Category Archives: Confucianism


from Beginner’s Book of Bushido


Daidoji Yuzan Shigesuke was born to a distinguished Japanese samurai family, said to be descended from the powerful 12th-century Taira clan, though the family name—Daidoji—had been taken several centuries later. Daidoji arrived in Edo (now Tokyo) as a young man and studied military science with two of the mid-17th century’s greatest tacticians; he was also an orthodox Confucian scholar. He later traveled around the country, teaching and testing himself; he became a prominent writer and an expert in the military arts. Daidoji lived under the rule of six different Shoguns, from Iyemitsu to Yoshimuné, and died at the age of 92.

The 17th century saw the decline of Japan’s long history of internal warfare during the Warring States period, warfare that was fought among a warrior class, the samurai or bushi, who were educated in both the martial arts and literature. The country had been unified around 1600 under the Tokugawa Shogunate, which would rule until 1868. The new peace made prosperity possible and encouraged the rise of a merchant class, but this threatened the significance and existence of the warrior class, and large numbers of samurai who had been attached to feudal lords became ronin, or masterless and unemployed. Bushido, “the Way of the Warrior,” Japan’s traditional code of military culture and chivalry, was thus under threat. It is in this climate that Daidoji’s Budoshoshinshu, or Beginner’s Book of Bushido, was written. The Beginner’s Book, a textbook for young samurai, takes the point of view of the retainer, rather than the lord; in this, it is unlike many other accounts of late 16th- and early 17th-century military culture (e.g., that of Sorai), but it does have much in common with the somewhat later, better-known Hagakure, a collection of 1,300 anecdotes and reflections dictated by a samurai who, restrained by the prohibition of junshi, had become a hermit priest after the death of his lord. Daidoji’s treatment of samurai culture is particularly concerned with the philosophical dilemma of how the warrior is to live in a time of peace.

Traditionally, Bushido had set the standard for the behavior, character, and duties of the warrior class, and included expectations concerning politeness, sincerity, self-control, honor, dignity, and absolute loyalty to one’s lord. Its roots were to be found in Confucian concepts of loyalty, as well as Buddhist ideas of the nonexistence of the self, the impermanence of life, and the importance of equanimity or preparedness of mind. From the time of the early Heian period (8th–12th centuries), the code of Bushido had taken honor as central and had held that to protect it, the samurai warrior was, among other things, to be prepared to commit suicide. Wounded or defeated warriors were expected to kill themselves; to be taken alive as a prisoner was a great dishonor. The late medieval epic Taiheiki recounts 68 separate occasions of warrior suicide involving a total of 2,140 men.

Whether on the battlefield or in court, the suicide was to take place by means of self-disembowelment, at least when advance preparation for the ritual was possible. Known in Japanese as seppuku, this practice is often termed hara-kiri, a Western construction formed from the Japanese terms for “belly” and “cut”; the practice may have evolved in the light of the traditional Japanese belief that the abdomen, hara, is the seat of the soul and the affections. The first recorded case of seppuku is said to have been the death of the archer Minamoto Tametomo in 1170. Seppuku could be an expression of loyalty on the death of one’s lord, known as junshi; it could serve to avoid capture in war; it could be used to force an errant lord to act in accord with the correct moral order; and it could be exacted as a penalty for certain transgressions, a form of capital punishment [q.v., under A. B. Mitford]. Seppuku is distinct from the other principal form of suicide recognized in traditional Japanese culture, shinju, or “love suicide” [q.v., under Chikamatsu]. Performed as an act of military honor, ritual disembowelment in seppuku was seen as a privilege reserved for samurai warriors. Commoners, women, noblemen, priests, and peasants were neither expected nor permitted to perform seppuku, though bushi women, who often followed their husbands in death, carried a knife and were instructed from girlhood in how to sever the jugular vein. Seppuku has sometimes been compared to the Roman custom in which a defeated general falls on his sword, though apparently more strongly expected and frequently practiced. One modern commentator notes that “the samurai tradition of suicide to save one’s honour may have lost Japan many fine generals who would otherwise have lived to fight another day.” Another comments on the centrality of seppuku in Japanese culture: “Western civilization gravitated around the Supreme Being; that of feudal Japan around the Supreme Act.”

