A Ku Indeed!

Ren and Min

Posted in Analects, Chinese Philosophy by Chris on July 23, 2008

Some of you may have noticed an increase in posts on “min” lately. Not surprising, I’m trying to puzzle out a subsection of a possible paper, and I still have many questions about the concept. This time, I’m wondering how legitimately we can apply Confucius’ “moralization” of ren to the treatment of min.  Depending on which way we answer the question opens or closes a lot of interpretative doors.

Many commentators have pointed out Confucius’ appropriation of the term ren. In pre-Confucian times, the term seems to stand for something of a social category, taking on something of the meaning “noble” or “well born” — at the very least, standing in a certain class. Seen in this way, ren has little moral meaning and is more of a descriptive term denoting a person’s position vis-a-vis his or her society. Confucius, as it is suggested, appropriates the term and makes it about moral achievement. So, the ren person is no longer of a certain social class, but rather is about the “class” of agents who are focused on the world, or their social relations, in just the right way. Such moral accomplishment is open to all, so “class membership” is always open.

Today I quickly perused an article recommended to me by Alexus. The piece, “Understanding Ancient Chinese Society: Approaches to Ren and Min” (Gassmann, 2000), does a very good job of walking through the two concepts as they were non-morally understood in early China. In short, part of Gassmann’s thesis (the part I was most interested in) is that “ren” applied to a kind of indexical kinship relationship. For instance, given that I am a Panza, I would be ren as I understand myself from within the “internal” perspective of that clan structure. My “ren-like” behavior would then, given this framework, pertain to my capacity and efforts in being sensitive to the role-based structures (heirarchical and not) within that clan. Wassmann’s other point, however, is about min. As I take it, from the standpoint of the Panza’s, or at least from the standpoint of thinking of oneself as a Panza, non-Panzas are min. They are an undifferentiated mass, a shapeless structure that is really just seen as what is “other.” Of course, from the standpoint of the other, they might too see themselves as ren.

Wassmann’s reading of the concepts is very interesting, but my question is how to translate it to Confucius. If it is true that Confucius reads ren as a moral category and not simply as a clan-structure, say (where moral achievement would not play a necessary role), but rather sees it as a moral category, then does this mean that we should come up with a functional equivalent for the uses of min? One possibility would be this: we could read ren as a moral clan-structure of sorts. Instead of seeing the world from the standpoint of being a Panza, I see it from the standpoint of ren-as-moral-agent. If so, and if we continue Wassmann’s way of reading the relationship to min, we might be led to see “min” as again “the other” but as that class of individuals which does not see the world from the standpoint of ren-as-moral-agent (this would cut across social class, obviously).

Of course, there are a lot of ways to not see the world from the standpoint of ren. One can be intentionally malicious or self-serving, and one could be unconsciously or unintentionally so. Perhaps the former class of person is one for whom the question of being moral arises but is rejected, whereas the latter is one for which the question has never arisen (they are sleepwalking, in a way). What I’d like to see here is a way to read “min” (I’m not suggesting the only way to read it, just a possible way) as the latter type of agent. This way seems to me to correspond to Hall and Ames’ way of thinking of the term, a way that is also picked up by Tan in the work Confucian Democracy.

Ah, but that’s moving too quick. First we need a way to bridge from Confucius’ novel treatment of ren as a moral category to a treatment of min as related to moral questions (I don’t think we want to make min into “what is bad” but rather to what is “pre-moral” in a sense). And I’m not sure yet whether we can make these jumps. I think we can, and I suspect that there is text to argue for the reading, but I’ll leave that for another day.

Add On: I should add that I find this line interesting in Xunzi (from Ch 1, line 255): “For this reason, power and profit cannot sway him, the masses cannot shift him, and nothing in the world can shake him.” Here it sounds as if Xunzi is using “the masses” as a way of talking about “the chatter of public opinion” or “the force of conformity” or something similar. If so, this would be partly what I’d like to squeeze out of uses of “the masses.”


4 Responses

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  1. Bill Haines said, on July 24, 2008 at 6:52 am

    Chris, I’m not sure which character “ren” you’re talking about here: 人 or 仁? I can’t download Gassmann’s piece until next weekend, but his title says he’s talking about 人 (upper-class person, or simply person (as in ‘xiao ren’)). And that’s what you seem to be talking about in the first half of your second paragraph. But in the second half of that paragraph you seem to be talking about 仁, which Confucius famously moralized into a problematic virtue term.

    Granted, these characters were (I’ve heard) sometimes used interchangeably in early texts.

    Here’s a worry about Gassmann’s story, based on your account. One could get the impression that such English words as ‘person’ or ‘people’ or ‘everybody’ referred mainly to in-group people, by noticing that we sometimes use them to refer mainly to in-group people, conversants, one’s immediate audience, etc. (“People! Does anybody have the address?”) But that’s just a standard kind of *flexibility* of general terms (that old hobby-horse isn’t dead yet!).

  2. Bill Haines said, on July 24, 2008 at 6:53 am

    That wink is really only a right-hand parenthesis.

  3. Chris said, on July 24, 2008 at 7:27 am


    Thanks for pointing that out — you’re right to make the obvious distinction.

    In Wassmann, as I understand them, the contrast with min they draw is with the first use of ren (I don’t know how to add the symbols on my laptop) the one without the “er” added. As far as I can tell, they read the first use of ren as a noun, and they read the second type (with er ) as a verb. So, as they see it, the verb would mean “to exemplify or act like a true ren (of the noun type )”.

    I suppose this is what I’m after here. Is there a possible “moralized” category of min as a noun (which would stand for “the others” or “those who have not taken on the question of morality” ) and, likewise, a possible verb to go along with it.

    I’m not sure how they would handle your worry, but that is how I read their analysis, that ren is used as a type of “indexical grouping” where it always refers to “us” or “people like us” or “the people I’m talking to” though they want to limit the audience to one’s clan, I think.

  4. Bill Haines said, on July 24, 2008 at 8:11 am

    Thanks. One way to add the symbols is to cut and paste them, e.g. from Donald Sturgeon’s Analects:

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