One of my fondest memories as a young boy is sitting in the family living room watching television with my mother. Among the many shows that she enjoyed, she especially loved the old Charlie Chan movies.
Charlie Chan, a fictional creation of Earl Derr Biggers, was a brave, brilliant, heroic and honorable Chinese detective on the Hawaiian police force. This was an effort on the part of the author to counter the racist Yellow Peril stereotype toward Asians that was prevalent at that time. I distinctly recall that in each episode Detective Chan would make it a point to convey to the audience a proverb from Confucius.
It would be decades before I would even remotely understand the nature and importance of the teachings of Confucius. Now, his writings provide yet another stopover for my survey of various culture’s answers to the question of the meaning of life.
Confucius’s real name was Kongfuzi and he lived around the same time as Socrates. Like Socrates, he spent most of his time teaching. Long after his death, his students’ recollections of his teachings were compiled in a text entitled “The Analects.” This written text had one primary goal: to provide us with an instruction manual on how to live a humane and cultured life.
To begin to understand Kongfuzi, we first must orient ourselves to some of the most important terms. 1) Ren stands for humanity or warm-heartedness. 2) Li means ritual propriety or correctness. 3) De refers to virtue or moral rectitude. 4) Xiao is respect for your elders. 5) Tian connotes the nature and order of the Universe. 6) Wu-wei is the idea of an effortlessness commonly found in cultured professionalism. The idea here is that proceeding up the ladder from 1 to 6 we will learn the proper way to live, which is the way of the wu-wei.
The teaching of Kongfuzi begins with the concept of filial piety. At an early age, we are taught respect for our elders as well as obedience and conformity. That type of behavior is then translated into a harmonious society. These teachings instruct us to ask ourselves every day if we have practiced virtue in our dealings with our contemporaries. In short, the behavioral framework suggested is designed to promote individual excellence within a social context.
For the followers of Kongfuzi, life is only meaningful when it is aligned with an overarching commitment to harmony. That is not just working with another but a truly authentic joining of wills to accomplish a common good. We can tell if someone possesses the requisite good qualities by examining their ordinary interactions with others. You may recognize some of the principles here as reflective of both Aristotle and the Gita, which I’ve written about in earlier columns. However, unlike those texts in “The Analects,” there is a strongly ritualistic and aesthetic appreciation of “the good life.” If one followed the path outlined by Kongfuzi, it is said that one would find meaning in a life of effortless, spontaneous and ritualized virtue.
Before we get overconfident and believe that we now understand Chinese culture, we must note the appearance of a strong anti-Confucius movement in China by a figure named Laozi (old Master). Just as Nietzsche would oppose the culture and moral contexts of his time, so to Laozi in his teachings opposed the very essence of Confucianism. The movement that emanated from Laozi’s teachings promoted a concept which is called the Dao (which means the way).
Although it embraced Confucianism’s focus on the wu-wei, it did so at the opposite end. Daoism is mainly found in two books called the “Daodejing,” comprised of 81 chapters, written around the third or second century, which is a compilation from various sources containing the germ of Laozi’s philosophy. Remarkably, the “Daodejing” is the most translated book in the world yet the problem is it’s translations differ widely.
Daoism, which became a major religion in China, has as its main goal to live in harmony with the universe (sound familiar?). However, to do so one must rid oneself of the trappings of civilization. Preferring the state of nature, Daoism believes that culture is the enemy as are language and civilization in general.
For a Daoist background and foreground are of equal value. You must accept and embrace the universe wholly without discrimination. Ego-driven accomplishments are blind to the complexity of the universe. If I brag that I accomplished this or that I ignore the parts of the universe that went into my endeavors: my teachers, my parents, the library where I studied, etc.
Daoism teaches that even words are not fixed in meaning which is the opposite of the ritualistic Kongfuzi. Words are traps, constructs of a limited way of thinking and therefore our own words become an obstacle between us and the real world. Reality for Laozi is a complete whole not a chunk. Once you label something you have violated the whole of the universe.
Bestow no honors, says Laozi, because when you do, you separate one person from another. The only true path for Daoism is to rid oneself of culture and civilization and empty one’s mind. Spontaneous interaction with the world is the highest virtue, cultured virtue is inauthentic. The Daoist refuses to label things but rather chooses instinct over calculation. The simpler life is the better life. Ritual is a fossilization of who we truly are. Since the sage commits to nothing (background and foreground are of equal value) he therefore makes no claims as to good or evil and in the end suffers no loss in life’s ups and downs. Nothing has intrinsic value, all that matters is the sheer act of spontaneous and authentic living.
The stark contrast between these two traditions give us some insight into the complexity of Chinese culture. Where Confucianism wants to polish our behavior and focus our vision of reality, Daoism mandates that we remove the sheen (culture) and blur our vision so all is one. It is interesting to note that the west has endured similar competitions between traditions bent on either establishing a culture bound set of mores or returning to a more “primitive” state of nature.
Lest we get too comfortable, I must warn you that Charlie Chan was a Buddhist; more on that tradition in future columns.