The Way of Integrity


Integrity, or chengxin, is an essential idea in Ruist thought. Cheng, as a moral standard, requires us to cultivate virtue in our characters and deeds, sincerely following the “way of heaven.” Xin requires us to speak truthfully and act uprightly: not boasting, or uttering empty words and never lying. Although honesty (cheng) and trustworthiness (xin) are different philosophical terms, from the moral point of view, they are complementary. When combined as chengxin they signify integrity, the keeping of promises and the completion of actions. Chinese culture regards integrity as an indispensable virtue—it is the base of a person’s character and the key to maintaining families as well as the way to make friends. It is the foundation of politics, the principle of business, and the best medicine to cheer downcast spirits. 


Both Chinese and Western philosophers value integrity as foundational for the maintenance of social development and order, agreeing its essence to be that of ethical behavior that eschews deceit. However, because of differences between social systems and cultures, China and the West do interpret it somewhat differently. In the West, under the influence of Christianity, there existed the concept of “original sin” while in China a theory of the “inherent goodness” of humankind prevailed. This is an ethics of identity that is largely determined by the traditional Chinese ethics of the family patriarchal clan system in which attachment to family is especially strong.


How can one become a person of integrity? In China, the path to this is believed to arise from imitating the behavior of virtuous individuals, especially in five general ways.


The first is to neither cheat oneself nor others. A celebrated example of honesty rewarded by success was a traditional herbal store located in Hangzhou in Zhejiang province founded in 1874 by Hu Xueyan (1823–1885), a merchant from Huizhou in southern Anhui. Since 1988 a medicine museum, in its heyday this place was famous domestically and internationally for utilizing only the best ingredients. When purchasing materials, every effort was made by its owners and managers to buy only authentic herbs and process them with the greatest care.


The second is the acknowledgment of mistakes. The Zuo Tradition (Zuo zhuan) says that humans are bound to make mistakes; as long as we can correct them, we are still good people. A later story frequently cited to illustrate this point involves the renowned Song dynasty scholar Su Dongpo (aka Su Shi, 1037–1101) who was always quite sure of himself. Once he criticized a poem by the Song statesman Wang Anshi  (1021–1086) as having an inaccurate description of a natural phenomenon—the scattering of a certain type of chrysanthemum petal in the autumn which Su “knew” to be impossible. Sometime later, however, Su himself saw this phenomenon. He felt ashamed at his unwarranted arrogance and personally apologized to Wang Anshi. He thus gained respect from Wang.


The third thing is the keeping of promises. The Zuo Tradition emphasizes the importance of this by saying that if a person loses credibility, then when disaster strikes there will be no one to support him and he will ultimate be destroyed. In China, a story about one of Confucius’s (551–479 BCE) disciples known as Zengzi (ca. 504–435 BCE) is frequently cited to illustrate this point. About to go the market, Zengzi’s wife was badgered by their young son who wanted to accompany her, something that would have been quite bothersome. To stop his crying, she told him she would, upon her return, kill a pig and make a tasty pork dish that did indeed calm the child down, and she left. Upon her return, she was surprised to find her husband about to kill the pig, something usually done only for a special celebration and queried him as she had only wanted to quiet the child and never intended to follow through with this act. Zengzi reproved her for not setting a proper parental example and killed the pig to teach both his wife and son the importance of adhering to one’s word.


The fourth is treating people honestly. During the Warring States period (475–221 BCE), a person named Song Jiu  (nd) was the magistrate of the State of Liang at its border with the state of Chu. The people of both states planted melons around the border offices, but the Chu people secretly destroyed the other state’s vines. Upon discovering this, their Liang counterparts reported it to Song Jiu and demanded revenge. However, he forbade that and instead said they could best change others through kindness. He sent people to water the Chu people’s melons every night and they began to thrive. After the Chu people and their Duke of Chu came to know how this happened and who was responsible for this, they were immensely impressed by Song Jiu’s virtuous behavior. As a result, they sent valuable gifts to the Duke of Liang and asked for a rapprochement with the other state so that they then coexisted in harmony.


The fifth item is ensuring that one’s deeds correspond to his ideals or words. Much emphasized by Confucius, as he evaluated a person’s virtue according to his (or her) actual moral practices, this ideal has had a profound influence on the Chinese people. Such staying true to one’s own moral code, even if not explicitly required to do by others is exemplified by a famous story known dating to the Spring and Autumn period and thus even before the time of Confucius. On a diplomatic mission to the Xu state, Ji Zha (ca. 576–484 BCE) of the Wu state noted that the ruler of Xu admired a precious sword he had brought to the court, and thought he should give it to him after completing his mission. However, upon his return to Xu he discovered the ruler had died. Thereupon, even though there was no requirement to do so other than staying true to himself, Ji Zha took the sword, of a quality that would be considered a national treasure, and hung it on a tree at the man’s tomb. 


In modern society, people are eager for instant success and quick profits and crave comfort. People obtain great wealth via technology but are, to an extent also enslaved by it, but this is a minor issue compared to the problem of the expanding loss of integrity among many people due to the allure of materialism. This harms economic development and disrupts social order. For example, in government work it has led people to deceive their superiors and delude their subordinates, leading to graft and embezzlement. In the business world, companies commonly conduct their affairs without conscience: treating their customers coldly and carelessly; breaking contracts, selling fake products and making false entries. With the credit crisis in finance in recent years and the trouble this has caused, more people have become aware of the need to rebuild a society based on trustworthiness and the necessity of integrity in making social progress. During this ongoing transformation, the traditional Chinese philosophy of the way of integrity is worth learning and practicing.

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