The Meaning of Ren in Confucianism


The core thought of Confucianism is Ren, but what is the meaning of Ren?

Ren (or Rén) is the Confucian virtue denoting the good feeling a virtuous human experiences when being altruistic. Ren is exemplified by a normal adult's protective feelings for children. It is considered the inward expression of Confucian ideals.

Yan Hui, Confucius's most outstanding student, once asked his master to describe the rules of Rén and Confucius replied, "One should see nothing improper, hear nothing improper, say nothing improper, do nothing improper." Confucius also defined Rén in the following way: "wishing to be established himself, seeks also to establish others; wishing to be enlarged himself, he seeks also to enlarge others." Another meaning of Rén is "not to do to others as you would not wish done to yourself." Confucius also said, "Rén is not far off; he who seeks it has already found it." Rén is close to man and never leaves him.

Nature of Rén

Rén relies heavily on the relationships between two people, but at the same time encompasses much more than that. It represents an inner development towards an altruistic goal, while simultaneously realizing that one is never alone, and that everyone has these relationships to fall back on, being a member of a family, the state, and the world.

Rén is not a concept that is learned; it is innate, that is to say, everyone is born with the sense of Rén. Confucius believed that the key to long-lasting integrity was to constantly think, since the world is continually changing at a rapid pace.

There have been a variety of definitions for the term Rén. Rén has been translated as "benevolence", "perfect virtue", "goodness" or even "human-heartedness". When asked, Confucius defined it by the ordinary Chinese word for love, ai, saying that it meant to "love others".

Rén also has a political dimension. Confucianism says that if the ruler lacks Rén, it will be difficult for his subjects to behave humanely. Rén is the basis of Confucian political theory; the ruler is exhorted to refrain from acting inhumanely towards his subjects. An inhumane ruler runs the risk of losing the Mandate of Heaven or, in other words, the right to rule. A ruler lacking such a mandate need not be obeyed, but a ruler who reigns humanely and takes care of the people is to be obeyed, for the benevolence of his dominion shows that he has been mandated by heaven. Confucius himself had little to say on the active will of the people, though he believed the ruler should definitely pay attention to the wants and needs of the people and take good care of them. Mencius, however, did state that the people's opinion on certain weighty matters should be polled.

Rén also includes traits that are a part of being righteous, such as hsin, meaning to make one's words compliment his actions; li, which means to properly participate in everyday rituals; ching, or "seriousness"; and yi, which means right action. When all these qualities are present, then one can truly be identified as a chün tzu (君子), or "superior man," which means a morally superior human being. Confucians basically held the view that government should be run by ethically superior human beings who concentrate solely on the welfare of the people they govern.


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