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Chinese Philosophical Terms
Users of this page may also wish to consult a brief Guide to Chinese Sacred Books and Guide to Chinese Chinese Philosophers.
Many terms used in Chinese philosophy come up again and again in English texts on this topic, sometimes with widely varying translations. Some writers, both Chinese and foreign, try to describe or even “explain” all of traditional Chinese society by reference to one or a few “keywords,” typically single syllables that occur in the Confucian canon. (That is not particularly sound social analysis, but it seems to happen quite a bit.)
This page briefly discusses some of these terms, especially as used in discussions of Confucianism. I have not included the specialized vocabulary of Daoism or Buddhism. Characters in red are simplified. When traditional ones differ, they are added (except in the table of contents) in blue.
For more on the Confucian canon, see the Guide to Chinese Sacred Books.
I. Terms Broadly Shared by Confucianism & Daoism
Dào 道 “Way”
- A dào is a path or small road (or a pedestrian underpass or a freeway lane), and the word has always been used in such a way. However, from early times it had metaphorical extensions to mean the inherent characteristics of things, especially of the natural world.
- It is tempting to translate this as “natural law,” except that in China the natural world has always been conceived of as including a moral quality, lacking in the English phrase “natural law.” (Filial piety, for example, was considered to be a virtue to which the universe was responsive.) Dào is therefore not merely the way the world is (or the underlying principles of how it works), but also the goodness of how it is. It is the “nature of nature” only if we think of nature as having moral values.
- Although Confucian texts frequently refer to Dào, the word gives its name (formerly under an old spelling “tao”) particularly to Daoism (Taoism). A basic insight particularly celebrated in Daoism is that Dào is past complete human understanding; hence our understanding of small bits of it is bound to be insufficient. However to the extent that we can grasp it, we can (and, if we want to accomplish anything, we should) work in accord with it. Following this line of thinking, many struggles become effortless accomplishments when we swim downstream in cooperation with Dào rather than struggling upstream against its current.
- When used as a verb, dào can mean “to tell” or “to say.”
Dé 德 “Virtue, Power"
- The term is usually translated “virtue,” and in many contexts that works. Indeed the compound “dàodé” 道德 is a close colloquial equivalent of that English word. However it can also suggest the sense of virtue in which one says that, “This book has the virtue of being well written.” That is, it can refer to the ability, power, or virtue of something to follow its own nature (its dào) and succeed in its moral purpose.
Yīnyáng 阴阳 / 陰陽 “Yīn and Yáng"
- This pair of terms constitutes a set of generic operators to describe binary oppositions wherever they are found: living vs. dead, active vs. passive, male vs. female, sun vs. moon, hot vs. cold, god vs. ghost, etc. There are several intellectual effects of using these generic labels:
- All things labeled yīn can be misunderstood as united in their yīn-ness and contrasted against a similar category of yáng things united by their yáng-ness. (Notice that this is a similar intellectual operation to that described in connection with the “five elements” on a separate page on this web site.)
- There is accordingly little possibility of real “neutrality” in the use of the labels; describing a pencil as yīn and a pen as yáng necessarily implies something about the differences between them beyond the fact that they stand in contrast to each other.
- Despite the traditional associations, yīn and yáng labeling is necessarily in fact relative in many cases. A living woman, for example is female as against male, hence yīn rather than yáng, but she is living as against dead, hence yáng rather than yīn.
- While most philosophical tracts, including popular ones, use yīnyáng differentiation to speak of balance and alternation, and stress the necessity of one for another — night and day must alternate — there is also a line of logic by which yáng is superior to yīn — life is preferable to death. It is a traditional Chinese perspective that in general the stress on balance and alternation is associated with elite, educated, and reflective understanding of things, while the desire to maximize yáng and to make war against yīn is associated with vulgar and rustic understanding of things, but this much oversimplifies the situation, for context and object of discussion are much more important than education or social class in the way yīnyáng rhetoric is actually employed.
