Jen, Li, and the Five Relationships of Confucianism

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  • 0:01 Code of Conduct
  • 0:46 Jen
  • 2:07 Li
  • 3:50 Ritual
  • 4:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will focus on Confucianism's concepts of Jen and Li. In doing so, it will highlight how the religion is often seen as a code of conduct or an ethical system. It will also explain the Five Key Relationships of Confucianism.

Code of Conduct

Unlike Judaism or Christianity, which give their allegiance to an all-powerful, personal God, Confucianism does not teach the worship of any particular deity. Instead, it focuses more on human behavior, causing many scholars to consider it more of an ethical system or a code of conduct rather than a religion. Rather than focusing on the attributes of a deity, Confucianism focuses on human behavior. It's things like wisdom and kindness that take center stage.

With this centering on human behavior, two of the most important concepts taught by Confucianism are the virtues of Jen and Li. Since Jen is considered the most important, we'll start by explaining it.


In very simple terms, Jen, sometimes spelled Ren, can be translated as 'goodness' or 'humaneness.' In Confucianism, Jen is seen as a very inward and personal attribute. It does not connote right action; it deals with inward thoughts. Being inwardly oriented, it's also characterized as truly desiring only good for others. In short, it's an attitude of the heart.

So important is Jen that all other virtues spring from it. It should be the preeminent funnel for all human behavior and actions. In fact, Confucianism teaches that one should be willing to give his own life in order to protect Jen. In addition, it relates to all of mankind. It knows no boundaries of race or religion.

Although Jen is of utmost importance in Confucianism, many scholars purport that Confucius believed he never really saw Jen being fully played out in a person's life. Some also believe he taught that only the greatest wise man of China would ever be able to truly achieve Jen. However, that should never be an excuse for the common man not to try!


With this we come to the principle of Li. Differing from Jen, Li deals with one's outward social behavior. Translated as both 'propriety' and 'ritual,' Li is sometimes thought of as the working out of Jen in one's life. To use some rather common western phrasing, Li is sort of like giving feet to Jen.

Because Li deals with outward behavior, it deals with accepted etiquette, customs and even morality. With this in mind, its main focus seems to be on human relationships. In its ideal sense, a person honoring Li will be perfect in all his relationships. This working out of Li is especially important in what Confucianism holds as the Five Key Relationships; they are the relationship of ruler to subject, father to son, husband to wife, elder to younger and friend to friend.

If one follows the concept of Li, each of these relationships will be marked with harmony. Since several of these relationships deal with family, Confucianism asserts that when the principal relationships of the family are tranquil, Li will seep into the culture. All of society, from the home to the village to the empire, will be tranquil.

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