China Glossary: Jen

China Glossary
   Perhaps the most important Confucian and by extension Chinese value is jen—once you have mastered this concept, all the remaining Confucian and Neo-Confucian values fall into place. As a crucial concept the word is immensely complex and so can't be translated easily into English; traditionally, it is translated either as "humaneness" or "humanity" or "benevolence."


China Glossary
T'ien Ming
   However, the foundational or etymological meaning of jen is "people," "human beings," or "common people," so the concept is rooted primarily in the social and the political. When combined with the concept of t'ien ming, the "mandate of Heaven"—the moral order of the universe as encompassed by the imperative that the Emperor concern himself overwhelmingly with the welfare of the people—it's natural that jen as meaning "common people" eventually would come to include the moral obligations of the Emperor to the well-being of the common people. 


Chinese Philosophy
   Jen as a cultural value originates with Confucius, the great teacher at the fountainhead of the Era of One Hundred Philosophies. Confucius makes jen the centerpiece of his philosophy, which is always and rigorously ethical and political in its concerns. By Confucius's time, the concept of t'ien ming had come to encompass more than just the Emperor's moral obligations to his people, but had begun to include more or less all the obligations people had to those that were near to them, such as family. In this sense, jen as "benevolence" is a fairly good translation, since the imperative of jen is to be concerned for the well-being of others.


China Reader
Confucius, The Analects

China Glossary

Shu and Chung
   In Confucius's thought, recorded by his students in a collection called The Analects, jen is a fairly sophisticated concept and is the base of all other aspects of Confucian thought. Although Confucius offers several definitions of jen, it is perhaps no exaggeration to consider the Confucian Analects as one long extended definition of the concept of jen . What does jen consist of in The Analects ? First of all, it is the quality that all superiors (those in ruling positions) should have in order to govern well; if the mandate of Heaven decrees that government is for the welfare of the people, then all governors first and foremost should display the quality of jen . Principally, jen consists of shu and chung, "reciprocity or self-analogy" and "doing one's best." In the first instance, one should use oneself as an analogy when attempting to determine what is owed to others or what is beneficial to others: what you wish done for yourself, you should do for others, what you do not wish done for yourself, you should not do to others. But knowing this isn't enough; you should exert yourself to the best of your abilities (chung) to accomplish what you owe to others—this doesn't mean that you'll succeed: it is sufficient to have the right intent and make the right effort in order to have the quality of jen .

   Secondarily, jen consists of all those other qualities which are part of a moral life: li , or properly doing all the rituals that govern day to day life; yi , or right action; hsin , or making one's words conform to one's deeds (this includes speaking the truth and not speaking if one does not know the truth); ching , or "reverence," "seriousness," or "the sense of awe in the face of one's obligations to others."

   When all these qualities are present, then one can truly be identified as a chün tzu, or "superior man," which means both a man of superior rank in a government and a morally superior human being. In other words, government ideally should be run by ethically superior human beings who concentrate solely on the welfare of the people they govern.

   Jen is something one learns rather than something one is born with. One learns morality by listening to moral precepts (hsüeh) and by thinking through them in order to determine if they are applicable to the situation you find yourself in (ssu); the key to morality in Confucius is always thinking since the world is constantly changing.


Chinese Philosophy
   The second great Confucian thinker, Mencius, added a crucial element to this idea of jen by adding a second term to the system: i , or "duty." What this simply means is that Mencius stresses that one variously owes various people; it is clear that a father owes more to his own family than he does to another, or a Duke owes more to the people of his state than he does to the people of a neighboring state. It is this differential determination of one's obligations that should inform one's application of jen .


Chinese Philosophy
Mo Tzu
   Mo Tzu has nothing but contempt for Confucius and the Confucians; in particular, he takes exception to the limited application of jen , since both Confucius and the especially Mencius see one's moral obligations as applying only to a finite number of people. Against this, Mo Tzu asserted that our obligations to the well-being of others extends to every human being and that we should individually pursue the well-being of every human we come in contact with. Generally translated "universal love," this concept is really the logical extension of jen as encompassing an even greater range of people.
Richard Hooker 

World Cultures

©Richard Hooker