By Daidoji’s time, however, the practice of ritual disembowelment was increasingly seen as a relic of times past. In 1663, when Daidoji was in his mid-20s, the Japanese government, the Tokugawa Bakufu, had prohibited the practice of junshi, committing seppuku at the death of one’s lord. In the Beginner’s Book, Daidoji struggled to show young samurai what would be required of them in this new era, committed as he was to the traditional code of Bushido, a struggle particularly evident at the end of the selection in his effort to characterize “great loyalty that surpasses junshi.”

A. L. Sadler, tr., The Beginner’s Book of Bushido. Tokyo: Kokusai Bunka Shinkokai, the Society for International Cultural Relations, 1941, pp. 3-5, 50-53, 74-79.

Quotations and paraphrase in introduction from S. R. Turnbull, The Samurai: A Military History, London: George Philip, 1977, p. 286; Catharina Blomberg, The Heart of the Warrior, Sandgate, Folkestone, Kent: Japan Library, 1994, p. 79; Eiko Ikegami, The Taming of the Samurai, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995, p. 105; and Maurice Pinguet, Voluntary Death in Japan, tr. Rosemary Morris. First published in French as La mort volontaire au Japon, Éditions Gallimard, 1984; in English, Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, in association with Blackwell Publishers, 1993, p. 87.


One who is a samurai must before all things keep constantly in mind, by day and by night from the morning when he takes up his chop-sticks to eat his New Year Breakfast to Old Year’s night when he pays his yearly bills, the fact that he has to die. That is his chief business. If he is always mindful of this he will be able to live in accordance with the paths of Loyalty and Filial Duty, will avoid myriads of evils and adversities, keep himself free from disease and calamity and moreover enjoy a long life. He will also be a fine personality with many admirable qualities. For existence is impermanent as the dew of evening and the hoar-frost of morning, and particularly uncertain is the life of the warrior, and if he thinks he can console himself with the idea of eternal service to his lord or unending devotion to his relatives, something may well happen to make him neglect his duty to his lord and forget what he owes to his family. But if he determines simply to live for today and take no thought for the morrow, so that when he stands before his lord to receive his commands he thinks of it as his last appearance and when he looks on the faces of his relatives he feels that he will never see them again, then will his duty and regard for both of them be completely sincere and his mind be in accord with the path of loyalty and filial duty.

But if he does not keep death in mind he will be careless and liable to be indiscreet and say things that offend others and an argument ensues, and though, if no notice taken, it may be settled, if there is a rebuke, it may end in a quarrel.  Then if he goes strolling about pleasure resorts and seeing the sights in crowded places without any proper reserve he may come up against some big fool and get into a quarrel before he knows it, and may even be killed and his lord’s name brought to it and his parents and relations exposed to reproach.

And all this misfortune springs from his not remembering to keep death always in his thoughts.  But one who does this whether he is speaking himself or answering others will carefully consider, as befits a samurai, every word he says and never launch out into useless argument.  Neither will he allow anyone to entice him into unsuitable places where he may be suddenly confronted with an awkward situation, and thus he avoids all evils and calamities.  And both high and low, if they forget about death, are very apt to take to unhealthy excess in food and wine and women so that they die unexpectedly early from diseases of the kidneys and spleen, and even while they live their illness makes them of no use to anyone.  But those who keep death always before their eyes are strong and healthy while young, and as they take care of their health and are moderate in eating and drinking and avoid the paths of women, being abstemious and moderate in all things, they remain free from disease and live a long and healthy life.

Then one who lives long in this world may develop all sorts of desires and his covetousness may increase so that he wants what belongs to others and cannot bear to part with what is his own, becoming in fact just like a mere tradesman.  But if he is always looking death in the face, a man will have little attachment to material things and will not exhibit these grasping and covetous qualities, and will become as I said before, a fine character.  And speaking of meditation on death, Yoshida Kenkô says in the Tsurezuré-Gusa of the monk Shinkai that he was wont to sit all day long pondering on his latter end; this is no doubt a very suitable attitude for a recluse but by no means so for a warrior.  For so he would have to neglect his military duties and the way of loyalty and filial piety, and he must on the contrary be constantly busy with his affairs both public and private.  But whenever he has a little spare time to himself and can be quiet he should not fail to revert to this question of death and reflect carefully on it.  Is it not recorded that Kusunoki Masashigé adjured his son Masatsura to keep death always before his eyes?  And all this is for the instruction of the youthful samurai…

The Latter End

The samurai whether great or small, high or low, has to set before all other things the consideration of how to meet his inevitable end.  However clever or capable or efficient he may have been, if he is upset and wanting in composure and so makes a poor showing when he comes to face it all, his previous good deeds will be like water and all decent people will despise him so that he will be covered with shame.

