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Self-Cultivation as the Process of a Human Being Essay

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Updated: Oct 14th, 2020


Contemporary philosophical schools of thought about self-cultivation hinge on the works of various philosophical thinkers, such as Confucius, Mencius, Xunzi, and Zhuangzi. These philosophers have had different assumptions and approaches about life and about the process of self-cultivation. They have expressed these arguments based on different conceptions of ethics, epistemology, spatial inferences, and temporal assumptions of self-cultivation.1 In the context of this essay, we present the concept of self-cultivation as the process of a human being acquiring new knowledge and using the same to inform his/her actions. The basic assumption we use in this definition is that people always want to better themselves, or live their lives in a noble and ethical way.

Building on the above definition, in this paper, we review the works of Confucius and Zhuangzi as two major philosophers who have informed Chinese thinking of self-cultivation. In this text, we show how these two philosophers comprehend and explain the concept of self-cultivation and how they encourage people to live their lives within different ethical, moral, and spatial inferences. We also compare how the views of the two philosophies differ and contrast to have a more holistic understanding of where their views merge, or differ, in thought. The last section of this paper explains the larger conclusions drawn from this comparison and contains a self-assessment process that reviews the process involved in undertaking this review.

In the Analects (Confucian)

In the Analects, Confucius argues that human beings are identical at birth; however, based on their environments, values and beliefs, they grow up to be different. He explains this concept by highlighting the Junzi, which literally means a noble person.2 A translation of the same concept draws our attention to the concept of the profound person, which is also a direct translation of the Junzi. The opposite of this person is the “small person,” who is often motivated by profit. Relatively, this description points out that the actions of the profound person are guided by moral principles, while the actions of the “small person” are informed by the pursuit for profit. Therefore, the Junzi is the profound person because he manifests traits associated with ren (jen).3 They also manifest the quality of the Yi (i) in their actions.4 These two factors are the main graphic elements in the description of the works of Confucius.

Many people often misunderstand the concept of the ren to mean how people should treat one another. Understandably, it is easy to see why they may do so because the concept of the ren is abstractly termed as the ability of human beings to be benevolent or humane.5 However, such a description is shallow because the concept is mainly instructive. If we take this understanding to be true, we find that the concept of the ren could abstractly mean co-humanity. How the Junzi treat other people highlights the key tenets of Confucius’s model of self-cultivation, which is depicted, by a hierarchical model of relations. To highlight this fact, Confucius says the Junzi is like the wind, while the small person is like the grass. When the wind blows, the grass bows.6

In sum, ren means an attribution of agents, while yi mostly refers to the motivation for people’s actions.7 In the second category of self-cultivation, we find that people’s actions are defined by what is fitting, or righteous, in the eyes of one person. This understanding helps to ascertain the link between different terms that Confucius uses in his analogy. The terms are li, de, and junzi.8 Using this analogy, we find that the Junzi helps to identify the moral force that should persuade people to take specific actions, depending on what they deem fit or right.9 Here, what is fitting simply means what is morally of socially acceptable. By identifying these actions, ren manifests. In other words, the virtue of co-humanity manifests in a co-dependent way where many people need one another to survive, or where people need to develop co-dependent relationships to thrive. Two passages in the Analects article explain the above narration. One of them is representative of Confucius’s understanding of the path towards self-cultivation, which he increasingly used, in 15th century China to advance his moral and philosophical ideals. This passage appears below.

From the age of fifteen on, I have been intent upon learning; from thirty on, I have established myself; from forty on, I have not been confused; from fifty on, I have known the mandate of Heaven; from sixty on, my ear has been attuned; from seventy on, I have followed my heart’s desire without transgressing what is right.10

The other passage in the Analects article that emphasizes the same point says, “The Master’s Way is nothing but other-regard and self-reflection.”11

The first passage above shows a long-term view of what self-cultivation is all about. For example, in the article, Confucius chronicles the process of self-cultivation that occurs from a person’s teenage years up to their old age. Throughout these stages, five stages of self-cultivation occur. The first stage includes a metamorphosis from intention to learning. Intention is zhi and learning is xue. The second metamorphosis happens from knowing the mandate of heaven, which is defined by the concept of Tianming to undertaking desired actions, which is defined by the process of yu. The last stage involves turning what is desired to what is right (yi).12

