Is individual freedom a universal value? Liberty versus PingAn, 平安

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The journey to the east

Freedom and ping an, 平安

«Freedom» is a key and paramount value of modern Western culture and Anglo-American cultural, political, and economic discourse. The United States and other Western countries have tried to advocate the value of freedom for more than a century because Western cultural specificity could be considered a universal value.

individual freedom
Liberty as a Statue (New York)

However, in general, in East Asian culture, China as an example, the value of «ping-an» (平安), with its connotations of peace, security, equality, health, harmony, and tranquility, is superior (XU Keqian; 1). He maintains that values and value priorities are not absolute or universal but rather historical, situation-specific, and dynamic. Value priority is based on the particular social reality and the development and vital needs of its people rather than external imperative. Value priority is generated from and justified by the specific historical tradition of those peoples or nations.

individual freedom
PingAn, 平安, in traditional chinese writing

from ancient Greece..

Even in the West,

«freedom» has not always been a priority value. In ancient Greece, virtue and perfect goodness and wisdom and knowledge were far more valued than individual freedom. The early roots of «liberty» and liberalism can be traced back to 17th century England, where political and economic contests took place between the king and different parts of civil society over taxation, religion, land, and so on.  In the late 18th century, the word «liberty» gradually took on a pronounced economic and political meaning in terms of liberal ideas, liberal opinions, liberal principles of liberal systems.

From the 19th century onwards, the idea and value of «liberty,» along with its alleged assumptions, like «natural law» and «individual rights,» came to be accepted as somewhat obvious and axiomatic. It is understandable that the idea and theory of «freedom» were serving the particular purposes of a specific class of people in that specific society at that time.

individual freedom
Freedom as a obvious priority in the West

… to the english inmigrants

When the English immigrants

came to the «new continent,» they were a commonwealth of individuals living freely under «natural law»; the land was vast, and the population was sparsely dispersed.

The historical tradition at the other end of the world was different in history and religious beliefs. Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism constituted the dominant ideology. Following XU Keqian (1), in this context, the core value of ancient Chinese culture could be called «ping-an» (平安), which roughly means peace and security. a Han dynasty scholar commenting on the writings of Confucius wrote, «The people live in tranquility and security (an), this is the evidence of great peace… When a wise ruler rules the world, what he should expect is ping-an.»

Happy Christmas (with Pin An chinese characters)

Gradually, «ping» and «an» were combined into a compound word that Chinese people often use to express in simple terms their desire for a peaceful and happy life and their best wishes for their society and country. Ancient Chinese valued «平安» as a way to a quiet and secure life with family and social harmony and prosperity, as well as the outward extension of this happiness to countless descendants. 

The Anglo-Saxon prioritization of «freedom» as a value has a profoundly historical and philosophical origin. Similarly, the Chinese prioritization of «ping an» as a value has deep roots in its long and rich historical and cultural background.

individual freedom
English settlers were immigrants who came to a new "land of the brave and the free"

Freedom and ping an: a historical-cultural context

Most U.S. citizens are descendants of early English settlers and immigrants who came to a new land from other continents. Chinese were native residents in a homeland where their ancestors have lived for countless generations. Furthermore, the Chinese way of life, connected to intensive agriculture, fueled their sympathy for their homeland and their reluctance to leave it. Rather than confronting foreign Indians, the traditional Chinese people used to live among their fellow villagers.

For the traditional Chinese people, this land could not be considered a virgin land for «the brave and the free» but was the homeland of their fathers. The Chinese were a kingdom in which the people had to obey the Emperor’s laws and regulations. Hierarchical social strata existed, yet dynamic and mutable thanks to the imperial examination system. It offered the possibility for talented and hardworking young men (…not for women as everywhere) from the bottom of society to rise to the class of the ruling elite (sounds like another «American dream» …).

individual freedom
"Keep me safe"
individual freedom
Paz y felicidad para 2021

China’s relatively stable social orders, systems, and customs were the construction and accumulation of thousands of years of history. Even if they did not seem absolutely reasonable to some outsiders, they were generally accepted by most people. Or at least as well as Europeans took the feudal system, where no one dared to complain about it either. It allowed them to keep the general peace and harmony of society.


For Confucianism, «there is no blessing as lasting as no misfortune.» In other words, the most lasting happiness is that you never get into trouble, that you are in a balanced and harmonious place. Therefore, Confucianism teaches individuals to cultivate their own moral personality and carry out self-discipline to stabilize their environment and achieve the peace and order of the «world under Heaven.» In other words, Chinese people often place «ping an» at the top of their values, which can explain many collective phenomena and behaviors of Chinese society.

English settlers and immigrants who came to a new "land of the brave and the free"

Freedom and ping an in the same global world

The confluence of the values

of different cultural traditions is inevitable today. For human beings and society, both freedom and «ping an» are essential values. Freedom» without the guarantee of peace and security, nor «ping-an» without liberty, cannot be considered ideal. However, in particular social and cultural contexts, these two values may conflict with each other.

Thus, it is legitimate that people living in such a society balance the different values and prioritize them according to their cultural traditions and social demands.  Yet, at the same time, choosing one value as a priority does not mean totally excluding other values.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (and Duties?)

Have you ever thought about why the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (rights: individual freedom) did not include duties (duties: ping an)? Many people fail to realize how close the modern human rights law became a law of human rights and duties. In fact, the first article of the first draft said, «Every person has a duty to his State and to the [international society] United Nations. He must accept his share of responsibility for the fulfillment of social duties and for sharing in common sacrifices which may contribute to the common good.»

But the delegates charged with negotiating the Universal Declaration decided not to enumerate duties because they saw the danger of governments relying on those duties to limit human rights in different ways. The original draft stated that the exercise of rights is limited by the «just requirements of the State.» However, delegates decided that this wording left too much discretion to the State to determine what those «just demands» might be. 

One representative, speaking on behalf of many, noted that since the definition of a State’s requirements «would rest with that State, it could override the individual rights and freedoms contained in the Declaration.» Similarly, one representative stressed that the impact of such language «would be to allow the State to impose whatever limitations it wished on the rights and freedoms of the individual…»

individual freedom
Eleanor Roosevelt, chair of United Nations Human Rights Commission

…Liberty or Ping-an or a fair mixture of both?


(1) Keqian XU (2015). The Priority of «Liberty» or «Ping An»: Two Different Cultural Value Priorities and Their Impacts. Frontiers of Philosophy in China , Vol. 10, No. 4 (December 2015), pp. 579-600 Published by: Brill.

… If you want to know how our Journey to the East continues, be sure to read the next post carefully … If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or input, please email us at We will be happy to hear from you.

Daniel echeverria

Daniel Echeverría-Jadraque

If you want to know how our journey to the East continues, be sure to read the following post carefully… If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or contributions, please send us an email to Hsuan Tsang, the Monkey King, the Pig, the Sand, the Dragon Horse and myself will be happy to hear from you!

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