A Ku Indeed!

Xiao Ren and Min Bending like Grass

Posted in Analects, Chinese Philosophy, Ethics, virtue ethics by Chris on July 9, 2008

Today in the seminar Steve Angle mentioned one of my favorite passages (not that this narrows things down much) — 12.9. Within it, Confucius lays out a claim about the force of virtue (de) in an excellent person (junzi), suggesting that this force has the capacity to transform (in some way) the “petty person.”  But the passage is, in my opinion (and as I noted to Steve) unclear to me, and it contains a number of unanswered questions about the relationship of moral exemplars and those they influence.

LY 12.19 is actually long, but the relevant part is contained here:

If you want to be adept, the people will also be adept. The excellence of the exemplary person is like the wind, while that of the petty person is like the grass. As the wind blows, the grass is sure to bend.

First, Steve pointed out that in his opinion the use of “petty person” is an offhand usage; in truth, he thinks that it means “common person” and so should not be seen as a pejorative. I completely agree with Steve (for reasons I’ll point out) that it makes more sense to read it that way for theoretical reasons. But I’m just not convinced that this is, literally (I’m not working from the Chinese, but contextually), what the passage means.

I wonder whether we should consider the fact that 12.19 seems to be “bundled” with 12.16 – 12.19. At the very least, three of the four passages all seem to be a part of the same conversation — one between the Master and Ji Kangzi. The first, 12.16, deals explicitly with the notion of the petty as in comparison with the junzi. So here, “petty” means xaio ren. Then, in 12. 18, Ji Kangzi asks specifically about the xaio ren. There, “petty” is clearly a pejorative, as it is in 12. 16, as the xaio ren are labeled as “thieves.”

Now we come to 12.19. In it, Ji Kangzi asks whether those who do not “follow the Way” should be killed. Confucius says no, because they can be (as the quote above notes) transformed. As it stands, those who do not “follow the Way” can be read as having an ambiguous target, as it could be neutral between undifferentiated persons (the common, the min) and the more perjorative xaio ren.

Some evidence that the use of “petty” is non-pejorative comes from Slingerland, who replaces “the people will also be adept” with “the common people will be adept.” So this is evidence that the target of “petty” is non-pejorative, but rather just means “lowly” (perhaps in the sense in which “common” might mean “non noble” in a more class oriented sense). However, Ames and Rosemont simply say “people” which removes that piece of evidence.

How, then, should it be read? I think the inter-passage evidence is inconclusive, at least insofar as what is above. But contextually, I am led to think that the term is meant as a pejorative. Not only does it make sense in context of 12.16 – 12.19, but it also is, literally, the word used, a word that has a clear unambiguous pejorative meaning in other passages.

This brings me to the second issue. If it is read as a pejorative, I think we have some theoretical questions to answer. The post has been long, so I’ll keep it short. Basically, the question is this: why is it that the de (virtue) of the xaio ren is like grass? The metaphor, of course, leads one to think that the xaio ren are pliable, and that their behavior can be easily modified by exposing them to just the right exemplar.

But is that true? If so, why? It would make sense with respect to the min. Here, it seems, we’re dealing with more of a “shapeless” mass, a set of persons who are, in Hall and Ames’ way of speaking, “undifferentiated.” They are like clay that has not yet been given a real shape.

But this is not the case for the xaio ren. These folks have formed characters, albeit bad ones. So you would think that transforming them for the better would be especially difficult. Think of Aristotle here — once a person has established habits and dispositions, it is hard to alter that person’s basic character orientation. So if 12.19 does refer to the xaio ren, then why are they grass-like?

One possibility, though I have no idea if it is right, is that the xaio ren have no “internal narrative” guiding their lives. All I mean here is this — the goals of the xaio ren are external. Their lives are fragmentary, as their behavior is really motivated and guided by features in the world only. They see pleasure here, they move towards it, punishment there, they move away. There’s no narrative that connects those moments that is internally guided in the way that one would expect the life of the junzi to be motivated (given that their narrative should be connected via the internal goods of jen). So, perhaps, even though the xaio ren have traits and predispositions, the fact that their narrative is still, if anything, externally determined leaves them open to transformation.

Then again, I don’t know. That’s just a good guess.


