Contemporary Business Practices of the Ru (Confucian) Ethic of “Three Guides and Five Constant Virtues (三綱五常)” in Asia and Beyond
1. History and Philosophy of the Ethic of Three Guides and Five Constant Virtues
1.1. Historical Context
“Zi Zhang asked, ‘Can we know what it will be like ten generations from now?’ The Master responded, ‘The Yin followed the rituals of the Xia, altering them only in ways that we know. The Zhou followed the rituals of the Yin, altering them only in ways that we know. If some dynasty succeeds the Zhou, we can know what it will be like even a hundred generations from now.’”5
“…such great criminals are greatly abhorred, and how much more (detestable) are the unfilial (不孝) and unbrotherly (不友)!-as the son who does not reverently discharge his duty to his father, but greatly wounds his father’s heart, and the father who can no longer love his son, but hates him; as the younger brother who does not think of the manifest will of Tian (heaven or cosmos) and refuses to respect his elder brother, and the elder brother who does not think of the suffering of his junior, and is very unfriendly to his younger brother. If we who are charged with government do not treat parties who proceed to such wickedness as offenders, the constant nature given by Tian (天惟與我民彝) to our people will be thrown into great disorder and destroyed.”
2. Contemporary Debate on the Ethic of TGFV
2.1. Three Phases of the Debate
“The doctrine of Three Guides in the Ru tradition is the ultimate origin of all ethical and political discourses. Since the ruler as the guide of the subjects, the people have become an accessory of the ruler and lost their independent and autonomous personality. Since the father as the guide of the son, sons have become an accessory of the father and lost their independent and autonomous personality. Since the husband as the guide of the wife, wives have become an accessory of the husband and lost their independent and autonomous personality. Among all the men and women under heaven who are subjects, children or wives, there is no single one of them who has been able to be independent and autonomous; and this is what the doctrine of Three Guides has led to. Other ethical terms which derive from the doctrine and are embraced as golden rules, including Loyalty, Filiality and Chastity, all belong to the morality of slaves who subordinate themselves to others, and hence, none of them belongs to the morality of masters who extend themselves to others.”
“The reading and learning of scholar-officials (士) aims to emancipate their heart and will from the shackles of vulgar opinions so that truth can be discovered and spread. In this sense, if one’s thought cannot be free, one would rather like to die. (思想不自由，毋寧死耳).”
“The definition of our Chinese culture is all summarized in the ethic of Three Guides and Six Orders which was explained in the text of ‘A Comprehensive Exposition in White Tiger Hall.’ The ethic intends to address the highest being of abstract ideals, just as what the Greek philosopher Plato referred to by ‘Eidos.’ If we talk of the guide between the ruler and subjects, even if the ruler is (as bad as) Li Yu, (loyal ministers) should hope him to become as good as Liu Xiu. If we talk of the order between friends, even if one’s friend is (as bad as) Li Ji, (a trustful friend) should wish him or her to become as good as Bao Shu. From here we know that both the Way one sacrifices for and the Goodness that one tries to accomplish (like Wang Guowei did) have a universal nature shared by all abstract ideals, and these ideals cannot be limited by any particular person or thing.”
“The original meaning of Three Guides is never about unconditional obedience. It refers to a spirit of thinking from a holistic perspective, and thus, making one’s ‘small self’ act in accordance with a ‘big self.’ The ethic of Three Guides is an antidote devised by Kongzi to cure the division and chaos caused by wars rampant in his time; the spirit of Three Guides is still ubiquitously applicable in people’s ordinary life today, and is also one of the conditions that China can build a healthy and complete democracy in the future.”
“From the Confucian philosophical perspective, however, the relationship between the employer-organization and the employee ought not to be treated on an equal footing. The employee is expected to show ‘filial love’ to the employer, but may not necessarily demand the same love to be shown by the employers towards them.”
The Ru tradition, as historically represented by the ethic of Three Guides and Five Constant Virtues, is ethically committed to realizing the reciprocal autonomy of individual in varying human relationships for the overall purpose of creating evolving forms of dynamic harmony, and whenever and wherever the Ru tradition migrates, this ethical commitment can be held onto by Ru practitioners as a constant moral principle despite contexts and changes.
3. Shibusawa Eiichi’s Ru Business Practices
3.1. Reciprocal Autonomy for Shibusawa Eiichi
“There is one saying of Kongzi’s from the Analects 15:36, ‘For the sake of (the cardinal virtue of) humaneness, you do not need to yield to your teacher.’ Evidently, Kongzi’s saying implies the idea of ‘right,’ since it urges that as long as an individual has his or her own right reason, he or she should insist upon it. A teacher is respectable, but for the sake of practicing the virtue of humaneness, one does not even need to yield to one’s teacher.”
3.1.2. Labor Relationship
“…the Kyochokai’s approach to worker education was clearly Confucian by assuming that education was primarily a ‘moral enterprise’ and that the ‘most effective method for producing the morally superior man was through moral example of superiors conveyed through close personal ties.’ In Kyochokai schools, this moral example was carried out by teachers and students (workers) mixing on an egalitarian basis. Kyochokai educational programs thus strove to carry out Shibusawa’s (and Home Ministry’s) vision of worker ‘self-cultivation,’ leading to a harmonious modern industrial society.”
