On Ren (仁, Humaneness)


I translate and annotate Zhu Xi’s “On Ren” to show how Zhu Xi understood the cardinal human virtue of Ren (仁, humaneness). In my view, this is one of the most comprehensive explanation of the virtue Ren in Ruism.



蓋天地之心,其德有四,曰元亨利貞,而元無不統;其運行焉,則為春夏秋冬之序,而春生之氣無所不通。故人之為心,其德亦有四,曰仁義禮智,而仁無所不包;其發用焉,則為愛恭宜別之情,而惻隱之心無所不貫。故論天地之心者,則曰乾元、坤元,則四德之體用不待悉數而足; 論人心之妙者,則曰“仁,人心也”,則四德之體用亦不待遍舉而該。


其言有曰:“克己復禮為仁”,言能克去己私,復乎天理,則此心之體無不在,而此心之用無不行也。 又曰:“居處恭,執事敬,與人忠”,則亦所以存此心也。 又曰:“事親孝,事兄弟,及物恕”,則亦所以行此心也。





曰:“彼謂物我為一者,可以見仁之無不愛矣,而非仁之所以為體之真也。彼謂心有知覺者,可以見仁之包乎智矣,而非仁之所以得名之實也。觀孔子答子貢博施濟眾之問,與程子所謂覺不可以訓仁者,則可見矣,子尚安得復以此而論仁哉 ? 抑泛言同體者,使人含胡昏緩而無警切之功,其弊或至於認物為己者有之矣;專言知覺者,使人張皇迫躁而無沈潛之味,其弊或至於認欲為理者有之矣。一忘一助,二者蓋胥失之。而知覺之雲者,於聖門所示樂山能守之氣象尤不相似,子尚安得復以此而論仁哉?”


On Ren (仁)

The being of Heaven and Earth consists in creativity. When things and people come into existence, they are endowed by Heaven and Earth with their natures. Because of this, the human mind-heart—within which human nature is embodied—has virtues which embrace all, penetrate all and thus, lack nothing. Nevertheless, one word can sum them up: Ren (仁, humaneness). Let me try to explain in detail.

There are four virtues for the creativity of Heaven and Earth: initiation, permeation, harmonization, and integration. The virtue of initiation governs them all (i). In their operation, these virtues are manifested in the four seasons—the vital-energy of spring permeates them all (ii).

Correspondingly, there are four virtues for the human mind-heart: Ren, righteousness, ritual-propriety, and wisdom—the virtue of Ren embraces them all. When these virtues come forth and function, they are manifested in the human feelings of love, obligation, respect, and judiciousness—the feeling of commiseration pervades them all (iii).

Therefore, when discussing the creativity of Heaven and Earth, if we simply say, “the initiative power of Qian (Heaven), the initiative power of Kun (Earth),” then its four virtues and their functions are encapsulated.

For discussing the magnificence of the human mind-heart, if we simply say, “Ren is what the human mind-heart is,” then its four virtues and their functions are summarized (iv).

So, the virtue of Ren is actually what the human mind-heart—which is produced and sustained by the creativity of Heaven and Earth—consists in. It functions when the human mind-heart engages with things. When feelings are not aroused, the virtue is already there. When feelings are aroused, it functions inexhaustibly.

If we can sincerely embody and preserve the virtue of Ren, then we have in it the fountain of all goodness and the root of all deeds. This is why the teachings of the Confucian school (Ruism) urge scholars to pursue, keenly and unceasingly, the virtue of Ren.

Ruism teaches, “Master oneself and return to ritual-propriety.”(v) This means, if we can eliminate selfishness, and recover the principle of Tian within ourselves, then this mind-heart will reach everywhere and its function will always be operative.

It also teaches, “Be respectful when you are at home, be dedicated when you work, and be trustworthy when dealing with people.”(vi) These are ways to preserve this mind-heart.

It also teaches: “Be filial when serving parents, be discreetly obedient when serving elder brothers, and be empathetic when engaging with all kinds of things.”(vii) These are ways to practice this mind-heart.

