Skip to main content
Log in

On the Nature of Early Confucian Classical Chinese Discourse on Ethical Norms

  • Published:
The Journal of Value Inquiry Aims and scope Submit manuscript

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.


  1. For a recent treatment of this phenomenon see Roger T. Ames, Confucian Role Ethics, A Vocabulary (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2011).

  2. All references to classical Chinese texts are keyed to the editions in Thesaurus Linguae Sericae available with translations and analysis on-line at

  3. See Lothar von Falkenhausen, “The concept of wen in the ancient Chinese ancestral cult,” Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews, Vol. 18, (1996), pp. 1–22 and Martin Kern, “Ritual, text, and the formation of the canon: historical transitions of wen in early China,” T’oung Pao, Vol. 87, Fasc. 1/3, (2001), pp. 43–91.

  4. For an inspiring historical survey of Western approaches to the concept of justice see Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998), especially pp. 349–369 on the contrastive aspects. What one would need, from a more general philosophical point of view, are globalized versions of this kind of thematically focused survey of conceptual history. Robin R. Wang, ed., Chinese Philosophy in an Era of Globalization (New York: SUNY Press, 2004), pp. 123–162. For an anthropological perspective see D. F. Pocock, “The ethnography of morals,” International Journal of Moral and Social Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1, (1986), pp. 3–20, and for a survey of the state of the art in 1997 see the editor’s introduction in Signe Howell, ed., The Ethnography of Moralities (London: Routledge, 1997), pp. 1–23. James D. Faubion, An Anthropology of Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011) does not in my opinion live up to the promise of its title. The most challenging empirical ethnographic work within this field I know of is Colin M. Turnbull, The Mountain People (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973), a shocking and inevitably controversial portrait of a culture in which a whole range of supposedly universal moral norms are found to be absent by the visiting anthropologist. (See the highly critical review by the linguist Bernd Heine, “The mountain people: some notes on the Ik of north-eastern Uganda,” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 55, No. 1, (1985), pp. 3–16.

  5. See the classic translation Albert R. O’Hara, tr., The Position of Woman in Early China, According to the Lieh Nü Chuan, “The Biographies of Eminent Chinese Women” (Washington: Catholic University of America, 1945), and now Anne Behnke Kinney, tr., Exemplary Women of Early China: The Lienü Zhuan of Liu Xiang (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014). For a well-documented and very readable survey of the role of women in ancient China, focusing mainly on the Qín and Hàn dynasties, see Bret Hinsch, Women in Early China, Second edition (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2010).

  6. See Hinsch 2010, p. 85.

  7. A. F. P. Hulsewé, Remnants of Han Law. Vol. I: Introductory Studies and Annotated Translation of Chapters 22 and 23 of the History of the Former Han Dynasty (Leiden: Brill, 1955). A. F. P. Hulsewé, Remnants of Ch’in Law: An Annotated Translation of the Ch’in Legal and Administrative Rules of the 3rd century B.C. Discovered in Yün-meng Prefecture, Hu-pei Province, in 1975 (Leiden: Brill, 1985). Ulrich Lau and Michael Lüdke, Exemplarische Rechtsfälle vom Beginn der Han-Dynastie: Eine kommentierte Übersetzung des Zouyanshu aus Zhangjiashan/Provinz Hubei (Tokyo: Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa (ILCAA), Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, 2012). (An English version of this latter extraordinarily useful and well-documented work with an extensive bibliography is in press.)

  8. For detailed treatments of the concept of virtue in China see Donald Munro, The Concept of Man in Ancient China, With a New Foreword by Liu Xiaogan (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001); Bryan Van Norden, Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007); and Mark Csikszentmihalyi, Material Virtue. Ethics and the Body in Early China, (Leiden: Brill, 2004).

  9. In my Thesaurus Linguae Sericae I have so far registered 183 first person pronouns and role-based quasi-pronouns in classical Chinese literature. For second person reference I have so far registered 146 lexicalized expressions that function as pronouns or role-based nominal quasi-pronouns.

  10. See Heiner Roetz, Confucian Ethics of the Axial Age (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993) and Paul R. Goldin, “The theme of the primacy of the situation in classical Chinese philosophy and rhetoric,” Asia Major, Vol 18, No. 2, (2005), pp. 2–25 for extensive discussion on the basic nature of early Confucian ethics. For detailed discussion of the virtue of filial piety see now Roger T. Ames and Henry Rosemont Jr., The Chinese Classic of Family Reverence, A Philosophical Translation (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2009), pp. 6–104. See also Alan K. L. Chan and Sor-hoon Tan, eds., Filial Piety in Chinese Thought and History, (London: Routledge/Curzon, 2004), and Philip J. Ivanhoe, “Filial Piety as a Virtue,” in R. L. Walker and P. J. Ivanhoe, eds., Virtue Ethics and Contemporary Moral Problems (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 297–312.

  11. Conjectures and Refutations (London: Basic Books, 1962), p. 60.

  12. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, Second edition (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University, 1984), p. 57.

