Confucian ethics and modern China

The terrible story out of China of a toddler run over by a van as she wandered alone through a market has seen extensive news coverage. As two-year old Yue Yue lay in the street badly injured, a security camera recorded 18 people passing by before a woman stopped to help. There has been an outpouring of outrage on blogs and social media, some of it prompted by the passers-by making excuses for their behavior.

The incident has sparked a debate on China’s cultural and legal strictures and the state of Chinese society.  There have been some solid pieces about China’s moral malaise as well as examinations of high profile cases involving similar issues. A few thoughtful stories have also discussed the “by-stander effect”: a phenomena best known from the 1964 case of Kitty Genovese, whose murder in a crowded stretch of Kew Gardens became known as a metaphor for moral decay after no came to her aid.

The blog The Useless Tree offers one explanation:

The problem is, at base, the rampant materialism of contemporary Chinese society that has led some people, elderly included, to extort “good Samaritans.” Here is an infamous case:

This phenomenon essentially began Nov. 20, 2006, when Xu Shuolan, a 65-year-old woman, fell and broke her hip while attempting to board a bus in Nanjing. Peng Yu, a 26-year-old, was the first to help her. He gave her 200 reminbi and escorted her to the hospital, staying with her until her family arrived. In thanks, Xu sued Peng for 136,419  reminbi, or $18,000, claiming that he was the one who knocked her down.

In one of the best-known, most important Chinese judicial rulings of the last decade, a court decided that Peng owed Xu  45,000 reminbi, or $6,076. The court didn’t have any evidence that Peng committed the crime of which he was accused by Xu. But the court, controversially, used the “daily life experience to analyze things” standard and claimed that the aid Peng gave to Xu was sufficient evidence of guilt. It wasn’t, as many outraged Chinese at the time felt, a simple act of decency.

That court case has proved to be morally corrosive, creating an incentive for fraud.  The judge’s presumption, essentially, is that only a guilty person would “help” someone in trouble; aid is an indication of guilt.  Thus, if a fraudster can induce a person to come to his or her aid, there is a chance for a payoff.  Perverse, to say the least.

Yet in all of these discussions of ethics and morals, questions about the reluctance of the Chinese to play the Good Samaritan for Yue Yue, there has been no serious examination of the religious or philosophical issues at play (that I have seen).

BBC Radio 4′s Thought for the Day did raise the issue of faith in the Yue Yue story. The Rev. Lucy Winket argued that “some blame communism” or “Confucian philosophy” for China’s moral void. However, the Church of England cleric was otherwise agnostic about the faith issues. She did observe though that “indifference and callousness is part of the human condition” — could this be an an incipient Calvinism rearing its head? Alas no. I think it is more cliche than belief in the total depravity of mankind.

A commentator for Britain’s SkyNews thought her explanation a “cop-out.”

Some responsible voices point out there is a problem in China and it does truth no service by pretending otherwise. This is not to trade in crude racial stereotypes, they say, but to deal with the reality of China’s recent history.

For decades conscience was contracted out to the Communist state — it removed the ability of people to think and act for themselves.

I cannot prove it, but I think there would be less likelihood of such a dehumanising tragedy unfolding in a country where popular morality had been shaped by a monotheistic religion like Christianity, Islam or Judaism — where charity is embedded in the theology and, ultimately, the culture. Jesus equipped his followers with the Golden Rule — do as you would be done by. Mohammed encouraged alms giving — zakat — to the poor.

In China, in the gallop towards affluence and material plenty, there does not always seem much time for the poor. However, it is encouraging to see the scale of the response to the scandal of [Yue Yue]‘s suffering — from the Chinese themselves. It is a terrible wake-up call.

The bottom line: The vast majority of stories about Yue Yue assume a Christian worldview — one where being a Good Samaritan is a moral good.