10 Responses

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  1. Bill Haines said, on July 10, 2008 at 9:08 pm

    Hi Chris,

    Here are some miscellaneous comments.

    That’s an interesting idea at the end. I wonder: are you suggesting that narrative is specially suited to be a source of stability (as opposed to other candidate sources like habits, reasons, nature, settled penal codes, fear of public opinion, etc.)?

    Here you seem here to regard having goals as equivalent to living by narrative. But these two seem to me very different. Offhand I don’t see either as implying the other. If there are standard expectations about the stages in the life of someone in my social position, that’s a narrative that may not involve goals. If I am a utilitarian with a calculating machine, I may not have narratives. I wonder (to pick up an earlier discussion where it broke off): what conception of “narrative” are you working with?

    My translation: “… [If] you want [to be] good (shan 善), then the people (min 民) [will be] good. The junzi’s virtue: wind. Small people(xiao ren 小人)’s virtue: grass. Grass given wind is sure to bend.”

    I don’t think that suggests a “transformative” influence exactly. It suggests to me that the junzi’s virtue has a permanence or invulnerability that allows it to influence others, while the others will bend only as long as the wind is blowing. Bending is not being transformed. (Cf. 12.1.)

    I think Confucius does assume that at the time of his remarks the ordinary person is not as good as the excellent person, but I think that’s nearly a tautology. If ‘xiao ren’ implies “not as good as a junzi”, that doesn’t seem to me automatically to make ‘xiao ren’ pejorative or suggest that xiao ren have bad characters.

    I wonder whether your argument about ‘min’ is confusing being nonspecific with implying flexibility. (If I call a beagle a “dog,” that doesn’t mean I think it could turn into a poodle!)

    12.17-19 make similar points to the same person, but I don’t see that that makes them seem to be part of the same conversation. It could even suggest that they are from different conversations.

    For an argument that ‘excellent/excellence’ is a good translation of ‘shan’, and ‘adept’ is not, see Comment #28 here: http://manyulim.wordpress.com/2008/04/06/the-good-good-for-good-at-shan-%E5%96%84-and-benefit-li-%E5%88%A9/

  2. Chris said, on July 11, 2008 at 4:42 am


    Welcome back to Bloggoworld. Alexus and I got together last night after May Sim’s talk and had a few beers. Your name came up, since you seemed to be the missing “virtual world” person frequently present. I noted that you have a remarkable ability to focus in on the source of the issue in a post, and — to segue to the post here, here you go again!

    The easier points first.

    1. On 12.1: when you point to a permanence on the part of junzi, are you suggesting likewise that the junzi is not open to being ‘bent’ in the way that xaio ren are?

    2. I’m curious why you replace transformative with bending; I think I see your point and I might agree, but can you say a tad more on this one? Are you suggesting that transformations (say) might require wholesale changes in life direction, whereas bending implies something a bit less extreme?

    3. I’m open to your reading of xaio ren as “not as good as junzi” (would you read this not as “small person” but “smaller person” — thinking of the translations that use ‘small’ here as the term for ‘petty’?) but my concern here is that this opens up the reference of the term to a whole lot of people and in the meantime you lose what do seem to me in some places to be clear pejorative uses that are meant to imply much more than that.

    Of course, in 12.19, though, it makes much more sense to read it your way, I think, given that it makes the “bending” of the petty seem more intuitively plausible if they aren’t thoroughly bad people to start with.

    4. On 12.17 – 19, you may be right, I don’t know how the section of the book was organized, it may be bundled by person but over time. Still, there seems to be a theme of how to handle, or what to do with, the “small” (as opposed to smaller) people.

    5. Narratives: as I’ve noted before, and I’m sure to your frustration :), I don’t have a clear theory yet here as to what I’m pushing. I’m more using these posts to feel out my own intuitions on the subject. But let me try to advance a bit more here.

    First, yes, I think you’re right that I don’t think of personal narratives as necessarily emerging, say, from a set of reasons (though these are clearly part of a narrative, but they aren’t sufficient). Similarly, punishment and reward wouldn’t do either, even though in retrospect they could be used as reasons for one’s behavior.

