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
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
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
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
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
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
(China Daily 12/12/2005 page4)