However, China experts note that this does not give a true picture. This 2009 article states that Confucian culture does not value the Good Samaritan. It is a foreign concept. The China Hope Live blog cites My Country and My People by Lín Yutáng to explain the faith issues at play for a non-Chinese audience.

Confucianism omitted out of the social relationships man’s social obligations toward the stranger, and great and catastrophic was the omission. Samaritan virtue was unknown and practically discouraged. Theoretically, it was provided for in the “doctrine of reciprocity” … But this relationship toward “others” was not one of the five cardinal relationships, and not so clearly defined. … In the end, as it worked out, the family became a walled castle outside which everything is legitimate loot.

The Hong Kong based psychologist, Michael Harris Bond, develops this theme further in his book Beyond the Chinese Face:

The only principle that might guide behavior towards strangers is the Chinese ‘golden rule’ of Confucius, ‘Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.’ This counsel, however, is in the negative and prohibits harmful acts rather than promoting helpfulness. It is quite different in its consequences from doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. This Judeo-Christian dictum is another universal principle, but one that endorses an active reaching out to strangers. It finds its expression at the broader political level in constitutional safeguards for minority rights and a social welfare system; at the interpersonal level, in a greater willingness to assist the underdog. Such a principle operates less strongly in Chinese society.

In reporting context is key. Omitting the moral, historical and religious context of the Yue Yue story paints a false picture of China. While it could be possible that those who passed Yue Yue in the street were moral monsters, it is more likely they are representative of the religious and cultural flux underway in China.  I would argue that this story needs to be seen against the backdrop of Chinese history.

Since the liberalizations of the early 1980’s one of the key challenges that Chinese individuals have faced is the question, “What is the meaning of life? For what purpose do I live?”  A century of warfare culminating in the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) not only undermined traditional Confucian values but shook the rhetoric and ideology of revolutionary Maoism. The new emphasis on individual freedom, prosperity and happiness stands in sharp contrast to the Maoist vision of self-sacrifice, self-discipline and self-restraint. The question for the journalist is how to tell this story in proper context.

Regardless of all the talk of the secularization of the media and culture in Europe and America, we in the West still live in Christendom. By this I mean that a Western journalist can assume that his audience has a shared Judeo-Christian worldview on base moral matters. One of these is the Good Samaritan ethic.

Is such an ethic appropriate? Is it possible for a journalist to stand outside his culture? The Yue Yue story illustrates this dilemma. Were the 18 bystanders moral monsters, or were they acting according to a different faith code? Should the Judeo-Christian worldview be the prism through which this story is told to the world? Is there a single moral good or truth? Is the enlightenment project – is reason — dead?

What say you GetReligion readers?

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About geoconger
  • Julia

    I lived in Seoul, Korea in 1969-1970. It was well known that if you saved somebody from mortal injury you were then financially responsible for them. It was the prevailing ethic at the time throughout the eastern Asian area.

  • Micheal

    Family planning in China has made each child precious to converging families.

    The state has invested in each citizen, educating their work force. Industrialization requires specialization.

    If each child is precious, and represents considerable investment, then each citizen is valuable.

    China ideology values collectivism and does not value individuals. Individuals in China are now too valuable to have no rights or protection.

    Our value to society is linked to our wage. Our wage is decided by negotiating with our peers. Our value to society is supported by our peers. Peers protect each other, as what happens to one can happen to anyone else in group. Altruism begins as self-protection. We protect people who can do specialized labour that we cannot do because they impact the quality of our lives. So, protecting people outside our peers makes sense. We invest in and protect our children. We need to protect other families children, as they represent a future investment in the quality of life of our children, as the social arrangement that supports us is passed on to successive generations. Ultimately, protecting and helping others becomes so natural, that we idealize the virtue. As a rule of thumb, if we don’t know what else to do, we do unto others as we would do unto ourselves.

    Altruism starts with indivuals and families and then the community. A state that wants highly trained workers to operate infrastructure is going to have to respect the bargaining power of its citizens. As citizens become more valuable, they demand protection for themselves and for anyone who impacts the quality of their lives. When altruism becomes a virtue, citizens negotiate collectively for everyone.

