Popular Science Monthly/Volume 87/July 1915/The Moral Development of the Chinese

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THE political events which have transpired in China during the past two decades are symptomatic of profound social changes. Former changes of government had their origin primarily in a discontent with the reigning dynasty, without the further implication of a desire on the part of the people to participate directly in the government. When the ruling dynasty became corrupt and the oppression too severe, Heaven's displeasure was manifested, they thought, by allowing some powerful opponent to gain access to the throne and deliver the people. In case the new monarch was benevolent, he was gladly received and heartily supported. At the present time the educated people earnestly desire to take a definite hand in the changes; and there is an insistent demand on the part of Young China for an opportunity to take a permanent part in governmental affairs. These ideals have been but partially realized; but the general situation, of which they are a part, has aroused the interest of the civilized world, for they appear to indicate that China will, if given the opportunity, make a modern nation out of herself.

The ethical implications of the present movement are of outstanding significance, as they show that real moral advance is being made. An adequate understanding of this particular phase of the problem is best attained by a survey of Chinese moral development from the standpoint that genuine moral progress in any nation is dependent upon the advance from morality on the plane of custom and tradition to autonomous moral conduct.

The Chinese people may conveniently be divided into two principal classes, though the line of demarcation between them has never been drawn so hard and fast that it has not been possible for the individual to pass from one to the other. There are first the educated—those who read and understand the literature of the country, and who engage in some literary or official pursuit. Official standing has in the past very largely depended upon the literary degree held by the aspirant for office. In the second class are found the illiterate, who, because of their uneducated condition, have no knowledge of the literature of China, except such as they acquire indirectly. The leaders of China have come from the first class; the members of the second class, constituting a large percentage of the 426,000,000 of population, have been and are to-day living on the level of custom. Kueichu (custom) is with them a final authority, and when it is subject to alteration, as in the present period of transition, the sanctions have been removed and confusion is apt to follow. For the Chinese of this class custom is followed, not because of the meaning that attaches to it, but because it is the established and recognized way of acting. The moral sanctions have grown out of a unique historical setting from which it is very difficult for the Chinese to dissociate themselves.

Of the earliest period of moral development little or nothing is known except by inference. The ancient past of China is enshrouded in myth and mystery,—a fact which, as is well known by students of history, is typical of all nations. This is the pre-historic period which is present both in the race and, figuratively speaking, in the individual. During this progress was made largely on an organic basis, or with conscious participation in the realization of certain immediate ends without further thought for the future.

The historic period begins definitely at 500 b.c., when Confucius collected, compiled and edited the chief literature of China.

He took the records of remote antiquity, and sifted them, in such wise, however, as to exert in a most effective manner the influence of an editor, giving to the readers of all succeeding ages only that which he wished to produce its effect on the national mind.[1]

He was followed by Mencius (371-287 b.c.) about one hundred and fifty years later, who is known as the author of the "Works of Mencius." These two men and their disciples fixed the classic literature of China—the Six Classics and the Four Books—and by so doing determined the ethical conceptions of their people for over two thousand years.[2] From that time the educational ideal was not the creative production of independent literature, but the memorization and interpretation of the classic literature. In this way the classic literature of China took the same place in the development of China which the Vedic literature held in India. Serving as a standard, it frustrated that spontaneous development of thought which is a sine qua non of higher moral progress. Not only was the second class of people in China under the sway of custom, but the educated people and the leaders were also completely dominated by ideals that had been created centuries before. The enslavement to custom became complete, when the philosopher Chu Hsi (a.d. 1130-1200) of the Sung Dynasty fixed the interpretation of the classics by his commentaries. It was so thorough that signs of genuine liberation have been present for only about two decades, and even at the present time the majority of Chinese scholars accept the interpretation of the philosopher Chu without further question.

In addition to the restraining effect of the classic literature, the religious teachings of Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, also discouraged individual initiative and thereby moral progress. The sage Lao Tzu, who was a contemporary of Confucius, found the great principle of life in the "Tao." This term "Tao" has an abstruse and mysterious connotation, having been rendered "Reason," "Nature," "The Universal Order," "The Way," "God." The following citation from the fourteenth chapter of the "Tao-Teh-King" will show the elusiveness of its meaning.

