Confucius Says…

Engraving of Confucius. The Chinese characters...

Engraving of Confucius. The Chinese characters read “Portrait of the First Teacher, Confucius, Giving a Lecture”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Three years ago, I asked my father what his greatest fear was.  I was expecting him to say – old age, death, ill health, regret – or something similar. 

He said, “What I’m most afraid of in all of life is disappointing my parents.” 

I paused a bit.  “But, Dad… your parents are dead.” 

“It does not matter,” he replied.  

My father’s response surprised me at the time because I assumed that my father, being older in age, had more pressing concerns.  What I failed to understand was just how overriding and important the concept of 孝 [xiào] or filial piety is in the mindset of Chinese people. 孝 is, in fact, the mandate by which almost all Chinese live.

Confucius (551–479 BCE) is the person who delineated the meaning of 孝 in the Classic of Filial Piety.  Together with other teachings attributed to Confucius (most famously, the Analects), Confucius ultimately tried to answer one question:  How does one create a stable and harmonious society?  (Confucius lived at a time when China was in great turmoil with many warring, feudal states.)  His answer was humanistic – if one can cultivate virtue and moral behavior in the individual and in individual relationships, then, like spokes of a wheel or like the rays of a sun, stability and harmony on a micro level will emanate throughout society so that proper action for oneself and the greater whole, as well as respect for good government ensues. According to Confucius, the great ruler is a sage who rules not so much with law and fear of punishment (the sword) as with moral authority, fairness and benevolence. 

Confucius’ most famous saying, the Golden Rule, is an example of his humanistic philosophy:  Do not do unto others as you would not want others to do unto you. The concept at bottom, similar to many other philosophies and religions, is that an individual’s actions (and the consequences of those actions) are not separate from those around you.  If someone exhibits poor action, it may make those around them suffer, or even make others behave poorly themselves.  If someone shows good conduct, then it will benefit those around them and make others want to emulate their actions.  What sets Confucianism apart is that it is completely secular in its philosophy.  It does not concern itself with matters of the afterlife or God or gods and does not assume an a priori idea that man is innately born “good” or “bad”.  It also does not contain elements of mysticism (unlike, for example, many aspects of Taoism).  In this sense, Confucianism is a guide that sets forth practical steps on how to become an upright person in society through education and cultivation of virtuous action, thought and behavior in the individual, and, in many ways, how to create a polite and respectful society.

There are 5 virtues or the Five Constants in Confucianist ethics:  仁 Humaneness, 義 Righteousness or Justice, 禮 Propriety or Etiquette, 智 Knowledge, and 信, Integrity. But the building block of all societal values and the virtue of highest importance in Chinese culture which underpins the societal structure is 孝, or how to respect, take care of and honor your elders and, in particular, your parents.  Translated in real terms, what you do and how you conduct yourself, and to a large degree, your successes and failures, are brought about by education and are a reflection of your parents, your parents’ parents and so on.  Your behavior and conduct are, in fact, daily rituals to show your love and respect for your elders.  The individual therefore should make subservient their self-interest, needs and desires to what is good for a greater whole, and, immediately, to show honor, respect and love for one’s parents and heritage.  Heritage, in this sense, does not depend upon the class you were born into or certain privileges you may have inherited by birth; it means, whether rich or poor, noble or peasant, one’s ancestors and parents instilled in their children an understanding of moral and ethical conduct.  In this way, Confucianism is a completely democratic, moral education.

English: Analects of Confucius, from the Mogao...

English: Analects of Confucius, from the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, China (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many people in the West have questioned or wondered why East Asians often tend to excel in school and are driven to work very hard.  In the Confucianist world, there is little emphasis on or belief in “talent.”  The emphasis is, rather, on dutiful action in order to to exhibit 孝 or show one’s love and respect for one’s parents.  It is, in fact, one’s duty to take care of your parents in all ways, emotionally and otherwise.  Likewise, the parent has a duty to make sure that his or her children understand right from wrong, understand proper conduct and how to exhibit respect in and to society.

