Sunday, June 1, 1997

What Confucius Means to Me

Growing up in America, it's easy to be confused about Confucius. First encounter with Confucius could easily be a one liner that starts with Confucius says.... Some of these gems of wisdom attributed to the sage are quite humorous and others are naughty but humorous. My favorite that has stuck with me to this day is: Confucius says, "He who slings mud at neighbor is losing ground." Others that stuck are not for polite company.

Funny, pithy and with a grain of truth, but is that really Confucius? Sounds more like what Charlie Chan would say. Charlie Chan, we might recall, is that squinty-eyed detective with a Fu Manchu beard, shown on the silver screen on Saturday afternoons in the days of old. Speaking broken English, the role is played by a white guy. In a similar vein, these one liners are American humor cast in what Americans think will pass as sayings from the great Chinese philosopher.

I don't think any harm is done to invoke the Master in this way. After all, George Washington is the source of many "father of the country" jokes and no disrespect is ever intended. I do think the West is frequently confused about Confucianism in lumping it with other religions of the world such as Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Judaism. All the aforementioned religions are concerned about my existence in the next world. Confucius worries about my conduct while in this world.

By the time I went to college, I realized that somehow Confucianism plays a major role in defining the behavior of a civilized Chinese man. (Let's face it, Confucius was a real chauvinist and did not regard women as equal to men, so it would be inaccurate to be gender neutral in this discussion.) The Chinese sense of decorum, modesty, kindness, courtesy, studiousness, lay-backness and all other qualities that seem to render a Chinese man into an All-American wimp, is in my mind tied to the teachings of Confucius. No one likes to be the last guy to get a date, and thus I have had my problems with the Master.

In 1974, I went back to visit China for the first time since leaving at the age of 11. Mao Zedong was still alive and the country was in the midst of a Pi Lin Pi Kong movement, i.e., an orchestrated mass movement to criticize Lin Biao and Confucius. I never quite understood the connection between Lin Biao and Confucius but I did become more acutely aware of Confucius and started to think about the Master. While I could hardly qualify as a Confucian scholar, I have arrived at a comfortable accommodation of what Confucius is to a Chinese American.

I believe Confucius and his disciples had a tremendous impact on the Chinese civilization. Their teachings relating to ethics, honor, social responsibility, familial obligations, ancestor worship, and observation of rites and historical precedence provide the glue that gives the Chinese civilization continuity and durability. Other civilizations may have had earlier beginnings but they did not last. This is a heritage that all Chinese, wherever they may live, can be justly proud of.

However Confucianism has also been an anchor that kept China from modernizing in pace with the West. The Confucian emphasis on rank and station keeps feudalism embedded in the Chinese consciousness and prevents true egalitarianism from taking place. Even today, there is no egalitarianism in the democratic Taiwan nor in the socialist mainland. There is a much higher sense of egalitarianism in America, and with it, is the prevailing feeling that anyone can achieve their goals in life by dint of his/her own effort, regardless of pedigree and birthright.

Even more damaging is the Confucian insistence of looking into the past as a guide for future conduct. China lost its world leadership in science and technology hundreds of years ago because of this backward fixation. In today's fast moving Age of Information when product obsolescence takes place in months instead of years, there is no room to be hung up with the past.

So to Chinese Americans interested in knowing more about their heritage, studying the teachings of Confucius is a must. Just remember that not all the wisdom of the Great Sage is still relevant today. If I were to meet the Master some day, I might well ask, "Doesn't always looking backwards for guidance give a person more than a pain in the neck?"

No comments: