What Does It Mean to "Respond to Enmity with Excellence"?

I’ve been recently thinking about an issue that comes up in both the Daodejing and the Analects.  DDJ 63, specifically, is commented on in Analects 14.34.  In the two texts, we see different positions concerning how one should respond to enmity 怨 yuan.  DDJ 63 reads:


Act without acting, attend to affairs without attending to them, taste without tasting.  Take the large as small and the many as few, respond to enmity with excellence.  Plan for the difficult when it is easy, perform the [tasks] that are large when they are tiny.  The difficult affairs of the world are necessarily composed from the easy, the great affairs of the world are necessarily composed from the tiny.  Therefore the sage in the end doesn’t perform [tasks] that are large, and is thereby able to complete the large [tasks]…(my own translation—criticisms and suggestions welcome!)

In Analects 14.34, Confucius rejects this.  His response is:


Then how can you reply to excellence?  Use uprightness to reply to enmity, and use excellence to respond to excellence.

My first thought was to wonder whether both authors understand bao yuan yi de (respond to enmity with excellence) in the same way.  What does DDJ 63 mean by this, and what does the author of Analects 14.34 think the DDJ 63 formulation means?

My own reading of bao yuan yi de in DDJ 63 is that it is a tactic for diffusing conflict.  This ties it together well with the rest of the chapter (barring the last sentence or two, which I didn’t include above, and I’m not sure I understand).  It might be meant as a particular instance of a general strategy of accomplishing goals by preventing the construction of obstacles.  We might thus read the line da xiao duo shao as “deal with the large when small and the many when few,” which would connect it well with bao yuan yi de and the rest of the chapter.  The sagely person thus accomplishes what for others are difficult tasks by tackling things when they are easy.  Thus, we might read DDJ 63 as making the claim that overcoming one who has enmity toward you can be done more easily by transforming that enmity through (moral?) excellence.  This is part of the idea behind historical movements like Gandhi’s nonviolence campaign and doctrines such as the Christian notion of “turning the other cheek.”

Is this the right way to read DDJ 63?  And is this how the author of Analects 14.34 reads it?  Assuming the Analects author does read it this way, what does this say about the response of Confucius?  It would not necessarily show that Confucius does not think such a method can be effective to undermine conflict, but it does seem to show that he thinks following such a method would not be proper.  Of course, this leaves open the interesting (to my mind, at least) question:  would Confucius find something improper even if it would have the result of leading to greater social harmony?  We would have to conclude this if the view of Analects 14.34 is that bao yuan yi de is effective in undermining conflict but nonetheless not proper.  Is there any evidence that this is the view expressed in 14.34?  What might make such a response to enmity improper even if socially efficacious?

Also, how should we read the alternative Analects 14.34 offers to DDJ 63, to repay enmity with uprightness (zhi)?  Perhaps part of what is going on here is that if one repays enmity with excellence in the way DDJ 63 suggests, people will lose their motivation to act with excellence, because people will (if they’ve taken the message of DDJ 63 to heart) respond with excellence no matter how one acts.  If this is what is going on in Analects 14.34, it suggests a view that conflicts with Analects 2.3 (that the best way to order people is through excellence, as it creates a sense of shame that leads people to order themselves), because it suggests that people will generally not act with excellence absent external motivating forces, such as the reward of others responding to them with excellence.

However, this reading suggests that the bao yuan yi de of DDJ 63 is ultimately not efficacious in the way DDJ 63 claims (if my reading of the DDJ passage is correct), and so Confucius objects to the efficacy of bao yuan yi de rather than objecting that it is not proper (although it may be both inefficacious and improper).  How might one understand Confucius’ response if we take it that he accepts the efficacy of responding to enmity with excellence but thinks that it should be avoided because it is (ritually?) improper?

