The Cardinal Relations and the Attendant Cardinal Obligations; the Genius of Confucius

The genius of traditional Chinese (Confucian) thinking is that by emphasizing the Five Cardinal Relations (五伦 “wu^ lun’” or “ng-3 lueun-4″ in Cantonese) and the correct Obligations the parties in those Relations owe each other, the entire fabric of a proper civil society is set. The Cardinal Relations and their attendant Cardinal Obligations (伦常 lun’ chang’ or lueun-4 seurng-4 in Cantonese) work like how the DNA in a cell: the DNA sets the template for the proteins to be manufactured by the cell, and in turn the proteins determine the structure, operation, life cycle, and all major properties of the cell. The Cardinal Relations and Obligations likewise determine the structure, operation, and all major properties of the society.

First, the Cardinal Relation between the ruler (government) and the subjects. The ruler (government) is obliged to rule with benevolence and competence in providing protection and peace and order to the subjects. The subjects are obliged to obey (i.e., obey the laws) and to pay sustenance (taxes and service) to the government. Also, the subjects are required to point out the ruler’s mistakes and wrongdoings, should any occur, and not obsequiously pander to the ruler.

Second, the Cardinal Relation between the father (parents) and the son (offspring): the parents are obliged to be kind, and to raise and teach the offspring, and the offspring are required to be good to, or xiao` 孝 (how-3 in Cantonese), to the parents. That includes obeying, respecting, supporting parents when they are aged, and dissuading parents from doing wrong.

Third, the Cardinal Relation between the older brother (older sibling) and the younger: the older sibling is friendly and solicitous, and the younger sibling is respectful. The older sibling looks after and helps the younger, and the younger obeys the older. Sibling rivalry is a no-no, definitely not considered healthy in traditional Chinese thinking. Growing up during the fifties and early sixties in Hong Kong, although my brothers and I fight almost on a daily basis, because of the then still prevalent Confucian thinking we absorb from school, radio, and movies, we would be deeply ashamed if we were ever seen fighting by people outside the family. Because society back then, still imbued with Confucian thinking, frowns upon fighting among siblings, and especially for the younger sibling as he is supposed to defer to and respect the older, our fights are always private, carried out in the privacy of our homes.

Stay tuned–more on the Cardinal Relations in my next blog.

Feng Xin-ming

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