Benevolence, (Chinese: “humanity,” “humaneness,” “goodness,” “benevolence,” or “love”) is one of the core values of Confucian tradition.
In order to understand Benevolence better, we should take a look at the way Confucius explained it to his students.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Student Zi Gong asked Confucius if there was a single word that could be used as a personal rule for life? Confucius solemnly said: “Probably it is the word ‘forgiveness’!” How do we understand the meaning of forgiveness? Confucius said: “Love thy neighbour as thyself: Do not do to others what thou wouldst not wish be done to thyself: Forgive injuries. Forgive thy enemy, be reconciled to him, give him assistance, invoke God in his behalf.”
That is, Benevolence is the practice of interacting with others guided by a sense of what is good and right from our own perspective. If you can achieve “forgiveness”, you will achieve the goal of Benevolence.
The practice of Benevolence is up to oneself
Zi Gong sked Confucius, how can people cultivate Benevolence? Confucius responded with a metaphor: “For a craftsman, if he wants to do his job well, he must first sharpen the tools he uses. Similarly, a person living in a country should first be under the leadership of the capable officials of the country. Serving the country, and working hard to make friends with benevolent people.” The specific approach is as Confucius said to a student called Fan Chi: “Daily life must be humble; be cautious in doing things, and be loyal to others. These virtues prevail even in “barbarian” areas. Therefore, Confucius said: “Benevolence is up to oneself, one should desire Benevolence, and it is the ultimate goal.” These words mean to us that Benevolence is the result of personal striving, self-discipline and commitment.
Do your part
Once, Confucius said while discussing the idea of Benevolence with his students: “When it comes to the matters of Benevolence, you should not act humble in front of the teachers. You should fight for the first place without delay.” We should therefore strive to be exemplary in practicing Benevolence.
Confucius also taught that cultivating Benevolence helps when facing hardship and distress, e.g. living in material poverty for a long time. Similarly, people who do not cultivate Benevolence cannot achieve a peaceful life for a long time. On the other hand, those who are guided by Benevolence always regard it as the greatest happiness in life. According to Confucius teachings, a wise person views Benevolence as the most beneficial life norm.
Conditions for benevolent governance
Zi Gong asked Confucius how to deal with political affairs in a way that reflects the spirit of Benevolence. Confucius pointed out three conditions: sufficient food, sufficient armaments, and the people’s trust in the government. Zi Gong asked again: “If it is unavoidable, which of the three conditions can be removed first?” Confucius said: “We should remove the armaments first.” Zi Gong asked again: “If the situation is still not allowed, which one should be removed?” Confucius responded: “Then the food should be removed. Since ancient times, people have always died, but if the government cannot win the people’s trust, nothing can be established.”
Benevolence is the great principle between heaven and earth, and the virtue of a saint. Simply put, “Benevolence” is love. In Chinese Mandarin, the character Benevolence combines “person” with “two” in the form of its font, which indicates a relationship between people. It also forms the grounds of social and family relationships: there is benevolence of parents towards children, and vice versa; virtues of kindness, respect, filial piety, righteousness, empathy, friendliness, etc. develop between individuals within a family and in wider social contexts. These principles of ethical relationships expand to the political hierarchy of monarchs, rulers, leaders and ministers in society. Therefore, Benevolence is not only the moral relationship of the family, but also the political relationship among the society. Benevolence emphasized that in any social structure people should love others from the bottom of their hearts instead of relying on external force.
The teachings of Confucius regarding the virtue of Benevolence influenced many Eastern and Western philosophers. Confucianism became a source of inspiration particularly among the philosophers of Enlightenment (e.g. Voltaire), and the Chinese Hui Muslims. It also influenced some modern Chinese movements such as the New Life Movement, as well as the martial arts culture in China.
Lingling Shan graduated from Jilin University in 1999. Her special interests in cultural differences between the West and the East have nourished her teaching and research. She has spent time in the United States as a visiting scholar (2014-2015) and researched on Religious Differences in China and America.
Here in the department, Lingling currently lectures in Chinese on our Undergraduate Chinese studies programmes. She also lectures on our credit course modules in Chinese Philosophy and Chinese History open to all Goldsmiths students and oversees our HSK training short courses.