History may be “my thing,” but Asian history is not. Something about the East was always difficult for me to understand. The worldview is just very different from anything that the West has experienced, at least for a very long time. There is something almost familiar about Islam or even the animist religions of Africa in comparison with Taoism or Hinduism.
Maybe I’m an oddity. But I’m inclined to think that I’m not the only one who finds Asia a little difficult to understand. No, having an alarm clock marked “Made in China” will not help you. But reading Confucius might.
I volunteer at the library weekly, and I have a bad habit of picking up very random books while shelving. I still wonder if the check-out librarian had any thought on my picking up The Aneid and young adult sci-fi at the same time. My latest find was The Analects of Confucius. It’s short. It’s witty. (It’s also a little hard to understand in places unless you have a good background in Chinese history. I don’t. I read the footnotes.) The Analects include little gems like these:
“Only girls and servants are hard to train. Draw near to them, they grow unruly; hold them off, they pay you with spite.”
“Tsai Wo said: ‘Were a man who loves told that there is a man in a well, would he go in after him?’ The Master said, ‘Why should he? A gentleman might be brought to the well, but not entrapped into it.’”
“[Confucius] did not eat sour or moldy rice, putrid fish, or tainted meat.”
“[Confucius] did not sleep like a corpse.”
“One said, ‘ To mete out good for evil, how were that?’ ‘And how would ye meet good?’ said the Master. ‘Meet evil with justice: meet good with good.’”
“The Master said, ‘Unruly when young, unmentioned as man, undying when old, spells good-for-nothing!’ and hit him on the leg with his staff.”
Granted, those are more the exception than the rule. (To be honest, I wouldn’t eat moldy rice either.) Confucius often sounds almost Christian when he talks. The Analects even include a version of the Golden Rule: do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.
In high school I was taught that Asians emphasize the group, while Westerners emphasize the individual. It seems that Westerners often respond to that difference in one of two incorrect ways. Some people think that Asians are horrible to consider putting the group first. Meanwhile, the multiculturalists argue that all cultures are morally equal, and that Asians mainly need to be understood. Some may even claim to admire Confucius. But the values he taught (aside from the ones about leaving people in wells) would not be popular with most Americans, period.
I’m in no place to comment on Chinese culture as a whole. But one of the main themes of the Analects is that of respect. Not respect to other people’s ancestors; respect to your ancestors. Not just taking care of your parents (you take care of animals too, says Confucius), but honoring them with every decision you make. And courtesy toward others ought to characterize everything you do. Those aren’t popular themes today.
For some of us, they are difficult. How do you honor your parents when one or both of them does little that is worthy of respect? (Confucius: a son should keep his father from doing evil, and vice versa.) How do you respect ancestors when some of them did foolish or evil things? (Confucius: choose your heroes wisely.) In any case, we live in a culture where self-promotion is seen as highly important. A culture focused primarily on deference would have drawbacks, of course, but it sounds appealing, particularly to those of us who find self-promotion to be embarrassing at best.
The Analects also helped me understand another book: C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. Lewis write of the Tao, his word for the universal moral code that is the source of our value judgments. Even the relativists who argue against the Tao have to use some part of the Tao to make their arguments. We need special revelation, of course, because people can make evil choices based on the Tao. Its demand on duty to kin may be abstracted into extreme nationalism, for example. And there are contradictions between cultural perceptions of the Tao. (Most Christians and Jews would argue for getting the man out of the well, even if he was an idiot to climb in.)
But contradictions in the Tao—or, better yet, advances in it—are done within its parameters. “From within the Tao,” writes Lewis, “comes the only authority to modify the Tao…. Outside the Tao there is no ground for criticizing the Tao or anything else…. Wherever any precept of traditional morality is simply challenged to produce its credentials, as though the burden of proof lay on it, we have taken the wrong position…. Only those who are practicing the Tao understand it.”
If you want to understand China, Confucius is a good start. But if you want to understand traditional morality, you can start anywhere—Confucius or Aristotle or Moses or Christ. Whatever anyone may say about our need for the Tao, no one functions for very long without it.