What does Xunzi have to say about rituals and social justice?

This post will be a follow up to my previous post (see Investigating the Relationship between Ritual Propriety and Social Justice in the Early Confucian Tradition), where I will explore the relationship between li (ritual/ritual propriety) and social justice as found in the works of Xunzi, another pre-Qin Confucian philosopher.

I begin my exploration by focusing on Chapter 19 of The Xunzi (yes, the text is named after the author).

The chapter starts with an exposition on the origins of li:

How did ritual principles arise? I say that men are born with desires which, if not satisfied, cannot but lead men to seek to satisfy them. If in seeking to satisfy their desires men observe no measure and apportion things without limits, then it would be impossible for them not to contend over the means to satisfy their desires. Such contention leads to disorder. Disorder leads to poverty. The Ancient Kings abhorred such disorder; so they established the regulations contained within ritual and moral principles in order to apportion things, to nurture the desires of men, and to supply the means for their satisfaction. They so fashioned their regulations that desires should not want for the things which satisfy them and good would not be exhausted by the desires. In this way the two of them, desires and goods, sustained each other over the course of time. This is the origin of ritual principles. (Xunzi 19.1a, trans. John Knoblock)

One of the requirements for a just society is a well-ordered society. In the case of Xunzi and the other early Confucian thinkers, society is ordered and regulated by means of rituals (li).

The passage above describes three major purposes of rituals:

  1. Apportion things
  2. Nuture the desires of men
  3. Supply the means for their satisfaction

So, not only do rituals work in deciding who gets how much, rituals also ensure that people are able to receive the resources they need. But more importantly, rituals function to regulate (and educate) the desires of the people so that they do not desire more than they require. In not desiring more than they need, they will not place a strain on the limited resources meant for others. It seems, therefore, that this would guarantee that everyone receives a fair share of the necessary goods they require. Of course, an interesting question to ask is: would this actually guarantee that everyone will receive a fair share of goods, or sufficient resources to live decently?

To this question, Xunzi says:

Rites employ valuables and ordinary objects to make offerings, use distinctions between noble and base to create forms, vary the quantity according to differences of station, and elaborate or simplify to render each its due. (Xunzi 19.3, trans. Knoblock)

Those of higher rank, like rulers and ministers, should receive not just more resources, but also more elaborate and refined goods. It is interesting that the punchline of this statement is that it is the ritually appropriate way “to render each its due.” This is something that may make some people feel uncomfortable. Why should people of higher rank deserve more than those of lower rank? What is the basis for them to receive a greater share?

There are two reasons for this. (1) These are people who hold office and thus shoulder the burden of looking after the state. While they may be working as hard as everyone else, the responsibility is greater, and thus they deserve a greater share. (2) The second reason is more interesting. Xunzi recognises the pedagogical powers in the visual display of li in teaching the people to distinguish those with power and rank. People behave very differently towards a person wearing t-shirt and shorts, compared to a person wearing a suit and a tie. The outward appearances matter. If a person of authority were to dress in a very undignified manner, he would not receive the same respect or be able to exercise his authority effectively. If instead, such a person of authority were to dress in a way more refined than the masses, or be publicly conferred elaborate/refined goods, people will see and learn that this is an important person, whose respect is due by virtue of his position and the authority and burden he shoulders on behalf of the people. Hence, what is due to people of authority isn’t so much the material goods per se. No, the material goods are instrumental to aiding such people to effectively exercise their authority. What is due to them is the respect.

And if you are worried about abuses of power and authority, Xunzi has this to say:

Thus, the gentleman could make the elaborate forms of ritual more florid or make its simplified forms leaner, but he dwells in the mean of its mean course. Whether he walks or runs, dashes after or hurries about, moves with urgency or runs quickly hither and thither, he does not depart from ritual, for it is “the outer boundary of his proper dwelling.” (Xunzi 19.3, trans. Knoblock)

If necessary, rituals should vary in elaborateness or simplicity depending on the circumstances. While some elaborate and refined goods are required for those of high rank, it does not mean that they indulge in these things. Rather, the amount of what they have should be adjusted accordingly (to the economic situation), always following the principle of moderation, of staying within the middle way proper to their rank and position.

