Chinese Characters in Confucianism

By:Chen Nan Date:2018-03-07

Chinese characters always embody the meaning of what it means through the structure of the word. Some characters may have changed in its structure overtime, and some have changed from Traditional Chinese to Simplified Chinese in light of the then government hoping to increase the literacy rate by making the Chinese characters easier to write. In this process, many words lost its meaning of from its character by the substitution of parts of the structure that was vital in providing the meaning of the character. While some characters have retained it’s meaning nevertheless. This essay sets out three main values of Confucianism (li, ren, xiao), its Chinese characters and its change overtime.

Ru () although not a Confucianism value, it is the Chinese character that epitomize Confucianism. The original word is used as a noun for funeral priests in the temple, who had no social status, earns little money, yet who always had to depend on customers for survival. Over time, these priests developed gentle and soft characteristics, hence the meaning changed to being calm.

The word structure in itself is made of man – ren (), and need – xu (), basically meaning what people needs. This is in line of Confucianism, as at that time, the Confucian philosophy is indeed what the people most need, by having soft measures such as li, ren, and xiao (all of which will be commented below) to govern the society instead of strict hard laws.

Li (), an abstract word with a variety of meanings, a rather non-definitive idea that can be translated as ‘ritual’, ‘customs’, ‘morals’, ‘etiquette’, and ‘propriety’. It is the most used moral in Confucianism. The ‘rites’ as concerned with li are not rites liken to Western religion concepts, the rites here deals with the entire spectrum of interactions between humans, nature, and objects.

The word li in its traditional Chinese script is now changed to in its simplified Chinese script. With the change, the right part (pronounced as li) is now replaced with one single stroke for easy writing purposes. The meaning of is the same meaning as li. On its own, it is an ancestral worship equipment, and the word bears the shape of it. With the simplified Chinese writing system, the word could be said as to have lost its meaning with the right part of the word substituted by a single stroke that denotes nothing of the original meaning. This is an alarming change, as the word stayed true to it’s meaning in the form of its writing for centuries, but with the change to the simplified Chinese script the meaning is suddenly lost.

Probably one of the earliest historical discussions on li appeared in Commentary of Mr Zuo (左傳 Zuo Zhuan) by Zuo Qiuming around 722 – 468 BC. In the discussions held by Confucius, li would encompass learning, tea drinking, titles, mourning, and governance. Xunzi cited "songs and laughter, weeping and lamentation...rice and millet, fish and meat...the wearing of ceremonial caps, embroidered robes, and patterned silks, or of fasting clothes and mourning clothes...spacious rooms and secluded halls, soft mats, couches and benches"[1] as vital parts of the entire fabric of li. As seen, li encompasses entertainment, matters of daily lives, official affairs, and essentially all aspects of life.

The teachings of li encouraged and exemplified ideals such as filial piety, brotherhood, righteousness, morality, and faithfulness. The influence of li is guided by public expectations on how people should behave; it is essentially a moral code that masquerades as law by the perception of society. Confucius believed that governments should put more emphasis on li instead of depending on penal punishment.

Practices of li have changed overtime to reflect the changing and new views and beliefs in society. Although these practices changed with time such as that in modern China, no one does the rituals before performing an act as required in the older times. However even with physical changes and elimination of rituals, the fundamental ideals of li still remains in the core of Chinese society.

All members of the society should practice li. Li also involves the superior treating the lower echelons with propriety and respect. As Confucius said "a prince should employ his minister according to the rules of propriety (li); ministers should serve their prince with loyalty"[2]

Xiao () – filial piety, is a Confucian philosophy denoting a virtue of respect for parents and family. Several books such as the Classics of Filial Piety (Xiao Jing 孝經), the Twenty-Four Filial Exemplars (Er Shi Si Xiao 二十四孝) and many more others were written solely on this subject matter. Today, Chinese children often read these books at a very young age. These show the emphasis and importance of this virtue in the Chinese society throughout its existence since 400BCE till today.

The Chinese character for xiao - is made up of two parts. The upper part is the upper half of the word lao which means the elders, and the lower part is the word zi which means son, or the next generation. This allows us to understand that the word by its structure itself would mean that the sons and the young in the generation should respect the elders or simply the generation above them. The structure of the word never changed much and hence it retained its meaning.

