|Hong Kong Society of Humanistic Philosophy http://www.arts.cuhk.edu.hk/~hkshp
Liberator or Reinforcer
-- To what extent does Confucius's conception of Junzi reinforced social
Kwan Sui Chi(關瑞至) (PhD Student, Humanities, HKUST; Tutor, OUHK)
Confucius has been variably characterised, positively, as a Sage, the greatest
teacher, the king without a throne (su-wang), and, negatively, as a condescended
noble-bourgoeoise strenuously defending the landlords' vested interest.
When a person is seen as a Sage in the context of Chinese culture, he is taken
not only to be "a profoundly wise person", as the Webster Dictionary has it to
mean, but most importantly, a perfectly moral person with the highest caliber
humanly possible who spawns and proliferates a whole new set of beliefs and
behavioral guidance for generations both contemporaneous with and subsequent to
him. More often than not, he manages to achieve this by engendering a wholly
novel system of thought or literally rejuvenating an archaic idea, giving it a
new meaning or metaphorically, breathing into it a new life that is previously
unimaginable which finally culminates in steering the course of a culture. This
is how Confucius has been taken in Chinese history.
But in the 20th century, Confucius quickly lost his privileged status. He was
first condemned, ever since the May-Fourth Movement, as the perpetuator of a
feudalistic value that has greatly inhibited the progress of Chinese culture;
then denounced by the Communist regime as a landlord and a descendent of the
noble class engaging in preserving the preexisting social strata that was meant
to be exploitative over the proletariats.
In the face of such ambivalent characterizations of Confucius, the question
then is How should we take Confucius? It is the contention of this paper that
Confucius has not so much strengthened a division, at most a gender one, in
society as he has liberated the then rigid social stratification via an
introduction of a revised concept of "Ren" as the most cherishable quality of
human being. Thus, in one way, it is here meant to defend him against the charge
of being an exploiter and, in another, to answer the question why Confucius is
justifiably considered a Sage. Arguments will be put forth to show that what
makes him a proper image of a Sage is what makes him a class liberator rather
than a reinforcer.
Before anything else, the concept of class has to be treated in order to make
sense of the discussion to be conducted in this paper. Therefore, it will seek
first to make a brief clarification of the concept of class or social
stratification and then see whether it can be appropriately applied to the study
of ancient China at around Confucius' time. Here we will be preoccupied with the
questions of "What is class?" and "Is there really a class structure in ancient
China?" Having done this, we will proceed to determine the extent to which
Confucius should be seen as a class reinforcer or a liberator. Here we will take
a closer look at the arguments proffered by many scholars, especially those from
contemporary Mainland China, to the effect that Confucius, being a conservative
in a specified and therefore restricted sense, had made significant moves to
reinforce the class structure of his time. It will be seen that despite the
concession it makes to such claims, this paper is more inclined to the position
that Confucius had played a major role in tearing asunder the then rigid social
class system by giving a new interpretation of the concept of junzi via the
introduction of Ren.
2 The concept of class
"Class" is a loose concept. Different scholars offer different
interpretations, definitions and analyses. The Collins Dictionary of Sociology
cites 7 different understandings of it. An Oxford Reader on Class has
registered more than a dozen out of the 47 articles collected. As Crompton
says, "Class…is a word with multiple meanings." To pin it down, therefore,
is itself a task that demands the work of a whole book - to say the least. Most
of the representative views, however, pivot around the idea that class involves
a hierarchy of relation between individuals and / or groups with a specific
structure of rules governing the distribution of social, political and
economical resources. Consider, for example, Crompton's conception of class
which identifies three different meanings of it:
" 'Class' as prestige, status, culture or 'lifestyles'.
'Class' as structured inequality (related to the possession of economic and
'Classes' as actual or potential social and political actors."