There are passages elsewhere in the Analects that suggest that actions with positive consequences can nonetheless be improper and thus avoided by the morally exemplary person (junzi).  Most clearly we see this in the case of ritually improper actions.  Social order in general may be aided by the willingness of sons to turn in their criminal fathers, as in the case of the “upright” people of She in Analects 13.18, but ritual calls for sons to protect their fathers and thus turning one’s father in is improper.  Analects 3.25 also might support such a view, as Confucius draws a distinction between music that is beautiful but not good.  Is social harmony here like the “wealth and honor” of Analects 4.5, in that it is good only if gained in a ritually proper manner?  It could be that Confucius sees the social harmony to be attained by something like bao yuan yi de as a positive thing, but something outweighed by the ritual requirement of responding in kind.  If so, however, then social harmony can’t be used to justify ritual (a justification that a number of people, including myself, find in the Analects, based on passages like 1.2).  So do we face a dilemma here, either 1) holding that Analects 14.34 rejects the efficacy of DDJ 63’s bao yuan yi de, and thus advances the view that responding to excellence with excellence is necessary in order to create motivation for acting properly, but thereby creating a tension with the views of Analects 2.3; or 2) holding that Analects 14.34 accepts the efficacy of bao yuan yi de for creating social harmony, but rejects it as ritually improper, thus undermining the social harmony justification for ritual?

Or perhaps my initial reading of DDJ 63 is wrong.  That is, the earlier part of the chapter, including bao yuan yi de, could be making a different point than the later parts.  What then might it mean?

21 replies on “What Does It Mean to "Respond to Enmity with Excellence"?”

  1. Hi Alexus,
    I’ve been studying this very topic in depth lately, so I’ll tell you what I think.

    First of all, you’ve mistaken Yuan 怨 with Nu 怒. (Perhaps you could edit your post to correct this.)
    Second, I don’t think translating De as ‘excellence’ is very helpful, as De is used here as an opposite or contrast with Yuan, so the translation should make use of that. Yuan means resentment, ill-will, enmity, animosity or perhaps injury. To contrast with this, De would mean gratitude, goodwill, kindness, generosity, etc. (i.e., Ende 恩德) Personally, I prefer goodwill and ill-will. (Gratitude and resentment are good glosses in other passages though.)

    I think you are correct to tie this into other material in chapter 63. The sage is said to deal with (problems) while they are small and easy to deal with. This sort of lenience, magnanimity and forbearance is also suggested in chapter 49, where the sage is said to be good to the good and the not-good, and chapter 79, where the sage – one who “has De” (有德) – is one who makes no demands on others (不責於人), whereas one who “lacks De” (無德) is like a tax-collector.

    Now the Laozi suggests that we respond favourably to those who don’t treat us favourably, that we should still extend our generosity and goodwill (and possibly forgiveness) to those, for whatever reason, who only despise and wish ill upon us. At first glance, this seems to amount to advocating rewarding people for maltreating us, and as such is a bad bit of wisdom. This might be considered raising a moral virtue to the point of it being a vice. But there is more to it than that. For one, the Laozi text does not contain the word “always” or “certainly” (e.g. Chang or Bi 必), although obviously, even from ancient times, people have assumed the aphorism implies that we always or consistently follow this advice. Confucius was one such person (14.34) But LaFargue has convincingly argued that “Laoist Aphorisms” such as this should not be understood as universal principles, that they are corrective advice, intended to prompt us to entertain alternative attitudes and courses of action, and finally that they generally have a specific “target,” which should not be universalized.

    From this understanding, Bao Yuan Yi De 報怨以德 need mean nothing more, or less, than suggesting that there may be circumstances where maintaining a sense of goodwill or benevolence towards even someone who resents or who exhibits animosity towards us, is a reasonable (and beneficial) thing to do. Some of the reasons might be 1) there has been a misunderstanding and the other person is just reacting to that (e.g., someone misconstrues some action you made and understandably is angry [nu 怒]), 2) the situation is such that a war between two groups is likely to break out unless someone tries to end the conflict, by “turning the other cheek” and abstaining from avenging some wrong. Such forbearance or goodwill is often (not ALWAYS) appreciated and generates goodwill in return, or 3) maintaining moral purity might make us worthy of some sort of reward from our deceased ancestors or Tian, (or later on, through the laws of Karma), especially in cases of adversity (such as being the recipient of malice or ill will).

