仁,ren, or its modern lack

We’re a friendly bunch, a warm, welcoming nation, we like to tell ourselves. We take care of each other. So we say.

“New Zealanders are very friendly, but very difficult to make friends with”, immigrants from Europe told me around about the time I was graduating from university. I didn’t quite know what to make of what they were saying – it seemed to make sense, seemed to have a certain ring of truth to it, but… …a decade and a half and a bit later I return to New Zealand, and now I get it.

And yet I’m not convinced New Zealanders are all that friendly, really. Anymore. Not unfriendly, not haughty or arrogant or disdainful.



But not all New Zealanders, of course. Even so, I have been surprised by how cold, distant and uncaring this society has become.

Become? Or…

I don’t recall seeing beggars on the street when I was a child. I remember a time, as the Rogernomic revolution was just starting to bite, when my parents where able to go to the home of each individual family requesting a food parcel and see what they had and what, precisely, they needed. In my early twenties, before heading off to China, I did come across one or two on the streets of Wellington whose behaviour could’ve been classed as begging. Late last year I walked the length of Lambton Quay on a weekday lunchtime and counted half a dozen beggars. Observing the behaviour of everybody else on the street, it is clear that this has become normal, perhaps even accepted. And now we have the housing crisis at a point where the media has noticed the sheer number of homeless people, families living in cars, and a marae opening its doors to the homeless, but being overwhelmed and calling for help.

And where is the government in all this? Surely it’s the government’s role to ensure all people have all they need to function in society? Shouldn’t that include ensuring all people have healthy, warm, dry accomodation? Nothing fancy of course, but at least a basic roof over their heads and four weather-tight walls to fend off the winter chill?

And it is heartening to see so many, civil society groups and individuals, step up to help those in such desperate need, but doesn’t a society get the government it deserves? Could it be that for all that so many civil society groups and individuals are doing to help the situation, this society as a whole is now so desperately lacking in something, and this lack has allowed this situation to develop? In a democracy, is it enough or acceptable to just blame the government? After all, we, the people, put those politicians in parliament.

仁, rén.

A simple, little concept, really. Usually translated as ‘benevolence‘ or ‘humanity‘, which you will see if you scroll down that linked page just a short way. And yes, I am skating just a little bit too close to the etymological fallacy in linking to Etymonline for those two words, but in these two cases I think the etymology does demonstrate reasonable well what I’m getting at here.

But 仁, rén is a concept lifted from Classical Chinese philosophy, specifically what we know as Confucianism, though in this case Confucius may have been somewhat truthful in claiming not to be an innovator, merely a transmitter of ancient truths.

So, a little help from Zhang Dainian*. In Chapter 39. Benevolence and Justice, Ren-Yi,仁義, page 286, he writes:

[……]but Confucius was not the first to use the term. Several examples from Zuo’s Commentary may be cited to show that benevolence was already seen as a moral principle. The grand minister of Jin, Jiu Ji, said,

I have heard: to go out of the door as a guest and to undertake affairs as if one were performing a sacrifice is the norm of benevolence. (Zuo’s Commentary 5, Xi 33, p. 223)


The Commentary also includes a judgement by Confucius of King Ling of Chu:

Zhong Ni [Confucius] said, “It is contained in an ancient book that to subdue self and return to propriety is benevolence. True is the saying and excellent.” (Zuo’s Commentary 10, Zhao 12, p. 638)

Zhang then quotes (p. 287) the Analects 6, Yong Ye to show Confucius’ definition of benevolence. Zhang has the relevant passage as #28, though on ctext it’s #30:

Zi Gong said, “Suppose the case of a man extensively conferring benefits on the people, and able to assist all, what would you say of him? Might he be called perfectly virtuous?” The Master said, “Why speak only of virtue in connection with him? Must he not have the qualities of a sage? Even Yao and Shun were still solicitous about this. Now the man of perfect virtue, wishing to be established himself, seeks also to establish others; wishing to be enlarged himself, he seeks also to enlarge others. To be able to judge of others by what is nigh in ourselves – this may be called the art of virtue.”