- Yīnyáng thinking and reasoning are found in both Daoism and Confucianism, although appeal to it seems to be rather greater in Daoism, and the familiar yīnyáng symbol (the famous divided circle shown at the right) is associated, especially in China, with Daoism.
Lǐ 理 “Principle”
- Lǐ refers to the underlying way in which something functions, and as such often comes quite close in meaning to Dào. Lǐ becomes an important term in Confucianism particularly under the influence of the Neo-Confucian Southern Sòng 宋 dynasty (period 15c) writer, Zhū Xī 朱熹, who is often regarded as the founding genius of Neo-Confucianism.
- Linguistic Note: In the absence of the Chinese characters, it is possible to confound lǐ (ritual) with lǐ (principle), since the two are homonyms in Mandarin. They are not homonyms in other Chinese dialects. (Click here for the details.)
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II. Terms Particularly Stressed by Confucianism
The Confucian canon provides many terms for virtues, often contradictory or overlapping. In general, the stress is on conformity to tradition, acceptance of one’s social position and willingness to perform one’s assigned role in life: essentially to bloom where one is planted. These are linked to terms like dào to provide a sense of the cosmic inevitability of these behaviors, and such folk manifestations of Confucianism as the “Twenty-Four Filial Exemplars” (link) suggest that the sense of universal rightness and essential humanity about such a value as filial piety was strongly believed (somewhat the way Americans believe that individual autonomy is a universal and cosmically valid value).
Since virtue is a constant topic in the Confucian canon there are several lists of virtues to choose from. The first four virtues in the following list —righteousness, benevolence, ritual, and wisdom— make up what Mencius referred to as the “four fundamental principles” (sì duān 四 端). Sincerity (xìn) came into this list in the Qín 秦 dynasty (period 5). The full list of five takes on the name “five constant principles” (wǔ cháng 五常).
An overlapping list, called the “four cardinal virtues” (sì wéi 四维 / 四維) was developed by the early writer Guǎn Zhòng 管仲 (period 4d) and included ritual, righteousness, frugality, and sense of shame).
"Four Fundamental Principles” (Sì Duān 四 端)
Additional Principle To Make
Yì 义 / 義 “Righteousness”
- This term is strongly associated with moral action. It represents the optimally efficacious but at the same time moral way to doing things. There is a flavor of public-spiritedness about it that leads to it sometimes being best rendered “justice.” But it is also associated with faithfulness to contract and strongly associated with loyalty (zhōng 忠).
- The joint sense of practicality, morality, and contract leads to this syllable being used as a prefix for adoptive kinship relations. For example, yìfù 义父 is an adopted father, yìnǚ 义女 an adopted daughter. The term jiéyì 结义 “to contract righteousness” means to become sworn siblings.
- (A similar character, yí 仪 / 儀, is used in compounds relating to ritual and etiquette. It is second tone rather than fourth tone (yí rather than yì), but the similarity of sound and the similar appearance of the two written characters may arguably represent an experienced link between righteousness and ritual, between righteousness and outer deportment.)
Rén 仁 “Benevolence”
- "Benevolence” is the traditional translation, but other possibilities are “good will,” “love,” and “perfected moral character.” The key concept is the readiness or willingness or do what is righteous, in other words, to do what is called for by the moral nature of the situation. In Confucian discussions this is often linked to several other terms that are exemplifications of benevolence, particularly filial piety (xiào 孝) and loyalty (zhōng (忠), q.v. Also in this connection come discussions of the “Five Relationships,” listed below.
Lǐ 礼 / 禮 “Ritual”
- "Ritual” is a perfect translation of lǐ in some contexts, and a disastrously inadequate one in others. The Chinese term has very broad application, including:
- formal ritual, whether religious (ritual, rites) or civil (ceremonies);
- etiquette, whether formalized or informal;
- behavior that is appropriate to the social context, that is, behavior which expresses one’s benevolence (rén 仁) and manifest’s one’s righteousness (yì 义).
