Why The 'May Fourthers' Were Wrong About Ruism (Confucianism): "The Three Guides' (三綱) and 'The Five Constant Virtues' (五常)


In my effort to promote Ruism among ordinary American people I have encountered a major push-back from, of all people, Chinese Americans. Most of them are either indifferent or hostile to their own tradition. But regardless of the reason, an unvarnished ignorance underlies this opposition. A recent example took place this summer when I gave a talk to the largest Chinese evangelical Christian church in the Boston area about 'The Three Guides' and 'The Five Constant Virtues.' After I finished my talk, a pious Chinese woman, around 40 years old, came up and whispered to me: "I know Ruism was the dominant tradition of ancient China, but I had never heard anything like what you were saying during your talk. After hearing what you have explained about Ruism, I find that it is actually quite good (挺好的)." Anecdotes like this tell us that in comparison with other traditions such as Judaism, Hinduism or Roman Catholicism, most Chinese immigrants to the United States are actually an obstacle, rather than an aid, to introducing and advancing their supposed 'home tradition' to other Americans.

So, why is this happening? Where does this ignorance come from? As a scholar of the humanities, I have to assign the major reason to the May Fourth Movement and the radical anti-Ruist rhetoric which, in the 1910s, this movement created and afterwards was used in governing most of modern China's public education. What happened was that, facing a national defeat by the Western colonial powers, some radically westernized Chinese intellectuals such as Lu Xun or Chen Duxiu, whom I call 'The May Fourthers,' invented a dualistic mindset separating East from West, and old from new. In order, they said, to surpass the West, China must give up its own culture and re-learn everything Western. For this reason, Ruist teachings such as 'The Three Guides' and 'The Five Constant Virtues' were condemned by the May Fourthers as representing the backward morals of a feudal society. They said that these ideas were hopelessly authoritarian, enslaved the independent will and spiritual freedom of individual people, and weakened Chinese cultural vitality. As a consequence, they thought, Chinese tradition must be completely jettisoned so that the Chinese people can learn the new morality of the West.

Although I appreciate the apparent sincerity of the May Fourthers' intentions (they, after all, hoped to make China better and stronger), I nevertheless see that their racial, anti-Ruist rhetoric is as ridiculous as to say, for example, "A wise old man, punched in the face by an impetuous young guy, has to totally give up his own wisdom and identify spiritually with the young guy." In fact, most of the May Fourthers' criticisms of Ruism are simply wrong! In my view, in order to practice 'The Three Guides' and 'The Five Constant Virtues,' nothing more is needed than the independent spirit of individuals! In the remaining sections of this essay, I will demonstrate how this is the case.

First, a little history:

The first time that the single phrase 'the Three Guides and the Five Constant Virtues' (三綱五常) is mentioned in the Ruist classics was when Ma Rong (馬融, 79-166 CE) in the Eastern Han Dynasty used this phrase to comment on Analects 2:23 in order to explain the unchanging aspect of a harmonious human society. According to Ma, regardless of what happens on the outside, people must still practice Ruist ethics inwardly for human society to remain on the right track. Before Ma, it was Dong Zhongshu's (董仲舒, 179-104 BCE) works and a later text entitled, 'A Comprehensive Exposition in White Tiger Hall' (白虎通義, compiled in 79 CE) that provided a separate philosophical exposition to each of the terms 'The Three Guides' and 'The Five Constant Virtues'. As perhaps will be well known, the Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE) was a very special period for Ruism. After other teachings, such as Legalism and Daoism, had proved not to be robust enough for maintaining a unified dynasty and an harmonious human society, Ruism was established as the state ideology. Accordingly, we can see that all those expositions about 'the Three Guides' and 'the Five Constant Virtues' which were provided by the Han Dynasty Ruists are actually a distillation of previous Ruist ethical teachings such as 'The Five Cardinal Human Relationships' (五倫) and 'The Ten Reciprocal Duties' (十義) from Ruism's Pre-Qin classical period. These teachings were intended to function, and they actually did function, as a textbook version of Ruist ethics, and thus were perennially influential. In this sense, the May Fourthers were right to select these Guides and Virtues [三綱 and 五常] as representative of Ruist ethics, even though their understanding of these ideas was quite wrong.