    Confucius, however, seems to have taken the aphorism 報怨以德, (now found in the Laozi but possibly a more common and widespread concept existing for centuries), to be suggesting we should reward those who bear us resentment and malice with our goodwill and kindness. For Confucius it seems, it is inconceivable and inappropriate to respond in identical ways to both De and Yuan. Our responses must be different. Later literati clarify that this course of action is “contrary to Li” (非禮). However, Confucius doesn’t take the other obvious alternative of returning Yuan for Yuan, of malice with malice. He recommends returning Yuan with Zhi 直, usually translated as “justice, uprightness, straightforwardness.” What he means by this is not clear at all, but, it should be noted, like Laozi, Confucius doesn’t use the word “always” with his advice. A “just” response could plausibly be to return Yuan for Yuan, although in Lunyu 15.24 Confucius says “What you yourself do not desire, do not give/inflict/impose to others” (己所不欲,勿施於人。), which would include Yuan, it is safe to say. This is apparently what Shu 恕 meant to Confucius. Shu is often translated as “reciprocity,” which here is shown by not returning ill for ill, if ill is not what you desire for yourself. “Forgiveness” and “tolerance” are also connotations of Shu, which here is shown again by not returning ill for ill. So the problem remains: what does a Zhi 直 response look like?

    Edward Slingerland writes, “the point of 14.34 seems to be that order is brought about through proper discrimination. Each type of behavior has a response that is proper to it: injury should be met with sternness, whereas kindness is to be rewarded with kindness. Failure to discriminate in this way is an invitation to chaos as Huang Kan notes, ‘The reason that one does not repay injury with kindness is that, were one to do so, then everyone in the world would begin behaving in an injurious fashion, expecting to be rewarded with kindness. This is the Way of inviting injury.’” Huang Kan’s criticism, (and Confucius’), is only valid if one thinks the Laozi’s advice is intended to serve as an inflexible universal principle or rule. But I’ve already said that I believe the author of this aphorism was not affirming a dogmatic rule but a corrective, a way to break the vicious cycle of vengeance and retaliation – “an eye for an eye” – much like Jesus proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount (esp. Mathew 5:38-48). Peter 3:9 is also relevant: “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.”

    • Your welcome. If you want to remove my mention of it in my reply that’s fine with me. (If you do, you should also remove the word “Second…” and probably these 2 replies. 🙂

    • No problem–I like to have a record of my mistakes!

      Lots of good stuff here! Have you written anything on this topic? if so I’d like to check it out!

      Huang Kan’s reading is similar to how I read Confucius’ response at 14.34. But that seems to me a strange position for Confucius to take, given his general view of the efficacy of de (I mention this in my comments to Bill below). It seems to me he ought to *agree* with bao yuan yi de, if our reading of it is correct. I’ve been trying to figure out why he would think it’s ritually improper, if the purpose of ritual is to foster social harmony. Of course, this could simply be a passage that puts pressure on my reading of ritual as having the primary purpose of creating social harmony. But there are lots of Analects passages that seem to claim just this. My main worry is that there’s a tension between Confucius’ response here and his views on de and social harmony elsewhere in the Analects.

    • I think we posted at the same time (I posted below). I agree somewhat that it seems at odds with Confucius’ view of De as an influential or charismatic (moral) power. I say ‘somewhat’ because it may not be the case that De here refers to anything more than kindness or goodwill.
      As for why it would be considered ritually improper, I’d suggest that the Li need to be rather fixed and predictable, and responding identically to kindness and enmity creates confusion. Heaven rewarded the good and punished the bad, so human government and human social practices should follow suit.

    • Oh yeah, I am close to being finished writing a very long “paper” on De from Western Zhou (bronze inscriptions) to Han Dynasty literature. I could share it with you when it’s done if you want. (I have no expectation for it to be published, as I have no letters after my name [e.g., B.A, PhD.])

    • I’d definitely like to read that–thanks! Especially interested to see what you have to say about the Han dynasty stuff–I’ve been working on that a lot recently (in the middle of a paper on shame and de in Jia Yi right now). Letters after one’s name are kind of overrated, in my opinion–I’ll bet you can get that published somewhere.

    • Submissions to Dao, PEW, or JCP are double-blind refereed. I’m not as sure about Asian Philosophy. I’ve been on both sides of the refereeing and I trust it; your paper will get a full review by unbiased (because they don’t know anything about you) people.

