Destiny (命)

命 (ming) is often translated as fate, destiny, decree (Heaven’s Decree 天命), or even Divine Providence. But regardless of how this word is translated, and regardless of whether we really believe in fate/destiny/Providence, there is an important lesson that we can learn from 命 (ming).

There are many things in life that are beyond our control, and these things play a part in shaping the course of our future, as well as the successes and failures of our endeavours. Our beliefs about what led things to be that way (e.g. fate, Providence, chaos) doesn’t matter. What’s important is that we have to remind ourselves – time and time again – that there are things that are beyond our control whether we like it or not.

The fear of the unknown is one of our greatest fears. (It is most certainly one of mine!) It is this fear that paralyses us and prevents us from going forward in life. It is this same fear that makes us even more obsessed about being in control of things.

We want to be in control, we want information. After all, it’s my life! We probably wouldn’t worry so much if life was like a game with a reset button. But there doesn’t seem to be one! And so it seems as if there is very little room for trial and error. This is probably why we are often so worried about what happens to us in the future.

Here’s where one of Confucius’ famous sayings can help us a lot:


(translation mine:) The person who does not know 命 (ming) can never become a gentleman.

[Analects, 20.3]

The reason why such a person cannot become a gentleman is that this person ends up being ruled by his/her fears, and acts irrationally as a result. We all have similar experiences of this. When things don’t go our way, we get very upset, and we sometimes go to the extent of finding someone (or something) to blame and vent our frustration at for the failure. If not, we’d probably give in to our fears and desperately try to make sure things go our way, OR we do not even dare to do it, but instead opt for a safer route where in the end, we never really learn to live our own lives and be ourselves.

Sometimes, all it takes is for a friend to gently remind us that we can’t possibly be in control of everything OR just to take a step back from all that frenzy, to realise that we’ve been acting quite irrationally (and possibly, rather childishly).

So… What does it mean to know 命 (ming)? I think Fung Yu-Lan has a really good explanation:

To know 命 (ming) means to acknowledge the inevitability of the world as it exists, and so to disregard one’s external success or failure. If we can act in this way, we can, in a sense, never fail. For if we do our duty that duty through our very act is morally done, regardless of the external success or failure of our action.

As a result, we always shall be free from anxiety as to success or fear as to failure, and so shall be happy. This is why Confucius said: “知者不惑,仁者不憂,勇者不懼。 The wise are free from doubts; the virtuous from anxiety; the brave from fear.” (Analects, 9.29) Or again: “君子坦蕩蕩,小人長戚戚。 The gentleman is always happy; the petty man sad.” (Analects, 7.37)

[Fung Yu-Lan (馮友蘭), A Short History of Chinese Philosophy (New York: The Free Press, 1948), p.45]


One of my friends puts it very nicely:

To know 命 (ming) is to sit back and let the world take its course, and not be a control freak. For when you seek to control every aspect of your interactions with others you will be disapproved as a jerk. (And yes, its out of your control anyway.)

This is why 命 (ming) is currently my favourite word. I even wrote it and hung it at my door so that I’ll see it everytime I leave my room. This is to remind me that there are many things beyond my control, and so there’s really no point getting upset or anxious.

What’s more important is that I do the things that I have to do anyway. If it’s meant to be, then it shall be. If not, then 算了吧 (let it be)! And if we still find it hard to go through life like this (don’t worry – I struggle with it too), then we’re probably still trying hard to be in control of things beyond our control.

Author: Jonathan Y. H. Sim

Jonathan Sim is an Instructor with the Department of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He is passionate about teaching and he continues to research fun and innovative ways of engaging students to learn effectively. He has been teaching general education modules to a diverse range of undergraduate students and adult learners at the University.

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