life.
In previous articles we have discussed the five cardinal human relationships and ten reciprocal duties. In order to comprehend these relationships among other virtues an explanation is summarised below.
Firstly, The Way of Heaven (Tian) (天道, Tiāndào) which appears at the top of the chart, refers to an all-encompassing, constantly creative cosmic power. Tian is the transcendent in Ruism (Confucianism). Dao means “the way”. By placing Dynamic Harmony (和, Hé) below The Way of Heaven, it can be said that Dynamic Harmony is the principle that runs through Tian.
The Way of Human Beings (仁道Réndào) and how humans engage with Tian concretely is to realise Dynamic Harmony in human society. This is through the virtue of Humanness (仁Rén). Consequently, the virtue of Humanness is the Way of Human Beings.
Humanness is the highest virtue and includes five different facets, which are referred to as the Five Constant Virtues (五常, Wǔcháng): Humaneness, Righteousness, Ritual-Propriety, Wisdom and Trustworthiness. These are universal principals that govern concrete human relationships.
The Three Guides (三綱, Sān gāng), describes a Ruist ethical understanding of the three major human relationships. ‘Ruler is the guide of subjects’ in modern context ought to be understood as “in public life, a superior is the guide of subordinates” and refers to relationships such as state and citizens and employer and employee. ‘Father is the guide of son’ ought to be understood as “parents are the guide of children”. Finally, ‘Husband is the guide of wife’ is interpreted as “husbands and wives are the guides of each other, depending upon their different areas of expertise”.
The ethics of the Three Guides are a distillation of Mencius teachings about the Five Cardinal Human Relationships (五倫, Wǔlún): parents and children, ruler and subjects, husband and wife, elder and junior, and friendship. Mencius taught that the virtues that guide each of these relationships are affective closeness between parents and children, righteousness between ruler and subjects, distinction between husband and wife, proper order between elders and juniors, and trustworthiness between friends.
Lastly, The ethics of the Ten Reciprocal Duties (十義, Shí yì) are described in The Book of Rites (禮記). The text prescribes a single virtue for each person as they act out their role in these relationships. In the relationship between parents and children, parents should be guided by the virtue of parental kindness and children should be guided by the virtue of filial devotion. As mentioned above, the practice of these two reciprocal duties will nurture the guiding virtue of affective closeness. This pattern of reciprocal virtues is repeated for the remaining four relationships.
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