A reader writes:
No, Confucianism does not discourage a Good Samaritanism. Here’s Mencius (Confucius’ immediate successor) on an topic clearly relevant to the shameful recent story (and to your commentator’s “If people witness a child about to fall down a well, they would experience a feeling of fear and sorrow instantaneously without an exception. This feeling is generated not because they want to gain friendship with the child’s parents, nor because they look for the praise of their neighbors and friends, nor because they don’t like to hear the child’s scream of seeking help.” Instead, Mencius argues that this feeling of compassion (ren) is innate in a person, and that as a result, all people have a mind that cannot stand to see others suffer. Moreover, Mencius argues, “…without a mind directed by compassion one is not human.” Clearly here Mencius is suggesting that by nature as humans we are not driven by guanxi, but by compassion for fellow humans. This is completely consistent with a Good Samaritan ethic.
Now, of course, both Confucius and Mencius would agree that it requires effort to make sure that one’s innate “heart” is cultivated so that what it feels results in action, and they would also agree that most people unfortunately do not do this cultivation work. It is very clear that if Confucius and Mencius had seen that video, they would be ashamed and proclaim that all of those people had lost their humanity.
I’m a student of China by profession, and the last thing I would do is propose that there’s ever a single “Chinese” way of looking at things. But we get China absolutely wrong if we imagine that there have been no strong and important cultural strands of a “Samaritan” kind in Chinese history. Mencius, whose works were part of Neo-Confucian orthodoxy in China from the twelfth century on, famously treated the fact that (as he assumed) anybody seeing a child about to fall into a well would feel an instant sense of horror, and a non-calculating desire to help, as one his proofs of the goodness of human nature.
Chinese Buddhists prayed and still pray for the salvation of all human or even all sentient souls, regardless of whether they knew the people they were praying for; and many of these prayers and their surrounding rituals have made their way into general religious life and have been participated in by people who wouldn’t have considered themselves specifically Buddhist.
At least over the last thousand years of Chinese history, Chinese governments and voluntary associations frequently made provision (and spent money) for charitable purposes (free medicines, free medical care, free grain in famine, etc.) for strangers or for all poor citizens, not just for kinsmen or members of a defined community more specific than all of China. In phases when Chinese states were expansionist, they sometimes justified expansion, as European and American states have done, by the need to bring the benefits of Chinese civilization to other peoples – an odd form of charity, one might argue, but definitely aimed at strangers and definitely involving expense and other self-sacrifice.
An argument that “the Chinese are just different from us” rarely gets us very far – especially when we can find plenty of examples of public callousness just as horrifying in our own recent history, as some other readers have pointed out with examples.