3.1.3. Business and State
4. Peter Drucker Champions the Ethic of TGFV
“The ethics of interdependence, as Confucian philosophers first codified it shortly after their Master’s death in 479 BC, considers illegitimate and unethical the injection of power into human relationships. It asserts that interdependence demands equality of obligation. Children owe obedience and respect to their parents. Parents, in turn, owe affection, sustenance and, yes, respect, to their children. … For every minister who risks his job, if not his life, by fearlessly correcting an Emperor guilty of violating harmony, there is an emperor laying down his life rather than throw a loyal minister to the political wolves.”
“Can an ethics of interdependence be anything more than ethics for individuals? The Confucians say no–a main reason why Mao (Zedong) outlawed them. …For ethics deals with the right actions of individuals. And then it surely makes no difference whether the setting is a community hospital, with the actors a nursing supervisor and the consumer a patient, or whether the setting is National Universal General Corporation, the actors a quality control manager, and the consumer the buyer of a bicycle.”
“A society of organizations is a society of interdependence. The specific relationship which the Confucian philosopher postulated as universal and basic may not be adequate, or even appropriate, to modern society and to the ethical problems within the modern organization and between the modern organization and its clients, customers, and constituents. But the fundamental concepts surely are. Indeed, if there ever is a viable ethics of organization, it will almost certainly have to adopt the key concepts which have made Confucian ethics both durable and effective.”
Conflicts of Interest
“Confucianism” is a misnomer devised by Protestant Christian missionaries around the 19th century, viz., the time of Western colonialism, to refer to the Ru (儒, civilized human) tradition with a primary purpose of religious comparison and conversion, just as Islam was once called “Muhammadanism” in a similar historical context. Following the reflective scholarly trend upon the nomenclature, “Confucianism” will be written as “Ruism” or the “Ru tradition,” and “Confucian” or “Confucianist” will be written as “Ru” or “Ruist” in this article. However, to respect the use of “Confucianism” and its related terms by discussed scholars, I will still keep their original use of “Confucianism” in quotations. For readers who are interested in exploring the naming history of “Confucianism” in the West, a detailed explanation of the history using the disciplinary approach of religious studies can be found at (Swain 2017, pp. 3–22), and (Sun 2013, pp. 45–76). Meanwhile, from the perspective of philosophical historiography, please refer to (Ambrogio 2020, p. 110). My own elaboration about the meaning of Ru and the misnomer of Ruism can be checked at (Song 2016).
See my further analysis on this issue in (Song 2019).
A further overview of the scholarship on the post-Confucian hypothesis can be found at (Song 2018b, pp. 73–77).
The meaning of Tian undergoes change in Pre-Qin classical Ruism. My conception of it articulated here is based upon the Xici (Appended Texts) of the Classic of Change, as well as other Ru classics and commentaries which connects to Xici’s cosmological thought. For more details, please see (Song 2018a, chp. 5).
The following summary aims to highlight the intensity of the debate on the nature of the Ru ethic of TGFV, particularly on its contested idea of reciprocal autonomy, in the concerned period of time. It claims no exhaustion of the significant cases of the debate, and does not intend to address contemporary debates on Ru ethics in general. I thank one anonymous reviewer for asking me to make this clarification.
I analyzed the cause of the radical anti-Ru rhetoric in early modern China and how it evolves in (Song 2021).
A generic analysis of cultural conservatism interacting with other trends of thought in modern China can be found at (Fung 2010, pp. 145–58 and pp. 200–55).
The Six Orders refer to six minor reciprocal relationships after the main ones specified by the Three Guides, and they are the relationship among one’s father and uncles (from the father’s family), elder and younger siblings, the one among people in the same extensive family who share the same surname, the one among male relatives in one’s mother’s and wife’s extensive families, teacher and student, and the one between friends. (Ban 1778, vol. 7, p. 29)
See the example of the view of Li Cunshan’s in (Fang 2014, pp. 128–60).
The prescriptive nature of the stated hypothesis also makes my method of verification different from the one of quantitative research which aims to select random empirical evidence to test a descriptive hypothesis. What I intend to achieve in the following discussion is to present real empirical examples of the hypothesis so as to illustrate that my favored interpretation of the ethic of TGFV is practicable, and the practices can also generate positive societal effects. I thank an anonymous reviewer for asking me to make this clarification.
The translation is my own.
There are multiple occasions in Drucker’s writings where the case of Shibusawa Eiichi was studied. See the summary in (Sagers 2018, p. 16).
A similar view is expressed by Fang Chaohui in (Fang 2014, pp. 29–30).
See the proof of the origin furnished by (Teng 1943).
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Song, B. Contemporary Business Practices of the Ru (Confucian) Ethic of “Three Guides and Five Constant Virtues (三綱五常)” in Asia and Beyond. Religions 2021, 12, 895. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12100895
Song B. Contemporary Business Practices of the Ru (Confucian) Ethic of “Three Guides and Five Constant Virtues (三綱五常)” in Asia and Beyond. Religions. 2021; 12(10):895. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12100895Chicago/Turabian Style
Song, Bin. 2021. "Contemporary Business Practices of the Ru (Confucian) Ethic of “Three Guides and Five Constant Virtues (三綱五常)” in Asia and Beyond" Religions 12, no. 10: 895. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12100895