For when a samurai goes out to battle and does valiant and splendid exploits and makes a great name, it is only because he made up his mind to die.  And if unfortunately he gets the worst of it and he and his head have to part company, when his opponent asks for his name he must declare it at once loudly and clearly and yield up his head with a smile on his lips and without the slightest sign of fear.  Or should he be so badly wounded that no surgeon can do anything for him, if he is still conscious, the proper procedure for a samurai is to answer the enquiries of his superior officers and comrades and inform them of the manner of his being wounded and then to make an end without more ado.

Similarly in times of peace the steadfast samurai, particularly if he is old but no less if he is young and stricken with some serious disease, ought to show firmness and resolution and attach no importance to leaving this life.  Naturally if he is in high office, but also however low his position may be, while he can speak he should request the presence of his official superior and inform him that as he has long enjoyed his consideration and favour he has consequently wished fervently to do all in his power to carry out his duties, but unfortunately he has now been attacked by this serious disease from which it is difficult to recover, and consequently is unable to do so; and that as he is about to pass away he wishes to express his gratitude for past kindness and trusts to be remembered respectfully to the Councillors of the clan.  This done, he should say farewell to his family and friends and explain to them that it is not the business of a samurai to die of illness after being the recipient of the great favours of his lord for so many years, but unfortunately in his case it is unavoidable.  But they who are young must carry on his loyal intentions and firmly resolve to do their duty to their lord, ever increasing this loyalty so as to serve with all the vigour they possess.  Should they fail to do this or act in any disloyal or undutiful way, then even from the shadow of the grass his spirit will disown and disinherit them.  Such is the leave-taking of a true samurai.

And in the words of the Sage too it is written that when a man is about to die his words should be such as appear right.  This is what the end of a samurai should be, and how different it is from that of one who refuses to regard his complaint as incurable and is worried about dying, who rejoices if people tell him he looks better and dislikes it if they say he looks worse, the while he fusses with doctors and gets a lot of useless prayers and services said for him and is in a complete state of flurry and confusion.  As he gradually gets worse he does not say anything to anyone but ends by bungling the one death he has so that it is no better than that of a dog or cat.  This is because he does not keep death always before his eyes as I recommended him to do in my first chapter, but puts any mention of it away from him as ill-omened and seems to think he will live forever, hanging on to existence with a greedy intensity.  One who goes into battle in this cowardly spirit is not likely to die a glorious death in a halo of loyalty, so one who values the samurai ideal should see to it that he knows how to die properly of illness on the mats.

Loyal to Death

A samurai in service is under a great debt to his lord and may think that he can hardly repay it except by committing “junshi” and following him in death.  But that is not permitted by law, and just to perform the ordinary service at home on the mats is far from desirable.  What then is left?  A man may wish for an opportunity to do something more outstanding than his comrades to throw away his life and accomplish something, and if he resolutely makes up his mind to do something of this sort it is a hundred times preferable to performing junshi. For so he may become the saviour, not only of his lord but of all his fellow retainers both small and great, and thus become a personage who will be remembered to the end of time as a model samurai possessing the three qualities of loyalty, faith and valour.  Now there is always an evil spirit that haunts the family of a person of rank. And the way he curses that family is in the first place by causing the death by accident or epidemic disease of some young samurai among the hereditary councillors or elders who has the three virtues of a warrior and who promises to be of great value in the future as a support to his lord, as well as a benefit to all the clan, and whose loss is therefore a severe blow. Thus when Amari Saemon, commander of the samurai to Takeda Shingen, fell from his horse and was killed while quite young, that was the doing of the vicious spirit of Takasaki Danjô who had long haunted that house.  In the second place this evil spirit will enter into the person of one of the Councillors or Elders or samurai in attendance whom the lord most trusts and favours so that he may delude the lord’s mind and seduce him into the ways of injustice and immorality.

