Is it Possible to be Too Yi 義?

Passage 3B10 in the Mengzi stood out during my last read through the text. In 3B10 Mengzi tells the story of Chen Zhongzi, who in seeking purity (lian 廉) refused to eat his mother’s food or live in his brother’s house (believing that his brother had not rightly [buyi 不義] attained his salary and home). Mengzi’s critique of Chen Zhongzi is that “only an earthworm could fill out [the values] he holds to” 蚓而後充其操, which I take to mean that living in the human world (i.e., a world of complex relationships) entails living a life where one cannot live to such a degree of purity and at the same time realize other (often more important) values. Mengzi seems to have similar sentiments about figures such as Bo Yi in passage 5B1. While he praises Bo Yi (and Chen Zhongzi in 3B10), being too lian 廉 or qing 清 is problematic for Mengzi.

In other passages in the text, Bo Yi and Chen Zhongzi are connected with the notion of yi 義 (see 7A34, for instance), yet I haven’t found any instances of Mengzi making similar critiques of being too yi 義. As a matter of fact, he stresses in 6A10 that yi 義 is more valuable than life (an interesting point of contrast with Bo Yi who valued qing 清 more than his own life); and in 4B11 Mengzi states, “In being a great person [one’s] words do not need to be trustworthy, and [one’s] actions do not need to bring results, as long as there is yi 義 within [oneself]” 大人者,言不必信,行不必果,惟義所在. A possible exception might be 4B6’s notion of a feiyizhiyi 非義之義, a kind of counterfeit yi 義 (is this then just a matter of 非廉之廉 and 非清之清? Something similar might also be going on in 4B19).

Contemporary scholars such as Kwong-loi Shun explain it this way: “Another difference between yi 義 and li 禮 is that whereas the latter can be overridden by other considerations, the former cannot…. Mencius would not find a breach of yi 義 acceptable in any circumstances” (Mencius and Early Chinese Thought, 57). In this view, breaches of li 禮 (and we might add lian 廉 and qing 清) are permissible, but breaches of yi 義 are not permissible.

So, I have two questions that I need some help thinking through. First, is this view correct; would Mengzi not find a breach of yi 義 acceptable in any circumstance? Second, if it is the case that Mengzi does not find a breach of yi 義 acceptable in any circumstance then how is yi 義 different from concepts such as lian 廉 and qing 清? Said somewhat differently, in what sense might we say that rightness is disjointed from purity (or is this all simply about counterfeit virtues)?

I’m speaking about the Mengzi specifically, but I welcome thoughts about other early Confucian texts as well.


Hannah Pang detail

21 replies on “Is it Possible to be Too Yi 義?”

  1. I’d also mention 2A/9 (no explicit mention of 義, but on the same theme and again about Bo Yi). It’s interesting that in these passages, the issue is specifically how you react to people who have done something not-義—it really is a matter of being too righteous.

  2. Great question, Michael! I think that there are two distinctions worth making that might help here. First, there’s a difference between lian or li understood as a set of rules or code, on the one hand, and a virtue or character trait on the other. In a complex situation like the famous sister-in-law drowning case (4A:17), one does violate the ritual code. Does one “violate” or “breach” the virtue of propriety? That’s much less clear to me. Even while reaching out to save the drowning woman, one doesn’t do so in an indecorous way (e.g., needlessly stripping nude): it’s not as if matters of li temporarily don’t matter to one at all.

    Second, the virtuous thing to do is always a balance of multiple concerns (multiple virtues), although often one concern is much more salient than others, and so we may miss the harmonizing that’s going on in the background. Chen Zhongzi evinces an imbalanced level of concern with purity, which we can see precisely because he insists on an inflexible code regardless of circumstances.

    So, yes, it seems to me that one can be too yi, especially if one is thinking of the code that goes along with, helps us to learn, what it is to have yi as a character trait.

  3. Hi Dan,

    Thanks for bringing up 2A9. Mengzi’s critique is more explicit there than it is in 5B1.

    Hi Steve,

    Thanks for going along with this.

    Regarding the distinction between rules and virtues, what kind of textual evidence supports it? Coincidentally I’m finishing up a paper that involves 4A17; and it seems that the salient distinction most commentators make there (and I would argue in a number of other plces) is between jing 經 and quan 權, which they interpret a variety of ways, but none that seems to latch on to a virtue-rule distinction (not that we need to follow the commentators of course).

