Originally, this term meant to educate and influence people. Later, it came to refer to the function of shaping customary social practices, namely, the educational role of literary and artistic works in changing social behaviors and popular culture. Originating from “Preface to Mao’s Version of The Book of Songs,” the term is one of the important concepts of the Confucian school on the function of the arts. It believes that poetry and music have a role to play in shaping people’s mind, reflecting the notion that rulers can educate and influence the general public by imparting a particular ideology in a top-down fashion, thereby achieving the desired effect of cultivating the general culture. The influence of this concept is far-reaching; it has impacted much of artistic creation in China, all the way from the poetry and music of the pre-Qin period to literary and artistic works in the modern times. It not only reflects the Confucian view on moral education, but also imparts a sense of social responsibility on writers and artists. However, if an artistic work overemphasizes moral cultivation, it runs the risk of placing ideology before artistic form, thus compromising its aesthetic value. The right way is to embed teaching in entertainment and let a literary or artistic work exert its influence on social mentality in a subtle and imperceptible way.
“Guan Ju,” the first ballad in a collection from the fifteen states in The Book of Songs, marks the starting point where moral education was conscientiously pursued by way of allegory. Its purpose was to educate and influence the general public and ensure the proper behavior between spouses. Moral cultivation can be conducted both at the individual and national levels. It is a concept derived from remonstration, as indicated by the first Chinese character of the term feng, which means to persuade and influence people by way of remonstration. (Preface to Mao’s Version of The Book of Songs)
I once said that those who truly understand the writings of Tao Yuanming would be able to resist the temptations of personal fame and gains, and overcome greedy or stingy inclinations. With such understanding, a corrupted person would seek to attain integrity, and a timid one to become self-reliant; people would not only practice benevolence, but also decline offers of any official positions and salaries… This is how moral cultivation can be promoted. (Xiao Tong: Preface to Collection of Tao Yuanming’s Works)