    In my view, it is inevitable that this altruistic awakening should occur in China.

  • Ira Rifkin

    Is it possible for a journalist to stand outside his culture?

    Great point. It is perhaps the most important AND difficult thing a journalist should be aware of.

    My guess, we rarely can stop being who we are. But self-examination can allow a journalist to at least start to become aware of their own bias, and that’s a big first step.

  • Federalist

    Has this author not done any research on Confucianism? The entire philosophy is about social harmony and being a good person. The claim that “Do not do unto others as you would have them not do unto you” discourages Good Samaritanism is b/s. If someone falls and breaks their hip, one is obligated to help that person, as that person would look inconsiderate, rude, and above all, bad. One does not want someone to display the above traits to them, thus one should always help others.

    • geoconger

      Yes Federalist, in response to your question I do have some slight acquaintance with the topic of Confucianism. But I would not consider myself a scholar of the Analects.

      Please note that article was about the reporting on the interplay between Judeo-Christian ethics and the Confucian/Chinese cultural tradition. It was Prof. Lín Yutáng who stated that in Confucianism “Samaritan virtue was unknown and practically discouraged.”

      To the extent that I understand the issues, I am persuaded that there is some truth to this observation of Prof Lin. Such sentiments have been expressed for the last century by Chinese reformers, revolutionaries and scholars. Remember it was Sun Yat-sen who in 1912 said that the Confucian ethic was what had led to China’s failure to form a modern state. The Chinese were “just a pile of loose sand”, Sun argued — its moral/philosophical ethic negating its racial homogeneity, 4000 year culture and 400 million population.

  • Dave

    Is there a single moral good or truth?

    Talk about your loaded questions. Entities from Sharia to the Vatican to the UN Declaration of Human Rights try to articulate single moral standards; the result is often more chaos.

    I always (-: at phrases like “Samaritan virtues.” Jesus picked s Samaritan for his parable for shock value; they were a despised sect to his audience.

  • http://chinahopelive.net Joel

    hi. One question I’d like answered in the reports of this tragedy is the motivation of the woman who actually helped the girl. What was different about her that made her do what no one else was willing to do? if this has already been reported somewhere, please let me know.

    There are more quotes from culture scholars re: the lack of a Good Samaritan ethos in Chinese society at the link this post referenced: The Good Samaritan with Chinese characteristics (Pt.2): explanations, excuses, & scapegoats

  • Matt

    She did observe though that “indifference and callousness is part of the human condition” — could this be an an incipient Calvinism rearing its head?

    Could you please clarify this statement? Are you insinuating that “indifference and callousness” are characteristics of Calvinism?

  • Raman

    May I point out that despite all the Christian boasting in the world when Christian countries were poor they were no more charitable than any other? Just look at what Dickens had to say about nineteenth century England.

    Confucianism had its moral code centuries before Christianity.

    Christianity spread anti-Semtism all over the world and that led to the Hitler holocaust of six million Jews.

    Some years ago in Italy a black woman gave birth beside a motorway and was totally ignored by passers by. It was a widely condemned incident. In Italy !!!!!

    Christians seize any excuse to rubbish non-Semitic faiths.

  • Raman

    Jesus was remarkably uncharitable to those who dared to question his claim to be God and the Son of God at the same time.

    He also said: “The poor you have with you always.” A very cynical statement.

  • Raman

    Lin Yu-tang was a Christian convert and by no means the last word on Chinese culture or Confucianism.

  • MJBubba

    This puts me in mind of reading long ago (I think in a book by Pearl Buck) that Chinese people would not help someone out of misfortune. Their thinking was that bad fortune was punishment by the spirit world for some sin or character flaw, and if you helped the person you ran the risk of crossing the spirits (whether of ancestors or other spirits) and suffering misfortunes of your own.
    I cannot claim to know that this is a valid thought.

  • MIke

    Recently in China for 3 weeks, I was advised by the natives to avoid helping people because they might sue(extort) you. I would lean toward the Chinese legal system for encouraging this sort of reaction.

  • Hector

    Re: She did observe though that “indifference and callousness is part of the human condition” — could this be an an incipient Calvinism rearing its head?

    I’m not sure what’s Calvinist about that, specifically: it’s true of Christianity in general. Most Christians would agree that ‘indifference and callousness are part of the human condition”.

    Re: The entire philosophy is about social harmony and being a good person.

    No, the entire philosophy is about fulfiling one’s role and social expectations, not about ‘being a good person’.

    Re: Lin Yu-tang was a Christian convert and by no means the last word on Chinese culture or Confucianism.

    On the contrary, it gives even more weight to what he said. He knew what Confucianism was, what Christianity was, and what made the latter superior to the former.

  • Heautontimorouménos

    @ Raman:

    Some years ago in Italy a black woman gave birth beside a motorway and was totally ignored by passers by. It was a widely condemned incident. In Italy !!!!!

    You said it yourself: it was widely condemned, including by the Catholic Church. The people who refused to help that woman were acting in contradiction with their professed ethos whereas those who passed YuYu by may have acted according to it.

    Christians seize any excuse to rubbish non-Semitic faiths.

    In the present case they have every reason to do so.

  • Hector

    Re: He also said: “The poor you have with you always.” A very cynical statement.

    Do you even understand what this meant?

    Here’s the full passage, according to Mark (my italics).

    “And there were some that had indignation within themselves, and said, Why was this waste of the ointment made? For it might have been sold for more than three hundred pence, and have been given to the poor. And they murmured against her.

    “And Jesus said, Let her alone; why trouble ye her? she hath wrought a good work on me.For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always.”

    8She hath done what she could: she is come aforehand to anoint my body to the burying.

  • bharper

    It struck me that the woman who stopped to help was carrying a large sack. She already had a burden of her own. I was shocked by the woman holdong a child’s hand as she walked by.

  • http://www.gracecamrose.ca dgosse

    I recall an anecdote by Ravi Zacharius, an Indian Christian evangelist. He wrote about an incident during his childhood in India when a man fell off his bicycle and cracked his head open. Zacharius, at the time around 12 yrs old, was afraid to come to the mans aid and watched as people stepped over and around the injured man. He claims that in India it is considered indecent to interfere in someone else’s karma. The man was injured, and would die or not die according to his karma. Passersby should not meddle.

  • Raman

    dgosse:

    Plenty of Christians have hated all sorts of people for not being Christians and do so to this day. As do Muslims.

    I have known HIndus all my life and lived among them and also among Christians. I can say that in no way have Hindus failed to be as charitable as anyone else.

    Can you kindly stop slandering communities that do not subscribe to your vulgar and intolerant fanaticism?

    If you are a Christian it says very little for the man who supposedly inspired you.

  • Raman

    The term j?nz? (Chinese: ??; literally “lord’s child”) is crucial to classical Confucianism. Confucianism exhorts all people to strive for the ideal of a “gentleman” or “perfect man”. A succinct description of the “perfect man” is one who “combines the qualities of saint, scholar, and gentleman.” In modern times the masculine translation in English is also traditional and is still frequently used. Elitism was bound up with the concept, and gentlemen were expected to act as moral guides to the rest of society.

    They were to:

    cultivate themselves morally;
    show filial piety and loyalty where these are due;
    cultivate humanity, or benevolence.
    The great exemplar of the perfect gentleman is Confucius himself. Perhaps the tragedy of his life was that he was never awarded the high official position which he desired, from which he wished to demonstrate the general well-being that would ensue if humane persons ruled and administered the state.

    The opposite of the J?nz? was the Xi?orén (Chinese: ??; pinyin: xi?orén; literally “small person”). The character ? in this context means petty in mind and heart, narrowly self-interested, greedy, superficial, or materialistic.