    Is it ends? I suspect again that his is required, though I’m not precisely sure what you’re implying by the term here. If you mean “behavior over time being consistently answerable or explainable in terms of some stable aim” then that might be a weak starting point. But that’s required, but not enough either, because pleasure/pain can serve as that.

    I think this was where I was going with the MacIntyrean-like “internal/external” distinction regarding ends. To be moved by wealth seems to me to make a person open to a stable reason-giving history regarding their own behavior, but not one that refers to a set of internal goods, whereas virtue would make that possible. If something like this story is plausible, then I wonder whether cohesion fashioned at the internal level makes one more “invulnerable” (to use your term at the start) to outside influence as a person with an external set of ends would be.

    That’s a rough start anyway to the answer. I don’t think that captures all of what I think my intuition is trying to grab onto, but it’s a start in any case.

    5. Thanks for the heads up reference for the translation at Manyul’s, by the way.

  3. Bill Haines said, on July 11, 2008 at 8:54 am

    Hi Chris,

    It’s nice to be back. I’m looking forward to CT beer – maybe we can drag Alexus back up for the occasion. Today or yesterday I read a recent piece by George Will reporting some book’s argument that beer helped make early urban life possible because alcohol is poison to the bacteria that tend to come with city water. I have objections to the argument, but since I’m just back from Beijing with a persistent stomach bug and Pepto Bismol and equivalents seem very hard to come by in Hong Kong, I took Will’s hint and tried some rice wine as a remedy. Brilliant success. Due to the familiar side-effects of alcoholic medication I prefer to leave my philosophical contributions to tomorrow.

  4. Chris said, on July 11, 2008 at 2:50 pm

    Alexus said (if I recall right) that he was planning on attending all the talks (he’s not that far away), so he should be there. Perhaps Manyul will be in for that talk as well — the more the merrier.

  5. Manyul Im said, on July 11, 2008 at 5:10 pm

    I should be able to make it to the Shirong Luo (17th) and Eric Hutton (25th) talks.

    Bill, I assume this means you are state-side…


  6. Bill Haines said, on July 11, 2008 at 7:54 pm

    I’m in HK, but I’ll be in Virginia by the 16th. My wife and I will probably drive up to East Haddam (very near Middletown) on the 20th, to stay there for the following ten days or so, minus some side trips (Boston, New Hampshire, Ithaca). So I expect to be at Eric’s talk and available other times too. The other talks are too early for me, alas.

  7. Bill Haines said, on July 12, 2008 at 1:46 am

    Chris, here’s my sober philosophy reply:

    On bending v. transformation:

    It often happens that we can distinguish two kinds of state or condition, not on the basis of the main qualities they involve or the main effects they generate, but on the basis of how permanent they are, or how independent of circumstance or perspective. For example, a mirror or a traffic light is red only as a passing condition, my arms are sometimes more permanently red, an apple is even more permanently red, and bricks and Mars are pretty much permanently red. In the latter cases the redness is more inherent in the things (more “intrinsic” in the sense of unconditional, though not completely so).

    When a blade of grass bends in the wind, that’s less of a “transformation” than when you bend a pipe-cleaner. Grass is like the traffic-light or the mirror. The thing itself changes less. The pipe cleaner changes more. (Never mind the “Transformers.”)

    When you get someone to do different work (act in different patterns) each week by changing the incentive structure or the instructions or her companions, that’s more like getting grass to bend than like bending a pipe-cleaner.

    Virtue(s) too might admit of more permanent and less permanent varieties. Compare what you might mean by saying of someone (in a context of moral evaluation) that she’s *good* and what you might mean by saying of a child that she was good all morning.

    Confucius’ point at 12.19 doesn’t seem to be that if there’s a person of real virtue around, or in charge, everyone else (or at least the little ones) will quickly come to have the same kind of virtue. (For one thing, that view would make it very hard to understand how there could ever have been moral decline, or inferior successors to sage kings.)

    So I take it to imply that if there’s a person of real virtue around, or in charge, other people will be, in salient ways, roughly as though they had real virtue. (That might mean that people act as though they had real virtue, though they lack certain inner roots of it. But maybe we lack reason to ascribe any such *detailed* view to Confucius.)

