Benevolent Hearts of Doctors and the Idea of “Good”
in Chinese Human Rights Culture
Ke Lan (Research Fellow, Institute for Human Rights Law,
Huazhong University of Science and Technology)
With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Eastern and Western societies have withstood a severe test. With different cultural concepts and governance models, they have reorganized their own governance tools and cultural resources in the crisis management against this disaster. As a Chinese, I dare not say that this disaster has initiated me to be blindly proud of how my country deals with the disaster with its governance and cultural response. However, it did bring many ordinary Chinese like me a fresh understanding of Chinese governance and something profound in the Chinese culture.
Human rights are the mainstream values of the global society in modern times, but the evaluation standards thereof cannot be simple and single. The status of human rights of a country needs to be understood and judged from many perspectives. Studies of contemporary economics and sociology reveal that the individualism–based view of human rights is deeply flawed. Amartya Sen, a famous Indian economist who won the Nobel Prize in Economics, has put forward a strong doubt against the individualism–based view of human rights by proposing that whether a person’s rights can be realized depends on whether he or she has substantive “viable capabilities.” The poor, the elderly, the disabled and the severely ill all lack “viable capacities” to realize certain rights, and if they are treated as equals in enjoying the same human rights and freedoms, they are not treated equally in reality. In order to realize their basic human rights, they need special care from the social community which should have special arrangements for them from the idea of “good.” To realize basic human rights of vulnerable groups lacking “viable capacities,” it may sometimes be necessary to allow the healthy and normal majority who do not lack “viable capacities” to make modest sacrifices and even be imposed with necessary restrictions on their rights and freedoms.
Amartya Sen’s view of substantive human rights in modern times is consistent with the traditional Confucian philosophy in China. The Chinese Confucian philosophy has not put forward the individualism-based view of human rights, but it always regards the vulnerable groups who lack “viable capacities” as the objects prioritized with the social community’s care and attention. Li Ji (The Book of Rites), written in the Han Dynasty (202 BC–220) and incorporating the theories of the Confucian scholars in the period before the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC) described the ideal of “Datong society” (a society of great harmony) in the voice of Confucius. “A person should not only take his or her own ones as relatives, or regard his own ones as his sons, so that the old are cared in final years, the strong find themselves good to do something and the young have support for their growths. In this way, widowers, widows, orphans, the childless and the disabled are cared for.” Mencius (c. 372–c. 289 BC), a Confucian sage of the Period of Warring States (403–221 BC), stressed that good governance should prioritize succoring widowers, widows, orphans and the childless. “An old man without a wife is a widower; an old woman without a husband is a widow; an old person without a child is childless; a child without a father is an orphan. These four categories of persons are poor people without ways to relieve themselves in the world. King Wen of Zhou (reign: c. 1099–1056 BC), when implementing his governance of benevolence, must give priorities to these four categories of people.” In the ideal society of the Confucian philosophy, the old, the young, the widowers, the widows and the disabled, who lack the “viable capacities,” must be able to live a happy life. A society with their happiness sacrificed is not worth pursuing, no matter how generous welfare other groups have access to. This is the starting point of the benevolent and loving thought of the traditional Chinese Confucian philosophy. When the sum of the welfare of the normal groups by sacrificing the welfare of the minor groups lacking “viable capacities” exceeds the sum of the social welfare of those groups without sacrificing these minor groups, the Confucian philosophy maintains that the latter society is truly good.
In the long course of Chinese history, as a group to heal the wounded and rescue the dying, doctors have been strongly influenced by the Confucian philosophy. Since the Song Dynasty (960–1279), there have appeared people being doctors and Confucians at the same time. When one’s life and death is entrusted to a doctor, such a relationship, despite the possible fee, remains essentially sacred, even connected with heaven. Sun Simiao (581–682), a famous physician in the Tang Dynasty (618–907), saved countless lives. After his death, he was honored as the “King of Medicine” whose commemorative temples are found all over China’s famous mountains and rivers. In his book Dayi Jingcheng (The Great Physician’s Absolute Sincerity), he put forward that “Whenever someone wants to become a great physician, he must quiet his spirit and stabilize his will, he must be free of wants and desires, and he must first develop a heart brimming with great compassion and empathy. He must pledge to devoting himself completely to relieving all sentient beings from their sufferings.” He believed that “to develop a heart brimming with great compassion and empathy” is the first indispensable quality to become a great physician. “A heart of compassion and empathy” is a psychological term of Confucian philosophy, with Mencius saying that “a heart of compassion and empathy is the beginning of benevolence.”
During the COVID-19 epidemic prevention and control, Chinese doctors have put the benevolent and loving philosophy in traditional Chinese culture into practice. Despite the introduction of the Western medicine into China since modern times, the traditional culture has maintained its profound influence on doctors. In normal periods, the influence of such cultural genes may not be so obvious. However, in critical periods against crises, the influence of traditional culture on the medical community will naturally burst out to become a part of their collective unconsciousness.
During the COVID-19 epidemic prevention and control, Zhang Jixian and other doctors issued sharp alarms when the pandemic began to crop up. With their sensitiveness, the Chinese government made an early decision to lock down Wuhan as soon as possible, thus saving countless lives. During the epidemic prevention and control period, a total of 34 medical workers in China died in the line of duty. In addition, many other medical workers have risked their lives to work overtime day and night, and even could not go home to reunite with their families, leaving their children to be taken care of by others. During the COVID-19 epidemic prevention and control period, Chinese medical workers have won honor for themselves with their actions, and their collective actions present a profound refection of the spirit of benevolence and love from Chinese traditional culture.
In Shiyan City, Hubei Province, an 87–year–old man was diagnosed with COVID-19. Also suffering from 11 basic diseases such as the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pulmonary heart disease, hypertension and others, he had severe wheezing and dyspnea when he was admitted to a hospital. The hospital dispatched a special treatment team to offer precision curing for the old man. In his hospitalization lasting 47 days, the old man’s illnesses relapsed many times, but the medical staff pulled him back from the brim of death again and again till his recovery and discharging from the hospital. As of 26 April, a total of 63,604 COVID-19 patients had been cured and discharged in Hubei Province, including over 3,600 persons over 80 years old and 7 persons over 100 years old.
After the dauntless fights of Chinese doctors, the lockdown of Wuhan city successfully completed its mission. Since the start of concentrated nucleic acid tests of the COVID-19 on May 15, Wuhan City in Hubei Province, as of May 24, had reported a total of 218 new asymptomatic infection cases and one confirmed case in the past ten days. This city, with a population of over ten million people, finally eliminated the crisis of the continuous spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, with its achievements drawing worldwide attention. For such achievements, perhaps Wuhan and the rest of China have sacrificed the short-term freedom of many people and a high GDP growth rate in a short time. However, our society has protected the old, the young, the poor and the weak and adhered to the original aspiration of “good” in Chinese culture. This marks our harvest.