- Most writers argue that ritual must not be empty, but must be performed with “sincerity,” which seems to mean that it requires that one fully cathect the status relationships (and their symbols) that are almost inevitably a part of any system of etiquette.
- Confucianism in the hands of pettifoggers risks degenerating into punctiliousness in the name of lǐ, and this is the essence of much of the Daoist critique of it.
- Both critics and supporters of Confucianism agree that lǐ necessarily stresses conformity, and modernists argue that this tends to stifle behavioral manifestations of individualism (such as creativity).
- Linguistic Note: In the absence of the Chinese characters, it is possible to confound lǐ (ritual) with lǐ (principle), since the two are homonyms in Mandarin. They are not homonyms in other Chinese dialects. (Click here for the details.)
Zhì 智 “Wisdom”
- There is a different term for learnedness (xué 学 / 學 , or today xuéwèn 学问 / 學問) that refers to the mere accumulation of knowledge (just as in English one can refer to “book-learning”). Zhì refers instead to the culmination of
all more or less unselfconsciously as a result of having fully internalized the system.
- understanding righteousness (yì 义),
- experiencing good will (rén 仁), and
- practicing etiquette (lǐ 礼),
- However wisdom also implies an ability to manipulate the world from within this set of values. A sage adviser can be called a “bag of wisdom” (zhìnáng 智囊), and the implication is that the person is a font of useful tactics and strategies. (A famous collection of tales of such people is a book actually called Zhìnáng by Yuán-dynasty [period-19] author Féng Mènglóng 冯梦龙 / 馮夢龍.) In actual practice someone might be called a zhìnáng for a prodigious display of peasant cunning, but the proper sense of the term requires a more elevated attention to morality as well.
the “Five Constant Principles” (Wǔ Cháng 五常)
Yet More Principles
Xìn 信 “Sincerity”
- The underlying concept in xìn is belief (as in believing in Buddhism), but the term has always included a sense of fidelity and trust, being both trusting and trustworthy. Within the Confucian frame of reference xìn refers to the state of a person who buys the system and fully cathects the values involved with righteousness, benevolence, and etiquette and who is free of all hypocrisy about any of it. Unlike wisdom (zhì 智), xìn does not preclude being naïve, stumbling, and unthoughtful.
- In the school of Neo-Confucianism associated especially with Míng-dynasty (period 20) philosopher Wáng Yángmíng 王阳明 / 王陽明 , the term xìn comes to represent the notion that the world and its principles are a mental representation that we present to ourselves, i.e., something contained within ourselves rather than an external reality as such, a position usually referred to as “idealism” in Western philosophy.
- In modern Chinese, xìn is a verb, and it more or less routinely means simply “to believe.” (Outside of philosophy, it is used as a noun only in the unrelated sense of a letter or telegram.)
Chǐ 耻 “Sense of Shame”
- Shame or modesty is the ability or tendency to be content not to receive the veneration of the vulgar, nor to walk in the counsel of the ungodly, but to take delight in the performance of one’s duty.
- Jié 节 / 節 “Self-Control”
- The basic sense of jié seems to be measurement. The 24 solar terms are called the jiéqì 节气/節氣 or “jié breaths.” Except in compounds, jié most often means “festival” or “holiday.” But the character also figures in terms for moderation, frugality and devotion to duty, and is a measure word for joints or nodes, from bamboo stems to plumbing systems. In moral discourse it refers to moral integrity, but particularly in the sense of resisting temptation, i.e., of self-control.
Lián 廉 “Frugality”
- The same term refers to a sense of moderation, both in material goods and in emotion, and also to direct frugality. While frugality comes in for only modest attention in the Confucian canon, moderation, often associated with the term “middle” (zhōng 中) is an important theme. Modern Confucians sometimes point to the stress on modesty and moderation as suggesting that Confucianism is “eco-friendly” and hence pre-adaptive to a future in which conservation and the husbandry of resources are major themes.