Looked for but invisible, it may be named "colorless";
Listened for but inaudible,—it may be named "elusive."
Clutched but unattainable—it may be named "subtile."
These three can not be unravelled by questioning, for they blend into one.
Neither brighter above nor darker below.
Its line, though continuous, is nameless, and in that it reverts to vacuity.
It may be styled "the form of the formless"; "the image of the imageless"; in a word the "indefinite."
Go in front of it and you will discover no beginning; follow after it and you will perceive no ending.
Lay hold of this ancient doctrine; apply it in controlling the things of the present day, you will then understand how from the first it has been the origin of everything.
Here indeed is the clue to the Tao.[3]

This "form of the formless" and "image of the imageless" is viewed as the creative, organizing principle of the universe, and should not be hindered in its working. Lao Tzu "discouraged above all the assertiveness by which any individual would attempt to magnify his importance or to interfere with the normal quiet and rational development of things."[4] The Tao-Teh-King says:

The world's weakest drives the world's strongest.
The indiscernible penetrates where there are no crevices.
From this I perceive the advantages of non-action.
Few indeed in the world realize the instruction of silence, or the benefits of inaction.[5]

These and other available passages from the "Tao-Teh-King" show clearly that Lao Tzu also made his contribution to a more complete enslavement to custom.

The introduction of Buddhism into China during the reign of the Emperor Ming-Ti (a.d. 58-76) did little or nothing toward stimulating a genuine development of the moral ideal. Buddhism in its inception and development has consisted almost entirely of methods whereby the individual may rid himself of the evil effects of desire. Its influence has been quite largely negative, for it takes men out of society. Abstract and monotonous contemplation according to definite rules is typical of its techniques. Such inwardness is fatal to the genuine autonomy of higher morality. So far from leading men forward into higher cultural life, it simply burdened them with further groups of customs. Owing to the fact that discrimination has not set in, large numbers, if not all, of the Chinese are at one and the same time Confucianists, Taoists and Buddhists.

In all this the ethical ideal which was emphasized by Confucius and interpreted later by the philosopher Chu has had a profound influence on the majority of the Chinese. It is succinctly expressed in the Great Learning in the following words:

The ancients who wished to promote virtuous conduct throughout the kingdom, first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their own states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such investigation of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.[6]

This descending series should be approached from below, so that it involves ascent rather than descent. Broad knowledge of self and others is the foundation, and upon this are built in succession sincere thoughts, rectified minds, practise of personal virtue, well regulated families, well ordered states, and finally the promotion of practical virtue throughout the kingdom. Such ideals challenge the admiration of all men and might well stimulate autonomic conduct. Unfortunately, as we have indicated, the whole series rested on a basis of convention, so that it was little more than mere form.

The situation is similar in the instance of the five social relationships—of husband and wife, father and son, brothers, prince and officer, and friends. They do not rest on a rational basis, but have become incrusted with layer upon layer of custom. An illustration or two will serve to elucidate this point.

In case of severe illness of a parent, there has been a generally held belief among the Chinese for thousands of years that a cure can not be effected, unless a piece of the flesh of the son is cooked and then eaten by the parent. Naturally cases of this sort are not everyday occurrences, but they have the sanction of custom and in extreme instances are adopted. References to this have frequently appeared in Chinese papers. Dr. Smith assures us that he has become "personally acquainted with a young man who cut off a slice of his leg to cure his mother and who exhibited the scar with the pardonable pride of an old soldier."[7] He also cites the experience of Abb Huc. Having occasion to send a messenger, the latter thought that a Chinese schoolmaster who was working for him might desire to improve the opportunity to send a letter to his old mother whom he had not seen for four years. The schoolmaster, upon hearing that the messenger would leave soon, called one of his pupils, saying: "Take this paper and write me a letter to my mother." M. Huc was surprised and proceeded to inquire whether the boy was acquainted with the teacher's mother. Receiving a negative reply, he said: "How then is he to know what to write?" The schoolmaster answered: "Doesn't he know quite well what to say? For more than a year he has been studying literary composition, and he is acquainted with a number of elegant formulas. Do you think he does not know perfectly well how a son ought to write to a mother?"[8] The boy returned the letter to his teacher sealed, and it was thus forwarded. It would "have answered equally well for any other mother in the Empire."

