A Catechism of Ruism (Confucianism): The Five Cardinal Human Relationships (五倫, wulun) and The Ten Reciprocal Duties (十義, shiyi)

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Ruism is a tradition of non-theistic humanism. For Ruists, the way to build a harmonious human society is conceived of as the way to concretely engage with what is taken to be the transcendent, that is, to engage with Tian, the all-encompassing, constantly creative, cosmic power. Human society, in virtually all its aspects, is constantly changing. Imagine that Confucius could have taken a time machine from the late Spring and Autumn period of ancient China and landed in Boston in July, 2016. He would hardly be able to recognize our 'brave new world.' The question then remains: in order to build a harmonious society, what is the primary building block? In other words, in a harmonious society, what is it that does not change?

The answer given by the tradition is that of establishing good human relationships. An anecdote can help us to understand this answer. Today, many people know that 'filial devotion' (孝) and 'parental kindness' (慈) are two of the great virtues taught by Ruism, but they rarely understand why. The answer is that whatever happens to a human being, he or she must have had parents. You may have no marriage, no child, no job, no nationality and even no friends, but as long as a human being is alive, he or she owes his or her life to parents. In this way, if you are unable to learn how to nurture a harmonious relationship with your parents, there can be no way to enjoy similar relationships with others. In a word, the reciprocal duty of 'filial devotion' for children and 'parental kindness' for parents is understood by Ruists to be a way of providing an initial opportunity for humans to learn how to build a harmonious relationship, which can then be extended to other similar human relationships. For this reason, the relationship between parents and children has been taken to be the foundation for a harmonious human society in general.

Of course, the parent-child relationship is just one of the major human relationships. Whether this parental relationship should be considered to be the most important relationship is continually debated within the Ruist tradition. But there is no doubt that how to manage good human relationships is the tradition's most consistent focus. One of the earliest Ruist classics, the Book of Documents (尚書), recounts that the legendary sage-king, Shun, when he found that it was difficult for people to get along well with their families, appointed his minister, Qi (契), to employ 'five teachings' (五教) to educate the people in their 'five moral characters' (五品). According to later commentators, the 'five moral characters' relate to the five major family roles: father, mother, elder sibling, younger sibling, and child. In another chapter, the goal of Ruist teaching is described as 'graceful relationships fluidly continuing' (彝倫攸敘). In the same spirit, when the Duke of Qi consulted Confucius about politics, Confucius's famous answer was that for good politics, we must have 'ruler as ruler, subject as subject, father as father, and son as son' (Analects, 12.11). In other words, everyone needs to fulfill the roles and duties which are defined within these various human relationships.

Distilling previous discussions, and also considering his own contemporary situation, Mencius (372-289 BCE) formulated his teaching of the Five Cardinal Human Relationships (五倫):


"To be human is to follow the right Way: if they are well fed, warmly clothed, and comfortably lodged, without being taught at the same time, they become almost like beasts. The sage Shun was concerned with this, and therefore appointed Qi as the minister of instruction to teach the duties of human relationships: between parents and children, there ought to be affective closeness (親); between ruler and subjects, righteousness (義); between husband and wife, distinction (別); between old and young, a proper order (序); between friends, trustworthiness (信)" (Mencius, "Duke of Teng Wen").

We can see that Mencius' statement is a further development based upon the story told in the Book of Documents, but his formulation of these five cardinal human relationships, together with their corresponding duties, is more explicit and better organized. Among these relationships, parents-children and older-younger siblings are familial, and thus private. The ruler-subjects relationship is distinctively political, and thus public. Friendship is more egalitarian, while the relationship of husband-wife could potentially connect to each of the others. Supporting Mencius's thought, we find in Li Yun (禮運, the "Unfolding of Ritual Propriety"), which was a chapter from the Book of Rites (禮記, compiled around the time of Mencius), a more detailed explanation of the duties each role-player must perform within these five human relationships:

"What are human duties? Kindness (慈) for parents, and filial devotion (孝) for children, amicability (良) for elder siblings, and discreet obedience (悌) for younger siblings; uprightness (義) for husband, and attentiveness (聽) for wife; considerateness (惠) for elders, and deference (順) for the young; benevolence (仁) for ruler, and loyalty (忠) for subjects. These are what are called human duties."

Although there exist alternative formulations in other contemporaneous Ruist texts, and later Ruists continued to refine their views, the teaching of these two texts' concerning the Five Cardinal Human Relationships with, thus, Ten Reciprocal Duties (五倫十義, wulun-shiyi) became a paradigm for later Ruists to ponder concerning the correct way to build good human relationships, and thereby to realize dynamic harmony (和, he) in human society. Although each of these relationships and duties is worthy of a separate study, it will be enough for a Ruist beginner to get to know several basic principles about them.


First: duty is absolute, but it is also mutual.