Second, the philosophy:

The standard expression for 'The Three Guides' is that 'The ruler is the guide for subjects, the father is the guide for the son, and the husband is the guide for the wife' (君為臣綱, 父為子綱, 夫為妻綱).

The original meaning of the Chinese character, written 綱 gang, refers to the lead rope of a fishing net, and thus, by extension, it means guide, guideline, bond, or guiding principle, etc. In Ruist ethics, if X is said to be the guide (綱) for Y, it primarily connotes, first, that the relationship of X to Y is a major human relationship, and secondly, that this X-Y relationship is, in a practical sense, hierarchical, in which X takes the major and leading role while Y takes a minor and subordinate role. Therefore, both X and Y must fulfill those distinct duties which are entailed by their differing roles.

So, if X guides (綱 ) Y, it means that X must act as a moral model for Y. In other words, X has a great responsibility for instructing Y about right human behavior. In the subordinate role of Y, he or she needs to show consistent deference towards and thus, discreetly and responsibly follow X as long as a normal X-Y relationship is being maintained. Even so, to what extent can an X-Y relationship be seen as 'normal'? The answer depends. The tradition tells us that for the ruler-subjects relationship, if a ruler continues to act badly, a minister ought to leave the state or resign after remonstration has failed three times. In more extreme cases, such as when a ruler proves to be a ruthless tyrant, revolt is urged. In the father-son relationship, if a father commits misdeeds and refuses to correct himself after his son has remonstrated three times, his son should 'follow his father while crying and weeping' (號泣而隨之, 禮記). This implies a persistent duty of the son to remonstrate since the father-son relationship can't be abandoned as easily as that of ruler-subjects. For the husband-wife relationship, if a husband's wrongdoing concerns only minor issues, the wife ought to tolerate while continuing to remonstrate, but if the misbehavior is really brutal such as killing the wife's parents and other similar deeds that violate basic principles of human relationships, the wife has the right to a divorce (誖逆人倫,殺妻父母,廢絕綱紀,亂之大者。義絕,乃得去也", 白虎通義).

Therefore, if there is anything that the teaching of 'The Three Guides' suggests to which a human being must be subordinated, it is only to one's duties and to the universal moral principles that are entailed by each person's distinct roles within various human relationships, rather than to any capricious human person who unjustly happens to hold authority. In relation to this, Xunzi taught us to "follow the Dao, rather than the ruler; to follow what is right, rather than the father." If a person's will is not firm, or if a person's spirituality is not independent and principled, I want to ask the May Fourthers, "How could anyone be a Ruist who follows such teachings?"

The ethics of 'The Five Constant Virtues' is higher than those which concern 'The Three Guides', 'The Five Cardinal Relationships', or 'The Ten Reciprocal Duties'. This is because these latter terms refer to concrete human relationships and their related duties, but meanwhile, human society is far more complex than what these terms refer to. Even when we know how to behave ourselves within three (or five) major human relationships, we still feel the need for a higher principle that can guide all human relationships. Therefore, the purpose of teaching 'The Five Constant Virtues' is to provide that 'single' principle which will apply in various occasions. These 'Five Constant Virtues' are Humaneness (仁, ren), Righteousness (義, yi), Ritual-Propriety (禮, li), Wisdom (智, zhi) and Trustworthiness (信, xin). I will explain these terms one by one.

The basic meaning of 'Humaneness' (仁, ren) is love. Ruism's conception of love is all-encompassing. It can be as close by as one's parents and one's children, or in its incipient form, in the reaction one has when, seeing a baby about to fall into a well, one feels a sense of 'commiseration' (惻隱之心, Mencius) and is hardly able to prevent oneself from saving the baby. It can also be as distant as when tiles and stones are crushed and one feels concern and empathy for their reordering (Wang Yangming). In a word, the Ruist conception of human love is so universal that a person of humaneness is said to be able to 'form one body with a myriad of things between Heaven and Earth.'