Now in thus leading his lord astray this samurai may do so in six different ways. First he may prevent him from seeing or hearing anything and contrive that the others in attendance cannot state their views, or, even if they can, that they are not adopted, and generally manage so that his master regards him alone as indispensable and commits everything to his keeping. Secondly if he notices that any of the samurai about the household seems promising and likely to be useful to their lord he will so work things that he is transferred somewhere else and kept away from his master, and that connexions of his own, or men who agree with him and are subservient and respectful and never oppose him are the only ones permitted to be about the lord. Thus he prevents his master from knowing anything about the extravagant and domineering way he lives.  In the third place he may persuade his lord to take a secondary consort on the plea that he has not enough descendants to ensure the succession, and procure damsels for this purpose without any enquiry into what family they come from as long as they are good to look at. And he will collect dancers and players on the biwa and samisen and assure his lord that they are essential to divert him and dispel his boredom.  And even a lord who is by nature clever and energetic is apt to be led astray by feminine fascinations, much more one who is born lacking in these qualities. And then his discrimination will depart from him and he will think only of amusement and become more and more addicted to it, so that eventually he will be entirely given up to dancing and gaiety inevitably followed by drinking parties at all times of the day and night.  So he will come to spend all of his time in the ladies’ apartments without a thought for official and administrative business, and hating even the idea of an interview with his councillors on these subjects. Therefore everything remains in the hands of the one evil councillor, and day by day his power increases, while all the others become mere nonentities with lips compressed and shrinking mien, and so the whole household goes from bad to worse. In the fourth place it follows that under these circumstances, as everything is kept secret, expenses increase and income has to be augmented so that the old regulations are done away with and new ones enacted, and a spy put in there and someone censured there and allowances cut down, so that the lower ranks are in great straits without anyone caring in the least about it, and all so that their lord may have plenty and live in the lap of luxury.  So that, though they do not say anything about it publicly, the greatest discontent is rife among all the retainers, and before long there is none who is single-heartedly loyal to his lord. In the fifth place though a daimyo is one who should never be anything but experienced in the Way of the Warrior, since the evil councillor is not likely to care anything about it in an age of peace and quiet such as this, there will be no interest at all in military matters and no inspections of the armed forces. And everyone in the household will be quite pleased to fall in with this attitude, and none will trouble about military duties or make proper provisions for weapons and supplies, and be perfectly content to let things alone and just make do for the present.  So nobody would think, seeing the condition of the house now, that their ancestors had been warriors of great renown, and should some crisis supervene and find them unprepared, there would be nothing but flurry and confusion and nobody would know what to do.  In the sixth place, when the lord is thus addicted to pleasure, drink and dalliance, he will grow more and more wayward till his health becomes affected. All his retainers will be dispirited and lacking in sincerity, merely living from one day to the next and without any guidance from above, and eventually something may happen to the lord through the influence of this evil spirit.  And this man who is at the bottom of it all, this vengeful enemy of his master and evil genius of his house will be cursed by all the clan no doubt, but even so there will be nothing for it but that some nine or ten of them concert together to accuse him and bring him to judgment by a war of argument without soiling their hands.  But in that case the affair cannot be cleared up without making it public, and the lord and his house will be brought up for examination, and then matters may become more serious and end in sentence being passed upon them by the Shogun’s government.  And in all ages when a daimyo has been unable to manage his affairs and has been disciplined by the government the result has been that his house has come to an end.  As the proverb has it, ‘when you straighten the horn you kill the ox, and when you hunt the rats you burn the shrine’, so when the lord’s house is ruined, his retainers are discharged and lose their livelihood.  Therefore it is best to seize this great rascal of a councillor who is the evil spirit of the house and either stab him through or cut off his head whichever you prefer, and so put an end to him and his corrupt practices.  And then you must straightway commit seppuku yourself.  Thus there will be no open breach or lawsuit or sentence and your lord’s person will not be attainted, so that the whole clan will continue to live in security and there will be no open trouble in the Empire.  And one who acts thus is a model samurai who does a deed a hundred-fold better than junshi, for he has the three qualities of loyalty and faith and valour, and will hand down a glorious name to posterity.

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Filed under Asia, Confucianism, Daidoji Yuzan, Selections, The Early Modern Period

(c. 372-c. 289 B.C.)

from The Mencius


Meng Ke, the Chinese Confucian philosopher whose honorific name Mengzi (Meng-tzu) is Latinized as “Mencius,” was, like Confucius [q.v.], born in what is now Shandong province. Also like Confucius, Mencius’ profession was primarily teaching; he is said to have studied under a pupil of the grandson of Confucius, Zisi (according to tradition, he studied under Zisi himself). Mencius lived during the Warring States period, a time of considerable political corruption and dictatorial rule, and traveled for about 40 years from one state to another attempting to persuade rulers of the need for reform and how to accomplish it. He also served as a scholar and official at the Jixia Academy in the state of Qi, but took a three-year absence for mourning after the death of his mother, and was revered for this expression of filial piety.

