‘Zhong Yong’ is both a concept and the name of a Neo-Confucian text. The composition of the text is attributed to Zisi (or Kong Ji) the only grandson of Confucius. The term only appears once in the Analects:
Confucius said, ‘The virtue embodied in the Doctrine of the Mean is of the highest order. But it has long been rare among people.’ (Analects: 6:29)
To translate ‘Zhong Yong’ as the Doctrine of the Mean may not have conveyed its full meaning to English readers. The Chinese term ‘zhong yong’ consists of two Chinese words, zhong and yong.
The word Zhong has at least three meanings.
The first meaning refers to the situation where one needs to listen to both sides and choose the middle course, i.e. to be impartial and just right. The real meaning is neither too much nor too little, that is, just right. In the case of a beautiful lady, she can be described as, ‘If she were one inch taller, she would be too tall. If she were one inch shorter, she would be too short. If she used powder, her face would be too white. If she used rouge, her face would be too red.’ The description means that her figure and complexion were just right. This is zhong.
The second meaning is used to describe customary norms that must be suitable, appropriate, and that should be conformed to, as expressed in the Chinese saying, ‘calmly follow the suitable Way’. The word ‘Way’ with capital letter W refers to Dao, or in Confucian term li, the external rituals.
It is the inner mind and the concept of equilibrium that lead us to follow the ‘suitable Way’. This is how the third meaning of equilibrium is derived. It is said that ‘before the feelings of pleasure, anger, sorrow, and joy are established, there is equilibrium’. In other words, understanding of rituals refers to moral standards which originated from the need to have equilibrium before various feelings are established.
The word ‘yong’ means common, ordinary, or utilise. Combine ‘zhong’ with ‘yong’, it means ‘the common and ordinary use of the principle of zhong’. It is therefore important to understand the meaning of zhong before we can fully appreciate the virtue embodied in the principles of Zhong Yong.