Beyond the Five Relationships: Teachers and Worthies in Early Chinese Thought


The Five Relationships are commonly held to be fundamental to Confucian thought and, according to some scholars, constitute the basis of all human relationships. This essay examines how the ruler-minister relationship served as a site over a debate about the political importance of virtue in early Chinese philosophy. Some early texts, including the Confucian texts Mengzi and Xunzi, argue that virtue confers a different status that rulers should recognize by treating the virtuous as equals or even superiors. In particular, these texts claim that teachers and worthies are not ministers, and thus do not fit the rulerminister paradigm. Other texts, such as the Han Feizi and Guanzi, argue against this position, denying that virtue is relevant to political status. They claim that the ruler is superior to all, and that it is dangerous to grant special status based on moral qualities. The texts that adhere most closely to the Five Relationships are actually those considered Legalist, not Confucian. Thus, reexamining the Five Relationships is a way to throw light on the contested status of the morally worthy in early Chinese social and political thought.