    The connection with 12.1 I had in mind was just this – and maybe we’ve talked about this before, I forget – : Confucius at 12.1 seems to say to Yan Yuan, “If you have Ren, everyone else will absorb it from you. So surely [your] having Ren doesn’t depend on others!” That’s an absurdly self-contradictory remark if the kind of Ren the other people are supposed to catch is the kind Yan Yuan is seeking. And that fact is reason to think there’s a distinction between a junzi’s Ren and the kind of ordinary Ren it can be expected to generate in the many.

    As for whether it is possible to be absolutely invulnerable to moral infection, I don’t offhand recall any reason to think Confucius concerns himself with that arcane question.

    What’s an example of a use of ‘xiao ren’ in the Analects where it clearly refers to someone who is distinctly worse than the ordinary? (By the way, the pinyin is ‘xiao’, not ‘xaio’.)

    Regarding your point 5, third paragraph: Toward the end of your Post you had written, “One possibility … is that the xaio ren have no ‘internal narrative’ guiding their lives. All I mean here is this — the goals of the xaio ren are external.”

    There it seemed to me that you were using the terms ‘narrative’ and ‘goals’ interchangeably. So I replied: “Here you seem here to regard having goals as equivalent to living by narrative. But these two seem to me very different.”

    I think (but I’m not sure) that that’s what you were responding to when you wrote in point 5 par. 3, “Is it ends? I suspect again that this is required, though I’m not precisely sure what you’re implying by the term here.”

    (I think that by ‘it’ you mean narrative, but I’m not sure.) In using the term ‘goals’ I was talking about and echoing your use of the term. I didn’t mean to make any argument that was sensitive to legitimate variations in what one might mean by that term.

    Regarding your point 5, second paragraph: I had argued that living by narrative is neither necessary nor sufficient for having goals. I guess I’d say the same thing about ends and about reasons, though I think goals and ends and reasons are three quite different things.

    I don’t know what remark of mine you’re referring to at the beginning of the paragraph!

    In your paragraph I can’t tell whether you’re saying that reasons aren’t necessary for narrative or narrative isn’t necessary for reasons.

    My main question about narrative was this: Why do you see it as a more stable guide than other things (such as penal codes etc.)? Or don’t you?

  8. Bill Haines said, on July 12, 2008 at 1:57 am

    Oh, you were addressing that main question when you wrote, “To be moved by wealth seems to me to make a person open to a stable reason-giving history regarding their own behavior, but not one that refers to a set of internal goods, whereas virtue would make that possible. If something like this story is plausible, then I wonder whether cohesion fashioned at the internal level makes one more ‘invulnerable’ (to use your term at the start) to outside influence as a person with an external set of ends would be.”

    But I don’t think that really gets to what was worrying me. I’ll try to ask my question bigger.

    You had proposed about the xiao ren, “Their lives are fragmentary, as their behavior is really motivated and guided by features in the world only. They see pleasure here, they move towards it, punishment there, they move away.” Here the idea seems to be that because they are guided by externals rather than narrative (or other internals), their behavior is less stable.

    And what I wanted to ask was, Why think that narrative (or other internals) is a reliably more stable guide than other things (such as externals)?

    What you say in the bit I quoted at the beginning of this comment is that (a) being guided by internals means one is not guided by externals. (That is, one is “invulnerable” to externals.) One might add the converse: (b) being guided by externals means one is not guided by internals.

    But my question was, why think being guided by narrative makes one’s behavior more stable than being guided by other things? If external guides are stable and my inner self is flighty, then I’ll be stable only if I’m guided by externals rather than internals.

    Maybe all you meant was that being guided by *stable narrative* generates more stable behavior than being guided by *unstable externals*. That claim doesn’t involve any claim that internal narrative tends to be a more stable guide than externals.

  9. Chris said, on July 12, 2008 at 4:53 am


    There’s a lot here, let me take this on piecemeal (I have an OCD-like addiction to getting to my workout at the same exact time every morning), and end with a quick question.

    1. On permanence and impermanence — good, we’re on the same page. Just wanted to make sure. The point about situational goodness (“good all morning” ) as opposed to a more foundational goodness (“good” ) is interesting, but we should leave it for another time.

