Chinese Medicine and Culture

: 2019  |  Volume : 2  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 137--140

Ren (仁 ), the benevolent thought of traditional Chinese medicine

Anwen Zheng 
 Postgraduate English Teaching Department, Foreign Languages School, Anhui University of Technology, Maanshan, Anhui, China

Correspondence Address:
Prof. Anwen Zheng
Postgraduate English Teaching Department, Foreign Languages School, Anhui University of Technology, Maanshan, Anhui


This article offers a brief introduction to the evolution of Ren(仁), which is not only the core of Confucian ethics but also the top moral principle observed by traditional Chinese medicine doctors, holding that feasible solutions to cultural conflicts could be worked out under the guidance of Ren.

How to cite this article:
Zheng A. Ren (仁 ), the benevolent thought of traditional Chinese medicine.Chin Med Cult 2019;2:137-140

How to cite this URL:
Zheng A. Ren (仁 ), the benevolent thought of traditional Chinese medicine. Chin Med Cult [serial online] 2019 [cited 2020 Jun 5 ];2:137-140
Available from:

Full Text



Ren (仁 [Figure 1] or benevolence), the top moral principle advocated by Confucian ethics,[1] has long been an acknowledged goal set by dedicated traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners in their medical careers, which is also embodied in a Chinese set phrase: Ren Xin Ren Shu (仁心仁术 or benevolent mind and medical skill). Actually, TCM ethics can hardly be fully understood if one fails to know the exact meaning of Ren in the context of Chinese culture.{Figure 1}

 The Cornerstone of Confucian Ethics

Confucianism had become a dominant ideology in ancient China since Emperor Liu Che (刘彻) (156 BC–87 BC), also known as Han Wu Di (汉武帝), made a crucial decision to espouse Confucianism as the only orthodox state ideology.[2] As the core of Confucianism, the fundamentals of Ren have virtually remained unchanged, though subtle differences can often be found in its interpretations, largely due to the interpreters' stances at various times.

The origin of Ren, which is normally translated into benevolence, but has a far broader connotation [Figure 2][3] than benevolence in English language, can be traced to Shang Shu (《尚书》 Book of History), a book written in the 5th century BC, in which the ideas of Ren are mentioned in sporadic remarks like “Ke Kuan Ke Ren” (克宽克仁 be tolerant and friendly to others) from Shang Shu Zhong Hui Zhi Zhao (《尚书·仲虺之诰》 Imperial Rescript of Zhong Hui·uiig of History), “Huai Yu You Ren” (怀于有仁a benevolent ruler can win love and esteem from his people) from Shang Shu Tai Jia (《尚书·太甲》Tai Jia·Book of History). These remarks, though unsystematic, reveal some semantic components of Ren, including tolerance, friendliness, and love, which have long been regarded as the required qualities of a Jun Zi (君子, gentleman in Chinese culture).{Figure 2}

Confucius (551 BC–479 BC) who, for the first time, introduced Ren into the fundamental theories of Confucianism, a school named after its founder. Ren, according to Lun Yu (《论语》 The Analects of Confucius), is to love human beings. Clearly, Ren, as a principle of ethics, is very close to the idea of charity, that is, a benevolent feeling, especially toward those in need or in disfavor, which can be fully explained by a famous saying: Lao Wu Lao Yi Ji Ren Zhi Lao (老吾老以及人之老 to extend respect of the aged in one's family to that of other families) from Meng Zi Liang Hui Wang Shang (《孟子梁惠王上》 Part I of Liang Hui Wang·Mencius), a remark made by Mencius (372 BC–289 BC), another important philosopher of Confucianism whose ideas enormously enriched the concept of Ren.