  • Raman

    Of oourse, China is also influenced heavily by Buddhism.

  • Raman

    This Bond fellow says:

    “This Judeo-Christian dictum is another universal principle, but one that endorses an active reaching out to strangers. It finds its expression at the broader political level in constitutional safeguards for minority rights and a social welfare system; at the interpersonal level, in a greater willingness to assist the underdog.”

    How come Christianity waited for the Industrial Revolution before making charity an important principle – and even then engaging in blatant White supremacy until very recently?

    Not to mention ruthless anti-semitism?

  • Will

    For it is disgraceful when no Jew is a beggar and the impious Galileans [the name given by Julian to Christians] support our poor in addition to their own; everyone is able to see that our coreligionists are in want of aid from us.

    — Julian the Apostate, Letter to Arsacius.
    Funny, I didn’t know that Julian reigned “after the Industrial Revolution”.

    And what are those charitable Hindus who don’t hate anyone doing killing Christians and burning churches? Or are those not “real” Hindus?

  • Raman

    Will:

    May I point out that despite all the Christian boasting when Christian countries were poor they were no more charitable than any other? Just look at what Dickens had to say about nineteenth century England.

    Chruistian USA built itself up on slave labour savagely abused.

    Christian Europe wiped out German and most East European Jewry.

  • Will

    In your parrot-like repetition of your talking points, you said “Christianity”, not “English” or “Americans”. I take that every bad thing done by an Indian is the fault of “Hinduism”?

    As Chesterton writes: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”

  • Raman

    Will:

    Ideologies are responsible for what is done in their name on an extensive scale.

    The test of ideologies is real life. If they don’t work in reality, then they are impracticable.

    In real life, Christianity led to massive anti-semitism and endorsement of oppressive social orders. The rest is history.

    Christianity not tried? Are the Church Fathers and the Vatican and Martin Luther not good enough?

    Well, the communists can always say their real ideas were never tried either.

  • Pete

    Raman: “Christian Europe wiped out German and most East European Jewry.”
    This is total nonsense.
    As a Catholic Pole who lost civilian relatives to German (Nazi) death squads I think you owe me and millions of others an apology. Hitler aided by Stalin was hardly following Christianity. The Nazis murdered 3 million Polish Catholics too and many of use hid and protected Jews. Polish Home Army actually infiltrated death camps to bring to the world the reality of the genocide there. There are more Catholic honoured by Israel for helping Jews than any other faith group. Please stop your misinformation, it makes you look very bad. Lose the chip on your shoulder.

  • Pete

    Raman:
    “The test of ideologies is real life. If they don’t work in reality, then they are impracticable.”
    Question begging nonsense.

    “In real life, Christianity led to massive anti-semitism and endorsement of oppressive social orders. The rest is history.”
    Yeah like Martin Luther King and US civil rights. like John Paul II and endorsement of peaceful collapse of Communism, contrast with the barbarism in Libya and Iraq. Like the abolition of slavery. Like the criticism of apartheid in South Africa. Like hiding Jews in Poland during World War II, an act which carried immediate death sentence for the whole household.

    “Well, the communists can always say their real ideas were never tried either.”

    That’s nonsense too. Communism enjoyed state sponsorship and total hegemony in the USSR, Eastern Europe, PRC etc. Soviet Communists are still seen as heroes by contemporary Communists. By contrast Christian teaching was not forced on anyone, people had a free choice to pick and choose what they would follow. People could go to church and do their own thing afterward. You can’t force people to be moral, they have to choose to be so.

    I apologise for the off topic nature of my post.

  • Will

    Since “ideologies are responsible for what is done in their name” (although I never met an “ideology” going down the street), not only is “Hinduism” responsible for any and all atrocities by Hindus, but everyone in the “peace movement” is responsible for the “anti-war protesters” who beat me up for expressing differing views. But the “liberals”, far from acknowledging “responsibility”, tell me it didn’t happen.

