Meaning of Yi (義) by John KC Liu– May 2022                                

A while ago Billy asked me to write about Yi (義) and Yi Chi (義氣).  I said I would try, and this assignment has been on my mind. Apologies for taking a long time to respond. Let me put down what comes to mind even though a lot of its deeper meanings are above my level.

Let me start with an everyday example of a voluntary act of reaching out to another person.  In this case, a passerby saw that I was looking for something and she stopped to ask me what I was looking for. I had accidentally dropped my glasses and she must have thought that I was helpless without my glasses. Without any hesitation, she started looking around trying to cover all possible locations where I might have dropped them.  After about fifteen minutes she was not successful and said sorry to me and went on her way. But just a minute or two later she came back and said that there was one more possible place she had not checked and she was going to look again. Well, this time she came back with a big smile holding my glasses. Before I could say ‘thank you’ and ask her name, she just waved and disappeared into the crowd. The whole episode happened in a natural and matter-of-fact way, without any fuzz or anxiety. The way she handled the situation had a sense of simplicity and beauty.

I would consider this as a kind of impersonal but universal act of Yi. It’s impersonal since we are strangers to each other, but it’s universal because it happens everyday, everywhere, all the time. Each of us are in touch with thousands of such examples of selfless giving and mutual help. In the U.S. during the sixties when I was in college, there was a popular saying “Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty”. In ancient China, Confucius teachings assigned the concept Yi to this fundamental human impulse towards others as duty to do the right thing. Not to do the wrong thing, or not to harm others, is part of this human impulse.  Of course another important Confucian concept of Ren (仁), meaning kindness and benevolence, is closely related to Yi. So Ren and Yi are one of the basic building blocks of humans as social beings.

On another level, among colleagues, family, and friends, the practice of Yi takes on additional meanings beyond just doing a kind deed. There is a sense of honor, loyalty and commitment that comes with belonging. By being a member of a family, a group, an association, or even a political party, one has the duty and the responsibility to serve the needs of that group, most often unconditionally. In Chinese we refer to a volunteer as Yi Gong (義工), an YI worker. Here I think the term YI Chi (義氣) is most often applied.  An example in the work place is when a colleague is overworked and is facing a deadline. You decide to help finish the task at hand, foregoing, perhaps a family dinner. Chi is inner energy, so Yi Chi is the act of honoring a commitment to an organization or to those that you have an affiliation with. 

Likewise with an old friend, in this case when I recently asked Billy to support a project of mine, Billy committed his support without any hesitation.  An important part of this Yi Chi is mutual trust. Trust requires cultivation, but interestingly it needs not necessarily be physically close; trust may grow across space and time. For example last year I got in touch with my grade school classmates after more than sixty years. It was quite a reunion and after they heard about my project, my desk mate in fifth grade just volunteered to help me promote it. Another facet of the practice of Yi Chi is that it is not tied to the notion of fair exchange. One does not practice Yi expecting something in return, nor does one calculate the costs and benefits of the act. The act itself has its own intrinsic value independent of return and rewards. 

At an even larger scale of the community and the nation, Yi is often practiced by pledging to work together on selected social causes. An example is our Building and Planning Research Foundation at the National Taiwan University.  When we started, we had committed ourselves to applying our professional planning and design skills to solving social problems such as public housing for the needy, rural community development, and infrastructure planning for native communities. Many of our team members have pledged their professional lives to working for social justice. Such social commitment have earned us trust from the communities we serve, and likewise we have developed trust in them to do the best they can to better themselves. The operating human value at work here is the mutual practice of Yi between the professional and the local community.  Of course, examples abound and each of us can think of many examples at this scale.

At an even larger scale, addressing the whole of a culture in a particular place and time, we also find forms of associations based on Yi, such as political parties formed to promote specific social goals, and various civic and philanthropic associations engaged in achieving certain social values. An historical example in ancient China is the well known story called “ Oath of brotherhood in the Peach Garden” (桃园三结义) which appears at the beginning of the novel Romance of Three Kingdoms (三国演).  Here the term Yi , referring to duty, loyalty, honor, allegiance , is at the center of the story in forming political and military alliances to achieve perceived social goals. In more recent history, the republican revolution led by Dr. Sun Yat Sen was very much a voluntary movement based on shared ideals of a just and modern society. Here Yi takes on a more direct and radical commitment of both soul and body. My grandfather was a member of the revolutionary league the Tong Meng Hui (同盟会), though he was not one of the famous 72 martyrs who gave their lives to the revolution.  During WWII, in the fight against Japanese aggression of China, many Taiwanese volunteers joined the fight on Mainland China. General Li You-bang (李友邦) led a Taiwan voluntary army (台湾義勇军) to fight along side with the Chinese army against the Japanese. So at the national level, the practice of Yi  is an essential motivating force to seek a better world.

At these different scales, Yi plays a critical role in connecting a person to others, a person to a community, and a person to a larger cause.  For me, among these and many other ways of practicing Yi, there is a very important element of “empathy” that seems to be always present. Empathy, I think, is a capacity to step outside oneself and to see the world from another’s point of view. Likewise, it is also a communicative tool to motivate different peoples to see each other and to respect the culture and values of others. At the very base of being humans, we have the obligation, the Yi, to respect and love each other. Here, I think Mo-tsu (墨子) a century after Confucius and one of the key ancient sages, gave Yi a adjunctive meaning  in his “universal love, practice no harm” (兼爱无攻) dictum, which I think is very much in need during these turbulent times of 2022.

OLD FRIENDS:  Lucille Lee, Shirley Liu, John Liu and Billy Lee