The Core Of Chinese Morals, Part I
There is a Chinese saying that refers to the importance of an artist choosing high-quality ink in the creation of a masterpiece,
【惜墨如金】“Precious ink, as valuable as gold”.
When we understand it from a holistic mindset, we can see that an artist is only one factor in the multi-faceted creation of a masterpiece. Looking at this saying from a broader perspective, the ink is equally as important to the creation of a masterpiece as artistic talent.
If you understand this concept, then it should not be difficult to understand the second meaning of the phrase, a meaning relating to Chinese social culture,
“Precious relationships, as valuable as gold”.
In the Chinese way of thinking, the quality of your relationships mirrors your success and your range of influence. Essentially, for the Chinese, quality of relationship, which may be viewed in the same light as quality of ink for an artist, is easily one of the most important aspects to success in all facets of life — from schooling to career, and beyond. With this in mind, we can deduce that those who are not adept at nurturing quality relationships with China may have trouble achieving success in China.
Recently there have been reports of American entrepreneurs who went to China to find their fame and fortune but left –tail between their legs, not having achieved the outcome they planned for. Frustrated they turn to the media expressing their sense of defeat as not their responsibility, but that of the complexities and challenges of Chinese society. This idea might be expressed well in the Chinese saying, 骄兵必败 “Haughty soldiers are sure to fail”. I venture to say that they did not see value in mastering the most important lessons to successful endeavors in China. First and foremost, ‘relationships are as valuable as gold’. We may never know the reasons for their failures, as it is difficult to gauge the level of expertise and flexibility applied in these situations. But I am convinced that a key component to success in China lies in traditional Chinese practices that may not be easily applied by most Americans.
The Conduit of Chinese Thought
To establish a perspective of the time that Chinese thought has been developing, let’s compare the establishment year of an American publication with an early entry of Chinese history by a well-known Chinese historian, Si Ma Qian.
The Hartford Courant, an American publication established in 1764 CE, has been in circulation for over 250 years. In Chinese history, the Battle of Ban Quan, one of the earliest recorded battles in Chinese history books, is believed to have taken place around 2500 BCE. Thus, the Battle of Ban Quan took place around 4,260 years prior to the establishment of the Hartford Courant.
This gives us a sense of the length of time Chinese culture, which includes world-renown thinkers and philosophers, has been evolving. With that awareness in mind, note that these generations of culture cannot be omitted from the culmination of who the Chinese are today.
The modern Chinese language is chock-full of expressions and idioms that date back thousands of years, expressions that act as conduits to the age-old culture of Lao Zi, Confucius, Mencius, Sun Zi, and the likes. For the modern Chinese, their values, and worldview are strongly influenced by the ancient’s wisdom and ways of thinking. This information, or wisdom, that the Chinese have access to, may be seen as a form of cultural data passed down through the written language from their ancestors and the thinkers who forged the foundation of Chinese culture, beginning thousands of years ago.
The Core of Chinese Morals
Meet 【忍】 “rěn”, easily one concept most central to the Chinese moral culture and a highly acclaimed practice. Ren, considered one of the most important of all traditional Chinese moral practices, embodies the ability to persevere, withstand difficulties, endure, and embrace change and challenges. The Chinese are a people who pride themselves in the ability to withstand hardships. This can be broadly seen in their historical writings. The Chinese respect and admire individuals with the ability to 吃苦, literally “eat bitterness”. Similar to the concept of ren, it suggests that one is able to withstand harsh environments, not simply bad weather, but insults and physical and mental duress. Confucius said, 【百行之本，忍之为上】“Of all proper behaviors, Ren is superior”.
From my early days in China, in the mid-eighties, and because of my inbred American sense of privilege, I had early exposure to the concept of ren through concerned Chinese friends explaining to me the ins and outs of Chinese society. Success in China may be less challenging when the habits of Chinese culture are taken into consideration. However, many Americans may find it difficult to do as it may go against the grain doing things that are different from the American norm. Culturally, as Americans, we tend to have more rigid expectations, clear mental images of what we see as the preferred outcome and how to achieve it, and when things deviate, or change, from those mental images, we may get a sense that things are going awry.
Ren is a wisdom-based practice applied to relationship building and overall success in life. For the Chinese, when one can ‘ren’, they are tapping into almost what can be understood as ‘a force’ to alter outcomes that may not have been otherwise possible.
The Visual Structure of Ren
This expression gives us insight into the profound meaning behind the character for ren,
【忍字头上一把刀】“There is a knife at the top of the character for ren” .
The knife represents the challenges and difficulties a person faces in their life. Perhaps, the best way to understand ren is to break down the character’s components. The character,【忍】 is made up of three character components: 【刀】 knife,【心】 heart, and 【丶】 a drop of blood. When we look at the character composition, we can see the knife on top of the heart and a drop of blood on the knife. It expresses the idea that when an upright person experiences difficulties and challenges, i.e. a knife in the heart, they will successfully endure. It is also known that because of this they gain respect from those around them.
The notion of ren in Chinese society is used to gauge a person’s inner strength and how they deal in certain situations or react in relationships, moreover it is a window into a person’s upbringing and moral code. The application of ren in Chinese society is seen as a force that will bring around successful outcomes, even when it may not appear that way on the outside, specifically for someone who does not grasp this powerful Chinese moral practice.
This traditional Chinese saying gives us a sense into the importance of ren and the outcomes that may be expected.
Hold steadfast, the winds will calm, and the waves will quiet,
Retreat one step, possibilities are limitless.