Is there a way to ensure this moderation in people? According to Xunzi, yes there is!

Rites trim what is too long, stretch out what is too short, eliminate excess, remedy deficiency, and extend cultivated forms that express love and respect so that they increase and complete the beauty of conduct according to one’s duty. … Elegant adornment, music, and happiness are what sustain tranquility and serve auspicious occasions. Gross ugliness, weeping, and sorrow are what sustain anxiety and serve inauspicious occasions. Hence, their utilization of elegant adornment does not go so far as to be sensuous or seductive, nor gross ugliness so far as to produce emaciation or self-neglect. Their use of music and happiness does not go so far as to be wayward and abandoned or indolent and rude, nor do weeping and sorrow go so far as to produce despondency or injury to life. Such is the middle course of ritual.

Thus, the changes of emotion and of manner should be sufficient to distinguish the auspicious from the inauspicious and to make clear that the rank is high or low and that the relation is near or distant, but with this they stop. Any practice that exceeds these goals is evil, and although such practices may be difficult to accomplish, the gentleman disdains them. (Xunzi 19.5b, trans. Knoblock)

The various rituals, in the form of ceremonies or etiquette, are meant to teach us how to appropriately express our emotions and intentions. They are meant to teach us what is the appropriate use of materials, and how much of it to use in various circumstances. In this way, we learn to render the respect and resources/goods due to others, never shortchanging them. Or if one is the recipient, to know how much to expect so as not to be shortchanged by others.

And of course, social relations aren’t just merely about showing respect, expressing emotions, and redistributing material goods. No. There’s more. Though the context for this passage is about funerals, what Xunzi says is relevant to li in all social interactions:

Use of these [ritual] forms ornaments social relations. (Xunzi 19.4a, trans. Knoblock)

There is a certain aesthetic quality in social relations!

Sure, you may drink coffee simply because you need to stay awake, but you can enjoy coffee for its aesthetic qualities, savouring its acidic and nutty qualities with every sip. You can do the same with tea and wine too. There is a certain aesthetic appreciation and enjoyment in one’s interaction, in one’s tasting of the beverage. In the same way, social relations aren’t just there to be engaged with on a purely functional level. In our daily life, we can enjoy friendship, or the company of colleagues or strangers.

Rituals add form which emphasize the aesthetic value of social relations, informing us to enjoy, or at the very least, to appreciate, the relationship we have with the other when engaged in social interaction. Hence, when dealing with those higher and lower than us, wealthy or less well-off than us, the rites give us structure and form by which we are able to “ornament” the relation, to arrive at that enjoyment of the relationship.

While this may not be directly related to social justice per se, I think this is valuable in the sense that at the very least, li compels us (or rather, requires us) to treat the other with greater respect and appreciation. We aren’t just dealing with “the poor” or “the disadvantaged” as if they are an abstract concept, devoid of real personhood or character. To be engaged in social justice with those who are less well-off in a ritually-appropriate manner means that we have to enter into an aesthetic social relation.

Doil Kim, in his PhD Dissertation, on Xunzi’s Ethical Thought and Moral Psychology (2011), wrote about the significance of discrimination (辨 bian). According to Xunzi, humans have the advanced capacity for discrimination that goes beyond basic sensory capabilities (p.89), able to differentiate between the different types of relationships we can have with others, to the extent that we can even distinguish the different relationships we may have with the same person (e.g. the same person could be both your colleague and best friend).

Discrimination is essential because it helps us to determine different modes of responding to people. How intimate should our response be? We treat people around with with different degrees of love, intimacy and respect. To be able to distinguish who’s who in relation to you is essential in picking out the right mode of interaction and engagement. More importantly for Xunzi, is whether “we can develop love and respect on the basis of the capacity in ways that enable them to interact with one another in accordance with the spirit of ren (benevolence) and yi (rightness)” (p.96). The relationship determines how we respond to a person. The rites give us structure not only for interacting with that person, but also the structure to develop love and respect in an appropriate manner. It is not about simply helping the disadvantaged. There are some who help the disadvantaged in ways that make the less well-off feel undignified or ashamed of who they are, thus stripping them of whatever remaining human dignity they may have. Good intentions, benevolence, and compassion must be expressed through a structure that respects, dignifies, and empowers them. Rituals provide that form, thus ornamenting the social relationship between rich and poor, advantaged and disadvantaged.