Respected as one of its principal interpreters, Mencius developed an intuitionist form of Confucianism. Mencius expands Confucius’s humanism by maintaining that human nature is originally and intrinsically good, though it may be corrupted by negative societal influences. The Mencius, said to be a record of his conversations with kings during his years of itinerant travel, was probably compiled by Mencius’ pupils after his death. Together with the Analects of Confucius and two other classic texts, Mencius’ work served as the basis of the imperial civil service examinations.

Although Mencius does not explore the issue of suicide explicitly, the famous passage traditionally translated “I like fish and I also like bear’s paw” shows that there are occasions on which one may not—indeed should not—attempt to preserve one’s own life, but should sacrifice it for a greater good, righteousness. The bear’s paw, or bear’s palm, passage is often compared with Confucius’ Analects, 15.9 and exhibits some of the same tensions over obligations to sacrifice one’s life yet also preserve one’s body.


The Book of Mencius, Book VI, Part A, 10, tr. Eirik Lang Harris. Some interpretive material concerning the traditional “bear’s paw” phrase is found in Wing-Tsit Chan, tr. and ed., A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963, 6A10, 6A14-6A15, pp. 57–59. Interpretive material also from Eirik Lang Harris.


Mencius said: “Fish is something I desire. Bear paw is also something I desire. But if I cannot have them both, I would give up the fish and choose the bear paw. Life is something I desire. Righteousness is also something I desire. But if I cannot have them both, I would give up life and choose righteousness. Life is something that I desire, but there is something that I desire more than life, and so I will not be unscrupulous in pursuing life. Death is something that I hate, but there is something that I hate more than death, and so there are perils that I will not avoid. If it were such that there was nothing that one desired more than life, then, if there were some means that would help one continue living, what would one not use? If it were such that there was nothing that one hated more than death, then if there were some means that would help one avoid peril, what would one not do? From this, then, we see that there are means of staying alive that will not be employed and also that there are means for avoiding peril that will not be used. Therefore, there are desires that are greater than the desire for life and hatreds greater than the hatred of death. It is not merely the sage who has this heart; people all have it, it is just that the sage never loses it.

“Consider the case where, if one gets a [single] basket of food and a bowl of stew, one will live, if one does not get them, one will die. However, if they are insultingly provided, even travelers on the road would not accept them. If they are trampled upon and then provided, even a beggar would disdain them. Yet when it comes to a salary of ten thousand measures of grain, one accepts it without regard to ritual and righteousness. What does this salary add to one? Should one accept for the sake of a beautiful estate? For the respect of a wife and concubines? For the indebtedness of impoverished and needy relatives? Previously, when it was a case of life or death, one would not accept what was offered, but now when it is a matter of a beautiful estate one does. Previously, when it was a case of life or death, one would not accept what was offered, but now for the sake of the respect of a wife and concubines, one does. Previously, when it was a case of life or death, one would not accept what was offered, but now for the sake of the indebtedness of impoverished and needy relatives, one does. Is there no way of stopping this? This is called losing one’s fundamental heart.”

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Filed under Ancient History, Asia, Confucianism, Mencius, Selections

(551-479 B.C.)

from The Analects
from The Book of Filial Piety


Confucius (Kongzi), often regarded as the greatest of the Chinese sages and as the most profound influence on Chinese civilization in general, was born in 551 B.C. in the state of Lu, in modern Shandong, where his descendants still live. The name Confucius is a Latinized form of the Chinese Kongfuzi, meaning “Master Kong,” drawn from his family name Kong. Much of what is believed about his life is legendary. Confucius is said to have been the youngest of 11 children in a family that was noble but fairly poor; his father died when he was about three. Confucius devoted himself to the study of ancient Chinese literature known as the Five Classics, including the Shu Jing, or Book of Documents, the Shi Jing, or Book of Odes, also called the Book of Songs, and the Yi Jing, or Book of Changes, a divination manual. According to traditional sources, he occupied various minor posts and was made minister of justice at about the age of 51 until his resignation c. 495 B.C. Confucius wandered from state to state for the next 13 years, teaching the Five Classics and attempting to persuade the state rulers he met of the need for social, political, and moral reforms. He spoke in favor of making education available to all, and promoted a view of education as dedicated to the advancement of character rather than vocational training. He was the first to advocate in any sustained way the notion of moral education through the rituals of the ancient dynasties and to insist that moral reform through such education could restore peace and harmony to society. His teachings are rooted in a deeply humanistic worldview, emphasizing the concept of ren, variously translated as “goodness,” “benevolence,” or “humaneness,” which he saw as the highest virtue. The man of ren who is capable of genuinely empathetic understanding that combines conscientiousness and altruism is the morally ideal person.

