Can we learn from China?

by Moritz Nestor

In the 2009 German edition of Yu Dan’s book “Konfuzius im Herzen – Alte Weisheit für die moderne Welt” (Confucius from the Heart. Timeless Wisdom for Modern Life)* it says:
  “In modern people’s eyes, to be content to be poor while holding fast to one’s principles tends to imply a certain lack of get up and go. Everybody is working hard to develop their own career in the face of fierce competition, and it seems that how much a person earns, and their professional status (or lack of it), has become the most important thing of success. But the fiercer the competition, the more we need to adjust our outlook, and our relationships with others. With this in mind, how should we conduct ourselves in a truly human way in the twenty-first century?” (p. 34)
  The book by Yu Dan, born in 1965, a professor of Chinese Literature at China’s Beijing Normal University, assistant to the Dean, Faculty of Arts and Media and Head of the Department of Film and Television Media, attempts to provide solid answers for conduct of life from the perspective of Chinese philosophy – for today’s self-confident China. And for “us humans”. More than 10 million copies of her Confucius book have already been sold to an enthusiastic audience. The German edition was published in 2009, generously supported by the Translation Fund of the Press and Publication Office of the People’s Republic of China. The English edition was published in 2009, translated by Esther Tyldesley. Chinese television also delights millions of viewers with Yu Dan’s broadcasts of the Analects of Confucius (Lun Yu).
  For Yu Dan, the 2,500-year-old teachings of Confucius are like a healing hot spring:
  “The only possible role for me is that of someone who has been immersed in the spring myself, testing it with my own body and blood, like the thousands and thousands of people who over the last two thousand years and more have stepped themselves in this hot spring, and experienced its gifts. The good will see goodness in it, and the wise see wisdom.” (p. 10)
  Between these and similar lines, one feels as if one can read out what it meant that Yu Dan became familiar with the 2,500-year-old teachings of Confucius at the age of six at the hand of her grandfather, a literary scholar and philosopher.1 
  “Classics like Confucius inspire awe in us humans”, says Yu Dan. But even more: It was “in its inclusiveness and fluidity, the wisdom in which so many people have immersed themselves down the ages, so that every life and every individual, though perceiving it differently, and following different paths, can arrive at last at the same final goal. In China we say ‘The truth has never been far away from the ordinary people’ and here this is certainly the case. It seems to me that the sages never used obscure classical quotations to intimidate people […].” (pp. 3 of the English book)
  When Yu Dan says “in us as human beings” and that our individual lives “can arrive at last at the same final goal,” she is emphasising the natural law content of Confucianist doctrine, to put it in Western terms. Then the European reader can further reflect on this for himself and compare with his own cultural development when, where and how the basic principles of the Confucianist doctrine appear under other conditions and on other mental paths and in another language also in the European natural law philosophy, in Christianity and in the personalist psychology and anthropology. And he finds for himself today a precious wisdom that elevates him above the populist chatter of the day: That natural law is not just a “particular Catholic doctrine”, but that it has been established especially in the thousand-year-old advanced civilizations, such as China with its 5,000 years and “old Europe” with its 2,500 years: Expression of humane thinking and feeling: that man is born with an “intention to walk upright, with human dignity”, as Ernst Bloch once wrote.
  To give just one example: Confucius taught in China 2,500 years ago. In ancient Europe, the statesmen and philosophers of the Greek Enlightenment created the first great works of democratic and natural law thinking in somewhat the same time. Although they followed different paths than Confucius, they arrived at the same goal as the great Chinese master: that all cultures are “based on the same common values” because they are human beings despite their individual differences: the zoon politikon, as Aristotle says. In political terms, this means that there is something supra-temporal in human nature against which state action must be measured so that justice can be achieved. Confucius and the ancient Greeks recognised that power alone does not create justice. Peace alone is not enough. It must be a just peace. The Confucianist educated Chinese ruler had to act for the good of the people, otherwise the people had a right to resist.
  The European reader will be humbled by the reading, for he will see how moral-philosophical and state-political thinking emerged in China 2500 years ago, with which China was far ahead of Europe.

“Time is precious”

Yu Dan frames her answer to the question “How can one still behave in a truly human way in the twenty-first century?” in a kind of parable:
  Scientists once wanted to find out the life energy of pumpkins. To do this, they put different weights on them, in each case just enough so that the fruit was not crushed but could continue to grow. All of them except one could be cut with a knife without any problems when they were ripe. One, however, had been particularly long and heavy. When it was ripe and one wanted to cut it open, the knife and the axe slipped off and one had to fetch a chainsaw. Its flesh was as tough as the wood of a mature tree.
  For Yu Dan this is a portrait “about life itself, a splendid metaphor for the world we modern people live in and for the inner vitality we should develop. [...] ‘Time is precious’ – this is true today more than ever. To wait until the age of seventy, that takes too long. Let’s rather start here and now. The Analects of Confucius and the other Confucian classics – in general, all the insights and learnings that the ancient sages left us – ultimately has only one, essential purpose: their study should help us to make better use of our own lifetime. It should save us from detours and let us become faster people with noble character and human love in our hearts. […] This way we do justice to our own heart as well as to our place in society. […] therein lies the significance of the wise men of antiquity: that they pointed out with simple words a path that their followers could follow over the centuries […] Thus they have become saints and for the Chinese the soul of a nation.” (p. 218)
  In addition to his biological age, man always has a “spiritual and social age”. There is nothing to be said against reaching one of the higher stages of the path of life even at the age of twenty or thirty. Yu Dan translates the image of the pumpkin as follows: “We should learn at an early age to transform the external pressure that weighs on us into internal resistance.” (p. 217)

