Confucian Virtue and Niceness

Ferdinand Hui makes the point, in differentiating between nice and good, that being truly good involves being aligned with God’s holiness and God’s purposes, while ‘nice’ has no narrative of its own:

‘Nice’ has no edges – that is, if you’ve managed to focus on being ‘nice’ all the way. You don’t have your own agenda – you have no larger purposes or ambitions if you’re being absolutely nice. There’s no narrative for another person to take part in, no majestic sweep of vision. ‘Nice’ is content being an observer in the drama called life.

This is a crucial distinction in a society that likes to either neuter males or make them bad.

I’m interested in how pre-republic Chinese culture tried to teach boys to become good men. Now it seems to me that the Confucian emphasis on ritual, on doing the proper thing for each situation, wasn’t really about being nice: it stressed real duty, not merely accommodation. Take, for example, the practice of a three-year mourning period after the death of a parent. To Confucius, this was more than a nicety (Lunyu 17.21):

Zai Wo [a disciple of Confucius] inquired, ‘Three years’ mourning! the period ends late. If the Man of Virtue abstains from rites for three years, rites will surely be destroyed; if he abstains three years from music, music will surely split apart. When old grain is out, when new grain is ripe, when the firewood flame is rekindled [as done annually], the period may end.’

The Master said, ‘So, eating good rice, and wearing embroidered clothes, thou wert at peace?’ ‘Peace,’ replied Wo.

The Master said, ‘If thou be at peace, do it! But the Man of Virtue, living in mourning, eats pleasant food and savours not; hears music and is not amused; is well lodged and is not in peace: therefore he does it not. But thou art at peace, so do it!’ And Zai Wo went out.

Then the Master said, ‘Yu’s unkind in this! A child is three, and only then is he let out of his parents’ bosom. Thus the three years’ mourning is the customary mourning for all under heaven. Yu, then, did he have three years’ love from his parents?’

Mourning aside, we see that Confucius interprets failure to observe custom as failure to know what everyone has experienced. This rite, this custom, has nothing to do with being nice: if it’s for the parents, the parents are already dead! Even if society has expectations, to act according to them makes life easier for no one. In fact, if anything, life is harder when the son whose parents have died stops work rather than picking up his parents’ productivity.

Decency, to Confucius, continues even in the absence of living relationship, and it exists neither for the other person’s enjoyment nor for society’s smooth and efficient operation. In short, it’s more than being nice.

Related Posts:
Education and Application of Scripture, on getting beyond ‘nice’.
Old Things Can be Used, on reclaiming ritual.


7 responses to “Confucian Virtue and Niceness

  1. Thanks for this… I love reading your thoughts about all manner of things…

    Will chew, and respond presently, and copying your pattern, at my site…


  2. Lue, Unknown staff has decided that we ought to collect all your blog writings and publish them in a Journal of Lue-Yee. Want to start picking out the fonts for it?


  3. *blinks*

    I totally heard you saying that in an Indian accent, not a Singlish one.

    Even if you can’t pick fonts yet, you can probably start eliminating the ugly ones right away, and that will save you a lot of work later.

    Bad List:
    Comic Sans


  4. Pingback: Speed and Globalization à Paris « Cogito, Credo, Petam

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