The work most directly associated with Confucius is The Analects, a collection of sayings attributed to Confucius and accounts of his deeds, together with his reflections on the Chinese classics. The Analects was probably put together by his pupils and their pupils, and finally consolidated by Han scholars some five or six centuries after Confucius’s death. The material is not systematic and is in some places historically inaccurate; it also includes some material that is clearly of much later date, as well as some that is alien or hostile. Nevertheless, The Analects is recognized as the most reliable source of Confucius’s thought. The Xiao Jing, or Book of Filial Piety, a collection circulating in part before Confucius but, by tradition, attributed to him, depicts conversations between Confucius and his disciple Zengzi, one of Confucius’s followers particularly renowned for the virtue of filial piety. The Book of Filial Piety was probably compiled by members of Master Zeng’s school and consolidated in later centuries. Both texts identify the duty of filial piety as a central ethical obligation: the obligation to love and care for one’s parents. The implications of this duty for the question of suicide are evident in both texts: one must not harm or destroy one’s body.

Analects 8.3 depicts Master Zeng, the disciple who is Confucius’s interlocutor in the Book of Filial Piety, as he is dying. Zengzi is asking his students to look at his hands and feet to ensure that he is still whole, and expresses satisfaction that he has preserved his body intact throughout his life—a duty central to filial piety. Thus Zengzi can expose his hands and feet, often at risk in early China, where amputation was a common punishment.

To injure or destroy one’s own body, or to allow it to be injured or destroyed, would be to violate one’s obligation to one’s parents; this obligation presumably precludes suicide. Consonant with this, the selection from the Book of Filial Piety, framed in the voice of Confucius, also describes the obligation to care for and preserve oneself, including one’s own body, as central to the obligation of filial piety.

Analects 8.13 and 14.12 both address willingness to give up one’s life, in 8.13 for the Dao or “Way,” and in 14.12 in times of danger as a characteristic of the “complete” or fully virtuous and cultured gentleman; it may also include a willingness to voluntarily sacrifice one’s life, not just risk the loss of it. The first three exemplary individuals mentioned in 14.12 are respected state officials; Ran Qiu was one of Confucius’s disciples.

Analects 14.16 and 14.17 refer to events that took place during the reign of Duke Huan, the official hegemon from 681–643 B.C. Duke Huan and his brother Prince Jiu were both exiles from their home state of Qi, which was ruled by their eldest brother. While in exile, Prince Jiu was served by his retainers Shao Hu and Guan Zhong. Upon their eldest brother’s death, Duke Huan, the youngest brother, returned to Qi to usurp power and ordered the death of his elder brother Prince Jiu and the return of his retainers Shao Hu and Guan Zhong. The expectation of the time was that retainers would commit suicide rather than serve another lord, and this is what Shao Hu did. However, Guan Zhong, on the other hand, willingly returned to serve Duke Huan and became his Prime Minister. It is not clear whether Confucius approves or disapproves of this serious breach of propriety; Confucius questions Guan Zhong’s ren, “benevolence” or “goodness,” the highest virtue for Confucius. Guan Zhong subsequently became a very famous political figure, and one of the most important political texts of the time, the Guanzi, was attributed to (and named after) him.

Analects 15.9 acknowledges that in some cases, morally ideal people will knowingly bring about their own destruction for virtuous ends. Although this passage is often translated as claiming that morally ideal people will sometimes “sacrifice” their lives in order to achieve goodness or ren, the Confucian text translated literally reads “kill themselves.” However, the focus seems to be on doing what is necessary to accord with ren, not on suicide per se. The extent to which Confucius distinguishes “suicide” from other forms of self-caused death is not entirely clear.

Over his lifetime, many gentleman-scholars and literati gathered around Confucius. Sima Qian’s [q.v.] Records of the Historian claims that by the time Confucius died, he had some 3,000 followers. Although, when at the age of 72 he was dying, Confucius is said to have felt that his life had not been a success, he has had incalculable effect on Chinese ethical and political thought. For centuries, as Edward Slingerland points out, in order to pass China’s civil service examinations, every educated Chinese person was required to memorize the Analects until the last nationwide exams in the early 20th century.


