The Confucian Principle “Li”

The term “li” is open to various interpretations and translations. Amongst the most reasonable equivalents of it found within the English vocabulary would be the words “propriety” and “virtue”. The principle also encompasses order, gain, and benefit, and serves as a concrete guide to human action.

For the Chinese, the term implies having a sense of proper conduct, manners and/or behavior within the society. This includes an individual’s moral obligations. This is the “first sense” of li, and it shows followers the way things should be done: the do’s rather than the don’ts.

Li is also evidence of the deeply rooted Confucian-influenced culture of the Chinese. Confucianism – an ethical and/or philosophical system inspired by the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius – houses Li as one of its core concepts.

To gain a basic understanding of what Li is, an individual must first understand the various recommendations of Confucianism, part of which is the belief in a hierarchal model that society has to follow.

This hierarchal model defines family relationships in a non-egalitarian manner:

  • Husbands govern their wives
  • Parents govern their children
  • Older siblings outrank the younger ones

This hierarchal model also has different applications within social contexts and categories based on the occupation of an individual, with scholars outranking merchants, merchants having authority over farmers, older friend being shown deference by younger friend, ruler governing subject, etc.

Li is a companion virtue to jen, which is translated into English as “humaneness” or “humanity.” These two virtues when put together create a highly disciplined and cultivated person who is motivated by deep care and empathy for every person, and who behaves properly in every situation.

Li is sometimes thought of as the working out of jen in one’s life. When one follows the concept of li, each of the family relationships outlined above will be harmonious. Confucianism asserts that once these family relationships are tranquil, li will seep into the culture. From the home to the village to the empire, all of society will be tranquil.

Modern Implications of “Li”

 A very common scenario where the influence of Li is prevalent is the reluctance of the Chinese to confront those ranked above them, or those who are in authority. The hierarchal structure of modern-day Chinese society is also evidence of Li.

In the business setting, the Chinese are very different from Westerners, in the sense that employees are likely to emulate the goals and/or behavior of their employers and/or leaders.

What is most interesting, however, is that communism – considered a form of radical egalitarianism – directly rebels against the hierarchal tendencies of the Chinese. Then again, the communist rule that the country was under prior to becoming the People’s Republic of China only led to the reshuffling of the relationships amongst social groups, such as workers outranking scholars. By the time reformation started in the 1980s, the old hierarchical patterns began to resurface.

This slow resurfacing of the old and/or traditional Chinese ways, the hierarchical tendency of the Chinese Culture, as well as the revival of Confucianism, are all in line with the efforts of the Chinese authorities to put in place a value system that will substitute the Marxist dogmas that continue to haunt China and its people today.

Social Relationships and Li

There exist various manifestations of Li in social relationships within the Chinese culture, such as the preference of the Chinese to dress conservatively, to speak in a soft manner, to be slow to anger, etc, as well as in nepotism or a form of favouritism shown by those in power to close friends and/or relatives.

Corruption amongst those in power may also be a form of negative influence of Li within society, or so some experts claim. Although Confucius shunned bribery, the overpowering of average citizens by high-ranking officials and/or business tycoons is similar to the -hierarchal system that he helped put into place

Next: Mianzi – The “Face” of the Chinese