Zhuangzi follows Confucius’s teachings by using the above principles to depict his understanding of self-cultivation. His remarks and arguments have mostly been a summary of his philosophy (Dao). Nonetheless, intricate details of his teachings will appear in later sections of this paper. Comparatively, Confucius has taught the concept of the “other regard,” which is defined by the concept of zhong. His other teachings have focused on explaining the concept of self-reflection, which he explicitly mentions as shu.13

When highlighting the concept of the “other regard,” Confucius simply alluded to the concept of loyalty, which a ruler, or somebody in authority, may enjoy. In the fullness of the term, Confucius confers the meaning of loyalty based on how people interact with one another and, more importantly, how people in authority would relate to those who are subject to their authority. While explaining this fact, Confucius says that self-reflection is an important part of self-cultivation. In fact, he points it out as a golden rule. Within this framework of discussion, he also says that people should refrain from participating in actions that are detrimental to other people because they would not want the same to be done to them. It is only through self-reflection that people can truly understand the magnitude and effects of their actions towards other people. Indeed, people should not think that what is undesirable for them could possibly be desirable for others.

Based on this analysis, correctly, we could argue that Confucius’s concept of the self is deeply reflective in the sense that it strives to change the relational component of human interaction without outer virtue. In an unrelated analytical lens, we could argue that the Confucius concept of the self is that which compares itself with the moral framework of the society to identify areas of conflict or mergers. This concept of the self seeks to maximize ren through apprenticeship to li. The aim is to exercise de in a way that befits a Junzi. This philosophy is rarely contradicted in Chinese philosophical schools of thought because the Chinese rarely suffer from a mind-body problem. Different researchers have investigated this fact. One of the most prolific researchers to have delved into this discussion is Herbert Fingarette. This researcher has argued that there is no dichotomy between the inner and outer self.14 Therefore, the Confucian principles highlighted in this paper do not only apply to the self, but the society as a whole. In other words, the Confucian principles of self-cultivation also apply to social and cosmic aspects of a human being.


In my reading, I established that the philosophical teachings of Zhuangzi about self-cultivation were largely borrowed from Confucius principles. In his teachings, Zhuangzi presents a holistic philosophy of life. He tries to present a pure form of the self, which is devoid of the artificialities of socialization. Although his text appears complex, mythical, and poetic, it argues for the cultivation of our ancestral potencies and skills.15 The outcome is the ability of human beings to live simple, but fulfilling lives. Nonetheless, this philosopher does not assume that all people are bound to agree on the same school of thought because people come from different cultures and philosophical schools of thought. He also recognizes the fact that there is an inherent lack of an independent metric for evaluating the different cultures and philosophical thoughts. Therefore, when presenting his views of self-cultivation, he encourages people to have an open-mind, or to have a common understanding of philosophical matters without advancing a common system of comparative evaluation. Consequently, he encourages people to maintain a provisional and pragmatic attitude towards philosophical matters pertaining to self-cultivation.16

Holistically, the teachings of Zhuangzi point out the fact that the process of self-cultivation needs to happen within the framework of what nature would allow. The philosopher enshrines some of these principles in the concept of Daoism, which promotes two descriptive claims. One claim is that ethical principles based on formulas and concepts are inherently flawed because they are not hinged on nature and its constituents. The second claim is that conscious deliberation cannot yield fruitful outcomes (by itself) when it comes to self-cultivation.17 The premise of this argument is hinged on Zhuangzi’s teachings, which encourages people to create the right conditions for creating spontaneity, as opposed to pursuing spontaneity as a goal in itself. He encourages this path of self-cultivation because he believes that the mere act of pursuing spontaneity is self-defeating.

Zhuangzi also encourages those who subscribe to his school of thought to go beyond their primary focus by trying out new things, or shaking up social norms. He termed this concept as the Yao, which means “distance” or “going beyond.”18 Abstractly, this statement means going beyond the familiarity of matters, which may be contextualized in social norms, beliefs, values, and such-like frameworks of social control. Zhuangzi proposed the concept after seeing that many people were afraid of going beyond what they already knew, or trying out new things that were beyond their primary framework of understanding, or knowledge. Therefore, people need to outstretch these limitations if they are to understand the nature of things. They also need to do the same to have fruitful interactions with other people.