Why was Ren so important to the ancient Chinese society? The answer to the question seems to lie in the fact that China had been a closed and agriculture-dominated country till the country began to adopt the open door policy and develop its market-oriented economy in 1979. Over the long history of China's agriculture society, Ren, an acknowledged “regulator of interpersonal relations”[4] at the levels of both family and state, had played a crucial role in the Chinese efforts to maintain the social stability based on which prosperous dynasties could possibly be constructed. The development of an agricultural society relies mainly on a plentiful supply of labor force in the past, which can explain why Chinese preferred a big family to a small one and cherished the belief: the more sons, the more blessings. A big family, however, tends to have more disputes among family because of the complexity of interpersonal relationships. China once had the most complicated family system in the world,[5] which required effective ethic principles to regulate each member's behavior for the sake of the overall interests of the big family. To meet such a need of adjustment and control on clan relationship, Confucians put forward systematic ethics principles to govern domestic affairs within a clan, known as Xiao and Ti (孝悌 filial piety and fraternal duty), which constitute the essence of Ren, the top moral principle, as Confucius emphasized: “Ren has its origin in filial piety and fraternal duty” (孝悌也者, 其为仁之本与) from Lun Yu Xue Er (《论语学而》Chapter 1 of the Analects of Confucius). Through observing the so-called Xiao and Ti, Confucians hoped to establish an ideal society at least in Chinese families, in which people loved each other and led a peaceful life. In fact, it was due to the conviction of Xiao (孝filial piety) that some Confucians became determined to learn medicine and eventually became famous TCM practitioners. They strongly believed that a son with the virtue of Xiao should never unload his ailing parents on the hands of a quack, which would be viewed as a grave violation of Xiao, and therefore, it was his duty to learn medicine (病卧于床, 委之庸医,比于不慈不孝。事亲者, 亦不可不知医。) from Zhu Zi Yi Shu (《朱子遗书》Posthumous Papers of Zhu Xi).

Of course, Ren was not always confined to the adjustment of interpersonal relation within a family. Rather, Chinese people need Ren as the moral guide to realize the well-known Confucian aspiration, namely “Self-cultivation, regulating the family, governing the country, and building peace throughout the world” (修身 治国 平天下) from Li Ji Da Xue (《礼记大学》 Chapter 42 of the Book of Rites).

In the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368 AD–1912 AD), a commonly believed period of maturity for TCM, the tie between Confucianism and TCM had become so close that Xu Chunfu (徐春甫), a famous TCM doctor in the Ming dynasty, emphasized the significance of Confucius's teachings in medical career, saying “A physician's ignorance of Confucianism can give rise to a fatal mistake in his diagnosis “ (礼义之不修, 昧孔孟之教; 损益之不分, 害生民之命) from Gu Jin Yi Tong (《古今医统》Volume 3 of Medical Complete Book, Ancient and Modern). Undoubtedly, he strongly believed that Confucianism and TCM were inseparable from each other.[6]