It also teaches: “(Bo Yi and Shu Qi) sought Ren and then, they found it.” (viii) This teaching is about Bo Yi, who declined a throne and left the state in favor of his younger brother Shu Qi. The brothers also remonstrated against King Wu’s rebellious expedition, and after failing to persuade him, they chose to starve to death. That they were determined to do this is because they didn’t lose this mind-heart. (ix)

It also teaches, “Sacrifice life in order to accomplish Ren.”(x) This implies that we desire something more than life and hate something more than death in order not to injure this mind-heart. What is this mind-heart all about? It is rooted in the all-encompassing creativity of Heaven and Earth, and in the human world, this mind-heart loves people and nurtures things. It incorporates the four virtues (i.e., Ren, righteousness, ritual-propriety, and wisdom) and bonds together the four moral incipient sprouts (i.e., the feeling of commiseration, the feeling of shame and disgust, the feeling of deference, and the feeling of distinguishing right and wrong) (xi) .

Someone asked: “According to your words, is it not wrong for Master Cheng (xii) to say that love is a particular feeling while Ren is the human nature and therefore, love should not be regarded as Ren?”

I answer, “Not so. What Master Cheng criticized was to use the human status when the feeling of love is aroused to portray what is Ren per se. What I argued is to use the principle of love to portray Ren per se. For human nature and human feelings—although they belong to different existential spheres—connect to each other like arteries and veins in the same body (xiii). How can they become sharply separated and have nothing to do with each other? Scholars recite Master Cheng’s words without understanding their meaning to the extent that they even talk about Ren as being something separate from love. I worry about this, and therefore, made the above exposition in order to reveal the lost meaning of Master Cheng’s teaching. You think of my view as divergent from Master Cheng, isn’t this wrong?”

Someone asked, “The followers of Master Cheng have given many explanations of Ren. Some say that love is not Ren, and regard the oneness of all things and one’s self as what is Ren per se. Others maintain that love is not Ren, but explain Ren in terms of awareness possessed by the mind-heart (xvi). If what you say is correct, are they all wrong?”

I answer, “From what they call the oneness of all things and one’s self, it can be known that Ren involves love for all, but this oneness is not what is Ren per se. From the fact that the mind-heart possesses awareness, it can be seen that the virtue of Ren includes wisdom, but this is not how the Ren per se can be named. If you look up Kongzi’ answer to (his pupil) Zi Gong’s question whether conferring extensive benefits on and thus, helping all the people will constitute Ren (xv) and also Master Cheng’s view that Ren ought not to be construed in terms of awareness, you will see the point. How can you still explain Ren in these terms?

“Furthermore, if the oneness of things and one’s self is superficially talked of, that will lead people to be indistinct and inattentive so that no effort is made to keep alert. The harmful effect—and there has been—may be to mistake exterior things for one’s own self. If Ren is construed in the specific term of awareness, that will lead people to be anxious, impatient, and impetuous so that the process of moral self-cultivation lacks depth. The harmful effect—and there has been—may be to mistake one’s desire as moral principle. In the first case, the mind-heart is oblivious, but in the second case, the mind-heart is agitated and disturbed. Both are wrong. Further, as for the construal of Ren in terms of awareness, this view is especially incongruent with Kongzi’ teachings that a person of Ren has the temperament of loving mountain (xvi) and that only the virtue of Ren can preserve what human knowledge has been aware of (xvii). How then can you still explain Ren in this way?”

It is because of all this that I record their questions and compose this essay on Ren.


(i) Tian (天, heaven) is an all-encompassing constantly creative cosmic power. Its creativity has four generic features: (1) Tian creates the world from nothing and initiates the world as a process of continual creation, and in this sense, Tian’s creativity is initiative (元, yuan). (2) Tian creates everything, so Tian’s creativity is permeative (亨, heng). (3) Everything created by Tian is and becomes together within Tian, so Tian’s creativity is harmonizing (利, li). (4) Tian creates the world as a whole, and also, every creature is endowed with a nature to integrate itself, so Tian’s creativity is integrative (貞, zhen). These four basic features of Tian’s creativity are called by Zhu Xi its four ‘virtues’ (德, de). Also, Zhu Xi uses “Heaven and Earth” to refer to Tian. This is legitimate, because seeing from the human perspective, Tian is manifested as two parts: heaven and earth. Tian’s creativity is accordingly manifested in the co-creativity of heaven and earth. Furthermore, Zhu Xi thought the virtue of “initiation” governs all other virtues. This is because without the initiative power of Tian, there would be no world, and as a consequence, all other generic features of Tian’s creativity would lose their ground. Zhu Xi’s thought is based upon the statement of the hexagram for Hexagram Qian in the Classics of Change (易經): “元,亨, 利, 貞”.

