Confucian ethics are described as humanistic. This ethical philosophy can be practiced by all the members of a society. Confucian ethics is characterized by the promotion of virtues, encompassed by the Five Constants, or the wǔ cháng (五常), extrapolated by Confucian scholars during the Han Dynasty. The Five Constants are:
- Rén (仁, benevolence, humaneness);
- Yì (義/义, righteousness or justice);
- Lǐ (禮/礼, proper rite);
- Zhì (智, knowledge);
- Xìn (信, integrity).
These are accompanied by the classical Sìzì (四字), that singles out four virtues, one of which is included among the Five Constants:
- Zhōng (忠, loyalty);
- Xiào (孝, filial piety);
- Jié (節/节, contingency);
- Yì (義/义, righteousness).
There are still many other elements, such as chéng (誠/诚, honesty), shù (恕, kindness and forgiveness), lián (廉, honesty and cleanness), chǐ (恥/耻, shame, judge and sense of right and wrong),yǒng (勇, bravery), wēn (溫/温, kind and gentle), liáng (良, good, kindhearted), gōng (恭, respectful, reverent), jiǎn (儉/俭, frugal), ràng (讓/让, modestly, self-effacing).
Rén (仁) is the Confucian virtue denoting the good feeling a virtuous human experiences when being altruistic. It is exemplified by a normal adult’s protective feelings for children. It is considered the essence of the human being, endowed by Heaven, and at the same time the means by which man can act according to the principle of Heaven and become one with it.
Li (禮/礼) is a classical Chinese word which finds its most extensive use in Confucian and post-Confucian Chinese philosophy. Li is variously translated as “rite” or “reason”, “ratio” in the pure sense of Vedic ṛta (“right”, “order”) when referring to the cosmic law, but when referring to its realisation in the context of human individual and social behavior it has also been translated as “custom”, “mores”, and “rules”, among other terms.
Li embodies the entire web of interaction between humanity, human objects, and nature. Confucius includes in his discussions of li such diverse topics as learning, tea drinking, titles, mourning, and governance.
Loyalty (忠, zhōng) is particularly relevant for the social class to which most of Confucius’ students belonged, because the most important way for an ambitious young scholar to become a prominent official was to enter a ruler’s civil service.
Many Confucians also realized that loyalty and filial piety have the potential of coming into conflict with one another. This can be true especially in times of social chaos, such as during the period of the Ming-Qing transition.
In Confucian philosophy, filial piety (孝, xiào) is a virtue of respect for one’s parents and ancestors. In more general terms, filial piety means to be good to one’s parents; to take care of one’s parents; to engage in good conduct not just towards parents but also outside the home so as to bring a good name to one’s parents and ancestors; to perform the duties of one’s job well so as to obtain the material means to support parents as well as carry out sacrifices to the ancestors; not be rebellious; show love, respect and support; display courtesy; ensure male heirs, uphold fraternity among brothers; wisely advise one’s parents, including dissuading them from moral unrighteousness, for blindly following the parents’ wishes is not considered to be xiao; display sorrow for their sickness and death; and carry out sacrifices after their death.
Filial piety is considered a key virtue in Chinese culture, and it is the main concern of a large number of stories.