Deep-dive into ten values treasured by the Chinese

忠 zhong (Loyalty)

ollow the way and not the ruler, follow righteousness and not the father.

– Xunzi 荀子

What can we pledge loyalty to? It starts with the self – being true to the principles that you choose to live by. Beyond that, loyalty can be pledged to social circles like family and friends, as well as larger entities like organisations and the state.

When we think of loyalty, we often picture an unyielding allegiance. However, Confucianism suggests that loyalty can be flexible – reacting to circumstances but staying true to one’s intentions. Guan Yu 关羽, a general during the Three Kingdoms era, surrendered to his enemy, Cao Cao 曹操, to protect the wives of Liu Bei 刘备, his sworn brother and leader.

Closer to home, Lieutenant Adnan Saidi displayed fierce loyalty during the Japanese invasion of Singapore. Fighting the Japanese forces at the Battle for Pasir Panjang, Adnan was eventually captured and suffered a painful death through bayonetting and burning. Adnan’s loyalty to his home stemmed from his strong belief in the Malay motto: piar putih tulang, jangan putih mata – death before dishonour.

孝 xiao (Filial piety)

“Of all virtues, filial piety is most important.”

– Wang Yongbin 王永彬

Filial piety is a child’s expression of gratitude towards his parents. A deeply embedded norm in Chinese culture, countless classics expound the concept of filial piety with the most famous being The Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety 二十四孝. Compiled in the Yuan Dynasty, the book derived most of its stories from the Western Han copy of Biographies of Filial Persons 孝子传. These stories have also been immortalised in a gallery at Haw Par Villa.

During the Han Dynasty, a boy named Cai Shun 蔡顺 lived with his mother. One day, Cai entered the woods to collect mulberries for food. Finally, with two full baskets, he decided to head home. However, on the way home, he was ambushed by three robbers. Frustrated that Cai had nothing valuable to offer, the robbers beat him up. Before leaving, the robbers got curious and asked Cai why he had separated the red mulberries from the dark blue ones. Cai explained that the sour red mulberries were for himself, while the sweet dark blue ones were for his mother. Touched by his filial piety, the robbers gave some rice and meat to Cai.

In another story, Mu Lian 目莲, whilst meditating, saw his deceased mother suffering in hell as a hungry ghost. As Shakyamuni Buddha’s 释迦摩尼佛 disciple, Mu Lian asked him for advice and learnt that his mother was suffering due to an accumulation of bad karma from greed and indulgence. To save his mother, he asked many monks to help chant mantras on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month. Through Mu Lian’s perseverance, his mother was eventually reborn in the heavenly realm. The 7th month in the lunar calendar is now synonymous with the celebration of the Hungry Ghost Festival.

仁 ren (Kindness)

What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.

– Confucius 孔子

Also known as “humanness”, ren refers to the ideal of being human and how one should relate to others. The concept of ren is strongly related to empathy and is a key mantra of Confucianism. Confucius believed that renis an innate trait and not something that can be learnt.

Ren guided much of Tang Emperor Li Shimin’s 李世民 policies. During his reign, he reduced the quota for palace maids, and allowed them to return home and seek marriage. In his second year of reign, Li opened the imperial treasury to redeem the lives of children who sold themselves to pay for their parents’ burial during a drought. And in the 19th year of his reign, after witnessing the death of his soldiers during the conquest of Goryeo (a Korean kingdom), he wept and personally performed the funeral rite for the deceased.

爱 ai (Love)

In Chinese culture, there is compassion, love between relationships as well as self-love. These concepts are influenced by Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. Buddhism focuses on universal love and Confucianism prioritises love through the five cardinal relationships, while Taoism believes that one has to first master self-love before extending love to others.

In the mid-19th century, tiger attacks were rampant in Singapore and more than 350 lives were lost in the 1860s. Legend has it that a man named Hong 洪 encountered a hungry tiger in Tampines. Hong begged the tiger to spare him and promised to offer meat in return. The tiger agreed and waited for him near the village entrance as Hong went to the market to purchase meat. However, upon seeing the tiger, the villagers attacked it and chased it back into the woods. Hong returned with the meat but could not find the tiger, so he went into the woods to look for it. Finally, he found the tiger injured and limping with only three legs. Hong decided to care for it and his actions touched the tiger. It was said that he could even be seen riding the tiger and his love for the tiger significantly reduced tiger attacks in the area.  After his death, he was deified under Daoist tradition as Hongxian Dadi 洪仙大帝 .

礼 li (Considerate behaviour)

Li, can be translated as rites, and in this context is not limited to religious rituals. Confucian rites refer to etiquette observed during different occasions and they range from tea rites to ancestral worship. These rites were created to remind us of the importance of certain virtues and values.

For example, while the act of burning incense papers and placing food offerings along the streets during the Zhongyuan Festival may be seen as superstitious, it is a rite that contains values of filial piety, humanness, and love. It is how the living share material comfort with the deceased.

义 yi (Righteousness)

Yi, can be understood as righteousness, where actions are guided by justice and morality. It is the ability to differentiate right from wrong and to follow through with necessary actions. Therefore, yi is closely linked to many values related to moral goodness like humanness, loyalty, filial piety, integrity and love.

Guan Yu 关羽, a general during the Three Kingdoms era, now deified as the Deity of War, truly embodied righteousness. During the War at Red Cliff, Guan’s enemy Cao Cao 曹操 suffered heavy losses and retreated hastily. Although Guan ambushed Cao and had the chance to kill him, he chose not to. His decision not to kill Cao was punishable by death as it was against his military obligations. However, he stuck by his decision as he was once indebted to Cao and wanted to repay the debt.

