Susan D. BLUM

A propaganda poster from the “Learn from Lei Feng” campaign, titled; “Uncle Lei Feng tells Revolutionary stories” (1965). The image of Lei Feng has served as the model worker/martyr/saint of the Communist party for over 40 years. COLLECTION STEFAN LANDSBERGER.

A sense of the social values of propriety, justice, honesty, and honor is a perennial and universal concern, and given China’s historical sweep and contemporary complexity, the country is clearly no exception. Indeed, consideration of such values has occupied many of China’s most prominent thinkers throughout its long history.

In some societies, propriety, justice, honesty, and honor must be extracted from behavior. In others well-developed textual canons exist. China has both explicit intellectual considerations of these values and the actual behavior of both ordinary people and leaders. Further, these values have figured prominently in many of China’s collective, imperial, and national projects. That is, they operate in two dual arenas: intellectual/behavioral and individual/collective.

All societies profess a variety of moral ideals, and all struggle to contain breaches of these ideals. In some cases evidence of the sense of ideal behavior can be found in the responses to perceived breaches. They are connected to the ways each society views human beings.


A sense of propriety is a sense of acting properly, fittingly, in accordance with social expectations and decorum.

China has a long, passionate, and subtle history of consideration of propriety. Early in China’s historic civilizations, li (rites) emerged as a preeminent concern. Cultural precursors saw their role as involved in shaping the workings of the universe and affecting the outcome of both human and natural events. What emerged from this principle was the idea of model emulation, in which certain idealized figures provided exemplars of behavior.

The Chinese philosopher Confucius (Kongzi, 551–479 BCE) and other Ruist (Confucian) philosophers wrote (spoke) at length of the proper rituals. The li include guidelines for how people are to act with regard to other people and to the rituals handed down from the past. Confucius, in the Analects, wrote “I follow the Zhou” (Analects 3.14); this has been taken to indicate that in a situation of alternative rituals, he pursued those established by the Duke of Zhou.

The late Warring States period (475–221 BCE) text, the Zhou Li (Rites of Zhou), codified some rituals. A Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) text, the Liji (Book of Rites), specified ways of acting, recipes, manners, and a miscellany of detailed instructions regarding propriety. From the Warring States period on, debates in China centered on whether it is preferable to follow the example of a charismatic authority, such as Confucius, or the law.

Propriety includes relations among the sexes, sexual behavior, and many other aspects of social interaction. All these were governed by public orders as well as private guidelines. During imperial China laws governing behavior and extolling virtue were read aloud in villages. Those who maintained exemplary behavior—such as Further Reading

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Source: Blum, Susan D. (2009). Social Values. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2021–2025. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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