Confucius, The Analects, 8:3, 8:13, 14.12, 14:16, 14:17, 15:9, tr. Eirik Lang Harris. Some interpretive material from Confucius, The Analects, tr. Edward Slingerland, Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003; also from Eirik Lang Harris and Eric L. Hutton; Confucius, The Book of Filial Piety, tr. Eirik Lang Harris. Some interpretive material from The Sacred Books of the East: The Texts of Confucianism, Vol. III, Part I: The Shu King. The Religious Portions of the Shih King. The Hsiao King. tr. James Legge, Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1899, and from Eirik Lang Harris.




 Zengzi was dying and summoned his students, “Uncover my feet!  Uncover my hands! The Book of Odes says,

‘Trembling and cautious;
As if overlooking a deep abyss;
As if treading upon thin ice.’

But now, whatever may come, I know that I have escaped [mutilation], my young ones.”


The Master [Confucius] said, “Be earnestly trustworthy and love learning, and defend unto death the excellent Way. Do not enter an imperiled state; do not dwell within a disordered state.  If the empire possesses the Way, then allow yourself to be seen.  If it lacks the Way, then remain hidden.  If a state possesses the Way, then if one is poor and humble, this is shameful.  If a state lacks the Way, then if one is rich and honored, this is shameful.”


Zilu asked what was meant by a ‘complete person.’

The Master said, “One who is as wise as Zang Wuzhong, who is like Gongchuo in not being covetous, who is as brave as Zhangzi of Bian, who is as artistically talented as Ran Qiu, and who refines these traits by means of ritual and music, such a person could be called a ‘complete person.’”

He continued, “But in the present time, is it necessary that a ‘complete person’ have all of these attributes?   If, when one sees a chance for profit, one thinks about what is right, when one sees danger one is prepared to give up one’s life, when h e does not forget for his entire life a promise made long ago, then one may be called a ‘complete person.’”


Zilu said, “When Duke Huan killed [his brother] Prince Jiu, Prince Jiu’s advisor, Shao Hu, died for Prince Jiu, but his other advisor, Guan Zhong did not.”

He continued, “Is Guan Zhong not lacking in ren [goodness]?”

The Master replied, “The reason why Duke Huan was able on numerous occasions to unite the feudal lords without resorting to war chariots was because of Guan Zhong’s strength.  But in regards to his ren, in regards to his ren…”


Zigong said, “Guan Zhong was not ren, was he? When When Duke Huan killed [his brother] Prince Jiu, Guan Zhong was not able to die for Prince Jiu, and moreover served as Duke Huan’s Prime Minister.”

The Master said, “When Guan Zhong served as Duke Huan’s Prime Minister, the Duke made him hegemon over the feudal lords and united the empire.  Even today, people are still benefiting from this.  Were it not for Guan Zhong, we might all be wearing our hair loose and fastening the fronts of our garments on the left [as barbarians do].  How can we expect of him the petty sincerity of a common husband or wife, to hang himself in some ravine or ditch, with no one knowing of it?”


The Master said, “Among those who have [good] purpose and those who are ren, none will seek life at the expense of harming ren, and there are those who will cause death for their person in order to accomplish what is [or accords with] ren.”


Once, when Confucius was resting at home, Zengzi was attending him. The Master said, “The Former Kings used the ultimate virtue and the crucial method in order to cause the empire to submit [to their authority]. Because of this the people were harmonious and peaceful, and that there was no resentment between superiors and subordinates. Do you know what it was?”

Zengzi rose from his mat respectfully and replied, “I am not perceptive; how could I be capable of knowing this?”

The Master said, “It was filial piety – the root of virtue and that from which all teaching stems.   Sit down again and I shall explain it to you. Our body, limbs, hair, and skin are received from our parents, and so we do not dare to injure or harm them. This is the beginning of filial piety. When we establish ourselves and practice the Way so as to make our name known to future generations and thereby bring glory to our parents, this is the consummation o f filial piety. Filial piety begins in service to our parents, continues in service to our lord, and is consummated in establishing our place in the world [ and therefore our parents’ reputations].

The ‘Daya’ section of the Book of Odes says,

‘Never forget your ancestors;
Cultivate your virtue.’”

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