Of these three, the second one concerns us directly. It point to the fact that
class is always characterized by a sense of inequality. To characterize class in
this way certainly may not get us too far for the very concept of inequality
itself demands as much, if not more, examination as class does. But it might
offer a point of departure from which we can discuss the evolution of the
concept of class from Karl Marx, Max Weber to Anthony Giddens. It also helps
determine whether Confucius can be properly seen as a Sage as far as his
contribution of liberating class is concerned.
Another way to characterize class is to read it as more or less a twin concept
of social stratification. Stratification is a metaphorical employment of that
originated in geology where it is used to refer to the layering structuring or
strata of different geological forms. Retaining the basic meaning from its
origin, the layers of social stratification consists of social groups
hierarchicalized in terms of their associations with or alienation from power,
prestige, access to and manipulation of resources and social status. Here
again it is not at all difficult to see the relation it bears with inequality.
In sum, it seems to make sense to say that in order for a society to be
socially stratified, several conditions have to be satisfied:
1. there exist a number of hierarchies consisting of people or groups of people,
2. these hierarchies are distinguishable and distinguished in terms of
i. their lifestyles
ii. the relative imbalance of power
iii. the differences in their rights in accessing certain resources
iv. a systematic monopolization of resources and channels by those in the
upper hierarchy to prevent those in the lower hierarchy from moving upward in
the social ladder, which results in,
3. a very low degree of social mobility in order for the vested interests of
those in the upper hierarchy to be safeguarded.
4. 1-3 collectively entails, necessarily, inequality.
Is there really a class structure in ancient China?
Almost all works published in Mainland China concerning the social structure
of ancient China take Marxian conception of the evolution of history as the
point of departure. Without offering comprehensive empirical evidence nor
conducting full-fledged rational arguments, they assume flatly that from the
ancient to the pre-modern, Chinese society was predominated by two large classes:
the ruling class and the ruled class. The ruling class, consisting of the
minority, was in constant conflicts with the ruled class, which was composed of
the majority. This resulted in overthrows of royal dynasties which gave force to
the development of history. Take, for instance, a passage in a representative
work done by two historians:
The institution of social stratification is a product of a class society. Ever
since human has entered the stage of class society, there followed the formation
of stratification and hierarchy. The Xia,, established around the 21th century
B.C., was the first state ever appeared in our land. From then on, there
triggered off hierarchicalization and the opposition of classes which culminated,
via the further development in Xia and Shang, in the Western Zhou to a fully
stringent and comprehensive extent.
The authors continued with enumerating the alleged various classes and
sub-classes, to each of which one chapter is devoted for fuller treatment.
Throughout the whole book which consists of more than 500 pages, there is not a
single attempt at laying bare the criteria in terms of which a society is seen
as a classed one. Nor any arguments are provided to justify their view that
there WAS really a highly stratified society in ancient China. The best, if it
be considered an argument at all, shot is an appeal made to Marx as an authority
drawing support from his Communist Manifesto to 'prove' that such a society did
In a sense, their view is echoed in one of Professor Hsu's renowned works in
which he wrote:
The social structure of the Ch'un Ch'iu Period (722-464 B.C.) was that of an
orderly society in which heads of state, their ministers, and shih (officials,
warriors, and stewards of the noble households) constituted the ruling group.
So far so good. Consensus among scholars seems to justify the view that there
was really a highly stratified society in ancient time, in particular, in the
Pre-Chin Period with different groups of people occupying their corresponding
stratum each having their corresponding rights and obligations. The conditions 1
& 2 , laid down in the previous section, under which a society can be properly
considered a classed one seem to have been satisfied. But wait, what about the
third one, i.e. a stratified society has to be one in which there is a low
degree of social mobility such that movement on the part of the members of
different classes from one to another is highly prohibited.
