Western scholars and the educated public are well familiar with the concepts of altruism and altruistic love. In the ancient Greek philosophy, the word “agape” defined this kind of altruistic, selfless, and all-giving love. Later, Christian teachings elevated the concept of universal altruistic love, characterized by unconditional kindness and compassion for others. However, these Western cultural ideas of altruistic love are not unique in the history of human civilizations.

In different parts of the world, especially the Eastern cultures, the ideas of altruistic love appeared quite early in the history of Chinese civilizations.

The Confucian Contributions to Chinese Culture

Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism are the three Chinese religious philosophies that have had the greatest influence on Chinese culture. Their schools of thought also substantially affected the Chinese understanding of altruistic love. The ancient Chinese philosopher and prophet Confucius (trad. 551–479 BCE) is perhaps the most significant social reformer in East Asian history. His name is associated with many of East Asia’s foundational concepts and cultural practices. He was known in early modern Europe as an originator of “Eastern” thought. He had a substantial impact on the social and cultural development of China in its early history. This is why his name is well-known as a global metonym for the culture of traditional East Asian societies.

Confucian religious and philosophical teachings have been the foundations of Chinese values’ ethics and social and moral philosophy. Altruism was a prominent theme in Confucian ethical teaching.

So, the concepts of loving kindness and altruistic love played a central role in the ethical teachings of Confucius. One of his frequently quoted sayings says:

“Do not do to others what you would not like to do to yourself.”

It is easy to see how this Chinese concept of love is comparable to the Christian teaching of agape love, which I mentioned earlier.

On the other hand, this Chinese concept refers to love in a structurally graded form and not the unconditional love advocated by Christian teachings. The concept of altruism in Christianity takes on a more egalitarian form. It emphasizes love for all people rather than the establishment of hierarchical structures as in Chinese cultural concepts.

The Chinese “Ren”

The fundamental virtue of Confucian moral ethics is the concept of “ren.” It’s important to note that the idea of “ren” is also highly valued in Buddhist and Taoist cultures (Chan, 1955; Dubs, 1951).

The word “ren” is frequently translated as kindness, altruism, compassion, benevolence, and benevolent love. Confucius defined the term “ren” with the common Chinese term “ai”, which means “love.” It is important to note that the Chinese character for “ren” consists of two parts: “human”and “two.” Therefore, according to Confucius, ren is an essential human quality in which two humans express benevolent and altruistic love for one another.

How Is Confucian Ren Different from Christian Agape?

In contrast to the Christian ideal of agape love, the Confucian concept of ren reflected the hierarchical social structure of Chinese society. The five (“wu-lun”) zones were distinguished by the hierarchy of their group relationships.

In Chinese culture, these five cardinals of wu-lun are, in descending order,

(1) Emperor-Ministers (state level),

(2) Father-son (family level),

(3) Husband-wife (family level),

(4) Older-younger brothers (family level), and

(5) Friends (individual level).

In Chinese culture, these five wu-lun of social relations establish the relationship web of society. In Chinese culture, the social life is made up of these five wu-lun of social relationships.

The Hierarchical Nature of Love Attitudes in Chinese “Ren”

Confucius viewed “ren” primarily as the love attitude of a bountiful lord. The superior must demonstrate generosity and kindness toward his subordinates.

Confucian ethics did not expect subordinates to show superiors benevolent love since this would be presumptuous. The culturally proper expressions of love from subordinates toward superiors are loyalty and submission (Chan, 1955; Dubs, 1951).

According to Confucius, people tend to feel and show more natural love towards their parents, relatives, and other close relatives. He taught that altruistic love between members of a small network of relationships is stronger than between members outside of this relationship network.

The Cultural Legacy of Confucian Teachings on Love

Confucius and his disciples in the following times believed that equal love for all was unnatural (Chan, 1955; Dubs, 1951). Therefore, the Confucian cultural ideas of this graded love have been prevalent in many Asian societies for a number of centuries (Ma, 2009). As a direct consequence of Confucius’ legacy and his cultural roots, the hierarchical model of love is still widely accepted in Chinese society. Such a hierarchical conception of love is also widespread in other East Asian cultures that are dominated by the Confucian philosophy (Karandashev, 2022a).


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