January 15, 2010

Lessons from Confucius

When I was in university studying East Asian studies, it was the height of the political correctness era. Of the three major streams of Chinese “religious” thought — Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism — Confucianism was considered to be the “bad guy”, representing everything that is authoritarian, sexist and hierarchical in Chinese culture.

By contrast, everyone loved the individualistic enthusiasm of Taoism, which extolled the virtues of the feminine, or the egalitarian austerity of Buddhism. Confucians, though, were the “dead white men” of Chinese studies.

So, while I got an early grounding in Taoist and Buddhist thought, it wasn’t until I had been in the work-world for some years that I came back to Confucius, starting by reading the Analects in translation, and later, in the original.

The Confucius I found was quite different from my pre-conceived understanding of him, and I was surprised to find that his outlook and advice were unexpectedly relevant to modern life. I also found an attitude quite different from the stern authoritarian stereotype I had previously accepted.

In fact, my surprise started with the first line of the Analects (translations are my own):

To learn something, and to review it now and again, isn’t it pleasurable?

I had, of course, learned as a student about the traditional Chinese respect for learning, but I had been left with the impression that the kind of learning that was meant was rote memorization in strict conformance to orthodox interpretation. But this primary source of Confucius’ personal thought starts off with a child-like enthusiasm for the simple pleasure of learning, a feeling I knew well. This attitude struck me as even more relevant for our modern world, where there is so much to learn and where knowledge and skills are the currency of our society.

Another traditional value of the Confucians I had learned about in my student days was often translated as “ritual”, but it seems to encompass politeness, observance of correct social forms and social hierarchy, as well as what we would think of as actual rituals. We used to roll our eyes at this, since we tended to think that these things are intended to suppress our sincere, individual feelings – that they are empty formalities intended to ensure conformity. But in another line from the Analects, I got another surprise:

Lin Fang asked about the basics of ritual. Confucius said: A big question! In ritual, prefer modesty to extravagance; in mourning, prefer sincere sadness to formality.

Confucius is genuinely concerned with the observance of social forms (and the social forms of his time and place sometimes seem very foreign to us), but he doesn’t recommend them as a replacement for individual feeling, but rather as a vehicle to allow the free expression of individual feeling in harmony with the functioning of the community.

This sense of communal harmony is underlined by the cardinal virtue of Confucian thought, often translated as “benevolence”. It is related to the Chinese word for “person”, and I can’t help but feel that the best modern equivalent for it is the Yiddish word “mensch”. Etymologically, “mensch” means “person”, but its full meaning is someone who has a strong sense of community, someone who can be relied upon to help others and who has the courage to stand up for what is right. This is a pretty close match with the Confucian principle.

Confucius is also very concerned with good leadership, and a recurring preoccupation of Confucians (and ancient Chinese thinkers in general) is how to be an effective ruler. Here is another representative passage from the Analects:

Ji Kang asked: How can the people be made to respect the ruler, to be loyal and take his advice? Confucius said: Ruling them with solemnity will result in respect; showing respect for elders and being kind will result in loyalty; promoting good and instructing the unskilled will result in persuasion.

Contrary to my early stereotype, Confucius has no time for the “because I said so” school of leadership. This is all the more remarkable when you consider that rulers in ancient China did have absolute power. His prescription for leadership is firmly in the “lead by example” camp. Those millennia ago, Confucius had already recognized that people can tell the difference between a cynical, self-serving leader and one who genuinely has the collective good at heart. He knew that the difference between genuine commitment and mere grudging compliance rests on this distinction.

So, my re-examination of Confucian thought not only changed my mind about its essence but actually showed me that there were values and lessons to be learned that I could apply to my life, personally and professionally.

A genuine love of learning, accepting social forms as ways of collectively expressing individual feeling, cultivating sincere feelings of communality with others, and leading by moral example: all of these ideas are still relevant in the 21st century and, if practiced, can make a real difference in one’s life as a leader and as a human being.