"What teachings, then, did Confucius transmit, and transform? How did he mix the old and the new in responding to the challenges of an age in which, as the Book of Poetry puts it, 'there is no end to the disorder'?
"Any answer to these questions must begin, as did Confucius himself, with learning. For Confucius, studying the Five Classics was essential. But this study then needed to be put into motion, translated from thought to action. The point of learning was to produce virtue and propriety to turn yourself into a junzi, an exemplar who exhibits the virtues, knows his social roles, performs the rituals, and otherwise traverses the Way of Heaven. While the tendency to reduce Christianity to its ethical precepts is a modern invention, ethics has always stood at the heart of the Confucian project, and at the heart of Confucian ethics is the virtue of ren which perhaps more than any other quality exemplifies the exemplary person. Mentioned over one hundred times in the Analects the term ren has been variously translated as humaneness, humanity, benevolence, altruism, love, and compassion, but it is perhaps best rendered as 'human-heartedness.' Its Chinese character combines the image of 'human being' with the image of 'two,' so ren refers to right relations among people. Before Confucius, it was believed that only sage rulers and other elites could cultivate this virtue. But Confucius held it out as a possibility for all human beings and as the last, great hope for social harmony and political order. Virtue, he argued, was the foundation of civilization, and the foundational virtue was ren.
"One of Confucius's chief rivals, Mo-zi, argued on behalf of the so-called Mohists that human beings should extend their human-heartedness to all regardless of relation. In other words, he anticipated Jesus's emphasis on agape love, which, seeing no distinction between friend and enemy, seeks to love all equally. But Confucius, far more concerned about 'family values' than was Jesus, said that ren should be cultivated first and foremost inside the family.
"Filial piety matters in Judaism, but honoring your parents is even more central to Confucianism. The opening lines of the Analects refer to filial piety as the 'root' of ren. Of the Five Relationships, the first each of us learns (or fails to learn) is that between parent and child. It is in this relationship that we take our first baby steps away from self-centeredness and toward moral excellence. Families teach us how to be human, how to follow and to lead. If families are well ordered, human interactions will be harmonious, and if human interactions are harmonious, society will be harmonious too.
"But how are we to cultivate this human-heartedness? How might the lessons of empathy and fellow-feeling learned in the family move out into the wider world? In a word, li. Before Confucius, li, which literally means 'to arrange in order,' referred fairly narrowly to ritual. But with Confucius and his followers it became a multifunctional term referring as well to etiquette, customs, manners, ceremony, courtesy, civility, and propriety.
"Li is so crucial to Confucians that the Chinese sometimes refer to Confucianism as lijiao, or the religion of li. Today li means doing the proper thing in the proper way under any given set of circumstances to act, in short, in keeping with the Way of Heaven. Li stands alongside ren as one of the two key concepts in Confucius's thought, since both ren and li contribute to both self-cultivation and social harmony. But whereas ren is inward and subjective, li is outward and objective ren put into practice.
"An exceedingly broad concept, li comprises both ritual, as in how to perform a wedding, and ritualized behavior, which is to say manners, etiquette, and even body language. When U.S. president Barack Obama met Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace just a few weeks after his 2009 inauguration, he gave her an iPod a widely criticized gaffe that demonstrated a severe lack of li. Li also governs proper behavior toward parents: 'When your parents are alive, comply with the rites in serving them; when they die, comply with the rites in burying them.' It also extends to such seemingly mundane matters as how to look, listen, speak, and move: 'Do not look unless it is in accordance with the rites (li); do not listen unless it is in accordance with the rites; do not speak unless it is in accordance with the rites; do not move unless it is in accordance with the rites.' Li is to ask tactfully about your parent's health. It is to stand up straight. It is to seek wealth within the rules. It is to allow your teacher to speak first. It is to treat a guest with hospitality. It is to put the arrow to pride.
"In keeping with the Doctrine of the Mean, li includes avoiding extremes in both thought and behavior, taking your pleasures in moderation, and otherwise following the balanced and harmonious Way of Heaven. It is to incline yourself toward listening rather than speaking (the character for sage in Chinese is a large ear and a small mouth). It is to eat slowly, to pour tea just so, to avoid slurping your soup. Knowing what to wear at a wedding, or a funeral, is li. Being considerate of others not blasting your boombox on the subway or cutting into line at the cinema is li. In sum, li is to make space for reverence in all things, treating seemingly ordinary interactions as if they were sacred ceremonies."