There are another two interesting concepts in the Xunzi that’s both relevant and interesting in bringing out the richness of rituals in the context of social justice. The two concepts are: rang (讓 deference) and ci (辭 declination), and they are both present in many rituals.

Rang refers to “the action of offering honor or something desirable to other people” (p.98). It is not any kind of offering, but an offering of something that the recipient also desires to attain (p.102). As there is a desire in us often to desire more (goods or honour), the principle of rang compels us to defer the desire for more to the other, so that the other may share or have more of we desire. The ruler should defer his own desires so as not to frustrate the people and deprive them of their dues; and similarly the people should defer their own desires so as to give to the ruler more of what is due to him. Ritual propriety demands that the principle of rang be practised by both parties so that both may exercise self-moderation. It is never a one-sided requirement, unless propriety has been violated.

Ci on the other hand, refers to “the act of declining an offer or a treatment that would be suitable only for a person of a higher social status,” or “inappropriate to one’s social status” (p.108). It can be properly understood as “the kind of deferential declination based on a proper self-recognition of one’s own social status” (p.108). In the context of rituals, ci demands that we recognise that we may not be so worthy of whatever it is that we receive. This is not to be confused with humility. Humility would be to say that one is too unworthy to receive this (for reasons of moral failing or otherwise). Rather, in this case, ci is about recognising that it may not be appropriate for us to receive, for doing so would be pretending to be someone we are not. The appropriate recipient may be someone of a higher status, but it may also be for someone of a lower status. This is important because it brings to mind the recognition that we are not entitled to it, nor do we deserved; instead calling us to ponder on who might be the more deserving recipient. Once again, ritual propriety demands that the principle of ci be practised by both sides, so that both parties will think less of themselves as being entitled to something, and instead think who might be the more worthy, deserving recipient.

These are the two principles at play in many rituals.

In Chapter 20 of the Xunzi, there is a description of a village wine ceremony:

With the exchange of three bows between host and guest, they reach the steps, and after the guest has thrice deferred, the host takes the guest up to his place. Bowing deeply, he presents the wine up in pledge. There follow many episodes of polite refusals and deferring between host and chief guest… (Xunzi 20.5, trans. Knoblock)

In this ritual, both the host and chief guest are expected “to offer to give way to the other (rang) three times, so that the other will go ahead and step up to the main hall first”, and they are also simultaneously expected “to show their reluctance or hesitation to immediately accept the other’s offer by making polite verbal refusals (ci) and giving way to the other (rang) three times” (p.114).

By means of rang (deference), both parties are required to focus on the social status of the other, acknowledging the other to be better than one’s self either in terms of rank, social standing, or moral achievement. This prevents one from being distracted by one’s superiority of the other, and so be willing to give way, and offer the best to that other.

By means of ci (declination), both parties are required to consider that they may be treated inappropriately, in the sense that they are receiving treatment that is far too good for one’s own position/status (to be treated like a king, when one is not, and thus to decline it) At the same time, it compels each party to consider if they are also treating the other inappropriately too. If one is not worthy of such grand treatment, perhaps the other is the one who truly deserves such grand treatment, thus one must not disrespect the other and instead treat the other grandly as well.

Kim concludes:

[This] code of conduct presents the vision of an ideal society in which every person tries to deal with the other person in a transaction by habitually focusing on a higher or better social status that may be ascribed to the person; and, ever person is always careful about a possible overestimation of his or her own social status. In these ways, everyone can be treated properly, and there is no need to make a demand to others for one’s own due. (p.115)

Since the principles of rang and ci are present in the concept of li, what we have here are the dynamics embedded within rituals for social justice. In which case, a ritually-ordered state, i.e. a state governed by li, would compel people, both rich and poor, young and old, superior or inferior, to look out for each other, to constantly ponder on the needs of others, and to distribute it to those who are in need.