廉 lian (Integrity)

When a ruler’s personal conduct is correct, his government is effective without giving orders. If his personal conduct is not correct, even he may give orders, but they will not be followed.

– Confucius 孔子

Lian refers to the upright personal conduct of leaders and civil servants. It is important for people in leadership positions to be role models. It is believed that when one leads by example, the rest will follow.

Zhuge Liang 诸葛亮, the famous advisor of the Kingdom Shu, during the Three Kingdoms era, exemplified integrity amongst other values like loyalty, righteousness and humanness. He was loyal to the Kingdom Shu till his very last breath, and was an upright official who led by example. Zhuge refused all forms of bribery and turned down Cao Cao’s (the enemy leader) offer of a life of luxury. After gaining great wealth through his meritorious deeds, Zhuge always shared what he had with his surviving comrades.

You do not buy or sell the government.

– Lee Kuan Yew 李光耀

In 1960, agents from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the United States (US) tried to buy classified information from a Singaporean intelligence officer. The officer refused and reported the incident to his superior, leading to the arrest of the CIA agents. In 1965, then Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, declared he would release the captured agents only under the condition of an apology letter from the US government, along with SGD 33 million for Singapore’s industrial development. However, Washington rejected claims of espionage, leading Lee to open classified files in a drastic move to protect Singapore’s reputation. Eventually, the CIA openly apologised for their actions.

耻 chi (Sense of shame)

Li, yi, lian, chi, form the four pillars of a nation. – Guan Zhong 管仲

A sense of shame forms the foundation of all moral values. In order to avoid shame, one looks to righteousness and integrity, leading to morality. Through a strong moral conviction, one can then perform li well. Understanding shame also encourages one to muster the courage needed to rectify his wrongdoings. Shame becomes a moral compass that prevents people from wrongful behaviour.

The King Goujian 勾践 of Yue was captured by the King Fuchai 夫差 of Wu, after Yue’s defeat. Goujian was demoted to a labourer for Wu, and the shame of defeat followed him. Goujian understood that he had let down his fellow Yue people and was determined to revive his kingdom’s glory. For 10 years, he tasted the bitterness of a gall bladder every day to remind himself of the shame. Through perseverance and discipline, Goujian successfully restored Yue and defeated Wu, with Fuchai ending his own life.

Benny Se Teo, founder of Eighteen Chefs Restaurant, was once a drug abuser. His frequent terms in prisons and rehabilitation centres made him see how society condemned ex-convicts. Understanding the shame experienced by ex-convicts, he pledged to “stand up and hold another ex-offender’s hand and help them walk to the next level.” Currently, nearly half of his employees have a criminal record.

俭 jian (Thriftiness)

He who will not economise will have to agonise.

– Confucius 孔子

Thrift is a value advocated by Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. The intent behind thrift is to live a content and simple life, and avoid the ills of materialism. Confucianism and Taoism support governmental thrift, since over-spending relates to exploitation of the people in taxes and labour. Buddhism views material desires as the root of human suffering. Thrift continues to be cherished by most Chinese-majority societies and in 2017, Singapore and China were ranked second and third for the world’s highest savings rates.

Once, a servant asked the founding Emperor of Song Dynasty if he wanted to decorate his sedan with gold. Song Taizu 宋太祖 replied that it would be easy for him to do so but he had to remind himself that the country’s wealth came from the hard work of his people, and preferred to be thrifty instead. On another occasion, the princess wore an elegant dress designed with lots of feathers. Instead of complimenting her, Taizu advised her to dress simply. He explained that they should set an example as royalty and live a life of thrift. Wearing expensive clothing would only encourage the masses to do the same, leading to unnecessary spending on luxurious goods.

The fundamental tenets of thrift and hard work, free enterprise and prudent finance… form the bedrock of Singapore’s competitive strengths and success. – Lee Hsien Loong

In his condolence letter to the family of the late Dr Goh Keng Swee, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong commended Dr Goh for his thriftiness. Dr Goh’s sharp eye on spending enabled Singapore’s wealth to grow which formed a stable basis for her economic development.

毅 yi (Perseverance)

It does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop.

– Confucius 孔子

Perseverance is a common value advocated by Taoism and Confucianism. It discourages one from giving up halfway. To persevere means to have the resolution to overcome difficulties and distractions in order to achieve one’s goals.

According to Taoist text Liezi 列子, there was once an old man named Yu Gong 愚公 who lived in the countryside with his family. Their journey to town was a long one because two mountains obstructed their path. One day, Yu Gong and his family decided to remove the two mountains. So, they dug and moved the soil every day without fail. Yu Gong’s actions drew laughter from a wise man Zhi Sou 智叟, who commented that his attempt was like an ant trying to overthrow a tree. However, Yu Gong remained unfazed, rebutting that even if he passed on, future generations would continue to dig until the mountains were cleared. His perseverance touched the heavens, and the mountains were then removed by two heavenly giants.

If I don’t give up, I will fulfil anything that I want.

– Jason Chee

In an accident on board a ship in 2012, naval soldier Jason lost both his legs and left arm. Despite the severity of his injuries, Jason was able to recover emotionally fairly quickly. Even Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen was impressed, commenting that his speedy recovery was due to “something special within him”. His perseverance led him to represent Singapore in table tennis at the ASEAN Para Games. Eventually, he also returned to serve the Navy.