    (Bracing for shrieks of “That’s DIFFERENT!”)

  • Matt

    Seriously, more than half the comments on this post should have been spiked for being unrelated to journalism.

  • http://chinahopelive.net Joel

    I agree with @Matt — Raman, Hector, and my comment below ought to be culled as off-topic.

    @Raman & @Hector,

    Just to clarify: Lin Yutang was not a Christian when he wrote what is quoted above. At that particular point in his life he had explicitly rejected Christianity, a fact he explicitly mentions in the same book those quotes were taken from (“My Country and My People”). That negative view of Confucianism was not uncommon among his kind of writer from that time period.

    Raman is not the first person I’ve encountered who tries to dismiss Lin Yutang’s negative assessment of Confucianism on the grounds that he was supposedly a Christian (as this somehow would negate the value of his opinion?).

  • http://www.gracecamrose.ca/ dgosse

    Hi Raman

    The Industrial Revolution occurred as Christianity was losing its influence in the West. Consider the following;

    Rousseau, Voltaire, and the Encylopaedists presaged the French Revolution, a deliberately and consciously atheistic program, which preceded the Industrial Revolution proper. Hobbs, Hume, Bentham, and Mill, pere et fils were leading the move toward atheism in the UK. In Germany was the Hegelian school which culminated in Marx, Engels, and Communism.

    Darwin produced his “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life” just before the United States nearly destroyed itself in its effort to abolish the “peculiar institution” of slavery, a movement which was led primarily by confessing Christians. Slavery had been abolished in Europe before the end of the Middle Ages by confessing Christians, Universities and Hospitals and Orphanages and Schools all trace their origin as universal institutions to the efforts of confessing Christians.

    Many “civilized” cultures institutionalized infanticide (Roman, Greek, Canaanite, Phonician, Chinese, modern Dutch, etc.) whereas the Christian vision of the “babe in a manger” raised children to a status of “human being in the image of God” unknown in the non-Christian world. Not even the Jews and Moslems, so-called “people of the book”, have so high a view of children (which might explain the Islamic proclivity for using children as pawns in their incessant warfare).

    Read some history, some real history, and study the history of science, the history of philosophy, the history of social institutions, even the history of warfare and imperialism… for instance, the “Christian” English of the East India Company deliberated discouraged the presence of missionaries in India because it interfered with their business interests. Secularism in the 17th C. was mercantilism.

  • Raman

    dgosse:

    Slavery existed in the US until the Civil War. Semi-slavery existed until the 1960s.

    If the US is a Christian society, that seems a mighty long time.

    Slavery was never challenged in the Bible, and destroyed vast African populations when pursued by Christians.

    Not until the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution was there a sustained attack on slavery. That shows it was not Christianity but other socio-economic factors that led to the abolition.

    Some have raised the issue of Lin Yu-tang. He was an etertaining and witty writer, but his views tended to go all over the place. He was a great admirer of Buddhism judging by one of his books (“My Country and My People”).

    All pre-industrial societies lacked social conscience in any modern sense. Confucianism was probably no exception. It was economic affluence which created the modern social values.

    As for anti-Semitism and Christianity, the propagation of it by Christianity is an outstanding fact of history. There are anti-Semitic incitements in the New Testament itself. Hitler’s following was Christian, and included the Vatican in the 1930s. There was a Hitler-Vatican Concordat.

  • Raman

    Will:

    If ideologies are not judged by how they work out on practice, how indeed can they be held accountable?

    I mean, of course, the oft-repeated and long-sustained things done in their name, on a wide scale. An isolated beating up incident is hardly relevant. If the “Peace Movement” often beat people up, that would reflect on their ideology.

    And yes, Hinduism IS responsible for any widespread abuses in its name. Sensible Hindus accept that.

    Christianity had hige power in the world over many, many centuries. It cannot escape thye accountability that comes with that.

    Someone here said Christianity did not use compulsion. Nonsense. Read its history of booldshed and tyranny. Ask the Inquisition or the anti-Semites.

  • Raman

    I have had to refer to Christian history just to show that all religions have their oppressions and failures. Pointing the finger at Confucianism is grossly biased and petty-minded.

  • Adam Miller

    The question of moral relativism is a loaded one, to be sure, but I’m not sure it’s at issue in this case. There are tons of well-documented cases of passers-by not helping strangers around the world. People often think someone else will help and so no one does. Or there is simply confusion.

    Maybe this case speaks to the Chinese ethic, but I’m guessing it has more to do with human nature.

  • Heron

    There’s nothing Christian about it; haven’t you read your Greek and Roman mythology? What do you think all those stories about people helping a hurt animal or poor beggar, only for it to reveal itself as a god and reward them, are about? The idea that we owe each other as a society, and the wider world, a little kindness is thoroughly pre-Christian.

  • Maxwell James

    You oversimplify the relationship between Confucianism and the ethic of the Good Samaritan. Confucius may not have addressed how people should react towards strangers in need, but his tremendously influential successor Mengzi (Mencius) did, with an analogy that is heart-breakingly appropriate.

    In contrast to the Legalist thinkers of his time, Mencius argued that human nature is good – or at least has an inclination towards goodness. To illustrate this, he used the image of a child falling down a well, arguing that any human being would feel a surge of sympathy. Not for wanting to improve their graces in the eyes of the parents or the society at large, but out of a simple human impulse. He goes on to argue that the refinement of this impulse is key to virtuous living. As described by Dr. Jeffrey Richey of Berea College:

    Mencius goes further and identifies the four basic qualities of the heart-mind (sympathy, shame, deference, judgment) not only as distinguishing characteristics of human beings – what makes the human being qua human being really human – but also as the “sprouts” (duan) of the four cardinal virtues:

    A heart-mind that sympathizes is the sprout of co-humanity [ren]; a heart-mind that is aware of shame is the sprout of rightness [yi]; a heart-mind that defers to others is the sprout of ritual propriety [li]; a heart-mind that approves and condemns is the sprout of wisdom [zhi]…. If anyone having the four sprouts within himself knows how to develop them to the full, it is like fire catching alight, or a spring as it first bursts through. If able to develop them, he is able to protect the entire world; if unable, he is unable to serve even his parents. (2A6)

    Now the complexity of Mencius’ seemingly simplistic position becomes clearer. What makes us human is our feelings of commiseration for others’ suffering; what makes us virtuous – or, in Confucian parlance,junzi – is our development of this inner potential. To paraphrase Irene Bloom on this point, there is no sharp conflict between “nature” and “nurture” in Mencius; biology and culture are co-dependent upon one another in the development of the virtues. If our sprouts are left untended, we can be no more than merely human – feeling sorrow at the suffering of another, but unable or unwilling to do anything about it. If we tend our sprouts assiduously — through education in the classical texts, formation by ritual propriety, fulfillment of social norms, etc. – we can not only avert the suffering of a few children in some wells, but also bring about peace and justice in the entire world.

    So at the very least it’s an oversimplification to say that the ethic of the Good Samaritan is lacking in Confucian teachings – it’s there, but there is no expectation that it is an emergent phenomenon, a heroism that ordinary people can rise to at a moment’s notice. Rather it is the result of virtuous development and teaching over one’s lifetime.

    China’s home-grown ethical traditions are fully capable of addressing the tragedy of Yue Yue; the question is whether people will look to them for guidance.

  • neil

    My understanding is that the woman who eventually helps the wounded child is the child’s mother.

  • Heron

    neil@39: Nope, it was an just some old lady who saw a hurt kid.

  • gerry

    The Chinese I have met emphatically have told me that they believe the 18 who past Yue Yue by was afraid of being the responsible person for the girl. This goes beyond just being blamed for the girls death. Being blamed is a smaller degree of consideration but rather people are afraid of taking ownership for all the perceived negative that comes with helping this girl.

