Henry Golding and Liv Golding (picture: Getty Images)
If we follow this logic, the original meaning of the word Junzi is clear. “A gentleman (Junzi) “is a ruler most deserving of respect and admiration because he (or she) has both learning and merit”. In the Confucian view, Junzi stand apart from ordinary people in a class of their own. The masses are considered to be nothing more than fools, straw and chaff.
In the pre-Confucius era, the term Junzi was not extensively used, as evidenced by the 58 surviving chapters of Shangshu, a classic historical text stretching over 1,400 years and covering the reign of Yu the Great, the Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties, in which the word Junzi only appears eight times. It was only during the time of Confucius that the term gained overwhelming popularity as an idealized personality trait lauded by the Confucian school, as evidenced by the frequent appearance of the term Junzi in the Changes of Zhou, the Book of Odes, Master Zuo’s Commentaries on the Spring and Autumn Annals and the Analects of Confucius. Given the wide-spread belief that Confucius himself compiled and revised the Book of Odes, the Book of Documents（Shangshu）, the Book of Rites, the Classic of Music, the Changes of Zhou and the Spring and Autumn Annals, it is tempting to wonder whether the frequency of the term Junzi in these classical texts was intended by the original authors, or whether the term was incorporated into the texts as a personal preference of the master philosopher.
What is clear, however, is the deep significance and affection Confucius attached to the term Junzi, in itself an apt reflection of the philosopher’s erudition and aspiration. Because Confucius is not only knowledgeable person, but also is ambitious, with lofty ideal. Until he was 68 years old, Confucius did not relinquish his efforts to rise through the official ranks or his aspirations to secure a position of power and authority which would allow him to make full use of his talent and ambition. As he was an extremely well-read and highly conscientious scholar, he also delved deep into the study of human needs, and waited for his chance to become the perfect ruler (one of the connotations of Junzi). Casting himself in the role of the quintessential Junzi, Confucius was not only a fervent proponent of the Junzi concept, but also enriched and reinforced the connotations of the personality traits linked with the term. In the Commentary on the Book of Changes, the phrase “A gentleman (Junzi) should…” is used repeatedly to draw conclusions and set out the guiding beliefs of what constitutes a true gentleman. In the Analects, Confucius never misses an opportunity to interpret the profound connotations of Junzi; and on top of this, Confucius gave the majority of his disciples the name “zi”, effectively integrating his high expectations for his followers with his own belief in being a gentleman. Other than the higher ranking Ran Geng and Ran Yong, almost all of Confucius’s disciples were named “zi”, including Zi Yuan, Zi Lu, Zi Gong, Zi Si, ZiQian, Zi You, ZiWo, Zi You, Zi Xia, Zi Zhang and Zi Yu.
Extending the Confucian legacy of advocating the concept of “Junzi”, the character “Jun” became a part of East Asian culture as a highly respectful term of address. Some notable examples include Liu Hezhen Jun, Runzhi Jun (Mao Zedong), Yao Jun, Li Jun, (the honorific) Tai Jun or Taikun, and Songxia Jun (Kōnosuke Matsushita, the founder of Panasonic). Confucius’s fondness of the term also cemented the character “zi” as a key component in the honorary title of Confucius (Kong Zi), Mencius (Meng Zi), and philosophers of the Hundred Schools of Thought. In addition, the character became widely used in words of blessing and in courtesy names for children or young people. Many highly respected figures in Chinese history have the character “zi” in their courtesy names: MengKe (Meng Zi, courtesy name: Zi Yu), Zhuang Zhou (Zhang Zi, courtesy name: Zi Xiu), Huo Guang (Zi Meng), Zhang Zhao (Zi Bu), Lu Su (Zi Jing), Taishi Ci (Zi Yi), Du Fu (Zi Mei), Liu Zongyuan (Zi Hou), Su Shi (Zi Zhan), Yuan Mei (Zi Cai), Gui Youguang (Zi Mu), Zhao Mengfu (Zi Ang) and Wang Shizhen (Zi Zhen), for example. Moreover, influenced by traditional Chinese culture, modern Japanese still uses the kanji “君” (Chinese character “Jun”) after surnames as a respectful term of address.
With the changing times, the Confucian notion of Junzi has become a thing of the past. We have broken away from the original hierarchical context of feudal society, which created a sharp distinction between ruler and subject and between members of the nobility and commoners; and with this evolution, the term has gradually reshaped itself to connote the perfect personality trait and the ideal state of moral integrity.