Morality & Ancient Chinese Culture

by Guy Gardner

Morality in ancient Chinese culture has been the product of discussion and debate within and between very different schools of thought. From the conservative teachings of Confucius to the mysticism of the Daoists, and from the indigenous philosophy of Mencius to the adopted teachings of Buddhism, Chinese moral philosophy has numerous origins.


Confucius developed what would be one of China’s most influential moral philosophies nearly 2,500 years ago. Concerned with social harmony, Confucius developed his theory of 'Jen' and 'Li' as being the two most important parts of the development of virtue in Confucian morality. Jen refers to humanity, or human-heartedness, and refers to the capacity to exhibit empathy, compassion, benevolence and care for others. Li refers to ritual, or etiquette, and was the ordering of the world in a way that allowed for the proper manifestation of Jen. Confucius believed that those ruling over others must develop both Jen and Li, and that those below them should recognize the justice of this hierarchy. Those with the most power were the most responsible and caring, and it was therefore, just to submit to their authority.


In the years following the death of Confucius, his philosophy became the leading moral philosophy in China, enjoying imperial patronage, and growing to include different interpretations of his teachings. Mencius, a Confucian living between the years 372-289 B.C. interpreted Confucian texts to advocate for an idealized view. Mencius believed in the inherent goodness of all people and argued for the importance of rulers to act with goodness and benevolence towards everyone. In the 11th century, Neo-Confucianism emerged that embraced the teachings of Mencius and was further supported by the schools of thought prevalent in Daoism and Buddhism, which argued for the cultivation of the virtuous self and the importance of compassion.


Daoism originated around the same time that Confucius was alive, and in many ways it represents an alternative school of thought. In contrast to the benign patriarchy preached by Confucians, the Daoists argued for a just society of equals living in peace with each other and with the natural world. According to the Daoist Culture Centre, Daoists argued that the creation of social hierarchy and the pursuit of personal power and wealth were immoral, and as such, led to people being removed from the right way of life. A simple life was seen as good, and people were to treat each other peacefully and as equals. Daoism represented an alternative to the conservative Confucian notion of the inherent justice of imperial government. Daoist morality was often used to justify rebellions against government, but only in self-defense.


Buddhism first appeared in China in the Han dynasty, but it wasn’t until the Jin Dynasty in the fifth century A.D. that Buddhism grew to be one of the dominant religions in ancient China. Buddhism taught the importance of achieving enlightenment through the Noble Eightfold Path, which was a complete moral and ethical guideline for life. 'Right Intention' outlines the moral code of this guideline. According to the University of Arkansas, right intention consists or three parts: The intention of renunciation, which means resistance to the pull of desire; the intention of good will, meaning resistance to feelings of anger and aversion; and the intention of harmlessness, meaning not to think or act cruelly, violently, or aggressively, and to develop compassion. The morality of Buddhism had a great influence on ancient China, appearing as an alternative and sometimes complementary moral system for Chinese already familiar with the morality of the Daoists and Confucians.

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