    Here’s a relevant paragraph from the paper (sorry I figure it would quicker to cut and paste rather than reworking it for this comment):

    “Quan 權, in this view, is kind of moral deliberation involved when current standards fail to provide sufficient action guidance in value conflicts. In these situations, one temporarily reorients the standards such that the value conflict is resolved, similar to the way one might shift the fulcrum of a steelyard toward the object being weighed to allow the arm to have greater length for the counterpoise to leverage. In other words, a steelyard tends to have a standard spot for its fulcrum. This allows one to weigh most objects one might need to weigh in day-to-day affairs; however, if one needs to weigh a particularly heavy (or light) object, one cannot weigh it without moving the fulcrum. Moving the fulcrum reorients the ability of the steelyard to weigh by providing additional (or less) room to move the counterpoise along the arm. It also shifts the values of the unit markings along the arm—rendering the normal markings inapplicable in weighing the new object.”

    The primary distinction, in other words, seems to be between recognizing which situations call for an alternative set of standards and which call for following the received set. Only one as cultivated as a sage, of course, can recognize these situations, which is why so many people slavishly follow the received set of standards.

    For many of the commentators, yi 義 is the faculty involved with recognition. Here’s a related comment by Zhu Xi:

    “When it is right [yi 義] to hold to jing 經, one holds to 經. When it is right to employ quan 權, one employs quan 權. This is what is meant by the saying, ‘Rightness can include both jing 經 and quan 權’” 義當守經,則守經;義當用權,則用權,所以謂義可以總括得經、權 (ZZYL).

    So even if some kind of balancing is going on, yi 義 seems not to be something that is balanced, but rather part of the act of balancing.

    Granted that yi 義 sometimes has a sense of “justice” rather than “rightness,” and in that sense it could be put in tension with ren 仁, but no examples immediately come to mind here (I know the commentators read it into 5A3 but Mengzi doesn’t use it himself).

    Both the rule-virtue and jing 經 - quan 權 distinctions seem to be ways of working through the same problem. Are there reasons to suspect that the former is a more plausible reading of Mengzi than the latter?

  4. Hi Michael,

    Sorry I haven’t been more responsive – busy with lots of things – but I am really interested in these questions, so will try to keep responding, even if slowly!

    The question of the relation between jing-quan and rule-virtue is key. My view is that they are basically making the same distinction: jing is rules or explicit standards, while quan is a response to a specific situation based not on an alternative set of standards (where would these come from?), but on one’s holistic, virtuous perception. I understand what you are saying about moving the fulcrum, I think, but I don’t see how that applies. One might move the fulcrum in order to get two uneven weights to balance, as one might do with a see-saw. But this is a kind of trick, not a different way of finding even weights, isn’t it? I imagine you know this essay:

    Vankeerberghen, Griet. (2006). Choosing Balance: Weighing (Quan 權) as a Metaphor for Action in Early Chinese Texts. Early China, 30, 47-89.

    There are things in there with which I don’t agree (see Sagehood p. 235, note 18), but it’s pretty good; I don’t recall the move-the-fulcrum idea there, though maybe I have forgotten it?

    At any rate, the main thing I want to say is that jing does seem to me to be the standard rules one usually follows, and getting oneself to follow those rules is a relatively good way to be. The only use of jing in something like this sense in Mencius seems to be 7B37, right?

    I discuss the idea of a set of rules to which one holds oneself, and the evidence that this kind of conscientiousness is a mixed blessing (and falls short of real virtue), in LY, MC, and XZ, in my “Is Conscientiousness a Virtue? Confucian Answers,” in Angle & Slote, eds., Virtue Ethics and Confucianism (2013).

    And now I have to run, not having addressed the connection to yi at all…. More soon, I hope!

  5. Hi Steve,

    There’s no hurry. I’m actually headed back to the states tomorrow and have a number of things I’ll need to take care of once I’m back.

    In thinking about the issue a bit more, I do think there’s room for significant overlap between the jing-quan distinction and a kind of rule-virtue distinction, but I’m less certain that ‘virtue’ is the most fitting term here. Let me try to elaborate.