    • Hi Alexus,

      I just wanted to address something you wrote here. That is, “I’ve been trying to figure out why he would think it’s ritually improper, if the purpose of ritual is to foster social harmony. Of course, this could simply be a passage that puts pressure on my reading of ritual as having the primary purpose of creating social harmony.”

      I think ritual is more concerned with social order, not harmony. Social order is undermined if transgressors of moral (and legal norms) go unpunished. This has been witnessed in primates as well.

    • I agree that social order is one of the aims of ritual, but I think the Confucian takes social harmony to trump social order when the two come apart (although they seem not to think they often do come apart). I base my reading of ritual as connected to social harmony mainly on Analects 1.12 as a direct statement (有子曰: “禮之用, 和為貴。 先王之道斯為美, 小大由之。 有所不行, 知和而和, 不以禮節之, 亦不可行也。” ), but also on the focus on harmonious relationships as a result of ritually proper actions elsewhere in the Analects. I read 13.18 (the “upright Gong” passage) as dealing with just this possible tension between social order and social harmony. Turning in one’s father for a crime might tend to aid social order (there would be less crime if people captured and turned in their criminal family members), but would undermine harmony within the family (and ultimately the society, following 1.2), and this is why it’s wrong.

  2. The 表記 Biao Ji section of the Liji looks potentially relevant, e.g.

    The Master said, ‘When kindness is returned for kindness, the people are stimulated (to be kind). When injury is returned for injury, the people are warned (to refrain from wrong-doing). It is said in the Book of Poetry (III, iii, ode 26) – “Answers to every word will leap, Good deeds their recompense shall reap.” It is said in the Tai Jia (Shu, V, v, sect. 2, 2), “Without the sovereign, the people cannot enjoy repose with one another; without the people, the sovereign would have none to rule over in the four quarters (of the kingdom).”‘

    (Sturgeon, Legge)

    But I don’t have time to think about it yet.

    • You forgot the ending:

      “They who return kindness for injury are such as have a regard for their own persons. They who return injury for kindness are men to be punished and put to death.” (Legge) <– I don't know about this translation.

      孔穎達 《禮記正義》 疏:“‘寬身之仁者’,若以直報怨,是禮之常也。今以德報怨,但是寬愛己身之民,欲苟息禍患,非禮之正也。”

  3. Confucius’ remark looks very sensible to me, as regards both morality and effectiveness. If you have a student or colleague who is exceptionally kind to you, you’ll want to return the favor somehow. But if you have a student or colleague who is irrationally hostile, e.g. making snide personal remarks in class, I think the appropriate and effective response is to behave in a saliently formally-correct way toward that person. There is a standard impersonal smile for such occasions (also useful for when one has a migraine but must deal with customers). The formally correct response removes (some of) the personal significance from the encounter; it retreats to a position recognizable as a safe objective middle ground, a recognizedly stable equilibrium as it were, where the other party is less likely to feel provoked to push further — or tempted by 德 to pull further.

    How about that?

    • I like your suggestion as a general rule for responding to enmity, but I guess my main worry about that as a reading of 14.34 (a version of rejecting the efficacy of bao yuan yi de) is, like the version I mention above, it seems to clash with the claims of passages like Analects 2.3, which insist on the efficacy of de in creating a sense of shame. I take it this is how the DDJ understands bao yuan yi de (as Scott explains), as working something like the Christian doctrine of “turning the other cheek.” I think the (very Confucian sounding!) idea is that it’s supposed to create a shameful feeling in the offending party such that they change their actions. If one responds to being punched in the face by returning a heartfelt smile, it might (at least on the view I’m considering here) create a feeling of shame that changes the attitude and behavior of the aggressor. I take it the Confucian in general sees this as part of the effectiveness of de. To reject the efficacy of bao yuan yi de, then, seems to give up on some of the claims about the efficacy of de made elsewhere in the Analects.

      As far as effectiveness, I actually disagree with bao yuan yi de (although Scott makes a compelling case for it), just as Confucius does in 14.34 (it seems to me that responding to a punch with a heartfelt smile is as likely to result in another punch to the gut as it is to a feeling of shame in the aggressor). It just seems to me odd that *Confucius* would disagree with it, given his (perhaps almost naive) faith in the ability of the person of de to transform those around them.