(ii) Principle (理, li) and Vital-energy (氣, qi) is a basic dyad of categories in Zhu Xi’s thought, which is arguably comparable to the one of Form and Matter in Greek philosophy. The most generic features of the four virtues of Tian’s creativity are referred to by Zhu Xi as the “Principle of Tian” (天理) in the later part of the essay. These principles of Tian are manifested in the action of the cosmic vital-force during the course of four seasons.

(iii) The feeling of commiseration (惻隱之心, the Mencius 2A), according to Mencius, is what one spontaneously feels when one sees a baby about to fall into a well. For Mencius, this is the moral incipient sprout of the cardinal human virtue of Ren, which Mencius thinks is what human nature is all about. For Zhu Xi, he maintains Mencius’s thought and thinks that the feeling of commiseration is also one incipient form of the human feeling of universal love. However, in a more delicate way than Mencius, Zhu Xi furthermore grounds the feeling of love upon the virtue of Ren, and then, in turn, grounds the virtue of Ren upon the all-encompassing creativity of Tian.

(iv) Here we encounter another basic dyad of categories in Ruism: Ti (体, living-substance) and Yong (用, function). The ti of a thing is what the thing per se consists in, while its yong is one thing’s manifested functions when it engages with other things. For example, using Zhu Xi’s example in his other works, the ti of an ear is the ear itself as one organ of human body, while the yong of an ear is its ability to hear. In the context of this essay, the human feelings of love, obligation, deference, and judiciousness are thought of by Zhu Xi as the yong of the four human virtues: Ren, righteousness, ritual-propriety, and wisdom. Quite obviously, for Zhu Xi, every virtue has its ti and yong. For example, for Ren, its ti is universal human love which is rooted in the all-encompassing creativity of Heaven and Earth. But its yong is the particular human feeling of love, including, for example, the feeling of commiseration.

(v) The Analects 12:1.

(vi) The Analects 13:19

(vii) This quote is a combination of the Classic of Filial Devotion 孝經, ch. 14 and perhaps Cheng Yi’s teaching on empathy.

(viii) The Analects 7:14

(ix) Bo Yi and Shu Qi are sons of a king in a state during the Shang Dynasty. When their father left the throne to Shu Qi, he declined in deference to his elder brother Bo Yi, but Bo Yi would not violate the order of his father and therefore, chose to flee. Later, when King Wu (r. 1046-1043 B.C.E) overthrew the Shang dynasty in spite of their remonstration, and founded Zhou Dynasty, they would not eat the food of Zhou and starved to death. Their remonstration was arguably unjustified because King Wu’s rebellion was thought of by early Ru as legitimate since it aimed to overthrow a ruthless tyrant, the King Zhou of Shang Dynasty. However, because of the sense of duty that Bo Yi and Shu Qi showed to their father, to each other and to their country, their deeds were almost unanimously praised as being of high moral values by early Ru texts such as the Analects and the Mencius.

(x) The Analects 15:8.

(xi) The Mencius 2A

(xii) Master Cheng refers to Cheng Yi (1033-1107 C.E) or Cheng Hao (1032-1085 C.E), two pioneering Ru philosophers for Song and Ming Ruism who lived in Northern Song Dynasty.