    Regarding quan 權, the metaphor is used a number of ways in the early texts (as Vankeerberghen discusses), and it’s possible that it was a dead metaphor by the time of Zhu Xi, et al., but one of the dominant ways the metaphor was employed (and IMO this seems to fit with the way that many Neo-Confucian thinkers use it), is in terms of a steelyard, as opposed to a scale (coincidentally this is in line with your harmony thesis since certain kinds of scales might imply weighing values against each other). So one would normally slide a counterpoise along the arm of a steelyard to determine the weight of an object. The steelyard provides the ‘standards’ for measurement, and it hangs from a fixed spot we’d call the fulcrum. The idea of moving the fulcrum (which Vankeerberghen rejects at one point in the article, based on the lack of archeological evidence) or the possibility that the object being weighed could be placed at different points of the steelyard (which would have the same effect of rendering the usual standards inapplicable, and seems to be more in line with archeological evidence) seems to fit with the way the metaphor gets used. I can supply several pieces of evidence for this, but I don’t think it’s an important point in our discussion since the key for those who use the metaphor seems to be rendering the usual standards inapplicable. In going back to the paper I wrote, I actually didn’t state (as I did in my last comment) that there’s a new set of standards that come into play. Practically speaking this is what would happen in the case of weighing an object on the steelyard (if there isn’t a new set of standards to use, then the steelyard would actually be useless in weighing these alternative objects). In terms of how the metaphor is employed though, there is no explicit talk of alternative standards (metaphors, of course, aren’t meant to be fitting in every respect); and as such I think this leaves the door open for a kind of rule-virtue distinction (although neither is an idea of alternative standards explicitly rejected).

    In discussing quan 權, it might be helpful to separate out a couple of issues:

    1) What is quan 權? Is it a virtue, a skill, etc.?
    2) What does quan 權 accomplish?

    Addressing number 1 takes us back to the issue of yi 義. Many of the commentators read quan 權 in relation to yi 義. Given a few passages such as Mengzi 5B1 I think it might be possible to also see quan 權 as a kind of zhi 智. Depending on how we construe ‘virtue,’ quan 權 may or may not count (although here we get back to the issue of whether or not one should always be yi 義).

    With regards to number 2, quan 權 seems to be about more than maximizing virtues. The concerns that explicitly come into play when discussing quan 權 are usually preserving life, fulfilling relationships, upholding social norms, maintaining personal purity, and maintaining virtues. While we could reduce these goods to the language of virtue (i.e., ren 仁, li 禮, etc.), the texts don’t consistently opt for this language. The concept ‘goods’ (or ‘values’) might actually be more helpful here than ‘virtue.’ Here’s a related paragraph from the paper I’m working on:

    “Abstracting from 4A17 and 6B1, we might infer that abnormal situations are those circumstances where the good of breaking from standard ethical action far exceeds the good of following standard ethical action; where “good” refers to preserving life or fostering a social order that fulfills relationships and virtues. So while letting one’s sister-in-law drown, on the basis of following ritual, continues to encourage the social order established by tradition, this good is not as significant as preserving her life. The implication here is that in most situations standard ethical action will maximize the goods of life, relationships, and virtues; but there are occasions where they fail to maximize one or more of these goods. As such, in these situations, the moral agent should vary from standard ethical action in order to take action that realizes the good at risk or perhaps avoids harming it in a significant way.”

    This still leaves room for a kind of harmonious solution where each value is maximized (Zhu Xi even argues that proper quan 權 actually adheres to the standard), but those values don’t seem to be equated with virtue. So going back to jing-quan, it seems to be more about a distinction concerned with recognizing when standards maximize certain values and when they do not. I’m not sure exactly how the language of ‘virtue’ fits in except to say that virtues are one of the goods involved or perhaps that it provides one way of conceptualizing all the goods involved. Alternatively, if we take quan 權 as a kind of virtue, then quan 權 is the virtue of maximizing the values at stake in situations where the standards fail to maximize them.

    These are just a few thoughts for now.

    *Could you send me your chapter from the virtue ethics volume?

  6. Just realized that _Virtue Ethics and Confucianism_ has been published! I’ll acquire the article straight from the book.

  7. Thanks for this great discussion!

    * * *

    Steve, you write:
    The question of the relation between jing-quan and rule-virtue is key. My view is that they are basically making the same distinction: jing is rules or explicit standards, while quan is a response to a specific situation based not on an alternative set of standards (where would these come from?), but on one’s holistic, virtuous perception.