    2. Your way of reading the odd remark about jen in 12.1 is interesting and persuasive. If I’m taking you right, and I’m sure you’ll correct me I’m not — you are drawing a distinction here, in a sense, between jen as cause (moral aura or charisma, or moral efficacy, perhaps?) and jen as effect (the jen of the passive party caught in the orbit of a polestar?). So the Master is asking Hui: “The jen you are seeking, jen-as-cause; how could your jen as cause originate with others?” — and this makes sense. If you seek this out, “do this and this” (the rest of the passage).

    And, consequently, possessor of jen-as-cause has the capacity or power (de?) to bend those around him/her in ways that correspond to jen-as-effect.

    I want to come back to this, and extend it to the narrative component below, but I’ll hold off until later today.

    3. A question (will help me in my later answer): in Confucianism (the Analects, specifically), what would could as “stable externals”? Can such a thing exist other than accidentally (on the good humor of ming, as it were) and even at that, rarely if ever?

    4. On xiao ren:

    First, right on the spelling — had it right in the title and maybe at the start. Since pinyin for me isn’t an “embodied” knowledge, it’s easy for a typo to turn into a bad habit in a post.

    Second: I take many of the uses in book four to be pejorative. But I wonder if what you’re suggesting — which seems to me to make sense — is that min and xiao ren are extensionally equivalent sets, but the two terms are used to highlight different emphases that may be pertinent in a given context. So, one might suggest that (say), the “min farm a lot” or “out of the min may one day come a great sage” where you are more talking about the vast multitudes. When you use xiao ren, it is more of a specific comparison with the junzi, where it means “smaller than (the junzi)”. In the first case, min is not meant as pejorative, in the second it takes on that feel, and can be used in an even more clear pejorative sense depending on the strength of the contrast you mean to draw. For instance, a person of advanced moral development may not be a junzi, but in this comparison would still be xiao ren, whereas another person may have few good habits and actually be an active thief, and in this case the comparison is more sharp.

    As always, thanks for your replies, as they are always very helpful.

  10. Bill Haines said, on July 12, 2008 at 9:18 am


    Likewise, I’m sure!

    1. Aren’t they the same point? But I wouldn’t say “situational” v. “foundational.” I’d say: ephemeral v. stable. (I guess you have reservations about whether what we mean of a child in saying that she’s being good is *otherwise* similar to what we mean of a person in saying she’s good. It makes sense to set that issue aside.)

    2. Ren-as-cause, Ren-as-effect — yes, sort of. Only I don’t want to build “cause” and “effect” into them by definition. I have in mind rather a distinction something like this: being well-behaved from some strong inner cause, and being well-behaved.

    3. Stable externals in the Analects. Good question! Nothing comes immediately to mind–except the stable character of one’s junzi neighbors or rulers, if one has any. As you suggest, Confucius may think that’s enough. (Aristotle says somewhere in the Politics that the ruled don’t need phronesis. If we were talking about Mencius I’d offer other people’s natures, including their tendency to respond well to good treatment, as a generally stable sort of external guide.)

    But we’re talking about comparative stability, as between externals and narrative—or rather, between any sort of guide other than narrative (ends, principles, hormones) and narrative. Are there signs in the Analects that internal narrative is a stable guide?

    4. Xiao ren: It’s used in two passages in book four (4.11, 4.16) neither of which I think has to be read as saying the xiao ren are any worse than average. They’re not great leadership material, that’s for sure. ‘Xiao ren’ might be pejorative in the sense that ‘common’ is pejorative: when used among people with aspirations to be “refined,” as they say in the South. But that doesn’t mean it implies worse-than-ordinary.

    As for the meanings of the terms, I think ‘xiao ren’ sometimes contrasts with ‘junzi’ in the sense of excellent person and sometimes contrasts with ‘junzi’ or ‘da ren’ (big people) in the sense of the ruling elite. I think ‘min’ is sometimes used in the latter way and often used more comprehensively to mean people in general, including junzis. I think ‘xiao ren’ is never used to mean people in general. But since junzis are few, both terms refer to most people, or approximately everybody.

    I haven’t meant to argue that ‘xiao ren’ doesn’t suggest a relatively negative judgment. I think you’re right that it does, more than ‘min’ does. I like the way you put the point in the first half of your last paragraph. I’ve only meant to resist the idea that it implies a badness that is worse than that of the average or ordinary person.

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