The sad story of Wang Yue, widely known as Yueyue - a two-year old girl in Foshan run over by a van, and even run over a second time by another vehicle, and then left to die while uncaring passersby ignored her - has swept across the internet in the past week. One of the most pointed responses I have seen is the reflection by writer Lijia Zhang. In trying to understand the tragedy, she writes:
The fundamental problem, in my view, lies in one word that describes a state of mind: shaoguanxianshi, meaning don't get involved if it's not your business. In our culture, there's a lack of willingness to show compassion to strangers. We are brought up to show kindness to people in our network of guanxi, family and friends and business associates, but not particularly to strangers, especially if such kindness may potentially damage your interest.
There is some truth in this. Guanxi is a powerful thing. But I want to preempt (and maybe I'm too late for preemption, so this will have to be a kind of resistance..) the lurking assumption that Confucianism is somehow to blame here.
Now it is true that Confucianism produces a sort of ethical particularism. Certain obligations are more important than others. If there is ever a conflict of duties between, say, taking care of our parents and helping others, our family obligations should come first. Indeed, if there is an apparent conflict between our family obligations and the law, Confucius famously suggests that we should protect our families first. Analects 13.18 gives us this:
The Governor of She in conversation with Confucius said, "In our village there is someone called 'True Person.' When his father took a sheep on the sly, he reported him to authorities.
Confucius replied, "Those who are true in my village conduct themselves differently. A father covers for his son, and a son covers for a father. And being true lies in this."
Constructing a universal (or universal within the jurisdiction of the state) moral code enforceable by law is thus obstructed by the Confucian call to care for family first. And this could, when reproduced over time for centuries, engender disregard for obligations we have to strangers.
But we should not stop the consideration of Confucianism there.
In the Analects, Confucius recognizes that, when not confronted with immediate conflicts of obligations, we should treat others as we would want them to treat us. There is a general sense of moral reciprocity. Of course, it is stated in negative terms - don't do unto others what you would not want done unto yourself - but the effect is largely the same. And in the case of Yueyue it would run something like this: don't ignore an injured child in the road because you would not want others to ignore your injured child in the road. Of the various places in the text where this "golden rule" is expressed, 12.2 might be best in reference to the Yueyue tragedy:
Zhonggong inquired about authoritative conduct (ren). The Master replied, "In your public life, behave as though you are receiving important visitors; employ the common people as though you are overseeing a great sacrifice. Do not impose upon others what you yourself do not want, and you will not incur personal or political ill will.
"Though I am not clever," said Zhonggong, "allow me to act on what you have said.
Notice the "in your public life." I think this would apply to the passersby in Foshan. Were they adhering to a Confucian code, they would have helped Yueyue, just as they would help an honored guest who had fallen in their home.
Mencius provides a much fuller justification for obligations to strangers, while maintaining the Confucian understanding that in those cases where obligations clearly conflict, family would come first. His famous image of a child about to be hurt by falling in a well is painfully apt here. Here's the Legge translation of 2A6 (Chinese Text Project):
.....When I say that all men have a mind which cannot bear to see the sufferings of others, my meaning may be illustrated thus: even now-a-days, if men suddenly see a child about to fall into a well, they will without exception experience a feeling of alarm and distress. They will feel so, not as a ground on which they may gain the favour of the child's parents, nor as a ground on which they may seek the praise of their neighbours and friends, nor from a dislike to the reputation of having been unmoved by such a thing. From this case we may perceive that the feeling of commiseration is essential to man, that the feeling of shame and dislike is essential to man, that the feeling of modesty and complaisance is essential to man, and that the feeling of approving and disapproving is essential to man. The feeling of commiseration is the principle of benevolence. The feeling of shame and dislike is the principle of righteousness. The feeling of modesty and complaisance is the principle of propriety. The feeling of approving and disapproving is the principle of knowledge. Men have these four principles just as they have their four limbs. When men, having these four principles, yet say of themselves that they cannot develop them, they play the thief with themselves, and he who says of his prince that he cannot develop them plays the thief with his prince. Since all men have these four principles in themselves, let them know to give them all their development and completion, and the issue will be like that of fire which has begun to burn, or that of a spring which has begun to find vent. Let them have their complete development, and they will suffice to love and protect all within the four seas. Let them be denied that development, and they will not suffice for a man to serve his parents with.'
Notice the univerality in the claims: not "some men" or "my family" but "all men have a mind [heart] which cannot bear to see the sufferings of others." And "all men have these four principles in themselves..." This is the classic statement of the Mencian belief in good human nature.
I read this as prescriptive as much as it is descriptive. He is telling us, by asserting this description of human nature, that this is how we should be in the world. We should act to save the child because we have the capacity for good and we need to enact and express that capacity to reach our full potential for humanity. That the passersby in Foshan failed to do so, shows them to "play the theif with themselves;" they are not doing what they can and should do.
I want to add another passage from Mencius here (thanks to the reading I am doing with my students this week) to underline the idea that we do have an obligation to treat strangers with compassion and respect. Here is an excerpt from 4B29 (which is #57 in the Chinese Text Project):
Yu and Ji, in an age when the world was being brought back to order, thrice passed their doors without entering them. Confucius praised them. The disciple Yan, in an age of disorder, dwelt in a mean narrow lane, having his single bamboo-cup of rice, and his single gourd-dish of water; other men could not have endured the distress, but he did not allow his joy to be affected by it. Confucius praised him. Mencius said, 'Yu, Ji, and Yan Hui agreed in the principle of their conduct. Yu thought that if any one in the kingdom were drowned, it was as if he drowned him. Ji thought that if any one in the kingdom suffered hunger, it was as if he famished him. It was on this account that they were so earnest. If Yu and Ji, and Yanzi, had exchanged places, each would have done what the other did. Here now in the same apartment with you are people fighting - you ought to part them. Though you part them with your cap simply tied over your unbound hair, your conduct will be allowable. If the fighting be only in the village or neighbourhood, if you go to put an end to it with your cap tied over your hair unbound, you will be in error. Although you should shut your door in such a case, your conduct would be allowable.'
Notice how Yu and Ji, sages worthy of emulation, took the sufferings of others as if they themselves were suffering. Bloom's translation suggests that when something bad was happening in the world, they felt as if they themselves were perpetrating the bad act. Either way, the main point is the same: they identified with the suffering of others, the suffering of strangers, and they longed to make it right. Clearly, had Yu or Ji been in that street in Foshan, they would have rushed to Yueyue's aid.
What happened, in the sad case of Yueyue, was not, then, simply a product of Confucian culture; it was a failure to live up to the moral expectations of Confucian culture. To my mind the only legitimate Confucian justification for non-action in this case would be if there were clear conflict with family obligations. And by "clear" I mean something more than the perverse incentives created by contemporary law. The possibility of some sort of legal entanglements in the future should not have obstructed immediate resopnse in such a dire case. Or, at least, that is my sense of what Mencius would say here....