Chinese writing is a combination of ideograms and letters, lending itself to conceptual and poetic imagination. So it is interesting to find that the character for heart appears in many words in the Chinese moral lexicon. The ancient written form for mercy, for example, is composed of the characters for delicate plants, a soft and hidden cocoon, and heart.

Student of Chinese philosophy and artist Ed Young writes, “The tender feelings of the heart understand compassion. This is mercy.” Evil is written as road, impediment, and heart. “The heart has the potential for goodness, creativity, growth and the development of one’s natural abilities. When the heart is blocked and goodness cannot express itself, evil results.”

There are a series of words related to virtue and right-living that combine the character for heart—the seat of both reason and feeling—with other symbols. The word respect is composed of the character for heart plus twenty pairs of hands. The hands symbolize many generations and those who have come before. When the heart acknowledges the wisdom of twenty generations, respect develops. Forgiveness is depicted as the heart combined with the character for woman—who symbolizes shared feelings—plus the character for mouth. When put together, you learn that the heart forgives when it accepts and acknowledges conflict without blame.

For Mencius (372-289 B.C.E), the great Confucian innovator, the cultivation of the heart is the center of learning, harmonizing feelings, as well as refining consciousness that provides the basis for will. As Tu Wei-ming, Harvard professor of Chinese history and philosophy, explains, because of the heart “morality is not drilled into to us from outside, but is inherent in our nature… By focusing his attention on ‘what is common in all our hearts,’ Mencius wishes to show that moral goodness is not merely a potential in human nature but a universally experienced reality.”

Understanding others by putting yourself in another’s place is more important than following rules. It is also distinct from doing the right thing based upon reciprocity. While doing right is desirable even if comes from rule-following or expecting that you will get something in return, it isn’t as developed or refined or as good as emotional understanding. Tu Wei-Ming says, “empathic and sympathetic feelings toward another… in a genuine and spontaneous manner is thought to be in the structure of the heart (hsin) itself.” Jen comes from understanding another’s inner life. Everyone is born with a heart (empathy), but this must be cultivated to reach its fullest maturity.

Mencius summarizes empathy: “When I say that all men have the mind which cannot bear to see the suffering of others, my meaning is illustrated this way: when two men suddenly see a child about to fall into a well, they all have a feeling of alarm and distress, not to gain friendship with the child’s parents, nor to seek the praise of their neighbors and friends… From such a case, we see that a man without the feeling of commiseration is not a man… The feeling of commiseration is the beginning of humanity.”

The basis of ethics is empathy, and from that it is possible to develop the human heart more fully. It is what might be thought of as sympathy put into action. Empathy is the basis upon which a moral life is built. It is the groundwork, the essential feeling. In and of itself, it is value-neutral. It is the cultivation of empathy in the direction of compassion that matters. A good life—a heart-felt life— is the cultivation of ethics, which is the capacity for mature thoughtfulness.

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