It is here that an apology to Professor Hsu would be in place should he be
kept being misrepresented. For immediately after what is quoted above he
This stratification was not static, however, throughout these two and a half
centuries. Changes over short periods of time may escape notice, but the long
view discloses some remarkable transformations. Again and again we find the
authority of nominal rulers usurped by ministers, rulers deposed by ministers in
alliance wit noble families, and even palace revolutions climaxed by the
division of the state among the victors, as happened at the end of the Ch'un
Ch'iu to Chin, one of the greates states, which was split into three, each ruled
by one powerful family.
This view that the stratification in that period was not static is justified
by the Classic of Ch'un Ch'iu written by Confucius in a highly concise, if not
encrypted, form. Believed to be the only work done by Confucius, the Classic of
Ch'un Ch'iu can be characterized as a historical witness to the mobility between
different interest groups. Notice here, however, that the kind of mobility then
and there was not conducted between the classes of the ruling and the ruled no
matter how drastic and violent sometimes the dethronement of heads of state
could be. Therefore, the view that the stratification in that period was not
static calls for a qualification, viz., that it was static only insofar as the
ruling class is taken into account. If the whole picture in which the ruled is
incorporated, we might, nevertheless, have to admit that social mobility was
still very limited. In order for there to be a genuine social mobility,
inter-class, apart from intra-class, movement have to be legitimized and
operated in a much grander scale.
3 Confucius as a class liberator
It is here that Confucius' contribution can be seen under a better light. It
is widely recognized that Confucius was a descendent of the noble-class. It does
not follow, however, that he give in to the vested interest of the nobles. On
the contray, we have seen that both his words and deeds were directed to
encompassing the well-beings of all men, regardless of what class they were from.
But before we look into what he has done in liberating men from their
class-bonds, we might consider whether he was a full-blown liberator or not. For
this, we are inclined to say that as far as gender division is concerned, he is
not. Confucius seemed to have a clear-cut view towards females, as this can be
shown in one of his oft-quoted remarks,
The Master said, "Of all people, girls and servants are the most difficult to
behave to. If you are familiar with them, they lose their humility. If you
maintain a reserve towards them, they are discontented." 
The juxtaposition of women and xiao-ren whom Confucius found repugnant is
informative enough; the accusation of the two being nan-yang or 'difficult to
behave to' is, however, more substantially serious. It is clear that his remark
was not meant to direct to some particular individuals, but to women and
xiao-ren as collections (or perhaps just one collection). But just as the
formation of one's perceptions, views and understanding of things and persons
around him are inextricably bound by the social values and culture of his time,
Confucius seemed not to be less an exception with regard to women than Socrates
was with regard to slaves. Insofar as gender perception is concerned, we may
conclude that Confucius helped consolidate and reinforce gender division in his
But it is in the reinterpretation of the notion of junzi that Confucius's
contribution to class liberation can be fully appreciated. Junzi is variably
defined as "a man of noble character", "superior man", "man of complete
virtue" or "gentleman". Hsu and He Huai-hong have pointed out,
junzi was used to refer to the "children of noble" or "children of lords." Hsu
has also identified the three meanings of the 189 occurrences of junzi contained
in the Shih Ching, or the Classic of Poems:
son of a ruler, princely man, gentleman, nobleman, or officer
Confucius himself was obviously aware of it and sometimes used the term in
this old sense as in,
"The men of former times in the matters of ceremonies and music were rustics,
it is said, while the men of these latter times, in ceremonies and music, are
accomplished gentlemen. If I have occasion to use those things, I follow the men
of former times"
The contrast between ye-ren , or the rustics, which means common folks,
with junzi shows clearly that Confucius took the latter here as referring to the
noble. This way of using the term, however, is of much less frequency and most
importantly of much less significance. For what is so revolutionary about
Confucius' use of it lies in the very fact that he had instilled in it a wholly
novel meaning which had virtually little to do with what class a person
originally belonged to. As Hsu has rightly pointed out,
[…] in the Chan Kuo period this term came primarily to mean a person
possessing certain moral qualities. A chun tzu [junzi] was then an admirable
person whose virtues entitled him to a high moral position no matter what is
social status was.