  13. In Danish this would be, “Kom tingene i forkøbet.”

  14. He died 606, poet and general, appointed Duke of Yuè 越公, member of Wáng Tōng’s group of visitors and interlocutors.

  15. AD 542-623, important politician, also referred to as Duke of Péi 邳公.

  16. Suí dynasty official, died AD 591, also known as Duke of Ānpíng 安平公.

  17. See Paul Rakita Goldin, Rituals of the Way: The Philosophy of Xunzi (Chicago: Open Court, 1999).

  18. See Tu Weiming, The Global Significance of Concrete Humanity: Essays on the Confucian Discourse in Cultural China (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd, 2010) for a forceful advocacy of this traditional Confucian humanistic tradition. Compare also W. T. de Bary, Asian Values and Human Rights: A Confucian Communitarian Perspective (Wing-Tsit Chan Memorial Lectures)(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).

  19. Yú Yīngshí 余英時, 士和中國文化 (上海 : 上海人民出版社, 1987).

  20. 郭店, 五行. Scott Cook, The Bamboo Texts of Guodian: A Study and Complete Translation (Ithaca: East Asia Program, 2012, vol. 1, p. 489).

  21. Consider here the extremely popular early 14th century illustrated book Guō Jùjìng 郭居敬, Èrshísì xiào 二十四孝 “Twenty-four Instances of Filial Piety” which concentrates entirely on filial females.

  22. See Kinney 2014.

  23. See also Book of Songs 167.5 which contrasts upper class jūn zǐ 君子 with lower class soldiers xiǎo rén 小人.

  24. 逸周書, 大聚解 ed. Huáng Huáixìn, Yì Zhōushū huìjiào jízhù (逸周書匯校集注), p. 424.

  25. And yet, LY 8.2 shows that this ruler’s virtue can indeed huà 化 “transform through education” the people and cause them to rise to the task of imitating him, as Huáng Kǎn’s 皇侃 (AD 488-545) commentary takes care to explain in his commentary: 下民效之不為薄行 “The people below imitate/emulate him and do not engage in ungenerous action.” 黃小懷,論語彙校集釋, (上海:上海古籍出版社, 2008), p. 676. See also

    子曰 :

    「如有王者, “If there is a True King

    必世而後仁。」 then first after one generation human-heartedness will prevail.” (LY 13.12)

    Here again, kind-heartedness is construed as originating with the ruler. In this instance it remains an open question where in society human-heartedness is to prevail.

  26. On the central topic of the Chinese virtue of jìng 敬 “reverence; proper respect” see the comparative study Paul Woodruff, Reverence. A Review of a Forgotten Virtue, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). Woodruff compares the cases of ancient Greece and of ancient China. In particular, he points out how Plato and Confucius do converge in the importance they attach to reverence as a crucial constituent of the moral life.

  27. Contrast the translation in Goldin 2005, p. 1.

  28. See also Harbsmeier 2011 on the same subject.

  29. For further detailed discussion on this passage see Paul Goldin, Confucianism, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), pp. 19–21.

  30. I have taken this to refer to “turning to the human-heartedness” for many decades, as do most translators, and it is only now that I find the other interpretation in the early commentaries.

  31. See the authoritative translation by D. C. Lau which has “the people turn to the benevolent.”

  32. It will be remembered that Confucius is concerned with human-heartedness as a virtue appropriate for ruling classes that he is educating also in Analects 17.6 quoted above.

  33. Joseph Fletcher, Situation Ethics (Westminster: John Knox Press, 1997). See the lengthy methodological introduction by James F. Childress.

  34. Compare also LY 12.1.

  35. For an exhaustive historical documentation of this filial cannibalism see Key Ray Chong, Cannibalism in China (Wakefield: Longwood Academic, 1990),黃文雄,《中國食人史》(Taipei:前衛出版社, 2005), Bengt Pettersson, Cannibalism in the Dynastic Histories (Stockholm: Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, no. 71, 1999, p. 140), and more marginally also the interesting book Tina Lu, Accidental Incest, Filial Cannibalism, and Other Peculiar Encounters in Late Imperial Chinese Literature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009). Of course, there was much more to filial piety than such carnal self-sacrifice. For much narrative and historical detail see For medieval developments see the rich monograph Keith Knapp, Selfless Offspring: Filial Children And Social Order in Medieval China (Honolulu: Hawai’i University Press, 2005).

  36. See John Knoblock, Xunzi: A Translation and Study of His Complete Works, 3 vols., (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994).

  37. I have prepared an extensively annotated bilingual edition of this work which is being edited for publication. Meanwhile, Thesaurus Linguae Sericae (URL: contains an earlier line-by-line translation of this book with linguistic annotation.

  38. Wing Tsit Chan, tr., Neo-Confucian Terms Explained: The Pei-hsi Tzu-i (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986). Chén Chūn 陳淳, 北溪字義, (北京 : 新華書局, 1983).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Christoph Harbsmeier.

Additional information

The author wishes to thank Paul Goldin (University of Pennsylvania) for crucial advice on an earlier version of this paper.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Harbsmeier, C. On the Nature of Early Confucian Classical Chinese Discourse on Ethical Norms. J Value Inquiry 49, 517–541 (2015).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: