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The Definition of “Gentleman” in Chinese Culture

Gentleman (“君子” Junzi) is a key concept in traditional Chinese culture, and constitutes the ideal for a male personality in the thinking of Confucius and his disciples.

By Zhang Mingyu

Gentleman (“君子” Junzi) is a key concept in traditional Chinese culture, and constitutes the ideal for a male personality in the thinking of Confucius and his disciples. Under the influence of Confucian thinking, the terms “gentleman” and “lady”, or “unassuming gentleman” and “graceful lady” have become the idealized personality traits to which men and women aspire in a Chinese cultural setting.

The Chinese term for gentleman (“君子”Junzi) can be found in many of the pre-Qin era classics. It occurs 122 times in the Changes of Zhou(Zhouyi), 186 times in the Book of OdesThe Classic of Poetry, also Shijing or Shih-ching), 107 times in The Analects and 141 times in Master Zuo’s Commentaries on the Spring and Autumn Annals. Accordingly, an understanding of the Chinese concept of Junzi is necessary for anyone wishing to understand or study traditional Chinese culture.

The Contemporary Chinese Dictionary defines Junzi as “a classical term for persons of high status; in later times, the term is used to refer to persons of high moral integrity”. As a definition, however, this seems a little too vague, as it does not give a full and accurate understanding of the Chinese concept of Junzi. This is evidenced by the volume of internet traffic asking about, discussing and exploring the concept of Junzi.

To clearly understand the concept of Junzi, we first need to understand the three characters “尹” (yin), “君” (Jun) and “子” (zi).

In ancient Chinese, yin(尹) is interpreted to mean “someone who rules or has control over human affairs”. In this sense, the character yin implies governance, or someone who is in charge of public affairs; i.e. an official. The character itself is a pictorial representation of a hand holding a knife or writing brush, symbolizing a person with power over or control of things. For this reason, many of the ancient words for official titles include the character yin(尹), for example 师尹 (government officials who are teachers), 令尹 (chief counselor), 府尹prefectural magistrate), 道尹 (official for the Dao), 卜尹 (official for divination rites), 京兆尹 (mayor of the capital), etc.

The character “君” (Jun) is composed of the characters “尹” (yin) and “口” (kou). The explanation given in the ShuowenJiezi (the early 2nd-century Han Dynasty Chinese dictionary that gives explanations of basic characters and analysis of compound characters), a gentleman(Junzi)“is respectful and practices governance; and his commands are given orally.” In other words, a gentleman is a respected status, and its meaning is derived from the meanings of the characters yin and kou. A gentleman is someone who possesses force or power and has the ability to issue orders. There is a classical expression “a person of status should be a gentleman”. Here, “gentleman” generally refers to a ruler: the supreme authority of a country or region.

In addition to the basic meaning of “child”, the character “子” (zi) is also the root for words expressing respect, titles and honorifics. For example, the word “zi” implies respect, and is a term commonly used to refer to a person of virtue.

The first person to be awarded the honorific “zi” was Jizi [Gija (Kijain) of Korea]. Jizi was the paternal uncle of the last emperor of the Shang Dynasty and held the imperial rank of Grand Preceptor (the most senior of the top three civil positions at the time). He was given this name because he had once got stuck in a basket (箕). As China’s first philosopher, Jizi’s thinking influenced Yu the Great, and led to the Zhou concepts that the nobility should be morally upright and protect the people as well as to the Confucian concept of virtue as reflected in the book Shangshu (Book of Documents). He taught the nine precepts for ruling (found in the Nine Categories of the Grand Paradigm) to King Wu, the first ruler of the Zhou Dynasty, and these were adopted by later generations as the fundamentals of governance. That he was held in considerable esteem by the rulers of later dynasties is evidenced by the fact that the Grand Paradigm is referenced in the names, lintel inscription boards and antithetical couplets on either side of the doors of the first three buildings of the Forbidden City. Because of this, later generations referred to Gija as “Jizi”, and he accordingly became China’s first “zi”.

Gija was the first in a long line of persons to be awarded the “zi” honorific that include Confucius (Kongzi), Mencius (Mengzi), Laozi, Zhuangzi, Mozi, Xunzi, Guanzi, Guiguzi, Wuzi, Sun Tze (Sunzi), Huainanzi, Zengzi, Zhuzi and Chengzi. The use of the character “子” (zi) as a suffix to a surname became an honorific indicating a person of profound knowledge and moral virtue, and the names of the philosophers who make up the Hundred Schools of Thought were created by this method.

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. 

Source: http://en.people.cn/n3/2016/1122/c90000-9145203.html