Yet, it seems that this sort of utopia might work only for a family or a small community, like a village. In a small community, it is still relatively easy to look out for one another and their needs. On the surface, this doesn’t seem possible to implement in a big city. One can only act in this way towards one’s small network of friends and family in the city. This might even be impossible to implement on a state level.

If this is the case, then maybe we will need to adapt the principles of rang and ci within li, and reconstruct it to fit a contemporary theory of Confucian social justice.

Another interesting question is: if a modern reconstruction is possible, how do proceed to the next stage, to frame this as policy, stirring the people to action?

Well, it’s something I’ll need to contemplate further, but I think it is, nonetheless, a very interesting idea!

Investigating the Relationship between Ritual Propriety and Social Justice in the Early Confucian Tradition

Here is a draft proposal for a paper I wish to write.

In the book, Confucian Perfectionism: A Political Philosophy for Modern Times, Joseph Chan argues that there are three principles of a Confucian perspective on social justice. The three principles are: (1) sufficiency for all, where “each household should have an amount of resources sufficient to live a materially secured and ethical life”; (2) priority to the badly off, where “people who fall below the threshold of sufficiency – those who have special needs and are badly off – should have priority in being taken care of”; and (3) merit and contribution, where “offices and emolument should be distributed according to an individual’s merits and contributions; any subsequent inequality of income is not illegitimate.” (pp.175-176)

Yet it is interesting to note that the concept of li (禮 rites/ritual/ritual propriety) – a key concept central to Confucian thinking – is not mentioned in Chan’s reconstruction of a Confucian perspective of social justice. The Liji (禮記), also known as The Book of Rites, strongly suggests that li plays a key role in supporting the Confucian perspective on social justice. One such example can be found in the first chapter of the Liji, which praises li for its ability to guarantee a condition of security:

In the highest antiquity they prized (simply conferring) good; in the time next to this, giving and repaying was the thing attended to. And what the rules of propriety (li) value is that reciprocity. If I give a gift and nothing comes in return, that is contrary to propriety (li); if the thing comes to me, and I give nothing in return, that also is contrary to propriety (li). If a man observe the rules of propriety (li), he is in a condition of security; if he do not, he is in one of danger. Hence there is the saying, ‘The rules of propriety (li) should by no means be left unlearned.’ (Liji, Chapter 1 “Qu Li Part 1”, 10, trans. James Legge)

Do rituals really play such a key role in supporting social justice? I propose to further investigate the concept of li and its relation to social justice. As the early Chinese thinkers had no concepts of social justice, it is not possible to directly derive a theory of social justice from their thoughts. Instead, I will follow the methods employed by Joseph Chan: instead of asking if the early thinkers had a theory of social justice, I would look at how the early thinkers approached specific problems that are linked to our modern understanding of social justice. How did these early Confucian thinkers try to resolve problems of inequality, poverty, and the distribution of material goods? However, I will go a step further and examine how li was employed to resolve these social justice problems: Was it used to establish certain societal norms (and attitudes) to motivate the regular redistribution of goods? Or was it employed in a more regulatory way to guarantee certain layers of protection for disadvantaged classes in society? Did li establish a certain worldview that shaped the way people perceived themselves and their relations with others in ways that would lead to a more socially just society? Lastly, I will explore how we might be able to adapt li into contemporary discourses on social justice, and how we might strengthen modern Confucian reconstructions of political philosophy with this newfound understanding of li.

 

Some Initial Thoughts

Well, I’ve read quite a few papers and books so far, and I thought it’d be worthwhile to share some of my initial thoughts on the above topic.

Having read the Liji, there seems to be several interesting components in li that may help to contribute towards a theory on social justice.