The tremendous population of China is also largely the outgrowth of the requirement of Confucianism that the son shall worship at the grave of his deceased parents. No greater honor can come to a woman than to be the mother of a son. If she fails of this, she is not infrequently obliged to make room for another who can bear a son, for no man is content until he has a son who can worship at his grave. Until this superstition is brought under the light of reflection, excessive propagation will continue and with it moral development will be retarded.

But withal the situation is somewhat better than it would appear. Fortunately for China, agencies have been at work in the past that were operative in the right direction. Of these, we may distinguish both rationalizing and socializing forces. The value of these agencies as factors in promoting moral development depends largely upon their advancing pari passu. Rationalizing forces make for systematic conduct based upon natural law as a result of reflection and scientific control; socializing forces contribute to a more equal distribution of the concrete things that satisfy the health, wealth, sociability, knowledge, beauty, rightness, and religion desires of the human being. Two men stand out very prominently in Chinese history, previous to the present reform movement, as making a serious attempt to break away from custom and advance the moral condition of the Chinese. Their efforts were not crowned with success at the time, but they served to keep alive the spark of progress which was all but extinguished.

The first was Wang An-shih of the Sung Dynasty, a.d. 1055-1085. Realizing the poverty-stricken condition of his people in contrast to their prosperity under the sage emperors Yao and Shun and Chou Kung, he was very anxious to do something for them. The Emperor Shen-Tsung asked him one day, "If I were to make you chief minister of state, what would you do?" "I would change the customs and institute reforms," Wang replied.[9] Thereupon the emperor formed a board of three officials, whose task it was to investigate the condition of the country and to suggest where improvement might be made. This board sent out officers throughout the country "to report upon the nature of the soil, where watered and where not, where it was rich and where it was poor," and to give other information that might help to alleviate the condition of the farmer. The outcome of this movement was the introduction of four reforms:

1. The first was a state monopoly of commerce. The commerce of the country was to be carried on by the state instead of by the people. The plan is briefly summed up by MacGowan as follows:

The taxes for the future should be paid in the produce of the district where they were levied, and the state should furnish funds to buy up what was left. This should be transported to different parts of the country where a good market could be found and sold at a reasonable profit. Thus would the state be benefited and the poorer classes be saved from the oppression of the rich, who had been in the habit of buying cheaply and selling at exorbitant prices.

This reform included a scheme for state advances to cultivators of the soil. The government loaned money to all farmers in the spring when the seed was sown, and a definite sum of money was returned in the fall by the farmers. These loans netted about two per cent, per month.

2. The second reform was an attempt to equalize taxation. To this end the country was divided into Fangtien, or square fields, one thousand steps on each side, and the taxes on each were appraised in the ninth moon, "according to the general average of the producing power of the soil, which was divided into five classes according to its fertility.[10]

3. The third reform measure introduced militia organization. Every ten families were organized into a group with a headman called a Paochang; five such groups, or fifty families, were formed into a larger group with a higher commander; and ten of the larger groups formed a district. All homes having more than one son were obliged to give one in service to the state. The members of the militia were allowed to remain at home in time of peace, but when war or disturbance threatened they were called out by the headmen. Modifications of this reform were later used in the Ming and Tsing Dynasties.

4. The last of the great reforms of Wang An-shih was that of providing for the construction of public works by means of a family tax. He wished to remove the abuses that grew out of compulsory labor. His plan was to rate the tax required in accordance with the property of the family. The method which was devised to secure accurate information for this purpose caused great confusion and misery.

On the whole, Wang An-shih's attempted rationalization and socialization of conduct was not successful. He was unwise in some of his efforts, and was vigorously opposed by Sz-ma Kwan and other prominent officials at the time. Nevertheless, certain permanent benefits from his reforms came down to later generations, and, what is more, his effort remains as one of the outstanding attempts to break the shackles of custom.