(xiii) Xing (性, nature) and Qing (情, feeling) is another dyad of categories for Ruism. It corresponds to the aforementioned dyads ‘ti-yong’ and ‘li-qi’ in Zhu Xi’s thought. For Zhu Xi, human nature consists in the ti, also the li of the human mind-heart, viz., the four human virtues of Ren, righteousness, ritual-propriety and wisdom. In relation, human feelings are the yong, the manifested functions of vital-energy, of human nature. For Zhu Xi, these two aspects of human existence can never be separated.

(xiv) These two views are perhaps influenced by Buddhism.

(xv) The Analects 6:28.

(xvi) The Analects 6:21

(xvii) The Analects 15:32.

A Chart of Ren (Humaneness) according to Zhu Xi


In order to more clearly explain Zhu Xi’s essay, On Ren, I have created The Chart of Ren According to Zhu Xi (please see the above). Through reading the texts and pondering the chart, I believe at least three goals can be achieved for contemporary readers of the Ru tradition: (1) They will understand how the most analytic mind in the Ru tradition thinks of the cardinal human virtue, Ren, 仁. (2) The reading will dissipate their doubt that Ruism may be just a social ethics, without any substantial metaphysical dimension undergirding its ethical teaching. (3) They will understand none of these metaphysical terms or thoughts was borrowed from Daoist or Buddhist traditions, as many stereotypical sayings about Song and Ming Ruism claimed it to be. The truth is that Ruism is a continuous living tradition of “ethical metaphysics” or “metaphysical ethics”, from Kongzi, through Zhu Xi, until now.

With all the rich meanings of terms in mind, I will try my best to explain this chart briefly. In order to understand the chart, Ru learners need to start by following the arrows. Once understood, the chart could be contemplated from anywhere. So, let’s begin:

The nature of Tian is creativity. Creativity means initiation. The initiative power of Tian is manifested in the one of Heaven (Qian) and the one of Earth (Kun). There are four virtues of the creativity of Heaven and Earth: initiation, permeation, harmonization and integration. The virtue of initiation governs them all. These four virtues are manifested in the action of cosmic vital-energy during the course of four seasons. The vital-energy of spring permeates them all.

These four virtues are the principle and living substance of Tian’s creativity, while the four seasons manifest the vital-energy and function of Tian’s creativity. Therefore, for discussing the creativity of Tian, once we say “the initiative power of Qian (heaven), the initiative power of Kun (earth),” then both the four virtues and their functions are encapsulated.

The lower part of the chart is about human beings. It has a parallel structure to the upper section of the chart. Human beings are born from the process of cosmic creativity of Tian. Human nature is embodied in the human mind-heart, and it is the virtue of Ren. There are four virtues for the human mind-heart: Ren, righteousness, ritual-propriety, and wisdom. The virtue of Ren embraces them all. When the human mind-heart is aroused and engages with things, the four virtues of human mind-heart are manifested as four human feelings.

There are two alternative ways to name these four feelings. For Zhu Xi, they are the feelings of love, obligation, deference, and judiciousness. For Mencius, they are the feelings of commiseration, shame and disgust, deference, and distinguishing right and wrong. Using Mencius’s words, these four feelings can be called the four incipient sprouts of human virtues. Zhu Xi’s alternative way to name the feelings derive from Mencius, but is more succinct. One apparent exception is the feeling of obligation, which is different from the one of shame and disgust. However, they are actually based upon the same virtue, righteousness—they connote different aspects of this virtue. When we feel we ought to do something, we have the feeling of obligation; but when we do something we ought not to do, we may feel shamed and disgusted by ourselves. Overall, the feeling of love or commiseration pervades all the other feelings.

The four virtues of human mind-heart are the principle, the substance, the nature and the non-aroused status of human mind-heart. The four human feelings for Zhu Xi and the four moral incipient sprouts for Mencius manifest the vital-force, the function, the feeling, and the aroused status of human mind-heart. Therefore, for discussing the magnificence of the human mind-heart, once we say “Ren, is what the human mind-heart is,” then both its four virtues and their functions are summarized.

Zhu Xi’s essay On Ren illustrates the cosmological root of the cardinal human virtue, Ren. In this sense, his thought could be seen as an ethical metaphysics.

( Translated and Annotated by Bin Song. Edited by Ben Butina.)