    • I agree that Bill’s example sounds appropriate. (Thanks Bill.) But context is all-important, and Yuan can take shape in many ways, some of which responding in a “formally-correct” manner cannot apply. I’m happy you found my case for 報怨以德 somewhat compelling. It was/is generally true that you reap what you sow. As the Huainanzi/Wenzi puts it, “One who plants glutinous millet does not harvest pannicled millet, one who plants Yuan does not harvest De” (故樹黍者不穫稷,樹怨者無報德。). Blood-feuds, revenge, and vengeance were commonplace in Chunqiu and Zhanguo times, and I think this motivated the Laoists to suggest an alternative, (again though, I doubt it was a recommendation to respond all the time with goodwill or kindness: each situation is different).

      An example of how 報怨以德 works can be found in “Yielding” (Tuirang 退讓), chapter 7.4 of Jia Yi’s Xinshu 新書, from the early Han Dynasty. In brief, farmers from Chu wrecked a crop of melons in the neighbouring state of Liang due to jealousy. The Liang farmers wanted to return (報) the favour by destroying Chu’s crop, but Liang’s magnate Song Jiu 宋就 rejected the idea saying it would only enhance the animosity. Instead, he told them to secretly help/revive Chu’s crop at night. Song’s counterpart in Chu was pleased, but the Chu king was angry and ashamed (Chou 醜). So the Chu king gave his thanks by giving expensive gifts and opening up a dialog with the estranged Liang king. Jia Yi commends Song Jiu and affirms the Laozi’s advice of “requiting ill-will with goodwill” (報怨以德). Song Jiu had defused a potentially disastrous situation, put his “rival” in his debt (i.e., Nivison’s “gratitude credit”) and improved an inter-state relationship.

      “Face,” shame, and the system of Bao 報 have long been important aspects of life in Asian societies, (from what I understand).

    • The Shuo Yuan tells a vaguely similar story, and comments, “This is what Confucius (sic) meant by “The sage turns curses to blessings, and repays enmity with dé.”


  4. The first commentary I opened (樓宇烈, 老子道德經注校釋) explains “大小多少,報怨以德” this way: “小怨則不足以報,大怨則天 下之所欲誅,順天下之所同者,德也。” (That is, “Small enmity is not worth responding to. Big enmity is what the world wants to put to death. Following what the world agrees on is de.”) Peculiar!

    Okay, I don’t think that’s right. The puzzle for me is how “報怨以 德” fits with the rest of DDJ 63, whose main idea seems to be that you can prevent big troubles by taking care of them while they’re still small. Maybe the idea is that if you respond kindly to small grievances, they don’t turn into big ones? That would require taking the 怨 in question to be justified, or at least reasonable, but that seems legitimate to me.

    To take up Scott’s reference to LaFargue upthread, I’d agree that “報怨以德” does have the feel of a saying, and could have had some currency outside these texts. If it would already be familiar to the DDJ‘s audience, that might help explain what it’s doing here. It might also explain why Analects 14.34 responds to it but not to the rest of DDJ 63.

    A minor comment on the translation: “大小多少” should be something like “take the small as big and the few as many,” I think. I take the idea to be that you deal with small issues with the seriousness (or whatever) that’s normally reserved for big ones, so that they never become big; that’s pretty much the same idea you find in the text.

    • Yeah, that’s a strange bit of commentary. But anyways, I’d just like to mention that 報怨以德, and several characters that follow it, are not found in the Guodian text of the Laozi. It may have been added later by someone who thought that was a good place to put it, or it may have been taken out for that text’s specific audience (a Chu prince), or it may simply be a different recension. Even if it was added in the 3rd century BCE, there’s no indication that the author/editor was aware of the Analects’ passage (supposedly) representing Confucius’ viewpoint. I do think it had been around for some time.

  5. It dawned on me yesterday that Confucians argued that if we are treated improperly or poorly, (or, say, with yuan 怨), we should engage in introspection to see if we are somehow responsible or to blame. This assumes that people will return ill for ill (報怨以怨) – as the Huainanzi states (樹怨者無報德) – and that we may perhaps deserve to be treated that way if we have not acted properly or admirably. So, if that yuan-treatment is deserved, it is understandable and must be somewhat forgivable, from a Confucian perspective. Yes?

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