A second great moral reformer who broke with custom was Wang Yang-ming, or Wang Shou-jen. He inculcated doctrines which have had a profound effect upon the Japanese during the past one hundred years, and which are to-day wielding a great influence upon the Chinese mind.

The date of Wang's life is approximately 1472-1528.[11] As compared with contemporary European history, he lived in the period of the great maritime discoveries and at the beginning of the Reformation. He was fearlessly propounding his views in China shortly before Giordano Bruno, after a life of restless wandering in search of truth, suffered martyrdom for his philosophic exposition of the universe, and about a century previous to Hobbes, Descartes and Spinoza.

The most important thing about his philosophy is that it does not unreservedly advocate the interpretation given to the classics by former scholars, but insists on a rationalization which gives room for progressive adjustment. For him, human life, both in the race and in the individual, was a developing thing. He insisted that the highest values of life are realized only through development, and that apart from development life must prove a miserable failure. That he failed to approach the problem from the modern scientific view does not detract from the fact that he actually got a glimpse of the developmental character of human institutions, and that such a standpoint will invariably result in moral progress if thoroughly assimilated.

The one sentence, "My nature is sufficient," gives the foundation upon which the whole structure of his philosophy and ethics rests. Man's mind holds the key to all the problems of the universe. Nature—experience, we would probably say—is the stuff out of which the universe is made. This nature may be viewed from different aspects, but in whatever way it is approached, it is just this one nature.

Referring to its form and substance, it is Heaven; considered as ruler or lord, it is Shangti (God); viewed as functioning, it is fate; as given to men, it is disposition; and as controlling the person it is mind; manifested by mind it is called filial piety when it meets parents, and loyalty when it meets the prince. Proceeding from this on, it is inexhaustible, but it is all one nature.[12]

If nature at large be designated as the macrocosm, then human nature is the microcosm, and for Wang human nature was the human mind. He was taking recreation at Nanch'en, when one of his friends pointed to the flowers and trees on a cliff and said, "You say that there is nothing under Heaven outside the mind. What relation exists between my mind and those flowers and trees on the high mountain, which blossom and drop of themselves?" Wang replied: "When you cease regarding these flowers, they become quiet with your mind. When you see them, their colors at once become clear. From this you can know that these flowers are not external to your mind." This is undisguised idealism, in which the microcosm creates as truly as does the macrocosm. In the great all-pervading unity of nature the most differentiated, highly specialized portion is the human mind. It manifests the only creative ability that man can really know. Wang said again and again that it is ab initio law, that it is the embodiment of the principles of Heaven. Thus its very essence is natural law; but not in any partial, superficial sense. There are no other principles operative anywhere, for the mind is so all-embracing that it has no internal and external.

The influence of this point of view upon Wang's ethical theory and practise was profound. He held that it is not necessary to go to the classic literature to get a knowledge of fundamental ethical principles, for the human mind has these principles within itself. Intuitive knowledge of good is to be identified with moral principles. He who would have accurate information regarding right and wrong can get it from the intuitive faculty. The highest good consists in developing it to the utmost. It is to the details of right and wrong and to changing circumstances as compasses and squares are to squares and circles, and measure to length and breadth.

The changes in circumstances relative to details can not be determined beforehand, just as the size of the square or the circle, and length and breadth can not be perfectly estimated. But when compasses and squares have been set, there can be no deception about the size of the circle or the square, and when the rule and measure have been fixed there can be no desception about length or shortness. When the intuitive faculty has been completely developed, there can be no deception regarding its application to changing details.[13]

Wang is to-day read extensively by Chinese students, and will probably influence the Chinese as much as he has the Japenese. He has the advantage over many other rationalizing and socializing forces of the present day in that his point of view is a direct product of the Chinese mind and therefore strikes a sympathetic chord in the mind of the Chinese scholars. As a rationalizing and socializing factor in the development of Chinese morals it exhibits the following doctrines:

1. Every individual may understand the fundamental principles of life and of things, including moral laws, by learning to understand his own mind and by developing his own nature. This means that it is not necessary to use the criteria of the past as present-day standards. Each individual is able to determine for himself what is right and wrong. Like Protagoras among the Greeks, Wang Yang-ming among the Chinese held that "Man is the measure of all things."

2. On the practical side, Wang taught that every individual is under obligation to keep knowledge and action, theory and practise together, for the former is so intimately related to the latter that its very existence is involved. There can be no real knowledge without action. The individual has within himself the spring of knowledge and should constantly carry into practise those things that his intuitive knowledge of good gives him opportunity to do.

3. Wang taught that heaven, earth, man and all things are an all-pervading unity. The universe is the macrocosm, and each human mind is a microcosm. This naturally leads to the conceptions, equality of opportunity and liberty, and as such serves well as the fundamental principle of social activity and reform.

Turning to the present reform period, we find two further types of forces at work in the moral development of the Chinese. Of these the first is the work of the modern Chinese reformers, and the second the impact of outside influences upon China. While these are discrete in certain aspects, they coalesce at many points. The ends sought do not differ greatly. The Chinese reformer of the present day recognizes the value of occidental techniques and of the principles of our civilization. This entails a rationalization and socialization of conduct which destroys the value of many Chinese customs and stimulates reflection on problems of conduct.

Among the principal Chinese reformers of the last two decades we may name K'ang Yu-wei, Liang Ch'i-ch'ao, T'an Ssu-t'ung, Dr. Sun Yat-sen and the men associated with them. Almost from the first their object was to rid China of the abuses of an absolute form of government. K'ang Yu-wei, Liang Ch'i-ch'ao and T'an Ssu-t'ung were intimately connected with the "hundred days of reform" and the "coup d'état of 1898," when an attempt was made to inaugurate a milder, more liberal form of government. T'an was executed the same year, while K'ang Yu-wei and Liang Ch'i-ch'ao escaped. Dr. Sun was connected with a movement in Canton against the government in 1895, as a result of which he became a fugitive. He returned to his country in the autumn of 1911 and became Provisional President of China and a prominent member of the People's Party (Kuo-ming-tang). These men and their associates have done much to awaken an interest in republican principles of government, social reform and individual initiative. Liang Ch'i-ch'ao has been Minister of Justice under President Yuan Shih-kai and also editor of the Yung Yen Pao ("Justice"), published in Tientsin twice a month. K'ang Yu-wei carried on reform work from Japan. All of these men had high ideals for their country—ideals which have been but partly realized owing to the condition of the masses of the people and to official opposition.

As far as the impact of outside influences is concerned, western education has been a strong factor in showing that the old ideals and techniques are inadequate, as compared with those of western countries. Students have gone to England, Germany and America, and have had ocular demonstration of the prosperous social and economic condition of the people there. They have seen democratic principles practically applied; and the fundamental principles of western civilization, as well as the scientific attitude toward the problems of life, have been acquired by them in the colleges and universities. Returning to their country, they have by example and precept promoted individualism and social justice. Some have gone to Japan and have seen what great changes are taking place under the influence of the modern movement there. Other students, upon entering schools established by Europeans and Americans under the supervision of various missionary societies, have become acquainted with western ideals for the individual and society. They, too, have taken an active part in propagating ideas that stimulate advance from custom into reflective morality. The influence of these factors, and the sad experiences of the Boxer uprising, were so pervasive that Tzu Hsi, the Empress Dowager, upon the advice of Yuan Shih-kai and Chang Chi-tung, issued a decree in 1904 abolishing the old system of examinations and making graduation at one of the modern colleges the only recognized path to official employment. The abolition of the old system of education and the introduction of new ideals in the schools throughout China was one of the principal causes of the overthrow of absolutism and the founding of the Republic. And since the founding of the Republic, the old conception of the education as an instrument for making loyal subjects of the Emperor has, according to the ministry of education, been changed into an attempt to utilize education as a means of cultivating moral and virtuous character for the purpose of qualifying both men and women for citizenship.

