The Five Virtues

The virtues of benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and trustworthiness form the basis of Confucian thought. These virtues greatly influenced and regulated the moral norms in ancient China for both individuals and the society.

It was Mencius that first introduced these virtues, excluding trustworthiness, at approximately 300 BC. Zhongshu Dong, a famous scholar in the Western Han Dynasty, proposed that human beings should additionally adhere to trustworthiness, and hence these virtues were collectively termed – The Five Virtues.

Since then, the Five Virtues have been taught and passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years. Both China and surrounding Southeast Asian nations were greatly influenced by Confucianism.

A lesson Learnt for Two Brothers

There is a story that has been passed down about two brothers who served as government officials during the Song Dynasty (AD 960 – 1279).

When their parents passed away, these two brothers argued back and forth for the family inheritance. Unable to resolve this dispute, they brought their case to the Appeals Court. At the time, the Appeals Court was run by religious priests.

After a six-year-long dispute in the Appeals Court, with the case having passed through three court priests, one of the priests sought assistance from Zongxian Yu, a retired priest.

After considering the case, Priest Zongxian Yu wrote an inscription as follows:

A mother pigeon calls for her babies when night falls, whilst a mother crow nurtures her young, and in turn her young feed their mother when grown up – This is benevolence.

A deer can communicate to its herd the location of good grass, whilst a bee can alert its hive of flowers – This is righteousness.

A little lamb kneels before its mother when eating, whilst a horse always shows affection toward its mother – This is propriety.

A spider spins a web to catch food, whilst ants use sand to barricade the entrance to their ant hole on a rainy day – This is wisdom.

A rooster crows at dawn, whilst wild geese move only in a flock – This is trustworthiness. Even animals adhere to the Five Virtues.

In sharp contrast, human beings are the main inhabitants of this Earth, and humans will gain what they ought to.

Despite the older brother having read thousands of works of literature, he never passed on this knowledge to his younger brother. The younger brother is well versed in the Six Arts*, so why does he still hurt his older brother? It is important to correct our mistakes, and thus introspection is essential.

Priest Yu then finished his inscription with a poem:

A mother gave birth to two boys;

Why do they compete for the family inheritance?

So much time has passed since they first met;

What predestination brought them together to be brothers in this life?

After having read the poem, the two brothers were extremely ashamed of themselves and cried on each others shoulders. Inspired by the wisdom of The Five Virtues, the two brothers stopped fighting for the inheritance and finally returned home together.


* The Six Arts: Forms the basis of education in ancient China, with the subjects of: Rites, Music, Archery, Charioteering, Calligraphy and Mathematics.

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