On “Heart” for the New Year

This is a speech written by Taiwanese Sinologist Ying Shih Yu


The heart is the most important thing to the Chinese, and therefore you should

cultivate your heart. The heart should be cultivated so that it is clean. Only if the

heart is clean can a pure society emerge; if the heart has become dirty and gone bad,

then the whole society will go bad. This is not idealism; this is to talk about the

importance of the heart. Instead of being completely determined by material

conditions and social identity, the human spirits exert a strong influence on material

conditions as well. If you want everyone to lead a good life, then, as the Chinese

saying goes, “Do not impose on others what you do not desire yourself.” The reason

why Confucius and Confucian classics said this is that people should compare their

own hearts with others’ hearts. “Other people have the heart, and we should

conjecture it.” If I think about how others’ heart would be and compare it with my

own heart, I would not do certain things. That is why the Chinese believe the heart is

extremely important.

Why should Chinese culture talk emphatically about the heart? This is because,

according to the Chinese, the heart is equivalent to a kind of god, which is very

changeable and all-inclusive. Therefore, some philosophers, such as Lu Xiangshan

and Wang Yangming, said: My heart is the universe; the universe is my heart. This is

not idealism. Instead, it argues that if we want to build up a human society, in which

everyone leads a happy life, we need to expand our heart, rather than employ a selfish

heart. The selfish heart should have its limit. This limit is not to interfere with the

public heart.

Zi Chan in the Spring and Autumn period said: Human hearts differ with their

unique faces. That is, the Chinese also affirm the individual heart. However, there

also exists a big collective heart operating at the same time. In this way, we will not

be subject to the so-called absolute collectivism, nor will we be subject to absolute

individualism. We should try to find a point of balance between the individual and the

collective. The function of finding this point of balance comes from the heart. Zhang

Zai in the eleventh-century Song dynasty wrote an essay titled “Enlarging the Heart,”

that is, one should try to enlarge one’s heart. For instance, Zhuangzi in the Warring

States period said: The heaven and earth and ten thousand things are all one with me.

The Chinese often talk about heaven and man being one, and this also means that the

heart should be expanded.

On the one hand, one should not give up one’s own unique heart, and on the

other hand, one should enlarge one’s heart so as to think of others. Only in this way

can we lead a better, and more orderly, life. This is because the Chinese do not very

much believe that there is an after-life heaven and especially they, influenced by

Confucianism, believe that this world is a true and real one. We should treasure and

value it. If we treasure and value it, our heaven lies in this world, so does our hell.

This is one view of the Chinese.

Mencius wrote the essay titled Cleaning the Heart, which argues, as we all know,

that if we know our own nature, we know the heaven. Zhuangzi said, the heart should

be empty; only after the heart is empty can the Dao “Way” enter into it. As Mencius

said, “Everyone has the heart of compassion.” In “Benevolence, Rightness, Propriety,

Wisdom,” “Benevolence” refers to the heart that is most critical to humans. Here,

“Benevolence” means “love people,” love other people; not only love yourself, but

also love others. That is why, when Mencius talked about “heart,” he would always

talk about “push”: people should push their own heart, and the more they push it, the

bigger it will become, and the further it will reach, so that it will include the whole

society. People like Hui Shi and Zhuang Zhou would push it even further; their heart

would become so big that they would love the heaven and earth and ten thousand


This is the reason why the Chinese people’s heart is so important. It has become

the heart that everyone possesses. It is a special tradition in Chinese thought. Under

this tradition in China, there is no organized religion, and there is no tradition of

church as organized and centralized as in the West. Something akin to the supreme

commanding by the Roman Pope during the Middle Ages has never happened in

China. Among the Chinese, everyone is a heart, and everyone’s heart is connectable

with the heaven. But you have to cultivate your heart. If you do not cultivate it, your

heart will become smaller and smaller, and more and more selfish. Then, the society

will be in turmoil.

For this reason, I believe, when we talk about the issue of values, the issue of

spiritual values, in China, we must trace it to the heart. It is almost as important as

the concept of God in the West; it is indispensable. Once it is lost, humans are not

different from animals. Therefore, in China, it has always been asserted that one

should cleanse one’s heart. In the past one hundred years in China, I think, the heart

has become a big problem because we no longer believe in ancient Chinese thought,

having lost the Chinese heritage, whereas we cannot believe in the Western God

either. Thus, our heart has lost its locus. Everyone’s heart has almost been seduced

by material profits. … Under such circumstances, the Heart of China has been lost.

The loss of the Heart is one of the biggest keys to the crises of Chinese culture in the

past one hundred years.

I raise the issue of the heart to you all so that you can think it over. This is what I

want to address for the New Year.


Ying Shih Yu 2005

Categories: UncategorizedTags: , , ,


Chicago native, Acupuncturist, Teacher, Student. and Lover. Dancing the Cosmic Boogie.

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