The commercial relations existing between China and foreign countries since the forced introduction of opium have also furthered the moral development of China. The development of commerce, industry and art affects the moral life in three important ways. (1) "It gives new interests, and opportunity for individual activity."[14] (2) These increased opportunities bring forward the question of values. Are all the new activities good? If so, what can be done to promote them? If not, what shall be done to hinder their progress? (3) The development of commerce raises the question of distribution. Are the goods distributed in a just manner? Are all the people of the country receiving their equitable portion? Manifestly the introduction of modern commercial and industrial methods will in time involve a tremendous change in the economic life of the Chinese. There are indications in China to-day of the beginning of an industrial revolution similar to the one in Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century. Railway transportation of commercial products has affected thousands of wheelbarrow coolies. The introduction of cotton and wool clothing has thrown large numbers of silk weavers out of employment. Modern machines are rapidly being introduced in the larger and more accessible cities and will soon follow in all parts of the country. Situations of this sort give rise to urgent moral problems and result in moral advance.

While educative and commercial forces have been operative, the introduction of Christianity into China through missionary enterprise in chapels and hospitals, has also greatly furthered moral progress. Christianity has called attention to moral evils and has created a sense of sin and unworthiness which has helped many to break away from pernicious customs. It has engendered a more adequate appreciation of the ideals of brotherhood and social justice and thereby has stimulated new conceptions of the relation of man to man, and of mutual responsibility. It has emphasized the worth of the soul, and in so doing has given added worth to individual life. Thousands have accepted the principles of Christianity—some consciously, other unconsciously. Many of these—especially women—have been encouraged to learn to read, and the ability thus acquired has served not only the immediately desired end of reading the Bible, but has also widened the intellectual horizon and created new and larger interests. Christianity has probably done more during the last hundred years than all other forces combined to liberate Chinese women from the shackles of custom.

China has entered a period of transition comparable to the period of the Sophists of ancient Athens, the Renaissance and the Reformation in western Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the industrial revolution of the eighteenth century, and the French Revolution. Old landmarks are being swept away; foot-binding will probably never reappear, and it is highly probable that opium will be effectually driven from the country. But certain old landmarks will be reinstated—in a modified form, perhaps, though not necessarily. At a feast given in the city of Nanking shortly after the formation of the Provisional Republic of China, one of the prominent officials of Sun Yat-sen's government informed the guests that "Confucianism is forever dead." Since that time it has received official recognition from President Yuan Shih-kai, and the titles and privileges which the lineal descendants of Confucius had enjoyed under the Manchu dynasty, including the title of "Holy Duke," have been restored. China will not make the transition from customary morality to reflective morality in a few years, nor can a truly republican form of government be established there prior to a general rise of educational conditions. Japan awoke from her sleep in 1854 as a result of the coming of Admiral Perry, and soon thereafter instituted a campaign of reform. The Japanese have now become aware of the fact that they confront a great problem, and are to-day in the very act of discovering and confirming rational standards of conduct. Custom and reflection are waging mighty battles there to-day, for the modern movement is in full swing. In China the rational and social forces which have been set in motion should be allowed to operate until that great country has taken the necessary step from customary to reflective morality and has taken its place among the nations of the world.

  1. W. A. P. Martin, "The Lore of Cathay," Revell Company, N. Y., p. 170.
  2. The sixth Classic is the "Book of Filial Piety," which is sometimes omitted in the enumeration.
  3. C. Spurgeon Medhurst, "The Tao Teh King," Chicago, Independent Book Co.. p. 24 f.
  4. Paul S. Reinsch, "Intellectual and Political Currents in the Far East," p. 123.
  5. C. Spurgeon Medhurst, "The Tao Teh King." p. 75.
  6. "The Great Learning," Introduction, p. 4.
  7. Arthur H. Smith, "Chinese Characteristics," New York, 1894, p. 178.
  8. Ibid., pp. 180, 181.
  9. J. MacGowan, "Imperial History of China," Shanghai, 1906, p. 383.
  10. John C. Ferguson, "Wang An-Shih," an article in the Journal of the North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. 35, p. 72.
  11. Vide Monist, Vol. XXIV., No. 1, p. 17 ff.
  12. Wang Yang-ming, "Philosophy," Book I., p. 23. This reference is to the Chinese edition published by the Commercial Press, Shanghai.
  13. Wang Yang-ming, "Philosophy," Book III., p. 61 f.
  14. Dewey and Tufts, "Ethics," p. 153.