Ancient code of conduct still applies

Updated: 2012-04-11 08:02

By Zhu Yuan (China Daily)

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I was stunned by the report on China's new ethics and morals, published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

"What was wrong with the old ethics and morals?" was my first thought. Even before reading the report, I anticipated that it was playing with words.

Ancient code of conduct still applies

I was right. In the report they have replaced the traditional five constant virtues with modern expressions and called them the five new constant virtues.

The traditional virtues, ren, yi, li, zhi, xin have been the basic rules to regulate behavior in China for about 2,000 years.

Although they are often translated as a sense of kindness, a sense of righteousness, manners, a sense of justice and a sense of trustworthiness, it is hard to convey their exact meaning in English with a single word.

Ren refers to the kind of consideration that one feels for others thanks to the upbringing he or she has received. It means as a husband, you know how to take care of your wife, as a father you know how to care for your children, as a child you know how to care for your parents and at work have consideration for your colleagues.

The character yi means a sense of rightness. You know what to abstain from and the right path to follow, and when to come to the aid of your relatives and friends.

Li, which literally means ritual or manner, requires a person to have a good manner in his or her dealings with others. While the character zhi, which literally means wisdom, refers to a sense of what is right and what is wrong and making the right judgment.

The last character xin requires that you mean what you say and never go back on your words.

The five new constant virtues - ai, chengxin, zeren, zhengyi, and kuanrong - on the other hand are very easy to translate into English, namely love, trust, responsibility, justice and tolerance.

Compared with their traditional counterparts, they are much narrower in scope, conveying only part of the old virtues.

So the question is: Why do we need to replace the old ones?

Is it because an increasing number of people do not observe the traditional virtues?

I am sure the professors that produced this report are well aware that such concepts as love and tolerance are in fact only part of the connotations of the traditional Chinese virtue ren.

But I guess they don't really care about how the new words will work or how long they will last. Such reports are the easiest way for people of letters to advance their careers. They require little thought and no painstaking research into old books or records as it is just a matter of coming up with some easily digestible new expressions for old concepts.

The traditional Chinese saying xinping zhuang jiujiu meaning old wine is contained in a new bottle is appropriate to describe this report. The professors might claim that they are yushi jujin, keeping abreast of the times, or chuangxin, being innovative; but I don't think that the majority of residents will agree with them and I doubt these new simplified virtues will be inclusive and stick.

The five traditional virtues have survived the test of time and are known as constant virtues because when it comes to human nature and temperament, we are the same today as our ancestors.

The author is a senior writer with China Daily. E-mail:

(China Daily 04/11/2012 page8)