    This kind of thinking can be found in all areas of society where individuals don’t want to sign their name on any document out of fear of being responsible for any unintended consequences. There is significant group think when it comes to issues like this. Having said that, this has opened the window for people look at their culture beyond the limited view of what can be explained rationally. Chinese who lived in the states have compared children in America is better off because they have laws protecting children from their parents (which some have felt Yue Yue’s mom acted abusively here by letting the child go out on her own) and as a culture that has a high regard for children in all kinds of child protection laws.

    The issue of Xiao Yue Yue for the Chinese people are so different from the kind of discussions that are being discussed here that most of what you guys are talking about is not put in the right context as the author has been trying to explain. The author is saying that their culture brings awareness to what is wrong with their own culture.

    There is no disputing that for many people in China that one major problem is the vacuum of moral teachings. The Good Samaritan teaching was taught in a much larger context than to just give shock value to the Jewish listeners of Jesus’s time. Rather, with the announcement of Jesus’s Kingdom he was correcting the false kind of teachings of God (and the Jewish political structures of power) and that God loved beyond the “chosen people,” but all people. The story forces us to see do we love people preciously as we should.

    This is what is lacking. This is what the culture is trying to find.

  • Jason

    I live and work in China (I’m from America), and what has not been made clear is the fact that were any one of those people who passed the girl by to stop and even touch her, they would immediately become legally responsible for her–the authorities would assume that person was responsible for hurting her, and hold that person financially liable in every way. This has happened already to many of my western colleagues who help someone in a bike accident, and the police require of them and of our company full payment for the hospital bills. This fact does not justify their actions, but it informs a Western world of the fuller picture of the situation.

  • Stephen Hoyle

    I am American who also lives and works in China and is married to a Chinese. I am somewhat reluctant to assert that we can make blanket assessments about Chinese culture based on the behavior of the people in this case. People can be motivated by a number of different factors in their behavior, one of which may be culture. However, I would like to make the following points:

    (1) There does seem to be a lessened sensitivity to the physical (or even emotional) well-being of others in China in cases when the “other” has no personal connection with an individual (i.e., someone who is not a family member or friend). Although I have sometimes been subject to acts of kindness by individual Chinese, there often seems to be a disregard for the well-being of strangers. This is evidenced by the highly dangerous sort of driving one sees in China and such habits as smoking virtually everywhere (regardless even of “no smoking” signs) and public spitting.

    (2) Over the years, the Chinese government has tried to encourage people to act in a moral way (in fact, lately I’ve noticed lots of signs urging people to do something in a “civilized” manner), even if one might argue about the logical consistenty of advocating atheism while promoting a notion of moral absolutes. This may be in part due to the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), which helped lead to a break-down in traditional Chinese morality. However, my impression is that all these constant exhortions to act morally may have simply caused people to tune them out.

  • The Worden Report

    Law is ill-equipped to form a virtuous people.
    It is one thing to outlaw vice in its outward manifestation of conduct; how can
    legislation mandate virtuous conduct, or even instill virtue within a human soul?
    Mandating virtuous conduct, such as in Massachusetts’ “Good Samaritan” law, may
    be possible where the conduct is in public and thus readily enforceable. Virtue
    within the home is far more difficult for the law to reach and thus foster.
    Even vice behind closed doors, such as incest as well as physical and emotional
    abuse more generally, is difficult for police to catch. To an extent, property
    rights enable such vice and allow people the option of not being virtuous in a
    family context. Yet in countries in which an authoritarian state trumps
    even property rights, as in China, the question becomes whether legislation is
    the sort of thing that can foster or mandate virtuous conduct and even a
    virtuous character. See “China: Mandating the Virtue of Filial Piety by Law,”
    at http://thewordenreport.blogspot.com/2013/07/china-mandating-virtue-of-filial-piety.html


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