Shù 恕 “Empathy”
- This word has received the conventional translation “reciprocity” (following Jame’s Legge’s influential 1892 translation of the Confucian classics), but the critical passage in which it occurs in the Confucian Analects is where Confucius provides a version of the Golden Rule, and in that context the sensitivity he implies seems better rendered by “empathy” or “forgiveness” than by “recipocity.” Click here for the original text.
- The word shù is in fact rare in the Confucian canon, despite the fuss that is sometimes made over it by English writers, so there are not many other contexts to assist in its interpretation. However, to align this with English “empathy” suggests that the motivation one has in treating people well is that one feels a resonance with their situation. To translate it with English “reciprocity” implies that one treats them well because otherwise one might be the victim of their retaliation. The former is closer to the general spirit of Confucian morality, it seems to me. (In modern Chinese, the word shù means “forgiveness,” or “mercy.” These words also seem poor as translations in this passage.)
Xiào 孝 “Filial Piety”
- See below, under the relationship between father and son.
Xù 序 “Precedence”
- Older generations should, in general, take priority over younger ones. Within the same generation, older people should take priority over younger ones. (For practical complications arising from this, see the essay on the Traditional Chinese Family on this web site. Link)
Yí 仪 / 儀 “Etiquette,” “ritual”
- This term is normally used only in various compounds. (See note at yì 义, above.) In some cases it can be a polite term for a gift, fee, tip, or bribe, as in cháyí 茶仪, a “tea gift” paid to a yamen employee when official business is conducted.
Zhōng 忠 “Loyalty”
- See below, under the relationship between ruler and subject.
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III. Human Relationships in Confucianism
Confucian thought defines five core human relationships, referred to in Chinese as the wǔ lún 五伦 / 五倫 or wǔ cháng 五常 (although the latter term can also refer to the virtues in the list above). Each is put forth as a pair of social statuses with rights and duties that obtain between them. Presumably the set is not imagined to be exhaustive of all human relationships. Nothing is said about the relation between merchant and customer, for example. Rather, they are five models illustrating the way in which human relationships ideally work. The earliest coherent discussion of this is to be found in the writings of Mencius, part of the Confucian canon discussed elsewhere on this web site (link). A separate page is devoted to an outline of the traditional Chinese family (link).
Relationship 1: Ruler-Subject 君臣 jūn-chén
- In general, the relationship between rulers and subjects should be conditioned by righteousness (yì 义).
- Towards a subject, a ruler should observe proprieties (lǐ 礼).
- Towards a ruler, a subject should be loyal (zhōng 忠). Some writers represent loyalty as a kind of filial piety writ large. However filial piety, slightly broadened as looking after one’s family, is easily cast into opposition to loyalty, seen as concern for the state or, more broadly, society at large. A Communist-period Hungarian proverb puts the tension quite clearly: “If you don’t steal from the state, then you’re stealing from your family.” (Ha nem lopsz az államtól, akkor a családtól lopsz.) Similar tension, similarly motivated, can occur between local loyalties and national loyalties.
Relationship 2: Father-Son 父子 fù-zǐ
- In general, the relationship between parents and children should be characterized by benevolence (rén 仁).
- Towards a father (parent), a son (child) should be filially pious (xiào 孝). Filial piety is, experientially for most of the Chinese population, the most salient feature of Confucian society. It assumes near total submission of a child to a parent, and is the basis of the Confucian model of human relationships as inherently and properly hierarchical. It is also the basis of the anti-Confucian critique of Confucianism as inherently totalitarian and oppressive. The most widespread popular text related to filial piety is available, with pictures, on this web site. (Link)
- We should note that within Confucianism, although a child must obey a parent, the child also has the right and obligation of remonstrance or remonstration (guījiàn 规谏 / 規諫), and if the child believes that the parent is making a mistake, the child should point out the error (three times if one wants to be punctilious) before reluctantly carrying out the order. The same tradition refers to the emperor and his advisors. In principle, the superior, faced with remonstration, reconsiders the course of action. (Remonstrance can take many forms. Click here for an amusing example.)