My emphasis added. Then to show what being established means, Zhang quotes (p. 288) the Analects 20: Yao Yue:


The Master said, “Without recognizing the ordinances of Heaven, it is impossible to be a superior man. Without an acquaintance with the rules of Propriety, it is impossible for the character to be established. Without knowing the force of words, it is impossible to know men.”

Again, my emphasis added.

On pages 290 and 291 Zhang has a few more quotations from the Analects on the subject of Benevolence as a summary. Here’s my selection, with my own emphasis added:

Analects 12, Yan Yuan, #2:


Zhong Gong asked about perfect virtue. The Master said, “It is, when you go abroad, to behave to every one as if you were receiving a great guest; to employ the people as if you were assisting at a great sacrifice; not to do to others as you would not wish done to yourself; to have no murmuring against you in the country, and none in the family.” Zhong Gong said, “Though I am deficient in intelligence and vigor, I will make it my business to practice this lesson.”

Note: The “perfect virtue” in the above quoatation is 仁, benevolence.

Analects 15, Duke Ling of Wei #24 [Note: Zhang has this as #23 and translates 恕 as’empathy’; ctext has this as #24 and translates 恕 as ‘reciprocity’. I’m running with the ctext version for convenience’s sake]:


Zi Gong asked, saying, “Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life?” The Master said, “Is not RECIPROCITY such a word? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.

It is worth noting that this law of reciprocity, the Golden Rule, is about as close to a universal value as you’re going to find.

So, to sum up, according to Confucius:

  1. To establish yourself, you must establish others. To enlarge yourself, you must enlarge others.
  2. Knowledge of the rules of propriety is necessary for character to be established.
  3. Benevolence means, among other things, following the Golden Rule.
  4. The Golden Rule, or reciprocity, or treating others the same way you expect to be treated, is the rule you should order your life by.

But what does this have to do with modern New Zealand?

Here we are in a society in which families are living in cars and children are dying from easily preventable diseases because the only homes their parents can afford are cold, damp and mouldy. There are beggars on the streets in a land of plenty. And yes, there are people and organisations who step up to help, but…

…crowd-funded ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, much?

And in any case, wouldn’t prevention be better? And if it’s too late for prevention, how’s about repairing the fence at the top of the cliff so as to minimise the number of people who fall over it?

Now, we can blame the government all we like – and if we’re going to be fair, we have to admit that governments of all stripes for the last 32 years have been pushing the policies that have enabled this situation to develop. But this is a democratic state. Governments are elected. When we cast our votes, are we voting for parties we honestly believe will benefit all the people of our country? Or are we voting only for the party we believe will be best for our own immediate self-interest? Are we voting with benevolence and reciprocity in mind?

It would seem to me that for all the benevolence that has been shown in societal responses to the current housing crisis, short-term self-interest remains the dominant driving force in this society, as it has been since the 1980s. And if that is the case, how can we expect to have a healthily-functioning society? How can we expect anything other than growing poverty and deprivation?

We need some more 仁, we need to bring benevolence back.


*Zhang Dainian, Key Concepts in Chinese Philosophy, trans. Edmund Ryden, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 2002.


2 thoughts on “仁,ren, or its modern lack”

  1. We need more 仁 everywhere. This article reminded me the great speech Glenda Jackson gave regarding Thatcher and Thatcherism. I think greed, selfishness, and money-worshipping (Thatcherism and Reagan Economics) promoted since the 80s has a lot to do with the problems we are having around the world now.

    Around the same time Glenda Jackson made that speech, the worshipping of Thatcher whipped up by the mainstream media in the US and UK was pretty disgusting. China’s nouveau riche and wannabes also joined in the act toward Baroness Thatcher in weibo/wechat/media, which was even more nauseating to me…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As it happened, this is what I was listening to as I read your comment.

      Yep, you’re right, and the Rogernomics I referred to in the post was simply the NZ edition of Thatcherism. It particularly bugs me here in NZ because of the move we recently made and the reasons for that and the changes I’m seeing between the NZ I was born in and what it is now… but it most certainly is a global problem.

      Great speech by Glenda Jackson. And I note with interest the Tory response was a point of order, which the Speaker promptly and forcefully shot down.


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