Confucius say: “Squirrel who runs up woman’s leg not find nuts.” That’s about the standard of Confucian education I received: schoolyard parodies of the 5th century BC Chinese sage’s quirky aphorisms.
It’s not quite the kind of thing Harvard academic Michael Puett and writer Christine Gross-Loh have in mind in their unexpected international bestseller, The Path: What Chinese Philosophy Can Teach us About the Good Life.
The Path, based on a popular Harvard undergraduate course, has been widely praised as a timely challenge to Western ideas about life, philosophy, and Eastern wisdom.
It has succeeded in reviving Western interest in Confucius at a time when Confucianism is also undergoing a revival in China after two great wrecking balls have swung through the country in the past half century, shattering tradition and shaking communities both rural and urban from their moorings. The first wrecker was the Cultural Revolution; the second was the market revolution.
Australians should get to grips with the ideas in The Path, for there is no other Western country where the imperatives of Asian engagement and Asian literacy are as urgent; America has Asia to think about, but it also has the Americas; Europe has Asia to think about, too, and it also abuts Russia and the Balkans; if you like, larger Europe. Asia is pretty much all Australia has got and we are, as a consequence, intimately tied to its destiny.
For the past decade policy makers have been pressing schools and universities to promote the cause of Asian language learning, but that’s not going anywhere fast. Contemplative Asian philosophy — Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism — offers an appealing key to the cultures to our north. Spark an interest in the Asian philosophies of living at schools and universities, and we might fuel the fire of mass Asian cultural literacy.
Knowledge of Asian philosophy, on the other hand, is not all about Asia. Traditional Asian philosophies challenge many of the assumptions that under-girder Western notions of the self, particularly the idea that there is a “true self” hidden within us all, which it is our duty to discover and to nurture.
As Puett argues in a recent New York Times interview, the pursuit of the authentic self sounds like a modern approach to life.
“But what if we’re, on the contrary, messy selves that tend to fall into ruts and patterns of behaviour? If so, the last thing we would want to be doing is embracing ourselves for who we are — embracing, in other words, a set of patterns we’ve fallen into. The goal should rather be to break these patterns and ruts, to train ourselves to interact better with those around us.”
The Path stresses the necessity of looking outward, not inward; the importance of personal change over personal acceptance. I would add a caveat here: pre-Christian western philosophies — particularly Aristotle and the Hellenistic schools — also stress these ideas.
Puett is no pop philosopher. He’s Harvard’s Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilisations and Chair of the Committee on the Study of Religion. And he brings to the book the scholar’s gift for fine distinctions.
He is well aware, for example, that the Chinese government is attempting to foster an appreciation of Confucian values.
He is equally aware that the kind of Confucianism encouraged by Beijing is a conventional — he uses the word stereotyped — kind of teaching whose emphasis is social, and self, control.
As he puts it: “Confucianism is again read as being about keeping people in their place — only now this is seen as a good thing.”
Sensing their moral authority weakening and the bonds of society beginning to fray, the rulers in Beijing are promoting an older idea of Confucianism as a kind of social mortar.
To explore this point its worth turning to The Analects of Confucius as translated by Pierre Ryckmans, the Belgian born scholar of Chinese art and culture who taught at the Australian National University and the University of Sydney.
Confucius, for Ryckmans, has been portrayed as a philosopher of moderation when in fact he was an active, vital figure who was driven by passion. Ryckmans summed up the Confucian political ideal this way:
“An aristocrat who is immoral and uneducated ... is not a gentleman, whereas any commoner can attain the status of a gentleman if he proves himself morally qualified. As only gentlemen are fit to rule, political authority should be devolved purely on the criteria of moral achievement and intellectual competence. Therefore, in a proper state of affairs, neither birth nor money should secure power.”
Ryckmans describes this as a political message with “subversive potential”; and its challenge — call it perhaps an equal opportunity elitism — is certainly not limited to contemporary Chinese politics.
So here are some very good reasons for thinking about Confucius: he offers a challenge to some cherished ideas about the self, about ethics, and about politics.
He also offers a guide to traditional Chinese — in fact East Asian — values. And to the extent that Confucian values are a contested topic in contemporary China, the more we know about these values the better we are equipped to read contemporary China.
What is more, the better we know our Confucius, the easier it is to discern the real from the mock Confucius. Confucius did not say: “Man who speaks with forked tongue should not kiss balloons.” Or did he?