Essentials of Chinese Confucian Thought - 礼, 仁, 道

by Prof. Cheng Aimin in Nanjing University

Confucian culture is the cornerstone of traditional Chinese culture.  There are three basic concepts of Confucian culture: 礼 - Li or ritual etiquette, 仁 - Ren or benevolence, and 道 - Tao.

In the Confucian view, the variety of practiced rituals maintains the balance of society. Benevolence is the core of the ritual because only with benevolence one can truly observe li. Tao is the natural laws or order of the universe.

礼 - Li or ritual etiquette

Confucians really emphasize the concept of li, or ritual etiquette. In their eyes the balance of society is only maintained through a variety of practiced rituals. 
The scope for rituals is fairly large ranging anywhere from national-level systems standards and law to the rituals between people. These are all considered li.
So you can see that li is really just a set of social rituals. Simply speaking, we could say that li is a set of social rules. And in the eyes of Confucians we could say that li was just a way by which a person used his appropriate role and status to deal with others.
To observe li is to be aware and remember one’s own status and identity. It means to perform and complete all the responsibilities expected of you, to take on the duties, not to do you should not be doing.
If everyone could observe li do their best in completing their own responsibilities, then we wouldn’t have so many troubles in society and the entire world would be at peace.
Li can also be seen as the sum of an individual’s relationship with a greater society. Every individual has a different relative identity at different times, everyone must use the most appropriate identity in each situation and follow through on what they must do in that identity.
In this way, society can maintain its proper balance and work towards peaceful development.
Ritual is like what we understand in West as a law in terms that it is something external, it’s like a set of rules that bind people but these rules are external, it’s not something that comes from the inside. 
Then, what do we do to make people or to let people behave from their inside? Not because someone forces them to behave that way but because they themselves are willing to behave in that way?
A Confucian answer to this is that they use the concept of 仁 - Ren benevolence, that is supposedly inside of us so they have this whole idea of educational ren.
How to educate people that they would be willing to behave appropriately and nicely because they want so, not because they are forced to? Let's learn a bit about Ren.

仁 - Ren or benevolence

We could also say that Li is external, it's an external restraint. It's something that people have to obey. Ren is something more like internal and this internal benevolence is expressfully on the ritual.
Confucius once said, one who possesses benevolence loves people. So Ren is to care for others. If everyone cares for other people and receives love and care from others, then the world would be so much more beautiful.
Confucians believe that only observing Li, laws and assistance is not enough. On top of this, one must have a benevolent heart. These only the observable form of Ren, while Ren is at the core of Li.
In Confucian thought, even more important than Li is the backdrop of Ren. Without them, the rituals of Li are like a rope wanting tighter and tighter around that person, making them uncomfortable. This sort of a practice without heart make it hard to reach an harmonious society.
In order to attain real harmony between people, there is a need for mutual concern, mutual care. All this rule a benevolent heart can an individual be conscious and willing to follow the rituals of Li and to do things.
Then, how do we exactly practice Ren? How do we follow it in our daily life? And also, if we want to take care of others, how do we know what they want or what they don't want?
The answer is: Confucius believed that practicing Ren isn't that hard after all. In simple words, when you are considering of doing anything, taking any sort of action, you should always stand in someone else's shoes, and then think about it before doing it.
There is a Chinese saying supposedly -  said by Confucius - 己所不欲,勿施于人(Jǐ suǒ bú yù, wù shī yú rén).
It means that which you do not desire, do not do onto others. If there is something that you wish others wouldn't do to you, then similarly do not do the same to them.
Another very famous confusion saying that most of Chinese people know by heart is this - 己欲立立人,己欲达达人(Jǐ yù lì lì rén, jǐ yù dá dá rén).
If you desire to achieve something, first of all try others to achieve that. If you desire to reach or excel in something then help others to do that. If you wish that everything goes smoothly, then you understand that other people also have a similar desire. 
So that is precisely what Confucius meant when he said, to treat others the way you want to be treated.
Now you can understand that Ren is a perfect diverture of the Confucians. To Confucians, Ren, or benevolence, and Li, or rights are two fundamental elements of a good person as well as a harmonious society. 
Now let's talk about 道- Dao.


道 - Dao/Tao

Dao - its most literal sense refers to a road. Everything in nature has its own road, and a development that it cannot stray from. Dao its literal meaning refers to the internal lines within each object. 
For example, if we cut a tree, we see the lines in the tree. You can also see the inlines in jade stone. A good jade craftsman knows to shape the raw jade  on base of nature inlines, as shown in the jade masterpiece - Jadeite Cabbage with Insects.
According to Confucius or Confusion in general, where our world and society have their own natural lines. Let say like a tree first, and these lines are natural. It's like in a logic. 
So people, especially Confucius have to do everything according to these inner lines. Which means they have to be, to follow the natural law, and to be a reasonable, and to observe Li. 
And in Confucian understanding, if everything is done in this natural order, following the path, and following the principle, that will result in the highest form of Ren.
According to Confucius, every person needs to have a benevolent heart. It does not mean that every person has to be like a yes man, agreeing with everything, or every person has to discard their own personal principles. To speak of Confucian doll, one has to follow the natural order of things. 
But how do we find that order? 
There is another Confucius saying - 格物致知,穷理尽性(Gé wù zhì zhī, qiónɡ lǐ jìn xìnɡ). 
格物(gé wù), we could understand as observing everything, observing the external, and internal world.
And by this observation - 致知(zhì zhī), expanding our contrastness, expanding our knowledge.
穷理(qiónɡ lǐ) means, fulfilling the principles, following the principles.
And 尽性(jìn xìnɡ) is fully realizing the potential that we have.
It sounds a bit complicated, but it's very simple idea that when you understand, you appreciate the beauty, and you like it. 
So that’s how we find this natural order things. 

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