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Home History and Culture The Five Constant Virtues of China
The Five Constant Virtues of China
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the five constant virtues

Owning over thousands of years of history, the Chinese have created a brilliant history and culture, and at the same time have formed their own moral code that has played an important role in social development and progress. This is what we call Traditional Virtues (chuán tǒng měi dé 传统美德), which still have great significance today and whose value to the development of human civilization is now widely recognized.

Benevolence (rén 仁), righteousness (yì 义), propriety (lǐ 礼), wisdom (zhì 智) and fidelity (xìn 信) are the Five Constant Virtues (wǔ cháng 五常) which are the most important ones in traditional virtues of China. Although they all came from Confucianism (rú jiā sī xiǎng 儒家思想), they are widely acknowledged all over China. To be a moral person, the ancient Chinese cultivated and monitored themselves according to the Five Constant Virtues and carried them down to the modern life.

the five constant virtuesBenevolence is the first and most important virtue among the Five Constant Virtues. It manifests itself in the inner mind in love and compassion for people and in avoiding harm or envy toward anyone. In terms of behavior, benevolence demands that one be amiable, not wrangle with others nor do evil deeds. To cultivate one's attentiveness to Benevolence one should use another Confucian version of the Golden Rule: What one does not wish for oneself, one ought not to do to anyone else; what one recognizes as desirable for oneself, one ought to be willing to grant to others. Virtue, in this Confucian view, is based upon harmony with other people, produced through this type of ethical practice by a growing identification of the interests of self and other. In short, as parents treat their children, the benevolent person spares no effort to help others; one even lays down one’s life to this end, with no thought of being repaid.

More than 2,000 years ago, Han Xin (hán xìn 韩信), who later became a general of the Han Dynasty (hàn cháo 汉朝), was so poor that he couldn't afford to eat. One day, an old woman washing clothes beside a river offered him some food. Han Xin was very grateful and said that he would reciprocate her kindness in the future. The old woman said, "I offered you food not to obtain your repayment." The old woman even did not tell Han Xin her name, but her virtue of being ready to help others has been handed down from generation to generation.
When Fan Zhongyan (fàn zhòng yān 范仲淹) of the Song Dynasty (sòng cháo 宋朝) (960-1279 AD) was a local official, one of his subordinates died of illness and left behind a young wife and two children. Fan Zhongyan gave financial aid to them. Encouraged by Fan, other officials also showed their generosity. Their act in helping those in distress had a positive influence on the offspring of Fan Zhongyan. His son, Fan Yaofu (fàn yào fú 范耀福), inherited this virtue and always helped others.

the five constant virtuesRighteousness in contrast to benevolence involves thinking and acting from one’s own viewpoint. It demands rational action, self-restraint to resist temptation and the fortitude to do one’s duty. Above all righteousness is about preserving one’s integrity.

Bao Zheng (bāo zhěng 包拯) was a much-praised official who served during the reign of Emperor Renzong of Song (sòng rén zōng 宋仁宗) in China. Bao is culturally a well-respected figure in Chinese history, and is today invoked as the symbol of justice in China.
He is famous for his uncompromising stance against corruption among the government officials at the time. He upheld justice and refused to yield to higher powers including the "royal father-in-law" (guó zhàng 国丈) and the Prime Minister. Due to his strong sense of justice, he is very popular in China, especially among the peasants and the poor.
Bao ZhengThere are many legends and stories about Bao and his wit as both a detective and judge. Some famous examples include:
1. The story about Bao executing Chen Shimei (chén shì měi 陈世美), who abandoned his previous wife (and later tried to have her killed) in order to marry royalty.
2. The story of a plot to discredit a concubine by swapping her son (the new born crown prince) with a civet, in which Bao disguised as the King of Hell Yan Luo (yán luó wáng 阎罗王) to try Guo Huai (guō huái 郭槐). Guo supported Bao in front of the Emperor early in his career, making the case personally difficult for the judge. The perpetrator confessed when he thought he was in hell.

the five constant virtuesThe contents of propriety include loyalty, filial piety, fraternal duty, chastity, respect, etc. Originating in ancient sacrificial rites, propriety, in a general sense signifies behavioral norms which maintain hierarchy. In ancient society, besides the relation of monarch and subjects, there were also the relations of father and sons, husband and wife, the elder and the young, teacher and students, and others. These relations differ but all demand respect and modest deference to others. However the spirit of equality is an essential prerequisite of propriety, especially in relations with unfamiliar persons.

