Of the three main pillars of Chinese civilisation, I liked Daoism at first sight. Believe it or not, my first introduction to Daoism was Alan Watts’ The Way of Tao, a book I picked up in a secondhand bookstore in Canada. I found out much later that my late father was actually lifetime president of a Daoism Association in Hong Kong. He never discussed his spiritual practice with us. Typical Daoist.
With age, I have become a belated student of Buddhist wisdoms at a respectful distance.
But until recently, Confucius was to me an archaic sage whose ideas had long putrefied. Had I lived in the tumultuous moments of May Fourth in early 20th century, or the Cultural Revolution, I would have chanted for its uprooting. Enough is enough. China had been struggling desperately for a century. Nothing seemed to work. Confucius was to blame. Time to get out of the two-thousand-year-old straight jacket. His ideas, so deeply engrained in Chinese society, was fettering progress, cutting China off from the modern age.
Like most impassioned critics, I knew very little about Confucianism, but loathed it nonetheless. Why bother learning about something I loathe, right? said funny logic. I also didn’t know that the little I had learned by rote at school — mumble mumble, jumble jumble — had been manipulatively twisted by vampiric scholars over the centuries, especially during Song and Ming Dynasties.
The other two pillars — Buddhism and Daoism — had also been tainted over time, contaminated by ignorance and superstition. But their distortions had less direct impact on society and governance. Confucianism, on the other hand, had been China’s mundane operating manual. And it wasn’t working, at least not since the 19th century. Time to throw it out — bathwater, towel, soap, basin, baby, everything. That’s what many thought during those tempestuous soul-searching times, understandably, justifiably.
It’s only with retirement that I have had the time to rediscover Confucius — Kong Fu Zi, aka Kong Zi.
And last week, I finally visited Master Kong’s birthplace and tomb in Shandong with a few friends. We spent a couple of days learning and deliberating the Analects, under guidance of a young tutor Ms. Wang.
We also toured new developments and ancient sites related to the Master.
The majestic new Ni Shan Academy was very impressive, but I found the 2500-year-old burial grounds of the Kong Family most enchanting. The two-hundred-hectare forest embodies well over a hundred thousand of Confucius’ descendants, and has been in service since the Master’s entombment in 479 BCE. His descendants, presently in the late-seventieth generations, are still entitled to be buried here, but only when dead and cremated. Not surprisingly, it’s the oldest and largest family burial grounds in the world, a UNESCO site since 1994.
Driving through the forest in an open electric cart was like falling through a time tunnel. Rolling mounds and ancient trees glowed in the late afternoon sun. Next to a dribbling meditative stream, tombstones stood guard over passing time and flickering shadows. They have witnessed dynastic cycles, wars, emperors, revolutions, climate change, anti-Kong movements, and survived, unperturbed. The vibes struck me like nothing before. I took a few shots from the moving cart, and was surprised how nicely they turned out.
Visiting students paying respect to the ancient Master added life to the serene ambience, giving it a sense of future. Just as atheistic Daoism and Buddhism, Kong Zi’s thoughts are compatible with science, as well as socialist aspirations, something he advocated eloquently, long long ago.
In spite of the many legends surrounding his birth, Kong Zi was thoroughly human, not the pedantic robot I once had in mind. He was a teacher, philosopher, artist, musician, political theorist, humanist, and many other things which together make him evergreen. He believed that everyone, irrespective of social station or wealth, can and should be educated. It was a revolutionary idea which laid the foundation of China’s relentless emphasis in learning and education.
His teachings, liberated from the cast-iron chastity belt strapped on by Song and Ming pedagogues, are lively, humorous, insightful, and forthright with human nature — the one terrible thing which hasn’t changed much over time. Most of Kong’s teachings are still relevant in the 21st century, perhaps more so than ever, as our self-endangered species seeks social reorientation, harmony, and a universal moral mosaic. We live in a globalised Spring and Autumn Warring Period, just like the one he lived in, and endeavoured to pacify and civilise.
Maybe I’ll devote some time to studying Confucius from now on, and give selected ideas my inevitably alternative interpretations, drawing relevance to personal experiences and contemporary observations, as our New Age Confucian Ms. Wang does. She accepts Kong Fu Zi’s genius and greatness without rejecting or deifying his humanness. She draws down-to-earth inspirations from his teachings without dogmatising, or indulging in academic vanity.
Maybe I’ll translate my musings and interpretations into English too. Translations of ancient texts tend to be unreadably arcane, even ludicrous, kind of funny, as if dictated by an exhumed zombie. I believe it can be different, should be different, to reflect the true spirit of Confucius. Just hope that orthodox scholars with high blood pressure won’t get to read them though.
- james tam, 2018 -