    Three questions:

    First, are you supposing that a big part of virtue is not the disposition to act rightly in easy cases?

    Second, are you supposing there is no distinction between quanning and quanning well? So that ‘quan’ can’t mean simply “judging by one’s holistic (not necessarily virtuous) perception”?

    Third, to simplify, suppose the only norm or value is of the form “The more X the better.” Can such a norm qualify as “a rule, an explicit standard”?

    * * *


    It seems to me offhand that there wouldn’t be a character that could (with very little contextual help) mean “move the steelyard’s fulcrum” unless there were in fact familiar occasions for moving a steelyard’s fulcrum. What could those be? Some sort of flat rate sales tax or promotional discounts? But a flat rate tax or discount would strongly encourage large or small purchases, respectively, and so would tend to defeat the purpose of having a tax or discount.

    Also it seems to me that while weighing apples against oranges in a balance can be interesting, moving a fulcrum simply changes the result by a known (and independently decided) scalar number, like saying “Let’s add 6!” — moving the fulcrum doesn’t look to me like a promising image for how to address any sort of dilemma.

    • Oops, Michael, in thinking about the fulcrum I forgot to take account of the weight of the arm.

      (By the way, the internets tell me that Scandinavian steelyards work by moving the fulcrum instead of moving a separate weight; the arm is calibrated accordingly.)

    • Hi Bill,

      I’m not back in my office yet, so I’m operating on memory, but here are some brief thoughts on your remarks.

      Regarding the second question you posed to Steve, the commentaries in particular tend to use quan 權 normatively (so you either quan 權 well or you don’t quan at all). Part of this seems to stem from the desire of commentators to associate quan 權 with Kongzi; more specifically, associating it with Analects 9.30 where Kongzi uses quan 權 in a kind of culminating sense (it’s one of the few times he mentions the term).

      “Just because someone is able to learn with you does not necessarily mean that they can travel the dao 道 in your company; just because they can travel the dao 道 in your company does not necessarily mean that they can establish their character alongside you; just because they can establish their character alongside you does not necessarily mean that they can join you in employing discretion.” (Slightly modified from the Slingerland translation)


      Regarding moving the fulcrum (or moving the object to an alternative point on the arm), one practical reason for doing so would be weighing an object that would be heavier or lighter than the current arm would allow for. In the metaphorical sense, this would be like encountering an out of the ordinary situation where the proper response might entail going beyond the current standards.

      One of the problems with interpreting the philosophical texts usage of scales is making sense of the various terms employed in the discussion across time (權,衡,秤,稱,量, etc.). There’s also, of course, as you allude to, the possibility that they are using the terms more loosely than say a merchant at the time would.

    • Thanks for this, Bill. I have a few books by 邱光明 (a Chinese scholar that writes on weights and balances in Chinese history) that I’ve been meaning to get through. So far I haven’t found any evidence of scales with multiple fulcrums in pre-Qin/Han China, but they do seem to be used by the Song. The image you link to probably isn’t very old, but it is a helpful illustration.

    • Yes, and the picture that came to my attention was in a Chinese children’s book from just a few decades ago. Still the picture helped me understand the idea.

  8. I have some time to kill, so I’ll blather on.

    (What I’ve read of the literature on quan I don’t remember.) Maybe the term alludes to a distinction between kinds of merchandise that have to be weighed (grain, maybe fish) and kinds that don’t (shoes).
    “There is no standard price for a carp,” one might say: rather, the price depends on the weight.

    * * *

    If indeed nobody around that time recognized a distinction between the literal and nonliteral (metaphoric, hyperbolic, etc.) use of terms, one can’t expect thinkers to have aimed at literal accuracy in their philosophical/rhetorical discourse. One might rather expect them to use terms sometimes in ways we’d call loose.

    Youzi in LY 1.12 says harmony can’t be pursued directly; its pursuit has to be regulated, limited, by ritual. Thus there might be such a thing as being “too harmonious,” in a manner of speaking. Yes? Some kind of California thing. Now, in my Youzi paper I propose that we should see the views laid out in 1.2 and 1.13 as analogous to that one. So that 1.13 says, for example, that the pursuit of yi 義 should not be at the expense of xin 信. There might then be such a thing as being “too yi,” in a manner of speaking?