When did the change of the meaning of junzi take place is no mystery to
Chinese for it is justifiably believed that the Analects was the earliest work
in which junzi was imbued with a strong moral color. Quotations from the
Analects in which it was used in this sense are handy,
Is he not a man of complete virtue, who feels no discomposure though men may
take no note of him. 
The superior man is catholic and not partisan. The mean man is partisan and
If a superior man abandon virtue, how can he fulfill the requirements of that
name? "The superior man does not, even for the space of a single meal, act
contrary to virtue. In moments of haste, he cleaves to it. In seasons of danger,
he cleaves to it.
The significance of such a renovation of the term does not lie in the mere
change in the meaning of it. Rather, it signified a sabotage of the demarcation
of the ruling and the ruled. Confucius, with his enormous impact on his
counterparts and those after him, managed to pierce through the wall between the
noble and the common folks by converting the sense of junzi from the traditional
one of noble into a moral one that washed away the traces of nobleness.
To understand more about the change of meaning of the term, we must ask a
further question, i.e. what made such a change possible? Or, what had Confucius
done to the term that finally ended up in such a revolutionary renovation? It is
to this that we now turn to investigating his introduction of the notion of Ren.
4 The notion of ren
Of the 109 times of ren that Confucius has discussed with friends and
students in the Analects, the core meaning of it seems to have much to do with
an inner quality of man that is moral in nature. It is an inner quality because
it, according to Mencius, is not something imposed on us from the outside. As he
said, "Benevolence, righteousness, ritual propriety and wisdom are not welded to
us externally. We inherently have them." It is a quality without which a
human being cannot be considered a human being at all. Mencius's interpretation
of ren seems to be playing the same tune as Confucius did. For Confucius started
his enterprise by searching for a solution to the traumatically chaotic
situation of the late Ch'un Ch'iu period. The best candidate for such a
solution, for Confucius, still lied in the institution of rites and music even
though it was verging on the brink of bankruptcy and collapse. The question he
set for himself was, What was it that made the institution of rites and music
work in Chou Kung's time? Was it the set of piecemeal rules and canons laid down
by it governing every move of people of all walks of life or was it something
deeper, something that was intrinsic to humans that made it work? His answer
lies in a very famous question he put to himself,
If a man be without the virtues proper to humanity, what has he to do with the
rites of propriety? If a man be without the virtues proper to humanity, what has
he to do with music?
It is an inner quality capable of acting out virtues that, according to
Confucius, explains why we could engage in activities pertaining to rites and
music. He who could raise his awareness of this inner quality, which he called
ren, and paid his utmost effort in enhancing it by living it out, could be
rightfully regarded as a junzi, otherwise not, period.
Confucius' conscious twist of the meaning of the term junzi such that it no
longer referred to the noble class meant a heavy blow to the class structure in
ancient China. As Liang Shou-ming has rightly remarked, "[The idea that] there
is no difference with regard to being noble or being lowly when one was born
opened up the avenue for the degeneration of Chinese feudalism……From then on,
China was so deprived of class that it did not look like a state any longer."
To the extent that a class society locks up those in it in inequality, a
person who triggers off a breakthrough of it is great. And to the extent that
Confucius has done exactly that same job, it is justified to recognize him as a
a su-wang 素王
b ren 仁
c junzi 君子
d Xia 夏
e Shang 商
f Western Zhou 西周
g Ch'un Ch'iu 春秋
h shih 士
i Pre-Chin 先秦
j xiao-ren 小人
k nan-yan 難養
l Shih Ching 詩經
m ye-ren 野人
n Chan Kuo 戰國
o Chou Kung 周公
 See, for example, Hsu, Fu-kuan徐復觀, "Chapter 4", The History of the
Chinese Philosoph of Human Nature, (Taipei: Commercial Press, 1982); or Wang,
Pang-hsiong, An Exegesis of the Analects, (Taipei: E-hu, 1983), pp.273-6.