Nevertheless, even though human love is universal, Ruism also urges its particularization, so here we are with the virtue of 'Righteousness' (義, yi). The basic meaning of 義 refers to something that 'ought' to be done, that is, to what is right. In relation to 'Humaneness,' this virtue requires human beings to love appropriately in relation to particular people and in concrete situations. For example, as human beings, our love towards our own parents and children is naturally and understandably more intense than towards other people's parents and children. However, love should not end with one's own family. We must love other people's parents and their children by extending our love outward from our own. In this regard, Ruism teaches us to correctly determine the value of one's various relationships, and thus to bring about a graded form of dynamic harmony in one's performance of various duties through a reasonable distribution of time and energy.

'Ritual-Propriety' (禮, li) refers to the audible and visible ways of human behavior, through which what the virtues of 'Humaneness' and 'Righteousness' require are practiced. For example, if one has good intentions to appropriately love one's parents but does not actually practice the respectful ways for speaking, looking, hugging, or taking good care, it is hard to say that one has internalized the virtues of humaneness and righteousness in his or her person.

The virtue of Wisdom (智, zhi) balances the virtue of 'Ritual-Propriety' since it refers to knowledge. To know how to appropriately love is to possess wisdom. In line with the Ruist idea of dynamic harmony, the central task of human wisdom is to be thought of as knowing both the facts and values of things, and thus, of understanding how things in concrete situations can fit together based upon appropriate human reactions to that situation.

The virtue of Trustworthiness (信, xin) is mainly about one's attitude, and thus, has no additional content compared to the other four. It requires that one sincerely practice the four aforementioned virtues, and thus really possess them (實有其德).

In a word, 'Humaneness' is universal human love, 'Righteousness' refers to how to love appropriately in concrete terms, 'Ritual-Propriety' is the audible and visible ways of human behavior in which 'Humaneness' and 'Righteousness' are practiced, 'Wisdom' is to know how to be humane, righteous, and ritually-proper using one's deep axiological reasoning, while 'Trustworthiness' urges one to be sincere in the practice of these virtues, and thus, to truly own them. Overall, 'The Five Constant Virtues' is the principle that governs one's behavior within various human relationships. For example, if a minister can be humane, righteous, ritually-proper, wise, and trustworthy in his or her behavior within the ruler-subjects relationship, he or she will be seen as fulfilling his or her duty of 'loyalty', as specified in the teaching of 'Ten Reciprocal Duties'.

Based on this discussion, I have to ask one final question: Can we still believe, as the May Fourthers did, that the Ruist teachings of 'The Three Guides' and 'The Five Constant Virtues' represent the backward morals of a feudal society and thus are totally irrelevant to modern society? Absolutely not. In my view, every virtue listed in 'The Five Constant Virtues' continues to be extremely valuable for our time. Nothing need be changed in order to practice this teaching today. For 'The Three Guides,' we only need to make minor changes in order to adjust its social context. As I have argued in a previous essay, the ruler-subjects relationship ought to be understood as that of government-citizens, or any other hierarchical relationship in public life; the father-son relationship needs to be reformulated as that of parents-children; and the teaching about the husband-wife relationship ought to be reconsidered as one of a husband and wife who are guides for each other depending upon their differing levels of expertise. In my view, each of these adjustments is what the Ruist ethical principle of 'The Five Constant Virtues' requires for today's human relationships.

In a word, I believe the teachings of 'The Three Guides' and 'The Five Constant Virtues' are still key for the realization of social harmony in every time period. May Fourthers, I have to say again, "Sorry, you were wrong. It is the Ruist tradition which is the antidote for our modern malaise!"

Bin Song is active in the Facebook group 'Friends from afar: a Confucianism Group'. Together with his Ruist friends, he is founding a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization called the 'Ruist Fellowship of the United States'.