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anatomy of a word: 仁

When I was in high school, my father participated in a work leadership retreat. During the trip, it came up that my father had a daughter.

The facilitator asked my father to write down one word, one wish my father wanted for me.

For some additional context, my family and I were living in China then, so the workshop was conducted in Chinese.

My father wrote down one word: “仁” (rén).

Breaking down the character, the subcomponents of “仁” could be interpreted to mean “two people.”

The “亻” on the left side stands for ‘person’.
The “二” on the right means the number ‘two’.

Instead, the actual translation for “仁” can be partially expressed through English words like “benevolence,” “humane,” and “love.” In my head I usually simplify it down to the English word: kindness.

It is a virtue, and the foundation for Confucian philosophy.

There’s something poetic about the meaning of the sub characters that relate to the actual definition of the word.

I like to think these Chinese characters interpret kindness as the relationship between two people. There is nothing more humane than being with another human. After all, there is no better way to exhibit kindness than to show love for another person.

As a self-involved teenager at the time, I didn’t have the capacity to understand the magnitude of this wish. Being older now, I appreciate it so much more.

To be human is to be kind.

In fact, the word is pronounced exactly the same as the word for human beings, “人” (rén).

And in essence, to be kind is to love.

Therefore, by transitive property, to be human is to love.


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  1. Mariano

    The poetic relationship between the subcomponents of the characters is very interesting. They are a complete concept with other concepts that conceive a third complete concept. Like the child conceived by the love between the two human beings. Perhaps this is also another wish of your father gestating inside the word?


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