 This view being an official one has predominated almost all literatures
concerning Confucius. Representative works are many, for example, Li Ya-nong李亞
農, Chinese Feudalistic Landlordism, (Shanghai: Ren Min, 1961); Ge Cheng-yong葛
承雍, Class Society in Ancient China, (Shanxi: Ren Min, 1992); Pan Fu-en,
Synopsis of Chinese Academic Writings, Philosophy, (Shanghai: Fu-dan University,
 There are multiple meanings as well as uses of the concept of class. But by
no means does it have anything to do, here in this paper, with the concept of
class as it appears in the works of logic. So, thereafter, 'class' in this paper
is construed as 'social class.
 D. Jary & J. Jary (eds.), "Social stratification", Collins Dictionary of
Sociology, (Glasgow: HarperCollins, 1995), pp77-79.
 Patrick Joyce (ed), Class, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).
 Rosemary Crompton, Class and Stratification, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998),
 Ibid., p.11.
 See for example, Amartya Sen, Inequality Reexamined, (New York: Russell Sage
 Cf. D. Jary & J. Jary (eds.), op. cit.., p.621.
 Cf. Ibid., "Status", p.655.
 Li, Zhi李治安-an and Sun, Li-qun孫立群, A Treatise on the Institution of
Social Stratification, (Shanghai: Ren Min, 1998), p.6.. Translation mine.
 Hsu, Cho-yun許倬雲, Ancient China in Transition, (Stanford : Stanford
University Press, 1965), p.24.
 Hsu, ibid., p.24.
 The Analects: 17-25, (URL: http://uweb.superlink.net/~fsu/Analects1.html).
The Chinese original is 「唯女子與小人為難養也，近之則不孫，遠之則怨。」
 xiao-ren is more often rendered with a pejorative sense, as sometimes it is
translated as 'the mean man'. See, for example, Hsu, op. cit. p.163.
 The Chinese-English Dictionary, (Beijing: Commercial Press, 1978), p.377.
 See, for example, James Legge, The Analects.
 URL: http://uweb.superlink.net/~fsu/Analects1.html
 See, for example, Liang Ch'I-chao, A Selection of the Philosophical
writings of Liang Ch'I-chao, (Beijing: Beijing University Press, 1984), p.235.
 Hsu, op. cit., p.158.
 He, Huai-hong 何懷宏, The Hereditary System and its Disintegration. (Beijing:
San Lian, 1996), p.188.
 Hsu, op. cit., p.159.
 The Analects: 11-1, op. cit. The Chinese original is: 「先進於禮樂，野人也
 He, op. cit. p.188.
 Hsu, op. cit., p.159.
The Analects: 1-1 op. cit. The Chinese original is:人不知而不慍，不亦君子乎
 The Analects: 2-14 op. cit. The Chinese original is: 君子周而不比；小人比而
The Analects: 4-5 op. cit. The Chinese original is:君子去仁，惡乎成名，君子
 See a similar view by Hsu Fu-kuan, op. cit. p.65.
 Yang Bo-jun楊伯峻, An Exegesis of the Analects, (Hong Kong: Chung Wa, 1984),
 D. C. Lau, Mencius, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970) The Chinese original is:
 This has already become somewhat a standard understanding among 20th
century Neo-confucianists of why Confucius began his work. See, for example, Mou
Zhung-shan牟宗三, Nineteen Lectures on Chinese Philosophy, (Taipei: Xue Sheng,
The Analects: 3-3. The Chinese original is: 人而不仁，如禮何？人而不仁，如樂
 Liang Shou-ming,梁漱溟, A Full Collection of Liang Shou-ming's works, Vol.
3 (Jinan: Shan-dong Ren Ming, 1990), p.176-179. Quoted from He, op. cit. p.205.
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