The Six Relationships and
the Mandate of Heaven
The "Six Relationships" or "Six Relations,"
, are supposed to be the basis of all social connections between persons,
and all six are based on the fundamental relationship between parents and children. Thus they are all variations of xiào
, or "filial piety" (Latin pietas filialis
), the religious respect that children owe to their parents. Originally, the "six" referred to the six members of three sets of relations, as follows:
Different versions of these three sets can be found, however, and it is possible to expand the system so as to contain six entirely different sets of relations, including the following at right:
While the classic form of the six relationships did contain only three pairs, the later influence of the theory of the five elements gave the impression that there should be "five relationships,"
. Being an odd number, five relationships would require five whole pairs, not two and a half pairs. These are given with the Chinese Elements. Teacher and student seems to be the pair that gets left out in that version -- here distinguished by a darker background, and by my not being aware of a simple two-character expression for the relationship, as with the other five.
In each of the relationships, the superior member (father, husband, etc.) has the duty of benevolence and care for the subordinate member (son, wife, etc.). The subordinate member has the duty of obedience. The only exception might be the relationship between friend and friend, which may actually involve equality -- unless, of course, one is older than the other, which would turn it into a relationship like that between older and younger brother. The reverential attitude toward the teacher (rather like the relationship in India to the guru
) may be easily seen in the Bruce Lee movie The Chinese Connection
, in which Bruce Lee avenges the murder of his boxing master, whom he all but worships, by the Japanese in 1930's Shanghai. The expression
, also "teacher," in Japanese) is used today for the title "Mr." in Modern Chinese. In European languages, we see feudal titles like "lord" (Señor
) and "master" used as such an honorific, while in Chinese it is "teacher" instead.
Although they are not formally part of the six relationships, we have matching terms for sisters, older and younger, just as for brothers. Used together, jiemèi
, the characters can mean "sisters," or reduplicated we get polysyllabic words for "elder sister," jiejie
, and "younger sister," mèimei
is an expression that we find in the recent science fiction series Firefly
, used affectionately for, as it happens, a younger sister, but also for a friend. We also see older and younger sisters expressed with the characters for older and younger brothers
, with the addition of the character for "woman" or "female":
. This striking device adds some evidence for our evaluation of the feminist theory of "sexist language."
Unlike India, where social obedience was absolute and, for instance, a wife was supposed to obey and worship her husband even if he was worthless, unfaithful, abusive, etc. (because it would be her karma
to be in such a relationship), obedience in the Six Relationships in China was contingent
on the superior member actually
observing their duty to be benevolent,
, and caring. Since the highest Confucian "obedience" is to do what is right, "true" obedience to parents, husband, ruler, etc. is to refuse to obey any orders to do what is wrong.
Refusal to obey the emperor out of "true" obedience could, of course, get one put to death; and Chinese history celebrates such martyrs. An emperor who was no longer benevolent, however, could also be overthrown, and that is an interesting consequence of the conditional nature of obedience. In this area, the matter is usually stated as part of the theory of the Tian Ming
, the "Mandate of Heaven." This means at least four things, the first two of which are already present in the thought of Confucius himself:
- The moral order of the universe: Thus Confucius says, "At fifty I understood the Mandate of Heaven" [Analects II:4], i.e. knew what right and wrong were.
- Fate: Thus, in the Analects one of Confucius's students is quoted as saying, "Life and death are the Mandate of Heaven," i.e. beyond our control [Analects XII:5].
- The right to rule: This becomes the most important meaning of the "Mandate of Heaven." Knowing the moral order of the universe and actually observing it make one a worthy ruler. Otherwise one has no business, and no right, being in power. Such an idea is quite different from mediaeval European ideas about government, where the king (Pope, emperor, or whatever) often derived authority directly from God and was answerable only to God. There was therefore no right to rebellion in Western thought until the Protestant Reformation (which questioned the authority of Catholic rulers).
- The judgment of history: This combines the "right to rule" with "fate," for the Chinese view was that losing the Mandate of Heaven as the right to rule would shortly be followed by the actual loss of power. The historical precedent for this was the brief and ferocious rule of the Qin Dynasty (255-207 BC) followed by the more benign and durable tenure of the Han emperors (the Former Han 206 BC-25 AD, the Later Han 25 AD-220). This becomes a principle that informs the writing of Chinese history: Beginning with the Later Han Dynasty, one of first acts of a traditional Chinese dynasty was the commissioning of an official history of the previous dynasty (in that case the great History of the Former Hàn Dynasty). Such a history in effect becomes the certificate of legitimacy for the new dynasty, showing how the previous dynasty was at first benevolent but then eventually lost the Mandate of Heaven, which means it was the obligation of the new dynasty to replace it. The history of the last Chinese dynasty, the Qing (1644-1912), was completed by the government of the Republic of China on Taiwan.
Reference : http://www.friesian.com/confuci.htm#six