“At fifteen, I set my heart on learning”

What does the Chinese classic tell us Europeans about learning? The path of man’s life begins with learning, says Confucius: “At fifteen, I set my heart on learning.” “Learning without thinking is useless. Thinking without learning is dangerous.” And: “Excess is worse than not far enough.” (p. 196) Other countries act on the assumption, as Yu Dan points out, “that successful learning must bring about a change in action,” i.e., an increase in efficiency, a change in the value system, and better adaptation to the demands of society.
  In China, on the other hand, she writes, “it was always believed that a change in thinking marked the success of learning. Learning, therefore, consisted of adopting a foreign point of view [...] and in turn being able to pass on what one had heard to others.” (p. 195) Independent thinking and applying what has been learned in a “relaxed way of learning” is an inseparable part of learning.

“At thirty, I took my stand”

In his early twenties, a person begins to become an independent part of society. By the time he is thirty, he should be “autonomous,” says Confucius, meaning above all an inner autonomy with which one finds one’s place in society: No longer blue-eyed, but also no longer lost or rebellious. At the heart of “truly enriching learning” is thus the development of a personality and the applicability of what has been learned, which also means: having self-confidence.
  A mature personality, in Western terms, “controls heaven and earth equally”. Yu Dan explains that this formulation comes from the Chinese creation myth and encompasses “the ideal of personality of the Chinese people: a person who, on the one hand, floats completely freely above things in his idealism and imagination and does not care about the rules and obstacles of the material world in this space, but who, at the same time, stands with both feet on the ground and influences things through his actions in this world. Thus, the one who is only driven by idealism and is without ‘grounding’ is not an idealist, but a dreamer. On the other hand, he who is too ‘earthy,’ that is, without thinking of heaven, has only the worldly in mind, is not a realist, but a pragmatist.” (pp. 22)

“At forty, I became free from doubts”

Between thirty and forty are the best years of our lives: one learns to limit oneself and to find the “right balance”, says Confucius, as if he had read Aristotle, who said in his doctrine of virtue that man can reach the stage around forty where he had integrated the “measure of the mean” into his conduct of life. “Not giving in to joy, anger, sadness and cheerfulness – that is the mean; giving in to them, but keeping the right measure, that is harmony.” (p. 206) Thus, according to Confucius, a state of harmony arises in us that makes possible a life of peace. According to Confucius, this creates a state of harmony within us that enables us to lead a life of peace. Man radiates serenity and peace of heart and has become a useful member of the community. This is what Yu Dan meant when she said that the mature personality does not let himself be driven by idealism alone as a dreamer without a grip on reality, but is someone who “has both feet firmly planted on the ground and influences things through his actions in this world”.
  We in the West today would do better to learn to listen to other countries and cultures. Because we have forgotten to do that, if we ever could. Open colonialism was not long ago. But it lives on internally in our inability to listen. We could learn a lot from Confucius.  •

* Note of the translators: As the German translation of Yu Dan’s book is much more detailed than the English one, the quotes, if not otherwise indicated, have been translated from the German.

1 China Daily [2009-06-09 16:10:31]; (1/27/2013 1:19:00 PM)

Confucius, from the book “Lun yu”

“If a noble man is respectful without lacking anything, and courteous and decorous in his dealings with others, then all on the world continent are brothers.” (12.5)
  "A noble man acts in harmony with others but does not seek to be like them; the small man seeks to be like others and does not act in harmony.” (13.23)
  "A noble man cultivates himself and thereby brings peace to others." (14.42)
  “A noble man makes demands on himself, a small man makes them on others.” (15.21)
  “A noble man cares for the sake of Dao (the right path), not for the sake of merit. [...] He worries about the Dao, not about his poverty.” (15.31)
  "Nowadays, reverence is understood to mean care. But care can be given even to horses and dogs. Without respectful vigilance, what is the difference [from caring for one’s parents]?” (2.7)
  A scholar asked Confucius “what was humanity”. Confucius replied, “Be respectful in private life, act respectfully when you take a matter in hand, and be benignly in dealing with others.” (13.19)
  “Outside the house, behave as if you were receiving a distinguished guest. If the people are put to work, then behave as if they were at a great sacrificial celebration. What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others. In this way one will not incur enmity either in the state or in one’s clan.” (12.2)
  The student asked about humanity. Confucius said, “Cherish humans.” (2.22)
  A scholar asked: “Is there anything that consists of one word that can be followed throughout life?” Confucius: “That is probably equal treatment (shu): what you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.” (15.24)
  “For a human being, if he himself desires to exist in the world, he also helps others to do so. And if he desires perfection, he also helps others to it.” (6.32)

Mencius, student of Confucius:“The desire for dignity is an ambition shared by all human beings. But every single human being has a dignity within himself, which he just does not think about (liang gui).”(6A17)

From: Laass, Henner et al. Lesebuch Interkultureller Humanismus. Texts from three millennia.
Schwalbach/Ts. 2013, pp. 96-98 and p. 103

(Translation Current Concerns)

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