- Towards a son (child), a father (parent) should be compassionate (cí 慈). In actual practice, most people defined for fathers a somewhat different role towards children; fathers were supposed to be “severe” (yán 严 / 嚴) to avoid spoiling a child; indeed the word yán is sometimes used as a synonym for father. It was mothers, in contrast, who were most usually described as being cí, just as in other societies.
Relationship 3: Elder Brother-Younger Brother 兄弟 xiōng-dì
- In general, the relationship between siblings should be conditioned by precedence (xù 序).
- Towards an elder brother (sibling), a younger brother (sibling) should be brotherly (tì 悌). I don’t know of another language with a particular word that is used only to describe the behavior and attitudes to be assumed by a younger brother towards an older one, and the translation into English as “brotherly” recognizes the difficulty more than explaining the concept. Obedience is the expectation, and tì is often paired with filial piety in the same breath, suggesting that the father-son relationship should be understood as something of a model for the EBr-YBr relationship.
- Towards a younger brother (sibling), an older brother (sibling) should be friendly (yǒu 友). If the YBr’s behavior toward his older sibling is modeled, perhaps vaguely, on his behavior towards a parent, the behavior of the EBr towards the YBr, associated with friendship, is therefore ideally far more intimate than a father’s would be: a kindly authority, verging on equality.
Relationship 4: Husband-Wife 夫妇 / 夫婦 fū-fù
- In general, the relationship between spouses should be conditioned by separation or distance (bié 别).
- To a wife, a husband should be venerable (zūn 尊). The term zūn suggests honor, high rank, and respectability by virtue of high position. The wife, in other words, is to honor her husband.
- To a husband, a wife should be humble (bēi 卑). The term bēi is the reciprocal of zūn in other contexts of exalted and humble rank. The contrast that seems to be intended is clearly about who is in charge (the husband), but with authority there should be at least some reciprocated sense of responsibility.
Relationship 5: Friend-Friend 朋友 péngyǒu
- In general, the relationship between friends should be conditioned by sincerity (xìn 信).
- Towards each other, friends should be friendly (yǒu).
- The relationship between friends is the only one of the list of five that is non-hierarchical. The character 朋 represents a pair of cowry shells, and apparently always implied a pair of equal things. The character 友 also simply means friend. (Unlike the other two-character terms, this is not a compound of names of two different statuses, but a synonym compound designating a single status, one of equality.) Mencius is quite clear on the distinctiveness of this relationship as fundamentally non-hierarchical.
- Interestingly, very close friends often swore (and still swear) oaths of mock-siblinghood, converting themselves from equal friends to unequal sworn siblings, possibly suggesting a greater comfort level in hierarchical than in equal relationships, at least for some people.
- One can make another interpretation about the Chinese urge toward sworn siblinghood, however. Such oaths often take place in temples devoted to the god Guān dì 关帝 / 關帝, who is quintessentially associated with loyalty (zhōng 忠) and righteousness (yì 义). There is a suggestion here, and in the remarks of informants I interviewed in connection with a study of sworn siblinghood (link), that part of the goal of swearing eternal siblinghood is to fix the fidelity of the relationship and avoid the possibility of betrayal by one’s friends. This suggests that friendship, whatever early Confucianism may have thought or taught about it, was a relatively more fragile relationship than some friends might have hoped.
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IV Other Terms in Chinese Philosophy
Various writers have identified other terms as particularly important in understanding Chinese civilization. Here are a few of the most frequently mentioned.
Aì 爱 / 愛 “Love”
- This means what it sounds like. As in English, it is quite broad in application, depending on modifiers to specify a more exact meaning. Bó’ài 博爱 refers to universal love, for example, while lián’ài 恋爱 / 戀愛 includes an element of sexual desire. Love as a social virtue is usually “benevolent love,” rén’ài 仁爱.