Zhuangzi highlights the importance of understanding the limits of human beliefs when espousing the importance of self-cultivation. He says that human beliefs and values often change and limit people’s actions, based on what they know; however, knowledge does not have the same limits as values do. Therefore, people should strive to expand their knowledge base at all costs. He highlights this fact in a passage, which says,

Your life has a limit, but knowledge has none. If you use what is limited to pursue what has no limit, you will be in danger. If you understand this and still strive for knowledge, you will be in danger for certain!19


The views of Confucius and Zhuangzi about self-cultivation are similar in the sense that they were both borne from a historical time of social chaos in Asia. However, their differences on the same concept (self-cultivation) emerge from their different worldviews. The fundamental point of departure emerges from their conception of how people should approach worldly things. Confucius argues for the participation in worldly affairs, presumably to impact social change, while Zhuangzi argues for the retraction from a busy and worldly view to a more personal one that is in touch with nature. Confucius wanted people to participate in social change by reforming the conception of self-cultivation. He aimed to meet this goal by encouraging people to return to the rites.

Zhuangzi’s philosophy on self-cultivation differs from those of Confucius because he is not concerned with society’s issues, but family issues. In other words, Zhuangzi encourages people to embrace their free will/spirit and not worry much about what society thinks. Although these views highlight significant differences between Confucius and Zhuangzi, their different schools of thought merge on the premise that both of them appreciated the need for self-cultivation and underscored the importance of evaluating this concept as a prerequisite for personal growth.


In one sentence, what is your central argument?

My Central argument is that Confucius was more inclined towards pivoting his concept of self-cultivation on worldly goals, while Zhuangzi focused on encouraging the masses to turn away from the world and focus more on themselves, or what nature had to offer.

In one sentence, why is it worth arguing for? What is at stake?

It is worth arguing for some of the principles highlighted in this paper because different philosophers have unique schools of thought about self-cultivation and, depending on one’s culture or beliefs, it is easy to get lost in the complexities of life if one lacks a common direction.

If you had additional time to work on this paper, would you want to change it? Explain.

Yes, if I had additional time on this paper, I would have reviewed how the philosophies of Zhuangzi and Confucius related with the works of other philosophers, such as Mencius and Xunzi, who have explained the concept of self-cultivation as well.


De Bary, Theodore, and Irene Bloom. Sources of Chinese Tradition. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.

Fingarette, Herbert. Confucius: The Secular as Sacred. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press Inc., 1998.

Knoblock, John. Xunzi. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.

Mencius, Mengzi. Mencius. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2005.

Zhuangzi, Zhou. Zhuangzi: Basic Writings. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2003.


  1. John Knoblock, Xunzi (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), 55-56.
  2. Theodore De Bary and Irene Bloom, Sources of Chinese Tradition (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2013), 42.
  3. Herbert Fingarette, Confucius: The Secular as Sacred (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press Inc., 1998), 7.
  4. Theodore De Bary and Irene Bloom, Sources of Chinese Tradition (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2013), 45.
  5. Mengzi Mencius, Mencius (New York, NY:Penguin Books, 2005), 83.
  6. Theodore De Bary and Irene Bloom, Sources of Chinese Tradition (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2013), 42-43.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Herbert Fingarette, Confucius: The Secular as Sacred (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press Inc., 1998), 6-8.
  9. Theodore De Bary and Irene Bloom, Sources of Chinese Tradition (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2013), 42-43.
  10. Theodore De Bary and Irene Bloom, Sources of Chinese Tradition (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2013), 46-47.
  11. Ibid., 59.
  12. Ibid., 42-44.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Herbert Fingarette, Confucius: The Secular as Sacred (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press Inc., 1998), 6-8.
  15. Zhou Zhuangzi, Zhuangzi: Basic Writings (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2003), 44-45.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid., 56-58.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Zhou Zhuangzi, Zhuangzi: Basic Writings (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2003), p. 45.
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