Firstly, the function of li is to create discrimination of people of different roles. I’m hesitant to call it class distinctions because it’s not just about class. People can belong to the same class yet hold different roles, some of which hold greater importance over others. Apart from making clear the roles, the other function of li is to form certain attitudes and sympathies of one role towards other roles. Some rites require both rich and poor to be present, so that the rich will receive first-hand exposure of the poor, and through the ceremonies, educate them on the need for greater sympathy and benevolence towards people who are not as well off as they are. In this way, the rich will imbued with sympathy and motivation to share their goods with those who are less fortunate. There are other rites that function to bring a community together for the main purpose of distributing goods. Some ceremonies employ the sacrifice of animals. At the end of the sacrifice, the meat is shared, as a way to provide the necessary nutrition to those who cannot afford meat.

It is also interesting to note that the Liji talks about li as having “definite regulations … to serve as dykes for the people.” (Liji, Chapter 30 “Fang Ji”, 2) There are certain elements codified within some (or all?) rituals to protect certain classes of people who are in a potentially disadvantageous position, depending on the type of interaction they engage in with others. The rituals are formulated such that the potentially disadvantaged are protected from exploitation. Here is an example:

The Master said, ‘According to the rules of marriage, the son-in-law should go in person to meet the bride. When he is introduced to her father and mother, they bring her forward, and give her to him’ – being afraid things should go contrary to what is right. In this way a dyke is raised in the interest of the people; and yet there are cases in which the wife will not go (to her husband’s).’ (Liji, Chapter 30 “Fang Ji”, 39)

These are some of the many ways in which the rites offer protection to the disadvantaged. Of course, in ancient times, laws then weren’t like the laws of today. They were coercive laws of punishment, rather than regulation. It was left up to li to govern and regulate the masses. What is worth exploring in this paper is whether (and how) the context of ritual opens up a new dimension of effectiveness not found in modern-day regulatory laws and policies.

Going beyond this, I get the sense that the Liji seems to describe an expansion of the family-relation template onto the broader society as a whole. In a family, the parents look after and provide for their children (and reciprocity requires that the children do their part in the family too, of course); elder siblings look out for and care for their younger siblings. These two familial relations seem to form the basis of the way in which materials are distributed from the rich to the poor. The community is the family. Neighbours are like siblings who look out for and help each other, and so the rich assist the poor in ways just like how elder sibling helps the younger sibling. Where the elder sibling is unable to help, the parents come in. The analogous equivalent would be the state, providing the necessary assistance in the form of public/state rituals involving the community. Rituals are the way by which the state exercises its parental role to all its “children”.

Ritual ensures that relational connections are established in a community, it facilitates a means, an event, a place, an action, to draw people together and interact in a certain way. Ritual is the tool by which people come to understand how their familial relationships are expanded to a broader society.

Let me now introduce a certain religious dimension into this picture. The power of rituals is that it imposes an as-if ideal world onto a less-than-perfection as-is world. Rituals – whether it’s something as grand as a state sacrifice, or something as simple as bowing between two persons – by its very performance, juxtaposes a certain ideal onto the world.

Take for example, the liturgy of the Eucharist celebrated by Christians. While the as-is reality is that of people sitting/standing/kneeling in pews as they are led in prayer by a priest/pastor, there is an as-if world that comes into play: the ideal Christian society as that mimicking the communion of saints in heaven. This worldview encompasses ideals of how one is to interact with each other in so many different ways.

Here’s another example, but on a more secular level. Let’s think about the ritual of high-fiving: when you and I perform a high-five, what are we communicating? Friendship? Camaraderie? Brotherhood? The celebration of success? Or perhaps there is something more? Whatever it is, it communicates a certain ideal relationship between us. (If you are wondering how that is possible, imagine a situation (or better yet, experience it yourself) where you try to high-five someone, but that person refuses to reciprocate back – you immediately begin to experience certain inadequacies about the relationship just from the failure to execute the reciprocal relation.) There is a certain vision of that relationship encapsulated in that high-five action. While our relationship is far from perfect in real life, that as-if world comes into existence, juxtaposing with the reality of our as-is world, whenever we perform the high-five.

Similarly, the performance of rituals brings into play an ideal world, that reminds constantly the participants about the ideal forms of interaction, and the ideal type of community. We see an illustration of this ideal society, described once again in the Liji:

When the Grand course was pursued, a public and common spirit ruled all under the sky; they chose men of talents, virtue, and ability; their words were sincere, and what they cultivated was harmony. Thus men did not love their parents only, nor treat as children only their own sons. A competent provision was secured for the aged till their death, employment for the able-bodied, and the means of growing up to the young. They showed kindness and compassion to widows, orphans, childless men, and those who were disabled by disease, so that they were all sufficiently maintained. Males had their proper work, and females had their homes. (They accumulated) articles (of value), disliking that they should be thrown away upon the ground, but not wishing to keep them for their own gratification. (They laboured) with their strength, disliking that it should not be exerted, but not exerting it (only) with a view to their own advantage. In this way (selfish) schemings were repressed and found no development. Robbers, thieves, and rebellious traitors did not show themselves, and hence the outer doors remained open, and were not shut. This was (the period of) what we call the Grand Union. (Liji, Chapter 9 “Li Yun”, 1, trans. James Legge)

While having a utopian vision of society doesn’t instantly lead to social justice, it nonetheless provides a goal towards what might be conceived of as a just society, an ideal society for its people to strive for.

Well, these are some of my initial comments. I’ll have more to say when I begin researching deeper on this.

 

Bibliography

Chan, Joseph, Confucian Perfectionism: A Political Philosophy for Modern Times (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

Chan, Joseph, “Is There a Confucian Perspective on Social Justice?” in eds. Takashi Shogimen & Cary J. Nederman, Western Political Thought in Dialogue with Asia (Lanhan MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), pp. 261-277.

Chan, Joseph, “Confucianism and Social Justice: Historical Setting,” in eds. Michael D. Palmer & Stanley M. Burgess, Companion to Religion and Social Justice  (Oxford: Blackwell, 2012), pp. 77-92.

Puett, Michael, “Ritual and the Subjunctive” in eds. Seligman A, Weller R, Simon B, Ritual and its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity (Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2008). pp. 17-42.

Puett, Michael, “Innovation as Ritualization: The Fractured Cosmology of Early China,” Cardozo Law Review, 2006: 28 (1).

Puett, Michael, To Become a God: Cosmology, Sacrifice, and Self-Divinization in Early China (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Centre, 2002).

Tan, Sor-Hoon, Confucian Democracy – A Deweyan Reconstruction of Confucianism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004).

Tan, Sor-Hoon, “The Dao of Politics: Rites and Laws as Pragmatic Tools of Government,” Philosophy East and West, 2011: 61 (3).

Tan, Sor-Hoon, “The Concept of Yi (义) in the Mencius and Problems of Distributive Justice,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 2014: 92 (3).

Tan, Sor-Hoon, “Ritual and Deference: Extending Chinese Philosophy in a Comparative Context,” Philosophy East and West 2012: 62(1).

Death as the Ultimate Climax of Life

One of the best lessons I’ve learnt from one of the professors here in NUS is about the Chinese view on death.

In Chinese culture, there are two words used to describe death: (1) 死 (si) which simply means termination of life; and (2) 終 (zhong) consummation/finale. Of course, zhong also holds the same meaning as si, which is why it is taboo in Chinese culture to give someone a clock as a gift (to give a clock is to 送鐘 songzhong which sounds exactly like 送終 songzhong, which means to send someone off to the grave).

But what’s so unique about the word 終 zhong is the emphasis on death as the consummation, the very climax of life; it is where you wrap up your story with the most awesome ending possible.

Interestingly, I found the perfect illustration of this idea from a movie, entitled “It’s a Great Great World (大世界 Dashijie).” It’s a Singapore production, with several short stories about life in Singapore during the 1940s, revolving around an amusement park known as the Great World. The last story was the most touching and emotionally powerful story I’ve ever come across. It’s beautiful.

The story goes like this: There was a wedding banquet in a Chinese restaurant. Unfortunately, that night, the Japanese were invading Singapore. Their planes were dropping bombs all over the island. The wedding guests weren’t aware of it and they thought that it was merely fireworks outside (it was an amusement park after all). The chef and his assistants decided that most of them would probably not live to see another day, or if they did, life as they knew it wouldn’t be the same forever. So, that night, they decided to cook all the food in the kitchen and give them the best wedding dinner ever. What was beautiful was how the chef and his assistants poured out their entire heart and soul in preparing every good meal to ensure that everyone had the best time ever. The acting was beautiful as it looked as if they were performing their last dance.

The father of the bride was the one who was going to pay for the bill. He was quite upset when he saw all the expensive dishes being served. He stormed into the kitchen wanting to complain, but learnt about the Japanese invasion from the chef. Immediately, as a good father, he went out and made sure everyone dined happily and had the best night of their lives so that they would remember that night.

This is by far, the most beautiful illustration of wrapping up one’s life. It climaxes in the biggest, boldest, and most courageous effort to showcase the best that one could do even in the face of death – to die with dignity, to spread happiness to others, and to give all that one could ever give in one’s final moments. Everything that one has experienced in one’s life leads up to that one final moment – death.

It is like the final dance in a performance (or an action movie). Everything right from the beginning leads up to that final moment where it climaxes with the greatest showcase the dancers could perform before the curtains come to a close.

Admittedly, it is difficult since many of us do dread the thought of death. Perhaps we dread it because we think of death merely as the termination of life. But I think when we begin to see death as the ultimate climax, the ultimate wrapping up of one’s life, where the multitude of one’s personal experiences lead up to that one final performance, I think the idea of death becomes very ennobling and empowering.

I really like how the Chinese (especially Confucian thought) emphasises the importance of dying with dignity. Every one and every thing dies. But as humans, we have the option of choosing to die with the greatest dignity as a human being.

I remember watching “Confucius: The Movie” and the one scene that really struck me was this: One of Confucius’ disciples was in a state invaded by a foreign state. Unfortunately, he was fatally wounded by arrows.

In that situation, the best way for him to wrap up his life was to ensure that he passed on orderly and not in a chaotic manner. All the lessons and values in life that he learnt and experienced led up to that one moment. It would have been a shame to cast away all those years simply because of pain. And so, he made it a point to endure the pain and conducted himself in the greatest possible performance that would consummate all that he learnt in life: he picked up his hat, slowly put it back onto his head, adjusted it so that it was in proper order; he re-adjusted his clothes and his belt to ensure that they were tidy, and slowly yet reverently fell to his knees, closed his eyes with gratitude for all that he has experienced and learnt in life. And there he passed on.

In that short yet simple final performance of his life, he showed great mastery over himself and that he was not a slave to his passions. He showed that as a human person, there are things more important than pain and death, and that it is possible to continue being civil and human despite feeling great pain.

That is what death should be about – dying properly, honourably, and as a consummation of all of the lessons, values, and experiences in life in that final performance of life.

These deaths are beautiful because they show us the beauty and strength of humanity, which we don’t see too often these days. It happens here and there – most of them quietly without much publicity. But I think, whenever we encounter such beautiful deaths, we gain the inspiration not just to live, but to live well, so that we too may go just as beautifully.

Being Human

The Chinese character for man (male and female) is 人 (ren)

In Chinese culture, ren (人) does not refer to the biological understanding of man. Rather, it refers to what a man ought to be – what makes a man a fully human person. One big difference between Western and Chinese philosophy is that in Western philosophy, the major question is “What is man?”, whereas in Chinese philosophy, the major question is “How to become one?” (为人)

And so, it is essential for a every single person to learn how to be a man (为人), so that he/she can become one (成人).

This is realised/fulfilled through his relations with others. Hence, the importance of ren (仁, also translated as humanity or benevolence). The etymology is quite simple. It just means two (二 er) persons (人 ren).

When two people can live in harmony with each other, only then can both fully realise what it means to be a man (二人为人 eren wei ren).