Bǎo 保 “Protection,” Bāo 包 “Contract,” and Bào 报 / 報 “Retribution”
- One writer has identified this trio of words as jointly the most important construct in understanding traditional Chinese life. The point of the analysis is the need to honor contracts and protect the trust that people must place in each other if society is to function well.
- Linguistic Note: The similarity of sound among these words creates a (slightly puckish) resonance in Chinese and a confusion in English that makes them a “key to Chinese civilization” that is very well bāo-ed and bǎo-s the secret well, an appropriate bào for those who do not mark tones.
- Bǎo 保 “Protection” means principally guaranteeing, protecting, or guarding, so it sits on the border between the commercialism implied by the English “guarantee” and the military threat implied in “guard” or “protect.”
- Bāo 包 “Contract” is a more specifically commercial term in many ways, as the translation “contract” implies, but it also can refer to holding and hiding something, with a sense of not letting outsiders have access to it, protecting one’s own people and possessions. As a general verb, it often means simply “contain.”
Bào 报 / 報 “Retribution” or is negative word in English, but it is a neutral word in Chinese, referring to the effects of one’s action. “Recompense” would be a less common but perhaps more accurate translation. An extremely common proverb runs, “Goodness has a good effect, evil has a bad effect [on the doer].” (Shàn yǒu shàn bào, è yǒu è bào. 善有善报，恶有恶报。 / 善有善報，惡有惡報。) The famous “Tractate of the Most High One on Actions and Consequences” (Tàishàng Gǎnyìng Piān 太上感应篇 / 太上感應篇) is one of the most popular Chinese morality texts and centers on this point. (Click here for the original text and an English translation.)
- Linguistic Note: Bào 报 also refers to a report, the public exposure of information. Thus a newspaper or magazine may have this character in its title. The People’s Daily is called the People’s Bào, for example.
Chéng 诚 / 誠 “Sincerity”
- Sincerity and honesty are linked in this term, although in the Confucian tradition the result had better also be orthodox, so there is an important link to the idea of internalizing the mainstream tradition here.
- È 恶 / 惡 “Evil”
- See Shàn 善.
Fǎ 法 “Law”
- This syllable is used both for human and for natural law, and even for the method by which something is done, all rolled into one. In Buddhism it is used as a translation of Sanskrit “dharma,” and refers to Buddhist law or doctrine, but also to the general Buddhist canon as well as to Buddhist customs, morality, and even occasionally to objects of worship.
Gōng 功 “Merit”
- The underlying idea is meritorious service, or action taken for the common good. The syllable is used in isolation to represent merit as contrasted with demerit (guò 过 / 過), but it is used especially in two compounds:
Chénggōng 成功, “success,” refers to success after admirable, often strenuous effort.
Gōngdé 功德, “merit” or “merit and virtue” or “meritorious virtue,” refers to the merits of famous people, or to good deeds in a religious, especially Buddhist, sense. By extension it covers the accumulated religious merit or credit attained by good deeds and can sometimes be understood as karma. From this it has become a common term for a religious service held for the dead, so a “merit hall” (Gōngdé Táng 功德堂) in a temple complex is a chapel devoted to mortuary commemoration.
Guānxì 关系 / 關系 “Relationship”
- The expectations of behavior that people have of each other by virtue of their two statuses are called their “roles” in sociological English, their “guānxì” in colloquial Chinese. But the word has wider uses. Any sort of a relationship between ideas or things can be a guānxì. The expression “there is no guānxì” (méiyǒu guānxi 没有关系) means that something doesn’t matter or is unimportant. It is used in politely accepting an apology, for example.