The original meaning from the origin of the word would mean ancestral worship, paying respect and be filial to the dead ancestors. Slowly, society sees that the best way to practice filial piety would be to have a son to inherit the family name and pass on the blood of the family for generations to come. Only through this, would the life (blood) of the ancestors be able to pass on for eternality.

Xiao would embody the virtue of ren (discussed below), which was ideal to work together to treat one’s own parents, and this forms the basis of intergenerational relationships in the Chinese society. Another reason for Xiao to have great significance in Confucianism was because loyalty towards the parents would relate to loyalty to the ruler of the state.

Xiao is identified as being of crucial importance in the Chinese civilization. While China always had a variety of religions, or as some claimed to be non-religious, it is the only virtue that was common in the Chinese household from ancient to modern times.  It is said that “filial piety in China came to be seen as having absolute value and that the worship of one’s parents  (that is, one’s creators) can be compared to the worship of God in the West”[3]

Ren () – benevolence, altruistic, humanity, it is an outward expression of Confucian values whereby is shown in actions, and is defined by Confucius as ‘ai’ () – the love for others. It represents an inner development towards an altruistic goal, while simultaneously realizing that one is never alone, and that everyone has these relationships to fall back on, being a member of a family, the state, and the world.[4]

Ren is made up of two distinct words, the man (), and two (); hence we can see the word with the meaning of two men prima facie. Two men denote the relationship between two humans, whereby humanity is the core of being a human. This is further seen when the pronunciation of man () is the same as ren (), showing that when a man is not humane or does not have the necessary qualities of humanity, he is not humanistic and thus cannot be called a ‘man’.

Originally, the character of ren was written as丨二 a vertical line representing the yang (), and the two horizontal lines representing the yin (). In Chinese philosophy, everything in the universe would be linked to either the yin or the yang. They govern and explain the everyday prospects of everyone and everything. The other variations of the word can be seen as and whereby all are pronounced and have the exact same meaning of ren. The word structure of the words conveys a lot about the meaning of the word. Besides what was discussed above, means two hearts acting as one, for the good of each other, it governs all types of relationships between two people on every level of society. would mean a thousand people with the same heart for each other, wishing for nothing but the best for others.

Ren is the foundation of Confucian political theory, the benevolence of a ruler’s dominion shows that he has the Mandate of Heaven to rule his people. Confucius did not say much on the active will of the people, however he believed strongly that the ruler should take care of his people by paying attention to their wants and needs.

Ren also includes principles of li, which was earlier discussed. Only when these qualities are combined, then one can truly be identified as a gentleman, in the older times as they were called the “jun zi” (君子), a morally superior human being.

Although the word ren had changed shape in writing, the meaning of it stayed true to the original meaning with the various different variations of the word from the past to present, through centuries and decades.

Throughout history, Chinese characters undergo numerous changes from the writing system of oracle bone inscriptions (甲骨文)to inscriptions on ancient bronze objects (金文)to seal characters (篆書)to clerical scriptand finally to regular script (楷書). Then came the modern changes from Traditional Chinese (繁體字) to Simplified Chinese (簡體字). These changes sometimes alter the original structure of the word and hence the meaning although the same, could no longer be understood from merely looking at the characters itself. Chinese Characters are known as pictographs for a reason, it embodies the image of the meaning of the words. Confucian values are vital part of Chinese society; it is weaved into the fabric of Chinese society on all levels through history. Through words, generations of Chinese students learn these values, through constantly writing the words, they understand the constitution of those words, and the meaning behind it. Chinese characters are not simply a written language; it is a wealth of values and knowledge that will be passed down for generations to come.


Burton Watson, Basic Writings of Mo Tzu, Hsun Tzu, and Han Fei Tzu, (Columbia University Press, January 22nd 1967)

Chang Chi Yun, A life of Confucius, (Hwakang Press, 1954)

Donald Holzman, The Place of Filial Piety in Ancient China, (American Oriental Society, April – June 1998)

Li Fu Chen, Confucian Way, (Routledge, January 4th 1986)


[1] Burton Watson, Basic Writings of Mo Tzu, Hsun Tzu, and Han Fei Tzu, Columbia University Press, Page 101 and 102

[2] Li Fu Chen, Confucian Way, Routledge, Page 489

[3] Donald Holzman, The Place of Filial Piety in Ancient China, American Oriental Society, Page 185.

[4] Chang Chi Yun, A life of Confucius, Hwakang Press, Page 171

Ganus’Value:I would look for the legal basis for your point of view, even if I disagree with it.
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