The Five Confucian Virtues: Background information when reading The Night Tiger

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The Night Tiger

A Novel

by Yangsze Choo

The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo X
The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2019, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2020, 400 pages

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The Five Confucian Virtues

This article relates to The Night Tiger

Print Review

Painting of Chinese philosopher ConfuciusIn Yangsze Choo's The Night Tiger, the two main characters, Ji and Ren, are named for two of the five virtues that make up the ethical system of Confucianism. Confucianism is a spiritual/philosophical tradition born out of the teachings of Chinese philosopher Confucius (who is believed to have lived circa 551-479 BCE), and it has been profoundly influential on the cultures of many Asian countries, including China, Vietnam, Japan and Korea. The five virtues come from the Confucian texts known as The Analects and The Book of Mencius (both originally published circa 475-221 BCE). They have been an integral part of the Chinese ethos for millennia, and continue to serve as moral guidelines in contemporary life.

The first of these virtues is Rén (仁), meaning humaneness or benevolence; this precept directs Confucian followers to be compassionate and kind to others. It is similar to the Western/Christian concept of the Golden Rule: that one should "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

The second virtue, Yì (義/义) stands for righteousness or justice; it essentially preaches maintaining one's integrity by always acting in accordance with one's own values, being steadfast in one's beliefs even when it is inconvenient or burdensome.

The third virtue, Lǐ (禮/礼), relates to correct behavior and propriety, and is concerned with the importance of maintaining loyalty, in particular to one's family or other close relations, as well as understanding one's natural place in society. This means having respect for one's superiors in spiritual/philosophical instruction, and those who govern and/or rule (and vice versa – rulers and superiors must also have respect for those they lead). Lǐ  is seen as fundamental for societal cohesion.

The fourth virtue is Zhì (智), meaning "knowledge." This is the virtue that Choo's Ji Len is named for, and it relates to having a moral understanding of the world – knowing right from wrong. This is one of the most important virtues, because without this basic awareness, following the other virtues is impossible.

The final virtue is Yì (義/义), meaning "righteousness," which advises honesty and authenticity. This virtue is also foundational, as without authentic intentions, like a genuine desire to be good, a person's adherence to the other virtues is largely meaningless.

While Confucianism is a spiritual ideology, it does not focus on gods or worship, but on a humanistic set of values meant to instruct people on how to live a moral life, and how to effectively balance their obligations to family, friends, themselves and society as a whole. The five virtues are the foundation of this moral code.

Article by Lisa Butts

Filed under Society and Politics

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Night Tiger. It originally ran in February 2019 and has been updated for the January 2020 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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