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Jian ai and the Mohist attack of Early Confucianism

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Abstract

In Chinese pre-Qin period, Mohism was the first school that challenged Confucianism. A common view is that Mohists attacked Confucianism by proposing jian ai, often translated as “universal love,” that opposes Confucian “graded love”. The Confucian-Mohist debate on ethics is often regarded as a debate between Mohist “universal love,” on the one hand; and Confucian emphasis on family and kinship, on the other. However, it is misleading to translate jian ai as “universal love,” as it distorts our understanding of the debate. The word jian in classical Chinese means “inclusive,” not “impartial”. The Jian Ai chapters in the Mozi do not object to the idea that our moral practices ought to vary according to our relationship with others and their social positions. Furthermore, Mohist jian ai was not proposed in the first instance to refute Confucian ideas. The Confucian-Mohist debate should not be understood as a battle between nepotism and excessive insistence on impartiality, because both of them advocate that we should care for people in general and that we should maintain close relational ties.

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