We didn't have a religion of our own in the real sense in our entire history of civilization, and neither do we have a tradition of penitence although Confucius did say a lot about how a person should behave to become a man of moral integrity. There is a difference between trying to be a good person and developing a sense of penitence and penance.
A recently-published book points to the necessity of Chinese intellectuals developing such awareness. Why Chinese intellectuals rather than other social groups? It is because they have, since ancient times, been considered a group that sets an example for the rest of society when it comes to social values. They have the respect of their countrymen because they show them how they should behave in a decent manner.
The book Criminal Archives of Nie Gannu reveals how Nie Gannu (1903-86), a well-known poet and essayist, was sentenced to life as a "counter-revolutionary" in 1974. It is beyond many people's imagination that one of his best friends, well-known painter Huang Miaozi, was the major informer. He noted down what Nie said each time while they drank liquor and then reported it to the public security officials.
In fact, a couple of Nie's friends were recruited as professional informers to chat with him and jot down later what he said, which became written reports against him to the public security department. He was arrested because of his "thought crime" in 1969 and the public security department knew from the informers about his thoughts.
He is one of many who were incriminated and imprisoned because of "thought crimes" in the three decades before 1978. And his informers were only some of many who did this to their friends or colleagues or even relatives. Among them, what the intellectuals did is most unforgivable as they were not forced to do so at gunpoint and they could choose not to cooperate.
Renowned novelist Ba Jin (1904-2005) repented what he had said and did against his will during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) and insisted on the necessity for intellectuals to be penitent about the role they had played in the various political movements in the several decades before the late 1970s.
But some believe that it is meaningless to do that and insist that what happened during those years should be forgotten. Some hold that it was the system or the political environment that was to blame for what the informers had done. As a result, many former informers choose to keep silent and some even claim that they themselves were victims of the political campaigns.
It is not that we want the informers to suffer, and neither is it that we want them to inflict punishment on themselves for what they did. Yet, they should be aware that it was their cooperation that made it possible for the rampant political persecution of innocent people during those years. They may be afraid of losing face or losing respect of others if they show penitence over what they have done. But if they think that way, they can only be said to be selfish.
Penitence is meaningful because it is one of the ways that lessons of the past can be learned. By expressing regret over the sins we have committed or apologizing to the people we wrongly hurt in one way or another, we are telling later generations about the line that a person must toe to maintain his or her moral integrity.
Confucius said that it borders on being courageous to feel shameful for the wrongs one has committed. The best way to do so is to repent. When everyone develops the habit of expressing penitence, we will not be far away from the harmonious world that we are looking forward to.
(China Daily 12/02/2009 page8)