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Relating Confucianism to everyday real life
You NuoChina Daily  Updated: 2005-12-12 05:24

The most effective way to let a tradition die is to make it boring and forgettable in everyday life. And this is the state of Confucianism today when it is taught with no connection to history, and people's real lives, nor with the modern ways of education.

If the recent, much celebrated revival of the "study of national classics" in China is only meant to make some students learn by heart quotations from Confucius and inspire little free debate both among the students and between students and teachers it will no doubt be a boring game.

If someone is really going to save Confucianism from being forgotten, he or she must try to save it from the old way of teaching and managing. He or she must encourage free debate and creative thinking, and change the focus of learning from reciting the book to relating to real life meaning real people's real actions.

Nowadays, when columnists talk about Chinese classical teachings, or in their term, the national classics, they have a tendency to talk only about Confucianism. No doubt, Confucianism is an important part of Chinese tradition. But its emphasis on humanism, expressed as being right and benevolent, was accepted by most other schools of thought through the free debate of 2,200 years ago. It was a time remembered as "one hundred flowers blossoming and one hundred schools of thought contending."

Lao Tzu incorporated the idea of benevolence into his teaching of Taoism. Motzu, another leading scholar of that time, also raised no objection to its core value. Many reformists, like Guan Zhong, imported the idea into their plans for government restructuring. Even those writing about the art of war, most noticeably Sun Tzu, took the idea as a basic requirement for government war planners and generals.

Obviously, it was not just through classroom teaching, much less reciting the master's sayings, but through debating and comparing notes with many other scholars, that Confucius' moral proposition earned common respect and became a shared discourse.

After that happened, the Confucian proposition was no longer a product of Confucius himself and his students, but a product of the entire culture. So it is fair to say that free debate was the making of Confucianism.

Therefore, it is not really an appropriate thing to do, neither for being true to history nor for understanding its importance, for people to narrow down their teaching about Confucius to just a couple of small collections of the master's quotations. Without letting students gain insight into how Confucianism grew in appeal in the time of "one hundred schools of thought contending" is like printing the Bible without including Genesis.

Following the same logic, it was not just because Confucius' quotations were recited in schools that its moral proposition was passed on for generations. It was primarily because so many people acted in the way that they thought right and benevolent, and provided themselves as examples of their moral beliefs.

Those heroines and heroes contributed much more significantly to the nation's cultural tradition than those who just furnished footnotes to the Confucian classics. They were the ones who made the master's moral proposition a living tradition, and showing, by what they did and even died for, what the right government and the right person were supposed to be like. The ivory-tower scholars' footnotes actually contained many biases and distortions.

In modern times, when ivory-tower scholars are still teaching the moral tradition by reciting, people elsewhere are generating numerous fresh examples of that tradition being upheld with good reward, and trampled over with bitter consequences.

Of the good examples are reporters who exposed a disaster and raised the alarm for residents of the affected region, and of the bad ones are the proprietors of coal mines and their government collaborators who were brought to criminal trials for not protecting workers' lives.

What is the value of a seminar in moral studies without applauding the good examples and condemning the bad ones? And what is the use of an attempt to revive a good tradition without recharging it, so to speak, with new debates and new actions?

Alexis de Tocqueville once told Americans about China, where people, "in following the track of their forefathers, had forgot the reasons by which the latter had been guided." Hence "the source of human knowledge was all but dry; and though the stream still ran on, it could neither swell its waters nor alter its course."

Those words were written 170 years ago to describe how ivory-tower scholars were doing a disservice to Confucianism. Still making no change to it is boring indeed.


(China Daily 12/12/2005 page4)

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