Translation of “本末” in English – (The Fundamental and the Incidental)

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By “key concepts in Chinese thought and culture” we mean concepts and keywords or phrases the Chinese people have created or come to use that are fundamentally pertinent to Chinese philosophy, humanistic spirit, way of thinking, and values.

běnmò 本末

Ben and Mo (The Fundamental and the Incidental)


The two characters literally mean the different parts of a plant, namely, its root and its foliage. The extended meaning is an important concept in Chinese philosophical discourse. The term can be understood in three different ways. 1) Ben (本) refers to what is fundamental or essential, while mo (末) means what is minor or incidental, two qualities that differ in value and importance. 2) Ben refers to the existence of the world in an ontological sense, while mo represents any specific thing or phenomenon. 3) In Daoist political philosophy ben is a state in which rule is exercised by not disrupting the natural order of the world, while mo refers to moral standards and fundamental principles governing social behavior. In any ben-mo relationship, ben is most important and plays a dominant role, while mo exists thanks to ben. On the other hand, it is through the vehicle of mo that ben exerts its influence. Thus the two, though different, are mutually dependent.

引例 Citations:



Zixia’s students can clean, receive guests, and engage in social interaction, but these are trivial things. They have not learned the fundamentals. How can this be sufficient? (The Analects)



One should respect, not interfere with, the natural order of the world, and apply this principle when establishing moral standards, social norms, and laws and regulations. (Wang Bi: Commentaries on Laozi)

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