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“Junzi” : ideal personality for Chinese

Author  :  QIAN NIANSUN     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2018-07-18

The most profound power of culture may be over morality, especially its cumulative effect on personality. A positive type of personality that has been widely admired through the long-term development of Chinese culture is known as junzi. 

The aspiration to be a junzi has been common since the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BCE). This term was originally applied to kings or aristocratic men. Late in the Spring and Autumn Period, Confucius endowed junzi with an ethical significance while maintaining its connotation of noble refinement. The Analects, in which the term appeared 107 times, gave a full account of such personality and made it a prominent idea of Chinese culture. “A gentleman takes as much trouble to discover what is right as lesser men take to discover what will pay.” “A true gentleman is calm and at ease; the Small Man is fretful and ill at ease.” “The true gentleman is conciliatory but not accommodating. Common people are accommodating but not conciliatory.”

The famous Chinese philosopher Feng Youlan (1895-1990) once said that Confucius had addressed a wide range of issues during his lifetime, among which the exploration on how to be a human contributed to the core philosophy of Confucianism. His exploration finally led to the concept of junzi, which should be the common goal for all individuals. 

In order to make people fully understand junzi, Confucius contrasted it with two other types of personality, shengren and xiaoren. Shengren means a Divine Sage whose cultivation is so great that humane behavior in any circumstance is practically natural. In contrast, xiaoren, literally, small man, refers to a petty man who does not grasp the value of virtues and seeks only immediate gains, ranging from those who continually indulge in sensual and emotional pleasures to those focus merely on power and fame.

On the one hand, Confucius objected to being hailed as a Divine Sage by his students because it was too perfect to achieve. He said, “as to being a Divine Sage or even a Good Man, far be it from me to make any such claim,” “a Divine Sage I cannot hope ever to meet; the most I can hope for is to meet a true gentleman.” On the other hand, he condemned xiaoren as narrow-minded, selfish and lacking integrity. For instance, “the gentleman is dignified, but never haughty; common people are haughty, but never dignified,” “the demands that a gentleman makes are upon himself; those that a small man makes are upon others,” “the gentleman calls attention to the good points in others; he does not call attention to their defects. The small man does just the reverse of this.” 

In contrast to shengren, who are rare in the real world, and xiaoren, who should be despised, junzi represents a virtuous person who cultivates virtue to reach his full potential. Any person may become a junzi. Therefore, becoming a junzi is the goal of all who practice self-cultivation and who truly love learning, regardless of their birth, social status, or gender.

The biggest achievement of Confucius is the establishment of Confucianism, the philosophy which has influenced the Chinese culture for more than two millennia. There is a view simply interpreting Confucianism as the philosophy of being a junzi, which is indeed tenable, because it believes that junzi consists of two aspects, self-cultivation and moral leadership. Self-cultivation means the belief of virtue and maintenance of ethics through constant study and refinement. Moral leadership means affecting others via humane conduct, thus promoting a flourishing human society. The connection between the two aspects is that one has to cultivate himself to become a junzi, then to be a good leader. 

Confucius committed himself to education. As a great ideological figure and educator, Confucius believed that culture could nourish personality and improve social harmony. Cultivating a person to be a junzi so as to positively affect society was the aim of Confucianism.

As the Analects spread broadly, the personality of junzi forged by Confucius became deeply rooted among the people. It was valued and promoted not only by the successors of Confucianism such as Mencius and Xunzi, but also by the Mohists and Legalists who usually argued against the Confucianists. The founder of Mohism Mozi said, “the unrighteous should not be made rich, nor should they be honored, favored or kept in intimacy.” In the words of Han Feizi (Han Fei-tzu) (280-233 BCE), the greatest of China’s Legalist philosophers, “a gentleman should neither obscure anybody else’s virtue nor expose anybody else’s vice.” Even the scholars of Taoism, who often challenged the Confucians, shared the same attitude towards junzi. As the Taoist Laozi (Lao-Tzu) said, “weapons are ill-omened things, which the superior man should not depend on. When he has no choice but to use them, the best attitude is to remain tranquil and peaceful.” Similarly, Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu) mentioned, “the relationship between superior men is as natural as plain water while the relationship between inferior men is as sweet as wine. The former is plain but close while the latter is sweet but callous.” Furthermore, he said, “he who bestows graces in the humane spirit, distinguishes right from wrong in the humane spirit, gauges one’s behavior with rituals and norms, regulates one’s temperance with music, and instructs other people with benevolence, is a man of noble character.” The oldest of the Chinese classics, the Zhou Book of Change (I Ching), gave a vivid account of junzi through its famous saying, “heaven moves constantly, likewise, the superior man makes untiring efforts to strengthen himself.” “The attitude of earth is receptivity. Thus do leaders support people with rich virtue.” Those words serve as a great refinement of Chinese spirit, conveying the general approval of junzi.The core Confucian values consist of many ethics and social codes, such as ren (humanity), xiao (filial piety) and zhong (loyalty). All these virtues are integrated in the personality of junzi.

Confucianism may be understood as an all-encompassing way of thinking and living. What makes it different from the western philosophy lies in its practice. The thoughts of those western philosophers, including Plato, Aristotle, G. W. F. Hegel and Martin Heidegger, focus on explaining the world and the universe while Confucianism directly states the way of living. In other words, it tells people what should be done and what should not. Also, it stresses the interaction between individuals, communities and nations, serving as a worldview, a social ethic and a way of life.

The thoughts that value both learning and practicing, as well as knowledge and action, contribute to the well-known doctrine of the Neo-Confucian philosopher Wang Yangming (1472-1529), “knowledge and action are one (zhī xíng hé yī).” Junzi also considers deeds prior to words. As the Analects goes, “a gentleman covets the reputation of being slow in word but prompt in deed,” “a gentleman is ashamed to let his words outrun his deeds.” Influenced by the approach that prefers solving problems in a practical and sensible way to having fixed ideas, scholars and officials tried to spread ethics and social codes across the whole society, applying them in the daily life. As a result, it encouraged people of all social standings to try to be junzi. 


The article was edited and translated from Guangming Daily. Qian Niansun is from Anhui Academy of Social Sciences and is a member of China Democratic League.


(Edited and translated by REN GUANHONG)

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