- What has attracted the interest of commentators is the use of guānxì to refer to influence, “pull,” or “drag” that one person may have with another. If, because I know you, I go to you to try to get a job for my nephew, I am said to be using guānxì as a resource to accomplish an instrumental end. In the abstract, guānxì in this sense is particularism rather than universalism. Guānxì is viewed as laudable effectiveness in getting things done by some people, as corruption by others.
- Linguistic Note: Despite the tone mark shown here, the second syllable is pronounced as “toneless” or “neutralized” in most Mandarin dialects. That means it is brief, unstressed, and low in pitch. That is not true of the cognate expression in non-Mandarin dialects.
Hé 和 “Harmony”
- The term essentially refers to filling, uniting, flowing together, or putting things into accord with each other, and it is both a verb and a noun. Another word 合 is also pronounced hé in modern Mandarin and means almost exactly the same thing, but the pronunciations of the two differ in early Chinese and in non-Mandarin dialects. One could say that they have hé-ed together in Mandarin. (Click here for a popular story based on these two words.)
Jiàn 谏 / 諫 “Remonstrate”
- Given the enormous stress in Chinese ethics upon complete subordination of one’s will to that of a jural superior (symbolized by a parent or sovereign in most examples), the question arises what the virtuous person does when the superior is about to do something wicked, stupid, or dangerous. The answer is to make an argument against such a course of action. The term used is jiàn, usually translated “remonstrate,” an English word little used except by sinologists. (As in modern politics, if remonstration is ignored, the inferior is expected to carry out the wishes of the superior anyway.)
- Linguistic Note: In modern colloquial Chinese, jiàn (in the compound fěngjiàn 讽谏 / 諷諫) means “admonish” and may apply to moral instruction given to an inferior; it also means “to satirize.” But in traditional ethical discourse, jiàn specifically refers to a morally based plea to a superior.
Liú 流 “Float, Wander”
- This word really refers simply to flowing. Tears, streams and rivers, meteors, epidemics — all of these can liú. However so can people. Daoist figures are often said to liú. But liú-ing is not considered desirable, on the whole.
- The term liúmín 流民 or liúmáng 流氓, literally “flowing people,” means “tramps” or even “hooligans” and one doesn’t really approve of them wandering around in one’s neighborhood, and doesn't trust them to do business with.
- The term liúmáng both in late dynastic times and today refers especially to local bullies and scoff-laws, sometimes organized in small criminal gangs, who subsist on protection rackets, petty thievery, and sometimes hiring out to carry coffins or do other needed but ritually polluting or disagreeable, short-term manual labor.
- Linguistic Note: Although some liúmáng may be married, there is a semantic cloud over the word liú that suggests an individual with little connection to the world, and who is therefore probably not married. Unmarried adults are, of course, suspect, since on the one hand they are not conforming to expectations, and on the other they have reduced social ties, and hence reduced constraints to ensure their good behavior.
Mìng 命 “Fate, Command, Mandate” & Yuán 缘 “Fate”
- When unexpected, especially untoward, things happen in one’s life, they can be attributed to a kind of celestial but inscrutable fate. Although in Buddhism all things are the result of karmic actions in the past, and popular thought sometimes appeals to that view, popular thought also allows a role for the intervention in human affairs of various spirits and of heaven itself. Mìng is not just random chance, but part of an inscrutable celestial will or plan. One is poor or sick or under the thumb of a vicious overseer because it is “fate.”
- The term is not used with respect to positive interpersonal relations. The “fate” which brings two friends or (especially) lovers together, for example, is referred to as yuán 缘, literally “cause,” often imagined as a kind of supernatural cord stretching across space and linking the lovers together. (But an inescapable marriage relationship that proves painful can be described as having been caused by mìng.)
- In English sources much is made of the expression Tiān Mìng 天命, “Heaven’s command,” usually translated “Celestial Mandate.” The underlying idea is that a dynasty in power rules by the consent of heaven. When it falls, it is because heaven has shifted its “mandate” to a successor régime. Although this can be seen as a shorthand way to refer to the past, the term is common in the rhetoric of rebels, who can claim a mandate justifying their opposition to a state considered to be at the end of its time. In folklore, natural disasters are sometimes taken as signs of the loss of the reigning dynasty’s celestial mandate, making droughts, floods, and earthquakes inherently embarrassing to politicians.
