Even Barbarians can become good

How does one become a good person? That is a question that crops up a lot when one reads the Confucians. In fact, for Confucians the processes of self-cultivation and the questions surrounding it are absolutely central. Needless to say, Yen Chih-t’ui has stuff on this.

Partly one becomes good by hanging with good people. As Confucius put it

To live with good people is like staying in a room of orchids where, after a long time, one would naturally be sweet-scented; To associate with bad people is like living in a dried-fish shop, where one would unavoidably become imbued with the odor.p.461

Study (and self-cultivation more generally) are also important. One issue that comes up a lot is how ‘universal’ Confuican concepts of human perfectability are. Can anyone become good? Even Barbarians? How about women? Do we all become the same sort of good?

In the Ch’i dynasty (550-577) a eunuch and a palace attendant, T’ien Peng-luan, 田鹏鸞, was originally a southern barbarian. When he became a eunuch at the age of 14 or 15, he already had a desire for study. He always hid a book in his sleeves and would recite it in a low voice day and night. His position was low and the service toilsome: however, at any short respite he would hurry off to find some one he could question. Whenever he came to the Hall of Literary Galaxies, he panted and perspired and would say nothing beyond asking questions from books. When he saw some heroic or loyal deed of the ancients, he was always deeply moved, meditating for a long time. I had deep compassion and love for him and gave him double encouragement. Later on he was known and loved by the emperor, who granted him the name Ching-hsuan 敬宣, and raised his position to that of chamberlain with an independent office. When the last emperor of Ch’i fled to Ch’ing-chou [Shandong], The army of Chou captured him and asked the whereabouts of the Ch’i emperor. He deceived them, say that [the emperor] had already gone away and estimated that he should be beyond the border. Suspecting him of lying, they beat and lashed him to force him to submit. As each of his limbs was cut off, his speech and appearance became more severe than before; when his four limbs were cut off, he died. That a young barbarian boy by study could achieve such fidelity! How inferior are the generals and high ministers of Ch’i to this slave Ching-hsuan. p.73

So Yen, at least, claims that barbarians and eunuchs are capable of becoming good. Actually, they are even better than Yen himself, since he ended up serving four dynasties.
1 This quote is from 孔子家语, 4, 8b This makes it doubtful that the quote is actually from Confucius, but of course would have been regarded as his.

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