Confucius, sacrifice and Chinese characters

Confucius, sacrifice and Chinese characters

Most books that attempt to show the etymology of Chinese characters take for granted that the character ren 仁benevolence, is composed of person 人and two 二, which makes it very easy to recognize that «person 人» gives it the sound, and «two 二» specifies that benevolence is the quality that should govern relations between people. This has been, with small variations, the interpretation provided in most works.

Thus Leon Wieger, in lesson 2 (p 28) of his work states, «The fundamental virtue of Confucianism, which the Shuowen defines as, to love the other. Benevolence must lonk each person with his neighbor.»

Or Raymond Blakney, on page 40 says: two 二 is added to the character for man 亻, by way of indicating plurality, rather than the simple idea of «two». Thus it is an ideogram indicating that benevolence is the soul and substance of man, going out to his fellows. And he points out that other explanations say that it is the plural of person indicating the idea that people live together in harmony.

Other classical explanations are similar. But a recent article by Gang Xu (2019) calls all these ideas into question.

According to him, Ren is a notion that predates Confucius, the notion derives from a custom that was practiced among a group of tribes collectively referred to as Dongyi in early Chinese history. Confucius and his followers were instrumental in developing and reconverting the notion into a fundamental value of Chinese culture. (p. 29).

According to his analyses of ancient characters, ren 仁 – benevolence is not derived from ren 人 – person, but from shi 尸dead person (see image, with blue box, top left). Shi is also among the oldest Chinese characters; it is a modification of the character «人 (person)».  The differences between Shi 尸 and 人 are twofold: First, more anatomical details are introduced in the leg of Shi 尸, including the knee and ankle. Second, the part of Shi 尸’s lower limb is drooping, capturing the flaccid state of a corpse that has lost its muscle tone (p. 32). Which makes Ren 仁 a concept associated with death (p. 34).

Specifically it would refer to self-sacrifice or martyrdom, offered voluntarily by prominent members of the tribe often in times of adversity, such as power struggles and natural disasters. This practice had been refined to its extreme in Japan, known as Bushido, as already mentioned by Hu Shi in 1934 (p. 34),

Analyzing several of the contexts in which this word appears in Confucius’ mouth, there is no doubt that it refers to sacrificing oneself. A type of honor suicide that is so frequent in Chinese history. The famous phrase杀人成仁, generally interpreted to mean that Confucius preferred death to abandoning benevolence, would instead be a clear description of this sacrifice: killing the person to perform the ren sacrifice.

When Fan Chi asked him about ren – benevolence. The Master said, «It is to love all men.» With the new meaning, Fan Chi would ask him about the ren sacrifice, and Confucius would reply that it is to love that person (樊遲問仁。子曰:「愛人。」). For sacrifices of ministers and wives accompanying kings to the grave have been a constant in Chinese history from the Shang dynasty (16th c. b.c.e.) to the end of the dynastic era.

That this concept does not fit so well in other passages of Confucius’ work may be because its final wording was a process that spanned centuries and was not fixed until the Han dynasty.

Blackney, A course in the Analysis of Chinese characters.

Ceinos-Arcones, Pedro. Chinese characters. An easy learning based on their etymology and evolution. 2022.

Gang Xu. On the Origin of Ren : A Practice of Human Sacrifice and Martyrdom in Early Chinese History. Archives of Boston Society of Confucius. Volume 1, Issue 1, April 10, 2019.

Wieger, Leon. Chinese characters. Their origin, etymology, history, classification and signification. New York. 1965.

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