Confucius on Jen

Humanity (Jen)

By Susan J. Fleck. November, 1993.

Analects 14:2. Yuan Hsien said, "When one has avoided aggressiveness, pride, resentment, and greed, one may be called a person of jen." Confucius said: "This may be considered having done what is difficult, but I do not know that it is to be regarded as jen."

Essay question: How might Fingarette interpret this? Do you agree? Disagree? Explain. (See Works Cited.)

Confucius says: "To master oneself and return to propriety is humanity." (Analects 12:1). What does this mean: (a) to master oneself; (b) to return to propriety (li); and (c) humanity (jen)? The Confucian ideal, or perfect, man, the chun tzu, is closely related to the more general term humanity, jen. Chun tzu, used to mean "gentleman", but Confucius dramatically changed this: he taught that by nature men are alike and anyone could become a chun tzu, based solely on their character - it was no longer simply a matter of birth (2, 27). Confucius' whole system of ethics is based upon what is the nature of the human being, and a major portion of the Analects is devoted to the subject of jen. Fingarette thinks that the Western world has interpreted the Analects in a primarily humanistic manner and misses the central theme which shows a holiness in human existence and magical power as the very essence of human virtue (1, 1). He shows that we are most human when we do not treat each other as physical objects, and we obtain this humanity through ceremony, which includes everyday transactions such as promises, commitments, pacts, compliments, etc. (1, 14). In spite of the paradoxical treatment of jen in the Analects, there is enough continuity to understand the concepts Confucius wanted to present. It is clear that he taught that jen is central to the ideal life and therefore is worthy of our study. "One who really cared for jen would not let any other consideration come first." (7:29). We will examine briefly what jen is and what is the relationship of li to jen, paying attention to Fingarette's views on these matters.

A Bias for Action

Traditional translations for the word jen are Good, Humanity, Love, Benevolence, Virtue, Manhood, and Manhood-at-Its-Best (1, 38). Traditional virtues attributed with jen are being courteous, prudent, diligent, loyal, brave and kind. Confucius himself was free from arbitrariness of opinion, dogmatism, obstinacy and egotism. (9:4). Yuan Hsien thought that avoiding aggressiveness, pride, resentment, and greed would constitute a jen man. But Confucius replied that, although this is difficult, it [these things alone] is not to be regarded as jen. (14:2). A superior (jen) man is careful in his speech (1:14), acts before he speaks and speaks according to his action (2:13); and ". . . is ashamed that his words exceed his deeds" (14:29). This shows a bias for action. "When substance exceed refinement one becomes rude. When refinement exceeds substance, one becomes urbane" (3, 29). The superior man has a proper blend of these. While all of these traits may be involved, there is a larger, more spiritual dimension to jen. This realm, however, does not include psychological or emotional states, such as being free from sorrow or worry. Fingarette explains nicely how spiritual for Confucius is public and 'outer' (but not in the sense that it is embodied in gods) (1, 46).

Contrast With Kantian Man

In the Western world, inherited from Kant, we tend to equate human-ness with rationality, i.e. that is what distinguishes us as human. We tend to think of the ideal man as "The Renaissance Man", one who has become fully self-actualized, self-fulfilled in all areas of one's life. Michaelangelo, and Benjamin Franklin are our role models. This is a very individualized view of man, and rationality does not necessarily connect up with morality. Confucius says what distinguishes us is what passes for morality. Let us look at the Chinese etymology of jen (man + the number two), which suggests the idea of human beings together in relationship; and of te, virtue (movement / action + straight / upright + heart), which implies acting from your feeling, your heart, and that your heart is good. So the virtuous man, jen, is social, sincere, and action oriented. The Kantian moral man does what is right out of a sense of duty; for the Confucian, it is done when your heart is in the right place. You must have a correspondence of feeling and action, and the emphasis is on character. Confucianism is a morality of development. Morality is all about human growth - of fulfilling your potential. Sage-hood is the closest you can become to perfection.

Follow The Way

However, it is not easy to "master oneself". The Confucian must take his basic 'stuff' and go through a constant 'cutting, filing, and chiseling' process of learning and developing along the Way. The learning process is not a matter of choosing right and wrong things to do, but rather one of using your power and simply following the Way - of discovering the true Path and detecting which are only apparent paths. Fingarette thinks this can happen only when one has been shaped by li, a "returning to propriety", from which you gain your (magical) power. One must work hard first to learn li. Li's root meaning is close to "holy ritual", "sacred ceremony,." but it encompasses a wide range of social forms including manners, customs, traditions, and etiquette. Fingarette says "Human life in its entirety finally appears as one vast, spontaneous and holy rite: the community of man." He points out that this was of ultimate concern to Confucius, and it was the only thing that mattered (1, 17).


What is important in li is the reciprocal loyalty and respect in man-to-man-ness. While the patterns of li are very specific, they are not automatic and mechanical. One's sincerity breathes life into the ceremony; one must be present in order to have meaning in the actions. For example, if you shake someone's hand simply as an act of obligation, there is nothing in that transaction that tells the other person: "I honor you and respect your value as a human." Li humanizes and sanctifies our every day life. Without it, eating becomes rather barbaric, and sex becomes a mere "animalistic" act. Fingarette points out that since Confucius realized the value of li, he expresses the importance of seeking inspiration in one's own traditions in order to reveal a humanizing and harmonizing interpretation for the conflictful present. "He who by reanimating the Old can gain knowledge of the New is indeed fit to be called a teacher." (2:11).

Shared tradition indeed is a glue which unites men. The "Tradition" theme song in "Fiddler on the Roof" comes to mind, as well as that whole story in which many traditions were threatened by changing times, and Tevye could only bend so far "or he would break". Fingarette says that every abandonment of tradition is a separation of men (1, 69). However, even Confucius distinguishes between those customs that are important and should be strictly adhered to, and those which can be abandoned in favor of "common practice" (9:3).

It has been said that jen and li are two sides to the same coin. Rather, I think, jen is the coin and li is the mold from which we "return to propriety" and "master ourselves" in pursuit of excellence.

Works Cited

1. Fingarette, Herbert. CONFUCIUS : the Secular as Sacred. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.

2. Creel, Herrlee G. Chinese Thought from Confucius to Mao Tse-tung. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1953.

3. Chan, Wing-Tsit. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. 1963. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1969.

4. Lecture notes (course on Chines Philosophy Cal. State Univ., Fullerton).

MLA style guidelines, using the number system for parenthetical documentation.

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Copyright 2002 by Susan J. Fleck. All rights reserved.