Confucianism – About ren, li, family and culture

Confucianism shapes the culture of China in every area to this day. A serious examination of philosophical currents from other cultural areas, in our case not shaped by Hellenism and Christianity, rarely takes place for various reasons. This four-part introduction to Confucianism opposes this.

  1. Virtue of humanity and ritual custom
  2. Culture and meaningfulness
  3. The role of the family
  1. What does humanity and ritual custom mean?
  2. How do people relate to their culture?
  3. Why is the family so important in Confucianism?

The virtue of humanity and ritual custom

In the first part of the Confucian doctrine of virtues, we have already discussed some important virtues. This is expanded upon in the following, taking into account the meaningful elements in Confucianism.

It is important to emphasize again and again that the exact characterization of many Confucianism terms is already difficult because they cannot be translated. In addition, they are surrounded by a fundamental vagueness.

Some characteristics can nevertheless be stated with certainty, for example that the virtue of humanity is closely linked to altruism [cf. 1, 6.30]. Furthermore, that it is the most important virtue in Confucianism because it permeates all other virtues. In addition, as the ideal of Confucianism, the noble or virtuous man is no good without humanity – his entire being would be distorted [cf. 1, 3.3 & 4.5].

These other virtues include at least three more, namely li for ritual custom, yi for justice and xiao for filial piety. While the role of justice shouldn’t be difficult for us to understand, the other three virtues are not necessarily so. Therefore, in the following I will first focus on humanity and ritual custom and towards the end I will briefly talk about filial piety.

If one does not understand the virtue of humanity and ritual custom, then one cannot understand Confucianism. Together with self-cultivation, they form a coordinated framework that Confucius explicitly mentions in one sentence:

Conquer yourself and return to ritual custom: that is humanity. [1, 12.1]

Self-cultivation as a path to humanity, which is laid out in every human being through heaven, must be manifested in the form of ritual custom with regard to its effectiveness for the social community.

Ritual custom can therefore be described as the manifestation of humanity in social space. It guides the right behavior between people and is learned in contrast to humanity. In other words: humanity behaves like goodness in humans, while ritual customs depicts goodness in human actions within a structure of society.

Man becomes truly human when his raw impulses are shaped by ritual custom. And ritual custom is the fulfillment of human impulses, the civilized expression of it – not a formalistic dehumanization. Ritual custom is the specifically humanizing form of the dynamic relationship between people. [2]

However, ritual custom does not only include rituals as one could understand them in the strict sense, for example a consecration, a wedding ceremony and the like. Rather, in addition to the strongly formalized rituals, everyday manners that appear banal also belong to the ritual custom, such as shaking hands.

Manners, rituals and so on only work if they are carried out with a certain spontaneity and self-evident – only then do they succeed and do not threaten to become mere mechanical imitations. This applies to shaking hands as well as to the coexistence of a village community or the organization of a state – according to the Confucian idea.

Culture and meaningfulness

But what role does the virtue of ritual custom play for meaningfulness in human life? The connection between ritual customs and meaningfulness comes about through the concept of culture. A cultural form is created precisely through the shaping of conventions and customs within a society, which are continued over time.

Since ritual custom is a comprehensive code of conduct that not only regulates conventional manners but also encompasses the entire social practice of the community, it can best be described as an inherited tradition of formalized social behavior. It includes rules on how to behave, how and what to eat, how and which music to make, how to organize living together and so on.

These culturally inherited behaviors place people in a meaningful context, because they perceive their own behavior, which is required in society, to be passed down through historical precursors [3]. So it is the feeling of historicity and thus also the demand to preserve one’s own cultural practice, which in Confucianism becomes a meaningful element.

This aspect of meaningfulness in Confucianism becomes really plausible because the actions for the social community and the embedding of people in society as a whole are particularly emphasized anyway. This goes hand in hand with the ritual custom understood as an obligation towards future generations through the preservation of culture. The family fulfills something similar.

The role of the family

The family is the smallest social unit in Confucianism. The isolated person is an accident, he cannot exist at all. How important this smallest social unit is can be seen in the virtue of filial piety.

It is taken for granted to look after the children in the family, to look after them and to contribute to their socialization. In Confucianism there is such an obligation not only in relation to the younger but also in relation to the elderly.

This double-sided approach has an important function. It is the starting point for the development of humanity and ritual custom. Filial piety – as they say – is the root of humanity because it expresses a primary affective bond with the family. The ritual custom begins in the family, especially through our relationship with the elderly. From them we learn to go the way in society, we get to know our history and an approach to culture.

Filial piety is therefore the beginning of our self-cultivation-driven consolidation of humanity and ritual custom, but this does not mean that humanity and ritual custom only take place within the family [cf. 1, 1.2]. That is where they begin.

In the social unit of the family, the demand for self-cultivation and the demand for historicity through the preservation of culture converge. The idea in relation to self-cultivation is as follows: The more we cultivate ourselves, which begins in the family, the more the obligation of increasing commitment to society grows, because our social relations and thus our responsibility increases.

On the other hand, the family provides an important first reference to the history of the culture. Both self-cultivation and the connection with one’s own past are meaningful elements in Confucianism.

The family not only provides the individual with the source of life through which he is connected to the past, but also a sense of continuity through which he is extended into the future. From this we can see that the Confucian understanding of continuity and eternity differs from other religious traditions. [4, p.203]

How the Confucian understanding of continuity and eternity differs from other philosophical and religious traditions is illustrated by the Chinese philosopher Tu Weiming with a simple example: “In Buddhism the ego dissolves in the cosmos, in Confucianism it dissolves in the family.” 5]

The connection between self-cultivation and family and their interaction therefore play a central role for meaningfulness in Confucianism. According to Confucianism, a meaningful life and the betterment of the world are not in the hands of chance or the gods, but in the hands of man.

For a Confucian, meaning in life can only be realized through learning and practicing through self-cultivation and self-transformation, advocating for the good of the family, community and society, and making a lasting impact on the world through one’s own moral and cultural achievements Areas. [2, p.285]


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