Confucius said: “Shen, my way is woven into a single thread.” Zengzi replied: “Indeed.” After Confucius had left, the other followers asked: “What did he mean?” Zengzi said: “The way of the Master is based on loyalty and reciprocity; that and nothing more.” (1) (2)
Do you have a Golden Rule that you follow: a core ethical principle that guides all your actions? For Confucius, this could be boiled down to reciprocity. As he explains in Chapter 14 of Book 15 of the Analects, this means: “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.” In other words, put yourself in other people’s shoes before you say or do something to them.
The principle of reciprocity is by no means exclusive to Confucius. It can also be found in many philosophies and religions from China, Greece, India, the Middle East, and other ancient civilizations. In Matthew 7:12, Jesus gives his own similar spin on it: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”
At a time when it only takes a couple of seconds to type out a message that can fuel the anger of a worldwide audience, reciprocity has never been a more appropriate principle to live by than now. Of course, it doesn’t mean doing nothing or staying silent. It simply requires you to show respect and understanding for others before doing or saying something you’re likely to regret later in any case.
This article features a translation of Chapter 15 of Book 4 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 4 here.
(1) Shen (參) is the given name of Zengzi. You can read more about him here.
(2) Some commentators translate the term 忠 (zhōng) as “faithfulness” or even “doing your utmost.” My theory is that this passage is a “reimagining” written by the followers of Zengzi to position to position their leader as the keeper of the flame of Confucius. The use of the term is not only redundant but also adds unnecessary ambiguity to the meaning of Confucius’s statement. If all the principles of his way are woven into a single thread, why would this thread consist of two different (though admittedly related) elements?
I took this image at the Taipei Confucius Temple.