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It’s often said that being a ‘real man’ is a question of having moral fiber

It’s often said that being a “real man” is a question of having moral fiber—you know, the difference between right and wrong and all that stuff. Menicus, that second most famous of Confucians, probably said it best: “To not be overwhelmed, nor to be led astray by riches or honor, nor to abandon one’s aspiration in poverty, nor not yield to threats or violence—that is a real man.” (富贵不能淫,贫贱不能移,威武不能屈,此之谓大丈夫。Fùguì bùnéng yín, pínjiàn bùnéng yí, wēiwǔ bùnéng qū, cǐ zhī wèi dàzhàngfū.)

Jiecao (节操) is Chinese for moral principle, and it is exactly what Mencius was talking about, except today a lot of Chinese, cynics that they are, use it a little differently. Old notions that one should strive to be morally elevated are ridiculed, and 无节操 (wú jiécāo, to have no moral fiber) has become a new buzzword. In most circumstances, it is used jokingly to mock absurdly silly, mischievous behavior—small acts of forgivable meanness or embarrassment. But, today, it is rarely used in cases of serious moral lapses.

A modern usage might be: “My cat will roll around and act all cute for a little snack, it has no moral fiber.” (我的猫给点儿吃的就打滚儿卖萌无节操。Wǒ de māo gěi diǎnr chī de jiù dǎgǔnr màiméng wú jiécāo.)

Or, for a minor misdemeanor, perhaps, “Every time you invite me to dinner you forget to bring your wallet. Where is your moral fiber?” (一到请我吃饭的时候你就忘记带钱包,你的节操在哪里?Yídào qǐng wǒ chīfàn de shíhòu nǐ jiù wàngjì dài qiánbāo, nǐ de jiécāo zài nǎlǐ?)

Alternatively, to express morbid embarrassment, you can use 节操碎了一地 (jiécāo suìle yī dì, moral integrity being shattered to the ground), as in, “I got wildly drunk at the company party and flirted with the new intern; my moral integrity was shattered to the ground.” (我在公司的聚会上喝多了,还跟新来的实习生调情;我的节操碎了一地。Wǒ zài gōngsī de jùhuì shàng hē duō le, hái gēn xīn lái de shíxíshēng tiáoqíng; wǒ de jiécāo suìle yī dì.)

Chinese people love couplets, and, of course, a couplet was invented especially for jiecao: “一入江湖深似海,从此节操是路人。”(Yī rù jiānghú shēn sì hǎi, cóngcǐ jiécāo shì lùrén. Once I went into the deep, unpredictable world of jianghu, I no longer know such a thing as moral integrity.) Jianghu is the imaginary underworld in China’s wuxia romances. Now, the word jianghu is usually replaced with anything that brings out the immoral, as in, “Once I went into politics, I no longer knew such a thing as moral integrity.” (一入政坛深似海,从此节操是路人。Yī rù zhèngtán shēn sì hǎi ,cóngcǐ jiécāo shì lùrén.)

无节操无下限 (wú jiécāo wú xiàxiàn) or “without moral integrity and having no bottom line”, might be used to express dissatisfaction of  something that is morally questionable, such as “This editorial claims that people should tolerate moderate corruption. It’s without moral integrity and has no bottom line!” (这篇评论竟然声称人们应该容忍适度的腐败,真是无节操无下限!Zhè piān pínglùn jìngrán shēngchēng rénmen yīnggāi róngrěn shìdù de fǔbài, zhēnshì wú jiécāo wú xiàxiàn!)

So, whatever you’re up to—be it dodging a bill, drinking, dancing, flirting, or simply looking at cute cat pictures on the Internet—be sure to hold onto your moral fiber.

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Carlos Ottery is a contributing writer at The World of Chinese.