Confucius’ Teachings on Lust and Desire

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Chinese model qipai confucius teachings on lust
The teachings of Confucius and other Chinese sages stressed proper relations between men and women, warning people not to overindulge in lust. (Image: Lucas Schifres/Getty Images)

Confucius’ teachings covered many subjects. One of the most serious was the issue of lust. On this topic, he sternly warned people to be aware of and resist temptation.  

Confucius said, “When you are young, and your blood is not yet settled, abstain from sex.” Confucius reminded men and women in their teenage years to take care of their bodies. 

“The body at this time is like the young sprout of a plant, or the chrysalis of an insect. If one breaks a seedling when it is budding, the seedling will dry up; if one digs into a cocoon, the pupa will die.” 

Ancient Chinese treated each other with respect and courtesy, following what was set out in rites. They were particularly strict with themselves when it came to encounters between men and women. Indecent thoughts were considered a serious offense that would bring detriment to others and oneself. Historic documents offer some examples of how to handle oneself in the face of temptation.

Brown and White Swallowtail Butterfly Under White Green and Brown Cocoon in Shallow Focus Lens
Brown and White Swallowtail Butterfly Under White Green and Brown Cocoon in Shallow Focus Lens (Image via Pexels.com)

Cut the thread of sentimentality with the sword of wisdom (慧劍斬情絲)

Emperor Renzong reigned for 42 years, making him the longest ruler in the Song Dynasty (960–1279). Imperial censor (諫官, an official who advised and corrected the ruler’s faults ) Wang Su once advised him not to get close to women. Emperor Renzong replied, “Wang Deyong recently offered me beautiful women. They are in the palace now, and I like them very much. Let me keep them.”

Wang Su said, “I came today because I am afraid that Your Majesty might be bewitched by beauty.”

Hearing this, the emperor had a pained look on his face. Fighting back tears, he ordered the eunuch guarding the women’s chamber, “Give each of the women sent by Wang Deyong three hundred strings of copper coins, send them away from the palace at once, and come and report when it is done.” 

Wang Su thought he acted in haste, “Your Majesty thinks that I spoke correctly, but there is no need to handle this in such a hurry. Since the women are already in the palace, it would be better to send them away some time later.”

The emperor replied, “Although I am an emperor, I am no less sentimental than a common man. If they stay for long, I will grow fond of them and not be able to send them away.

Emperor Renzong refrained from his desires and served as an example to his people. He reigned in peace and prosperity and brought the best years to the Song Dynasty. 

Wise advice for a young widow

Di Renjie was a renowned Chancellor in the Tang Dynasty.
Di Renjie was a renowned Chancellor in the Tang Dynasty. (Image: Public domain)

Di Renjie (狄仁傑, 607-700) was a renowned chancellor in the Tang Dynasty. In his youth, Di was very good-looking. When he was on his way to the capital to take the imperial exam, he stopped at an inn, where he stayed up late studying by lamplight. 

Suddenly the daughter-in-law of the innkeeper, a young widow, came to his room. Impressed by Di’s handsome appearance, she had come to flirt with him under the pretext of getting some light for her candle. 

Di knew full well her intention, but said kindly: “Seeing you so voluptuous and attractive made me recall the words of an old monk.”

The young woman was curious and asked what the words were. Di told her, “Before I went to the capital, I was studying in a monastery, and the old monk there warned me about the future. He said ‘You have good looks, and you will be distinguished in the future, but you must remember not to be lustful and commit adultery, or your future will be ruined.’“ 

“I have always taken the old monk’s advice to heart. You must not let your impulsiveness ruin your reputation. Besides, you have a parent-in-law and a young son who need your care.”

After listening to Di’s words, the young woman was moved to tears and said, “Thank you for your kindness. From now on, I will keep this in mind and maintain a woman’s virtue.” She thanked him again and said goodbye.

In ancient times, even when rejecting impropriety, people were polite and avoided humiliating others. Di Renjie went further, advising the young widow to be faithful and abide by moral standards. Following this advice benefited herself and others.  

Compassion rewarded with a son

An old man surnamed Qian always did good deeds, yet he had no son. One villager, Yu, owed money to others, and was arrested for his debts.  Knowing of Qian’s kind nature, Yu’s wife came to borrow money from him to bail her husband out. The old man gave her what she needed without documenting the debt, in effect relieving the the Yu family.

Afterward, the couple brought their daughter to thank Qian in person. Seeing that the daughter was very beautiful, Qian’s wife wanted to take her for her husband’s concubine, hoping that she might bear a baby boy for the family. 

The Yus were ready to go forward with the union, but Qian said, “It is unkind to take advantage of people’s difficulties. Out of kindness, I helped them in an emergency. But marrying their daughter now would be taking advantage of the situation, which would be unrighteous. I would rather be without a son than do that.”

Hearing this, Yu and his wife were very touched. They bowed while giving their thanks before leaving the Qian residence. That night, a god appeared to Qian’s wife in a dream, telling her, “Your husband has saved people and done good deeds. He has compassion for the poor and the needy and does not indulge in adultery. He has accumulated great virtue with his actions. So you will be bestowed with a son.” The following year, his wife did give birth to a son. They named the boy Tianzhi (天之, blessings from heaven). At the age of eighteen, Tianzhi took the imperial examinations and later became an official.

Stories like this embodied the emphasis placed by traditional Chinese teachings on virtue and honesty. These virtues have helped the whole country, from emperors to commoners, endure tribulations throughout the ages.

Sima Guang (1019 – 1086) was a high-ranking scholarly official and historian in the Song Dynasty. His motto regarding family was, “If you accumulate gold to bequeath to your children, they may not be able to keep it; if you accumulate books to bequeath to your children, they may not be able to read them; accumulated virtue, however, will last to serve your children well.”

  • Born and raised in China, Lucy Crawford has been living in Canada for over 20 years. She has great sympathy for Chinese and human suffering in general. With a Master's degree in Education and having worked on various professions, she now translates and writes about stories in ancient and modern China. She lives in Calgary with her husband and four children.