Even today, a denunciative rhetoric against Ruism is still in circulation, a falsehood fabricated by radically westernized Chinese intellectuals in the early 20th century, which claimed that Ruism is an essentially authoritarian tradition urging a one-dimensional, blind obedience by inferiors towards superiors in every social and political hierarchical relationship. With all my knowledge about the entire intellectual history of Ruism, I pledge here and now that this accusation targets anything but Ruism! From the quotations above, we can derive a general principle which is certain: each of the five human relationships is performed by human co-players. Insofar as each co-player stands in a position and plays a role within a particular human relationship, the duties required by the position and by the role are 'absolute.' This means that, for example, a wife ought to play her duty of 'attentiveness' as long as her wifely relationship with her husband is sustained. However, because it is one's socio-political position and one's relational socio-political role which determine one's duty, rather than the other way around, a co-player's duty is to perform his or her role only if and when the other co-player is not so far off in his or her own duties as to destroy the sustainability of that particular relationship. For example, if a ruler is so malevolent that it is impossible for his ministers to correct his wrong-doing in a remonstrative way such that the relationship of ruler-subjects can be maintained, his ministers cannot and ought not to continue to be loyal. (The only exception in this regard is for parents-children, and I will discuss this in my future articles.) Understood in this way, the five cardinal human relationships are actually five major opportunities for human beings to cooperatively perform the process of moral self-cultivation so that a particular form of dynamic harmony is created in concrete social situations. Therefore, those impetuous accusers of Ruism who claim that it is essentially authoritarian may only rarely be correct. Urging co-players to fulfill their duties when they do not is actually one great duty that other co-players have in all human relationships. In hierarchical relationships, such as ruler-subjects or parents-children, that is, when the urging is carried out by superiors toward subordinates or dependents, this is called 'instruction' (教); when directed by subordinates or dependents toward superiors, it is called 'remonstration' (諫). When the urging is done among people of equal position, such as friends, this is called 'admonition' (责).

Second: order matters.

The order in which Mencius enumerates the five cardinal human relationships also represents his evaluation of their differing importance. This means that when one's duties within different relationships contradict one another, one should put the most important first, and accordingly, constrain one's performance of one's other duties. In this way, one can create a graded form of harmony in regard to the fulfillment of one's overall duties. One famous example is from Mencius. His student asked him what Shun, as king, would do if his father, a notoriously bad person, committed homicide. Mencius answered that Shun would order his minister of justice to arrest his father, but before that happened, Shun would give up his kingship, carry his father on his back, and flee into hiding somewhere along the sea-coast (Mencius, 7A). In this thought experiment, Shun shapes his reaction to a touchy situation according to his different, yet conflicting duties, and his way of doing this represents the gradation of values which Mencius thinks these duties bear: the father-son relationship is more important than the ruler-subjects one.

Of course, the order set out by Mencius is just one among many within the tradition. For example, in Zhong Yong (中庸, Equilibrium and Ordinariness), the ruler-subjects relationship is placed before parents-children. Xunzi treats the order as ruler-subjects, parents-children, older-younger siblings, and then husband-wife. This speaks to the fact that Ruists continue to adjust their evaluation of the values of various duties according to the context. But if we had to adopt a single universal rule in regard to these evaluations, I would select what is said in the Appended Texts section of the Book of Changes:

"There are heaven and earth, and then a myriad of things. There are a myriad of things, and then male and female. There are male and female, and then husband and wife. There are husband and wife, and then parents and children. There are parents and children, and then ruler and subjects. There are ruler and subjects, and then superiors and inferiors. There are superiors and inferiors, and then rituals and rules are arranged."

Based upon the fact that human relationships evolved from the cosmic process within Tian's creation, the order enunciated by the Book of Changes is as follows: husband-wife, parents-children, and then ruler-subjects. This makes great sense to me because Ruist ethics is generally family-centered, and without a husband and wife, there is no family. Accordingly, I endorse this version as the universal order concerning the priority of human relationships.

Be that as it may, we still need to remember that Ruist ethics is highly contextualized, which means that each co-player needs to adjust his or her evaluation of what to do in relation to the given context. In today's world, if we take stages of personal growth into serious consideration, I suggest that before leaving home and entering college or a new job, you will have treated the parents-children and older-younger siblings relationships as the most important. And between adolescence and marriage, friendship probably took more weight. Then, after getting married, the husband-wife relationship and then parents-children relationship ought to matter the most. Meanwhile, according to circumstances, the ruler-subject (that is, the state-citizen) relationship or the superior-subordinate relationship during one's career may take on more or less weight, but generally, these two ought to be less important than the other family-based duties.

Third: though its content may change, principle remains.

The way I have just interpreted the Five Cardinal Human Relationships and The Ten Reciprocal Duties already relates to contemporary contexts. For example, originally, the parents-children relationship was written as 'father-son.' Such initial formulations represent a particular social context in which Ruist ethics was embedded: ancient China was a patriarchal society. However, today, we don't require this context, which means that we can detach Ruist ethics from its historical social context even while still highlighting its principles as being of great value for us today.

This is particularly true for the ruler-subjects relationship. Democracy has been thriving in the world for several centuries, and thus it makes little sense to depict the relationship between, for example, President Obama and the American citizenry, as one of 'ruler-subjects.' Therefore, in the political arena, I have replaced it with the relationship of 'state-citizens.' This does not mean, however, that everything that Ruism teaches about ruler-subjects is outdated. In my view, human society can never eliminate hierarchical relationships. Even if the president of the United States is equal to other citizens under the law, he or she still has far greater power than any ordinary American citizen in terms of political administration. Also, in the course of one's career, the employer-employees relationship resonates particularly well with the Ruist teachings which concern 'ruler-subjects,' since a similar hierarchical structure undergirds it.

In a word, for contemporary Ruists, though the content of human relationships may have changed somewhat, still, the principle of maintaining them well has not. In order to enjoy a dynamically harmonious relationship in either an hierarchical or an egalitarian situation, human beings must still think of themselves as relational co-players. In this way, we can individually and cooperatively perform the process of moral self-cultivation in gradually expanding circles of the human community: from self to family, to neighborhood, to employment in a group, to state, country, and to the whole earth. For only in this way can a continually growing, harmonious human society be sustained.

Bin Song, together with his Ruist friends, is founding a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization called the 'Ruist Fellowship of the United States'. You can support this initiative by donating here.