The story of “Taste the five constant virtuesLiquid Medicine for Mother” tells us the filial virtue of Han Wendi (hàn wén dì 汉文帝) of the Western Han Dynasty (xī hàn 西汉). His mother had been sick for three years. He often stayed up by her bedside and nursed her day and night. He tasted the liquid medicine first before giving to her. Chinese people take herbal medicine (zhōng yào 中药) prescribed by Chinese doctors (zhōng yī 中医). Herbs are boiled with water to make a liquid medicine. Before giving such medicine to his mother, Han Wendi first tasted it to ensure it was not too hot or too bitter.
There are a lot of sayings that show respect towards teachers, for example, “a teacher for a day is a father for a lifetime”. For a long time, the position of teacher was honored by both the masses and the emperors. In the temple of Confucius (kǒng miào 孔庙) in Beijing, many emperors in the Qing dynasty (qīng cháo 清朝) had written inscriptions to show their appreciation to master Confucius (kǒng zǐ 孔子).

 the five constant virtues

In China, the honor shown to teachers is displayed in every aspect of social life. The teacher is always called sir or mentor (xiān shēng 先生). Nowadays, September the tenth is designated to be The Teachers’ Day (jiào shī jié 教师节).

the five constant virtuesWisdom is the innate knowledge by which one judges right and wrong, good and evil. This is necessary in the practice of moral norms, for otherwise one cannot become a person of virtue.In a sense it precedes the others because without wisdom one will have no sense of ethics, or social skills, or even just the plain common sense the other virtues require for guidance.

The wisdom and achievements of Zhuge Liang (zhū gě liàng 诸葛亮) were made popular by Romance of the Three Kingdoms (sān guó yǎn yì 三国演义) attributed to Luo Guanzhong (luó guàn zhōng 罗贯中) more than a millennium after the Three Kingdoms era ended. The novel incorporates many popular folklore, pseudo histories, and opera scripts into the character of Zhuge Liang, turning him into an embodiment of intelligence itself.
Before the Battle of Red Cliffs (chì bì zhī zhàn 赤壁之战), Zhuge Liang went to visit the Wu camp (wú jūn 吴军) to assist Wu strategist Zhou Yu (zhōu yú 周瑜). Zhou Yu saw Zhuge Liang as a threat to Eastern Wu (dōng wú 东吴) and was also jealous of Zhuge Liang's talent. Therefore, he assigned Zhuge Liang the task of making 100,000 arrows in ten days or facing execution. Zhuge Liang, however, swore he would finish this seemingly impossible task in three days. He requested 20 large boats, each manned with many straw men and a few soldiers. Before dawn, Zhuge Liang ordered his soldiers to beat war drums and shout orders, to imitate the noise of an attack.

the five constant virtues 

Zhuge Liang sat with Lu Su (lǔ sù 鲁肃) inside one of the boats drinking wine. The Wei soldiers, unable to see in the fog, fired many volleys of arrows at the sound of the drums. The straw men were soon filled with arrows, and Zhuge Liang returned to Wu having fulfilled his promise.

the five constant virtuesFidelity is honesty. This means that, externally, one’s deeds match one’s words; and that internally one’s words and mind are in unison. Fidelity is a key to the perfection of human nature. It is the basis without which other virtues lose their authenticity; hence they are inseparable. Fidelity is inherent in a child, but might be lost due to external influences.

Confucius taught his disciples to be honest. In study, if you know a thing, say you know it; if you don't know, say so. He thought that it was the correct attitude towards study. In the late Qin Dynasty (qín cháo 秦朝) (221-207 BC), a man named Ji Bu (jì bù 季布) always kept his word. People the five constant virtuesoften said that "Better to get Ji Bu's promise than one hundred jin (jīn 斤) (Chinese weight measurement) of gold", thus creating the expression that a "promise is worth a thousand pieces of gold" (yī nuò qiān jīn 一诺千金). Later, when Ji Bu met with catastrophe, he narrowly escaped due to the help of his friends. Hence, a person who keeps his word will naturally win respect and care from the people.
In olden times, the doors of Chinese shops had an inscription "Guarantee quality goods and reasonable prices for all customers". This shows that since ancient times China advocated the ethics of fair trade, honesty towards customers, no deception and no falsification.

In short, even in modern society the Five Constant Virtues have profound significance. Though the modern state is administered mainly by law, law only restrains people; it cannot teach man, especially it cannot perfect one’s mind. Hence, the Five Constant Virtues can be used as a supplement to law.

      中华传统美德,是中华民族赖以生存、延续和发展的深厚道德根基。正心、诚意、格物、致知、修身、齐家、治国、平天下,把美德贯穿到一个人的自身、家庭、社会、国家等各个方面,是中华传统美德的显著特征。中华传统美德,既是中国人安身立命、为人处世、成就事业的品德基础,又是中华民族进步、社会发展、国家稳定的精神支柱,它陶冶出一代代仁人志士,推动中华民族不断走向文明。以仁义礼智信为主要内容的中华传统美德,重视个人道德品质的锤炼,重视道德规范的践行,重视整体利益价值的追求。“仁义礼智信”是中华传统美德的核心范畴,贯穿于中华传统美德的整个发展历程,是中华传统美德的核心价值观。the five constant virtues


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