Recalling the Teachings of Confucius: The Virtuous Character of a Superior Man

December 5, 2011 at 9:00 am | Posted in Asia, Children's Stories, Culture, Discoveries, Discussion, Good Advice, Life Lessons, Moments from History, Reflections, Relevance to Today, Stories from China | Leave a comment
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By Zhizhen

( Confucius (551 – 479 BC) once said, “The orchids grow in the woods, and they let out their fragrance even if there is no one around to appreciate it. Likewise, men of noble character will not let poverty deter their will to cultivate in the Tao and establish virtue.” A superior man knows the truth about life. Regardless of what his circumstances are, he adheres to moral principles in doing things and conducts himself by following the teachings of the saints. Wherever he goes, he spreads his kindness and influences those in contact with him, so that others also respect and value ethics and justice. The effectiveness of his teachings and influence exemplifies his virtuous character. The following are a few stories about Confucius and his disciples that were documented in The Analects of Confucius and The School Sayings of Confucius.

A Superior Man Speaks with His Actions

On one occasion, Yan Hui asked his teacher Confucius, “Are there any common characteristics in what inferior men say? A man of virtue has to be perceptive.” Confucius replied, “A superior man speaks with his acts. His words are matched by his deeds. In everything he says and does, he practices the principles promoted by the saints. An inferior man only shows off his eloquence. He is quick at making demands on and finding fault with others, while contributing nothing. A superior man treats others with sincerity. When he sees friends in violation of ethics, he warns them of the consequences and persuades others to act out of conscience. His words come from his heart because he genuinely cares about the wellbeing of others. As a result, the friendship tends to deepen afterwards. The inferior men appear to have formed an alliance for making trouble. However, they cannot help but quarrel and pull knives on each other’s back.” Confucius also said, “The superior man thinks of virtue; the inferior man thinks of comfort. The superior man thinks of the sanctions of law; the inferior man thinks of favors which he may receive.” This describes what is different in the minds of these two types of men. The superior man does not follow the crowd, let alone conspire with others. All he thinks about is how to practice virtue and justice. The inferior man worries about himself all the time. The superior man adheres to rules and exercises self discipline. The inferior man places personal gains ahead of everything else, and his mind is filled with minor advantages and convenience. It is mentioned in the Standards for Students, written during the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1912), “Remind the other party with kindness; virtue is established on both sides. Turn a blind eye to another’s mistake; principles are lost on both sides.” This is another example of how an inferior man acts differently than a superior man.

A man’s words and deeds are based on his thoughts. A superior man nourishes the thought of kindness and rationality. His words and acts are consequently full of love, kindness, and generosity. When a superior man appears in a region, his pure, kind thoughts will influence people around him, awakening the conscience of other people and planting the seeds of integrity and kindness.

Using Wisdom to Avoid a Fight

Confucius led his disciples to Kuang, a region in the Kingdom of Song. The local people mistook Confucius for Yang Hu, a man who brutally attacked the Kuang people. They immediately alerted Jianzi, the chief of the Kuang region. Jianzi hastily gathered soldiers in full armor, and they rode horses to besiege Confucius and his followers.

Zilu, one of the disciples of Confucius, was brave by nature. He was offended as soon as he saw the fierce Kuang people surrounding them. He seized a weapon in preparation to fight. Confucius stopped him and said, “How could men who are cultivating and practicing kindness and justice not be able to stop this kind of brutality? It is my fault to not have widely taught the ancient poems and great works and promoted etiquette and music […] Come over, Zilu. You play the music and sing the lyrics, and I will join you.” Zilu put down his weapon and brought out a musical instrument. He started playing and singing. Confucius joined him. After three rounds of singing, the people of Kuang realized that Confucius was a saint, not the brutal Yang Hu. They took off their armor and left.

Even under siege, Confucius remained calm. He first looked at himself to see if he was at fault. If not, he then carried on with his teaching and influence through etiquette and music. His acts demonstrate the difference between him and Yang Hu. The people of Kuang realized that Confucius was a courteous, superior man, a saint, despite his similar appearance to that of Yang Hu. They were moved and ashamed. As a result, they took off their armor and returned peacefully. Confucius changed people with his virtue; he turned the dangerous situation around. Confucius exemplified the kindness of a man with a kind heart. Others could feel his generosity and sense of responsibility for carrying on traditional culture.

Focusing on Key Issues

One day Duke Ai of Lu asked Confucius, “In ancient times, what type of hat did King Shun wear?” Confucius did not reply. The Duke asked again, “I am trying to learn from you. Why do you not reply?” Confucius bowed and replied, “Because the question Your Majesty raised was not focused on key issues. That is why I was thinking about how to reply.” The Duke became curious and asked, “What are the key issues?” Confucius replied, “During King Shun’s reign, he loved his people as his own children. He promoted the virtuous and appointed the capable. His virtue overflowed across the land. Yet he remained modest and humble. He changed things gently, just like the four seasons change living beings in nature. He encouraged the growth of people’s character. His kindness spread to other living beings as well. That is why his teachings reached far and wide. Even the legendary phoenix and mythical kirin showed up in the land that he ruled, testifying to his mighty virtue. All this occurred because of King Shun’s encouragement of life and growth. Your Majesty was asking about the type of hat that King Shun wore rather than these issues of primary importance, and that was why I did not reply right away.”

Living with Kind People Is Like Entering a Room of Orchids

Confucius once told Zeng Can, “Zixia will improve quickly because he enjoys spending time with those who are more virtuous than he. To stay with kind people is like living in a house with orchids blossoming. One assimilates to the environment. So a superior man has to be careful in choosing who he stays with.” It is also stated in the Standards to Students, “It is immensely beneficial if one stays close to those with kind hearts. With the passing of each day, one’s virtue increases, and one’s mistakes are reduced. To stay away from kind people is harmful. One is drawn to inferior men, which ruin everything.”

This tells us that by remaining close with people of kindness and virtue and taking them as friends and teachers, a person can expand his knowledge as well as improve his integrity. A superior man sets a good example. Others around him will learn to look at themselves for their shortcomings and constantly set higher standards for themselves. “To frequently look for one’s own shortfalls, rather than blame others” requires one to be transparent in his words and acts. Applying strict standards for oneself, yet being tolerant of others reflects a character of generosity. Confucius said, “A superior man learns the Tao and loves other people.” He was pointing out that a superior man needs to care about others if he studies the Tao, applying the principles he has learned from the Tao to his daily interaction with others. The supreme kindness is like water. It facilitates everything while contending nothing.

The virtuous character of a superior man brings about harmony and peace. It helps to remind everyone to exercise self discipline and to not act against conscience. In today’s material world, where too many people are driven by greed in pursuit of fame and fortune, it is all the more important to adhere to one’s inner ethics and aspirations.

Posting date: 8/15/2010
Category: Traditional Culture
Chinese version available at


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