    • Hi Bill,

      To fully address this I might have to go back through your Youzi piece (which is a great piece, by the way), but in the meantime could you say more about how 1.13 might be read as suggesting one could be too yi 義?

    • Thanks!

      My idea is that Youzi in four places—LY 1.2, 1.12, and each of the first two lines of 1.13—presents a view of the following form: “Having face-to-face virtue F is a psychologically necessary condition of fully having broader social virtue B, because F is like a local model of B. So pursuing B at the expense of F doesn’t work.”

      1.2: Cutting corners on filial piety for the sake of beneficence in public affairs won’t work.
      1.12: Cutting corners on ritual forms for the sake of broader social harmony won’t work.
      1.13a: Cutting corners on good faith for the sake of justice won’t work.
      1.13b: Cutting corners on personal reverential demeanor for the sake of ritual propriety won’t work.

      So, who would be too yi, loosely speaking? Someone who would break his word for the sake of some other kind of fairness, I guess.

    • I should add that I am not suggesting that anyone was ever inclined to call any person or action “too yi” for such a reason!

  9. Steve writes,
    “The question of the relation between jing-quan and rule-virtue is key. My view is that they are basically making the same distinction: jing is rules or explicit standards, while quan is a response to a specific situation based not on an alternative set of standards (where would these come from?), but on one’s holistic, virtuous perception.”

    I wonder whether the idea is that perception by good people can find the right solution to dilemmas while other intellectual resources cannot. And I wonder what the theory behind that would be. And how good the people have to be.

    The idea (or part of it) could instead be that in dilemmas what matters is that the choice be well or sincerely made, so that two good people might choose differently in the same situation and both be right. (Otherwise , one might reason, there would just be a rule.)

    I tend to assume that virtue is like skill or intelligence: somewhat different traits are valuable in different milieux; so what the very best people—say, Smith and Jones—have in common is going to be something very abstract; not the kind of thing such that Smith’s perceptual skills could handle the kinds of hard case Jones is likely to encounter. In general, perceptual skills are like rules in being out of their depth in hard cases. Each—skills and rules, or holistic v. articulate reasoning—may be relatively competent in different kinds of hard case?

    “… based not on an alternative set of standards (where would these come from?) ….”

    In the Western tradition there’s the idea of a set of standards specifically for hard cases. “When in doubt ….” Rule Utilitarians, for example, sometimes talk that way.

  10. Just now the Three-Character Classic (三字經) put a thought into my head for this discussion that should have been there before, as it must always have been in Steve’s and Michael’s. But here it is.

    I wrote above,

    “If indeed nobody around that time recognized a distinction between the literal and nonliteral (metaphoric, hyperbolic, etc.) use of terms, one can’t expect thinkers to have aimed at literal accuracy in their philosophical/rhetorical discourse. One might rather expect them to use terms sometimes in ways we’d call loose.”

    I should have drawn a better conclusion about what one might expect.

    One might expect terms to range (smoothly or not) from narrower to broader senses: the narrower being more concrete, the broader being more abstract and (if you like) metaphorical. And this is notoriously so. For example: there’s li 禮 as sacrificial festival or as ceremonious behavior; there’s junzi 君子 as son of ruler or as person qualified to guide; there’s ren 仁 as kindness (?) or as general virtue; etc. One might speculate that terms tend to originate on the concrete side, and then accrete broader uses by way of easy metaphor.

    (And of course a core image could be extended metaphorically in more than one direction, on different occasions by the same users.)

    And for any given term, one might expect the thinkers not to have a view about which of the senses, or which point on the scale, is the proper meaning of the term. On what kind of grounds might we think they are wrong to lack a view?

    (Note that while I have proposed abstractness as a mark of a relatively metaphorical use, Slingerland’s prizewinning paper on metaphor and language in early Chinese philosophy takes abstractness to be a mark of the “literal” as opposed to the metaphorical. My discussion.)

