We didn’t plan to be born, but we were; we don’t want to die, but we eventually have to. Life and death are constants. We spend much of our lives thinking about death. Why should people prefer death to life under certain circumstances? How should people interpret death? What is worth dying for? Ancient Chinese thought about these things as much as we do, and there were even specific circumstances in which death was preferable to the alternative.
Laying down one’s life for ren and yi
Confucian thought was the mainstream in ancient dynasties and its view toward life and death had the most prominent influence. In order to discuss this topic with Confucius or Mencius, you should understand two basic concepts: ren (仁) and yi (义).
The basic meaning of ren is “love for others”, and it usually refers to compassion or conscience, virtue of respect, and the unity of all things under heaven. And yi can be translated to “righteousness”, with its basic meaning “reasonable” and “proper”. Confucianism holds ren and yi as the highest moral principles, meaning that people should adjust their actions to meet these certain standards.
If you accept these two words, take care, your life is already on the edge. Because ren and yi are so important that you should always protect them even at the cost of your life…at least, that’s what sages said.
Confucius said, “A man of virtue should not cling cravenly to life at the expense of ren; instead, he should lay down his life for the accomplishment of ren (志士仁人，无求生以害仁，有杀身以成仁).”
And Mencius said, “Life, is what I want; righteousness, is also what I want. If I can’t have both, I should prefer righteousness to life (生，我所欲也，义，亦我所欲也。二者不可得兼，舍生而取义者也). ”
These two sentences then became a universal moral standard. Life was just the price you have to pay, but to meet the standard of ren and yi should be your lifelong pursuit. Besides, if you see the phrase “成仁 (chéngrén)” or “取义 (qǔyǐ)”, which literally means “achieve ren” and “prefer yi“, you should know that it referred to death, usually meaning “die a martyr for a noble reason”.
You have to die if the emperor or your father wants you do
Besides ren and yi, the thought of filial piety and being loyal to the monarch are another two fundamental concepts. But they were often distorted. Originally Confucius said that “sons should behave filially, fathers paternally, kings royally and subjects loyally” when he answered a question about how to govern a country. But a warped version became more commonly known, which said “you have to die if the emperor or your father wants you to”.
Many credit it to Confucius, and blame him for such an unreasonable principle. But actually it was not from Confucius or any other famous Confucian scholars. This sentence of unknown origin was apparently very popular, because it could be found in many traditional literary works or folk stories (and was probably encouraged by the powers that be).
Civil officials should die for criticizing the emperor and military generals should die on the battlefield
It was considered the highest achievement for ancient officials to die at their posts. According to the Book of Later Han, a leading general Ma Xuan, of the Eastern Han Dynasty(25-220), tried to persuade the emperor to let him lead an army in a battle at the age of 62. He said, “A real man should die in action and be buried in a horsehide shroud instead of being attended in bed by sons and daughters till his death.” Though he died at his post the following year, the idiom “wrapping one’s corpse in horsehide (马革裹尸, mǎgé guǒshī)” passed down and became a noble pursuit for many of his followers.
In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), an official by the name of Hai Rui became famous for risking his life by criticizing the emperor.
In the reign of Emperor Jiajing, a tense atmosphere meant that officials were too terrified to talk about national affairs in case they displeased the emperor. But Hai was an exception. In 1566, Hai bought himself a coffin and asked a friend to take care of his family, then submitted a missive to the emperor. In this missive, he criticized the emperor for his Taoist pursuits and extravagant life and revealed the massive extent of corruption among officials.
Hai was arrested, but luckily for him, even though the emperor was very angry after reading the missive, he understood Hai’s loyalty and didn’t kill him. The emperor died not long afterwards, and Hai was then released.
Image depicting Hai Rui writing his missive [28lu.com]
A gentleman would be most willing to die for those who recognize and appreciate his worth
This sentence was said by a Chinese assassin
Yu Rang (豫让) in the Spring and Autumn Period (722-476 BC). Yu Rang served Zhi Bo, a high-ranking minister of the State of Jin. Zhi Bo respected Yu Rang very much.
Zhi Bo was defeated and killed by his enemy Zhao Xiangzi. Yu Rang then decided to take revenge for him. In order to get close to Zhao Xiangzi, Yu Rang even swallowed a piece burning charcoal to change his voice and put on some paint on his skin to make it fester. He tried to get close to Zhao several times but failed each time. Eventually he was caught by Zhao Xiangzi .
Zhao was moved by his courage and loyalty and asked why he insisted on taking revenge for Zhi Bo. Yu said, “Zhi Bo treated me as incomparable talent of the state, so I served him the way talent should.” Then Zhao let Yu stab his coat, as if to complete his task, if only as a role play.
Then he ordered Yu to commit suicide.
What, you thought he was going to let the assassin who wanted to murder him live? That would be pretty dumb.
Zhuang Zhou’s wife dies, he sings and hits a portable basin
Usually, death makes people sad, but not everyone feels the same way. Zhuang Zhou (庄周) or Master Zhuang, was an influential taoist philosopher who lived around the 4th century BC during the Warring States period. His friends were understandably appalled when in response to his wife’s death, he took a portable washbasin and started pounding away and singing in a jocular fashion.
Zhuang explained that he was heartbroken at first, but upon reflection he had decided death was not such a tragedy. He said that before his wife was born, she had no life and something original developed into breath, body and then life via changes. Now she had changed from life to no life again. “Such a change is like the regular and non-stop circulation of four seasons. At present, she quietly sleeps between Heaven and Earth to wait for the new change, but I am still crying for her to restart. Isn’t that irrational? So instead I am singing,” said Zhuang Zhou.
Cover Image depicting Zhuang Zhou, from nongshanghang.cn