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How Chinese People Think - Learn Key Teachings from Confucius

Do you know who Confucius is? If you don’t, Confucius is considered to be one of China’s first teachers, he is a Chinese philosopher who died around 2,500 years ago but his ideas still shape Chinese culture and society today. Read on and watch the video lesson to learn the easiest way to understand the hearts and minds of Chinese people.

By reading the collection of his sayings and ideas in a book called 论语 (lùnyǔ / lúnyǔ). In English, it is known as ‘The Analects’, you’ll be able to understand the Chinese mind. Today we will do this and you will learn how to say 3 popular quotes and 3 principles from the book in Chinese, that every Chinese person would know. And, we will also look at the meaning behind each one.

1. 己所不欲,勿施于人 (Jǐ suǒ bú yù, wù shī yú rén)

Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire

Vocabulary breakdown

己: Oneself

所不欲: Everything that you don’t want

勿: Do not

施: To impose

于人: Other people

How did this quote come about?

It was said that one day, one of Confucius’ disciples said to him "there is so much wisdom out there if I can only remember just one saying or idea what would recommend?" And replied, "己所不欲,勿施于人" (Jǐ suǒ bú yù, wù shī yú rén). This was a brave thing to say during this ancient period as there were slaves. This meant that if the rich did not want to do something, they would of course make someone else do it.

But even with that mindset in a conservative society, Confucius was brave and intellectual enough to share this piece of wisdom which still rings true today. This is a golden rule that guides Chinese business and personal life to this day. You may notice that the Chinese choose to conduct harmonious business deals rather than try and gain an advantage in every situation because this is something you would not want someone to do to you.

2. 三十而立 (sānshí érlì)

Established by thirty

Vocabulary breakdown

三十: Thirty

而: And

立: Established.

What does this quote mean?

By the time you are 30, you should be an established person. But established in what? Three things - have an established set of moral principles, be established in your career, and have an established family too. And that’s why you may see in Chinese culture and society a strong pressure to get married and start a family by age 30. So much so that women who aren’t married when entering their thirties are called 剩女 (shèng nǚ) in Chinese which means 'leftover women'.

3. 成人之美 (chéng rén zhī měi)

Help others succeed

Vocabulary breakdown

成: The full meaning is 成全 (chéng quán) which means to fulfil or help.

人: People

之: Is the equivalent of 的 (a possessive particle)

美: Good things

What does this quote mean?

So essentially, it means to help others to succeed in their matters. And you may notice in many Chinese dramas, there are always two guys who are friends that end up falling in love with the same girl. In the end, there’s always just one guy that the girl truly loves. Instead of being jealous all the way till the end, at a certain point you always see the other guy help his friend have a successful relationship with the girl. This is an example of 成人之美 (chéng rén zhī měi), that you see in many Chinese dramas.

4. 孝 (xiào)

Filial Piety

Character breakdown

孝 is made up of the characters 老 (lǎo) old and 子 (zǐ) children. 子 is at the bottom, so it looks like it is supporting the 老 which is on top. This is one principle that is very different between China and the west. In the west, there is more emphasis on individualism and living out one’s dreams. However, in China, as can be seen in the character 孝, it is the old, the parents who gave life to the children and provided them with all the necessities they need and therefore, children have an eternal obligation to support them and repay their debt to their parents, basically taking care of their parents in old age and making them proud. That’s why you may see that Chinese people are more sensitive to the opinions of their parents than other cultures. Also, every lunar new year in China, children feel the need and urge to return to their hometowns and spend time with their parents.

Where can this concept be seen?

This concept transcends beyond the boundaries of just your family. For example, if people see a young person not respecting their family or elders, they would think that this person is 不孝 (bú xiào) which means 'not filial'. And that person would lose face and the respect of others because they would think 'how could I ever hire, work with or even be associated with such a non-filial person?' The non-filial person will find it really difficult to find jobs or fit into society. This is different to western societies, where your relationship with your family is not taken into account when you are applying for jobs.

5. 中庸 (zhōng yōng)

The golden mean

Vocabulary breakdown

中: Middle

庸: Constant

What does this mean?

Imagine you are driving a car, if want to drive well on a straight road, you would keep the steering wheel in the middle and not steer too far to the right or left. This is what the doctrine of 中庸 (zhōng yōng) resembles and it applies to all areas of life too. For example, in relationships, you shouldn’t get too close to your friend, nor should you be too distant from them. The best thing is to have a balance in the closeness of your relationships. This is different from that in other cultures where the motto is sometimes more “go hard or go home” or “all or nothing”. Chinese people like to have a balance.

6. 仁 (rén)


Character breakdown

Confucius didn’t give this word a definite meaning but it appears so many times throughout the analects, in fact it appears over 100 times. If we look at the character, we can see that it is made up of a person 人 (rén) and then the number two - 二 (èr). So the word literally means how people should treat one another – compassion.

What does this mean?

Essentially if there is harmony between people, then everything will go well and if there is disharmony between people then disaster will arise. And that’s why you may notice that Chinese people are not as confrontational as other societies and prefer to mediate conflicts rather than to just have direct confrontation with someone.

Watch the video lesson to hear the pronunciation of each quote:

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