    Familiarly, yi 義 too has such a range of uses. For example, the Three Character Classic—a way late text, for children, that is nevertheless representative in this respect—says on the one hand:

    三綱者 the three “constants” are
    君臣義 yi between ruler and subordinate
    父子親 closeness between father and son
    夫婦順 compliance between husband and wife

    and says on the other hand:

    父子恩 kindness between father and son
    夫婦從 obedience between husband and wife
    兄則友 an older brother’s friendship
    弟則恭 a younger brother’s respectfulness
    長幼序 order between older and younger
    友於朋 friendliness between friends
    君則敬 a ruler’s respect
    臣則忠 a subordinate’s loyalty
    此十義 these ten yi
    人所同 unite all people

    (I’m having trouble with the number.)

    Since the two (or many) senses of yi differ, it might be true in one sense but not in others that nothing can be too yi.

    So could one use a postulate that nothing can be too yi, to specify a particular sense of the word?

    What would be the difficulties?

    And can we see that happening in early Chinese texts?

  11. As Bill suggests, it’s not clear that Mencius’ use of terms like this was strictly univocal on all occasions. Michael, your question is the kind of technical question that the Greeks asked, and contemporary analytic philosophers ask, and probably those later in the tradition asked, but people like Confucius and Mencius didn’t fuss with, even though there are times when Mencius looks like he might almost be getting this fussy. So I am not sure that Confucius or Mencius gives us enough to settle your question with certainty.

    But Michael, it sounds to me like you are leaning toward regarding yi 義 as a matter of weighing/balancing things rightly, rather than something that one would weigh or balance against other things, and this seems like the right move to me. I think something like this is implicit in what the classical Confucians are saying, and suggested fairly strongly by what they say explicitly. Analects 5.9, 8.2, 13.21, and 14.15 suggest similar kinds of moderation in something like straightness or purity to what is recommended in 2A9 and 5B1. 7A21 and 7A33 seems to reinforce what already seems implicit elsewhere in the Mencius, that there is no higher standard than yi 義: the gentleman follows benevolence, rightness, ritual, and wisdom as his nature, whatever the circumstances. Your work on how yi 義 is the basis for adjusting ritual in the Liji reinforces this point. In the Mencius we could also point to the fact that yi 義 is one of the virtues that has its own sprout in the heart, and his rejection of the idea of two roots in 3A5, to suggest that proper human action should always express yi 義 fully.

    In Aristotle, a virtue represents a mean, but because the right kinds of moderation are already built into it by definition, there is nothing wrong with being extreme in a virtue; the more of a virtue you have, the better. I think the idea of moderation pretty well inevitably leads to this if we think it through, and we have lots of passages that show Confucius and Mencius looking for moderation between extremes, or between traits that are not right in all situations.

    Of course, one could use similar reasoning to argue that li 禮 is something that weighs correctly, rather than something to be weighed. I see no difficulty with this, but it is essential to distinguish li 禮 as a virtue in this sense from particular ritual scripts, which may require alteration. I would argue that ritual propriety when someone is drowning, though, renders a lot of ordinary conventions superfluous. To jump in the water in one’s best clothes would ordinarily be undignified and irresponsible, but not when trying to help someone who is drowning. Rather, to fuss over one’s clothes when someone is drowning, far from being dignified, is to make oneself ridiculous.

    To make this idea work, we need to assume a kind of unity of the virtues, so that it is never necessary to weigh ren 仁, yi 義, li 禮, or zhi 智 against each other. However, this seems quite appropriate to me. 4A27 may even require us to see the virtues in this way.

    The one passage I can think of that seems to really raise the question of being too yi 義 is 5B4, where one could interpret Mencius as saying that li 禮 may sometimes require one to overlook what is buyi 不義 in a ruler, similar to the case of 3B10. However, when he says 充類至義之盡也, is Mencius criticizing an extreme of yi 義 or an extreme idea of yi 義? If the latter, then we can still maintain that one should always stick with yi 義.

  12. To clarify: I don’t mean to be saying that Mencius didn’t have such a precise conception of yi as you are trying to establish, Michael. I suspect he did have a very precise notion, suited to the kind of careful specification you are trying to make. Even if he uses the word in more than one sense across the text, it is quite possible that in a certain set of cases he was using it in a quite precise way. My point is just that the text gives us overt, technical analysis only for some of the key concepts—as I read it, particularly xing 性 and ming 命 get this, but not many others. So Bill’s suggestion that one might have to postulate a particular sense for yi makes sense, but I would prefer to think of it as a hypothesis that is supported by the fact that it produces a sensible and fruitful way to read the text.

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