Píng 平 “Peaceful”
- Píng refers not only to peace, in all its dimensions, but also to equality. The differentiation in colloquial language is between píng’ān 平安 (peaceful) and píngděng 平等 (equal), but as a single syllable píng incorporates both ideas, and can even refer to flat land as well. In Classical Chinese to píng your enemies meant “to pacify” (or “to flatter”) them.
Píng’ān 平安 “Harmony”
- A colloquial term referring to a state of things being generally pleasantly uneventful. When work pays off, study goes well, health is good, and human relations are rewarding, in short when life delivers on its promises, the situtation is said to be “harmonious.” The negation of this is bùpíng’ān 不平安, “disharmony,” which means that things are in general not going well: health is poor, there are financial or farming reverses, or whatever. Disharmony may be due to the influence of ghosts or other spirits. (Contrast yuán 圆.)
Qíng 情 “sentiment” or “sentimentality”
- Associated today with friendship and love, the sentimentality was always slightly suspect, something to be carefully controlled, lest it overwhelm proper behavior.
Rèn 任 “Responsibility”
- This means what it sounds like. It is often used to refer to one’s office or responsibilities taken on for the public good. A public office is a “responsibility object” (rènwù任务 / 任務), somewhat on the analogy of a Mexican cargo. (Read in the second tone, rén, this is a verb meaning “to bear.”)
Shàn 善 “Goodness” and È 恶 / 惡 “Evil”
- Shàn refers to virtuous behavior, usually with a hint that the behavior is also modest, demure, and unaffected. È is its opposite: malice, iniquity, sinfulness. (By extension, it can be applied to particularly virulent diseases and vicious animals, as well as to monsters.)
- Both terms are usually seen as character states. For example, in folktales one finds characters described as generally shàn or generally è. There are few gradations, and theatrical make-up, for example, codes some characters as all-good or all-bad.
- However the terms can also apply to individual acts, especially when referring to karmic retribution. In that context, a person’s good actions and evil actions are weighed against each other, sometimes cancelling each other out.
- The two terms occur with very high frequency in popular morality discussions, including extensive tract literature (which goes under the generic term shàn shū 善书 / 善書 or “virtue books”). In that literature, probably no proverb is more threadbare than the one cited above under “retribution” (bào 报): “Goodness has a good effect, evil has a bad effect [on the doer].” (Shàn yǒu shàn bào, è yǒu è bào. 善有善报，恶有恶报。 / 善有善報，惡有惡報。)
- Xié 邪 “Heterodoxy”
- See Zhèng 正.
Yuán 圆 / 圓 “Round”
- Roundness, as in many traditions, is associated with completeness or even perfection.
- There is a terminological contrast between píng’ān 平安 “harmonious” (above) and yuán 圆 “round” as two complementary ideals for the family, the first refering to how it functions, the second referring to its conformity to the structural ideal for families, with long-living adults, children of both sexes, and so on. Naturally a structurally defective (non-round) family has trouble being harmonious (píng’ān), but the fact that a family is round by no means suffices to make it harmonious.
Yuán 缘 “Fate”
- See mìng 命.
Zhèng 正 “Orthodoxy” and Xié 邪 “Heterodoxy”
- What is orthodox or heterodox is a function of what perspective you take, of course. Methodists are heterodox if you are a Catholic, but orthodox if you are a Methodist. Usually the English terms are differentiated by seeing heterodoxy as an outrageous offshoot of orthodoxy.
- In Chinese what is zhèng is what is in accord with the true moral nature of the universe, especially as interpreted by the state. What is xié is everything else. Xié comes up over and over in describing small religious sects or gods and ghosts that are not widely worshipped.
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