 From Establishment to Maturity

Confucianism had evolved into a number of subschools at various historical periods, each advocating some kinds of Ren, though in different terms since Ren was put at the center of Chinese values by Confucius in Spring and Autumn Period (春秋时期770 BC–476 BC). Mencius, the second important Confucian philosopher, for instance, highlighted the significance of Ren Zheng (仁政 benevolent government), for he believed that man's nature at birth is good, and therefore everyone, whether a lord or a serf had an equal chance to become a perfect person like the legendary Yao and Shun (人皆可以为尧舜) from Meng Zi Gao Zi Zhang Ju Xia (《孟子·告子章句下》). According to Mencius, it was possible to build an ideal country as long as the rulers and the ruled could be conscientious in the performance of his or her duty purely out of benevolence or Ren. To put it more concretely, Mencius described Ren as a natural trait of being compassionate, the so-called Ce Yin Zhi Xin (恻隐之心), which according to Mencius, was the very starting point of Ren, and all human beings had such trait (恻隐之心, 人之端也; 恻隐之心, 人皆有之). In other words, Ren is deeply rooted in human nature. Ren has been widely regarded as the source of Yi (义 righteousness), Li (礼 Ch etiquette), Zhi (智 wisdom), and Xin (信 trustworthiness), the other four moral principles observed by Confucians, and they were gradually built into a complete theoretical system of Confucianism with Ren at its core. Of course, such a theoretical system could hardly be established overnight. Instead, it was owing to the joint efforts made by Chinese philosophers of different periods that an enormously influential ethics of Confucianism eventually came into being, and to a large extent, Chinese culture had been moulded by the five moral principles since then, which was often referred to as Wu Chang (五常five constants or five invariable moral norms that must be followed by Confucians in their daily life) by the later generations. Among the five constants, Ren is undoubtedly the cornerstone of the whole system, based on which the other four could be built. Ren, along with Yi, Li, Zhi, and Xin, acted as an efficient regulator of social relations in traditional China, including the relations between TCM doctors and patients. In ancient China, to most TCM doctors, practicing medicine was not only a means of livelihood but also a way of putting what Confucius taught into effect by curing patients of thier illnesses [Figure 3]. In fact, most TCM doctors cherished a good reputation more as a doctor with Confucian spirit than the money they could earn in their work [Figure 4] and [Figure 5]. The sense of honor was derived directly from Chinese glorification and worship of Confucius whose teachings had shaped the basic values of the nation over the past two millennia. For Confucianism believers, the value of self-actualization could be achieved by two means: to serve the emperor who, as a symbol, represented their country or to serve the ordinary people who constituted their country in essence, just as Fan Zhongyan (范仲淹 989 AD–1052 AD), a famous official in Northern Song Dynasty (北宋 960 AD–1127 AD), said: “If you can not be a good official, then be a good doctor” (不为良相, 便为良医). From the viewpoint of a TCM doctor who had a strong belief ofConfucianism, Ren was not merely a kindness to the patients, but asocial commitment that he had no alternative but to honor in hismedical career which can best be described as a spirit of Xuan Hu Ji Shi (悬壶济世 practice medicine to help the people). To live up to the standard of being a Confucian with such a spirit, a TCM doctor normally spared no efforts in his diagnosis to help a patient [Figure 6]. During the treatment, the doctor should adopt an active attitude toward his patient, and sometimes even in a case of hopelessness, no one was willing to give it up before every therapy had been tried and proved to be ineffective. Only at that moment could a TCM doctor breathe a sigh of relief because he had done all he could. Those who were willing to assume responsibilities for his people and country, especially at a crucial moment, were honored as Zhi Shi Ren Ren (志士仁人 men of benevolence and lofty ideas) and a TCM doctor with the dedication spirit of Ren was undoubtedly one of them.{Figure 3}{Figure 4}{Figure 5}{Figure 6}

 Ren, a Key to Cultural Conflict

The end of the cold war does not mean that people on this planet have reached agreement on ideology; instead, cultural conflicts, in one form or another, have occurred frequently somewhere in the world, and occasionally even given rise to clash of arms, just as Samuel P. Huntington described in his book The Clash of Civilizations and Remaking of World Order 《文明冲突与世界秩序的重建》: “the most dangerous cultural conflicts are those along the fault lines between civilizations.”[7] To many people, therefore, cultural conflicts seem to be unavoidable, especially under the backdrop of rapid globalization. However, the Chinese, who have been deeply influenced by Ren of Confucianism, look at this problem quite differently, and they firmly hold that cultural conflicts can be minimized as long as people are willing to Qiu Tong Cun Yi (求同存异, seek common ground and reserve their differences) with their kindness in cultural exchanges. Facing the omnipresent cultural differences, even those who have little knowledge about other cultures are able to communicate with foreigners in a peaceful manner if they can act on what Confucius once taught: Ji Suo Bu Yu Wu Shi Yu Ren (己所不欲勿施于人 never impose on others what you dislike yourself) from Lun Yu (《论语》 The Analects of Confucius).

Financial support and sponsorship

The study was financially supported by the Humanities and Social Sciences Research Project of Anhui Province (SK2018A0060).

Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.


1Qiu SJ. A Cultural History of China. He Fei: Anhui University Press; 1998. p. 60.
2Feng TY. A Cultural History of China. Shanghai: The People's Press; 2015. p. 300.
3Chen FH. Ancient Chinese Dictionary. Beijing: The Commercial Press; 2018. p. 1233.
4Qi SR. A History of China. Beijing: The People's Education Press; 2016. p. 39.
5Feng YL. A Short History of Chinese Philosophy. Beijing: Peking University Press; 2013. p. 21.
6Xu JS. Anecdotes of Medical Circles. Beijing: People's Medical Publishing House; 2011. p. 38.
7Samuel P. Huntington the Clash of Civilizations and Remaking of World Order. Beijing: Xin Hua Press; 2010. p. 6.