Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

A Passion for the Worthy

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

A Passion for the Worthy

Article excerpt


"Virtue" or de [??] in early China, was regarded as one of the things that might satisfy sensual longings. As such, it was compared to a variety of commodities, from material and tactile goods--such as rich foods or luxurious clothing--to music, beauty and sexual attractiveness that are appreciated through the non tactile senses of hearing and sight. (1) And although thought superior to any of these other commodities, because virtue was treated as somehow analogous to them, it was consequently regarded as something that could be valued and treasured, measured and quantified, as well as embraced and accumulated; it could be cultivated and refined by those who possessed virtue or, perhaps, counterfeited, faked, ruined, and otherwise diminished in value by others who lacked it but nevertheless managed to influence those in power; and, finally, virtue might be overlooked or unappreciated by those with misplaced desires or for whom it was an acquired taste like caviar or bear's paw, and hence simply not to their liking.

As for those who genuinely possessed or enacted virtue, they were deemed xian [??] "worthy" or "excellent." (2) Because their virtue made them superior to ordinary individuals, they too were regarded as valuable commodities to be collected and reverently placed on pedestals. Some celebrated the worthy in the belief that the display of their refinements and talents would inspire others to view them as models and hence to study them closely and emulate them. Others believed that a true celebration of the worthy meant paying them an amount equal to the value of their virtue. Doing so, they calculated, would encourage the worthy to apply themselves to the work of the state and thus bring glory and wealth to the rulers who employed them as well as to their subjects.

These are some of the conceptual contours of virtue and worthiness that form the background of the present study. My aim in this study is to bring together and discuss a few passages, mainly from Kongzi's Lunyu [??][??] (or Analects) and from the Mozi [??][??], that suggest how seeing virtue and those who possess it as objects of sensual delight sheds light on de as a foundational concept in early Chinese moral philosophies and on why the xian were seen as paragons of talent and excellence by all sides engaged in the debates on statecraft and the proper management of government bureaucracies.

Another background element of the present study is my earlier work on the Mawangdui manuscript entitled Wuxing [??][??]. In that work I analyze a claim made in the manuscript that the opening poem of the Shijing [??][??], referred to as "Guanju" [??][??], illustrates the idea that it is the experience of erotic desires that discloses to the person who undergoes them the proper forms of politeness and propriety. (3) In the present study I will take the opportunity to expand upon some of the points I made in that earlier work and, in doing so, to explore the possibility that the Wuxing account of the uses of desire parallels a passage in the Lunyu that appears to suggest, albeit elliptically, that proper reverence for the worthy means being passionate about them.


We can gain a preliminary grasp of the notion of virtue as something that satisfies appetites from some well-known passages in the Mozi and Lunyu. For example, the "Ming gui" [??] chapter of the Mozi repeats the tale of how God-on-High sent his deputy Goumang [??] to extend the life of Duke Mu of Qin [??][??][??] by nineteen years as payment because the supreme deity had xiang [??] "savored" (or, perhaps, "enjoyed the flavor of") the ruler's ming de [??][??] "bright virtue." (4) Presumably the "brightness" of Duke Mu's virtue refers to appetizing qualities like purity and refinement that distinguish it from more ordinary--and hence less flavorful--virtue or perhaps the bad or spoiled virtue that God-on-High had tasted. Since the brief anecdote is quoted in the Mozi merely to help prove the existence of spirits like Guomang who reward the good, whether the Qin ruler had preserved the pristine purity of his virtue or had somehow cooked and distilled it so that it possessed these qualities is not elaborated upon. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.