The teachings of Confucius spread throughout Asia and much of Southeast Asia and, to this day, underlies many social structures throughout Asia, from Japan, Korea to Thailand, Malaysia, etc.  Ironically, Confucius did not live to see the success of his teachings and, in many ways, regarded himself as having failed in his ambitions.

Personally, I have to say I struggled a bit with what I regarded as a rather strict and less individualistic mindset of Confucianism and the concept of 孝 because I was born and raised in the U.S.  I did not have many of the freedoms that my peers had.  I certainly felt a lot of pressure to excel (and, in many ways, still do).  I also found later that there were not a few American-Chinese like myself who grew up in the U.S. but, for whatever reason, were more accepting of their parents’ values and did not struggle so hard as I did with growing up between disparate cultures and therefore felt little need or desire to rebel in their youth (which in the West is taken for granted and almost regarded as a necessary stage of life.)  But, regardless or irregardless of Confucianism, in the end, I understood that my parents ultimately loved me and did their best to raise me with good values and, really, just wished for me to be happy, no matter what I chose in life.   

I have also posted an article here that gives, in brief, an excellent insight into the philosophy of Confucius: http://psihologploiestimarinasasu.wordpress.com/2013/02/18/confucius-confucianism/

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The Life of A Concubine

The Pavilion of Beautiful Scenery (Forbidden Palace), inside which Ci Xi gave birth to the future Tongzhi Emperor.

The Pavilion of Beautiful Scenery (Forbidden City), inside which Ci Xi gave birth to the future Tongzhi Emperor.

“Shroud”

The ancient emperors had hundreds of concubines who were not allowed beyond the confines of the palace. Sealed off from the world, the women were captives for life.

Long nights,
in bound feet,
I dream of my
Majesty ap-
proaching.
When I walk,
I sway as a
willow sways,
delicately –
And the locusts
come, lustful
and horny, their
violent wings
covering the
gnarled limbs
of this old,
bowed tree.

I am copying this poem as I wrote it more than ten years ago after hearing a story about how a concubine, in ancient times, was put to death with her lover after their affair was discovered.  Under punishment and threat of death, these lovers took great measures to hide their affections for each other.  Her lover was a performer with an opera troupe that frequented the imperial court, so the two had the opportunity to meet from time to time.

After hearing this story, I was very curious. I asked, “How many concubines did the emperor have?”  The Chinese emperors had many concubines, numbering from the hundreds to thousands.  But what was the life of a concubine in the imperial court?

Traditionally, a concubine to the emperor was brought to the attention of the court because of her beauty or status.  She was not considered officially married to the emperor but was recruited to the court to bear the emperor sons and to entertain, usually at a young age.  Once a concubine was taken inside the palace walls, she had to leave behind her family, her friends, her familiar ways of life and was not permitted to see her relatives or friends or leave the palace without official consent. The parents would agree to give up their daughter in exchange for a secure life for their child.  However, giving up a daughter to be a concubine to the imperial palace was usually a heart-breaking affair, as it was considered a parting for life.  The concubines’ activities were generally overseen and monitored by the powerful eunuchs.  Of course, sex with any one other than the emperor was strictly forbidden.

Before the emperor would visit, a concubine was required to bathe and be examined by a court doctor.  With hundreds or thousands of concubines to choose from, a concubine was considered lucky to have a visit by the emperor.  Many of them, I was told, throughout their lives in the palace, barely had any contact with the emperor at all.  They had their own rooms, and their daily activities were filled with making themselves up, sewing, practicing various arts and sharing their time with the other concubines in the palace.  

There were varying ranks of concubines, and many of them engaged in ruthless struggles for power.  Indeed, there were some concubines who managed to become very powerful.  The most famous were Ci Xi and Wu Ze Tian who were very shrewd and eventually became two of China’s Empresses and rulers.  Still, for many concubines, they had to wile away their days, presenting themselves as best as they could and many leading very lonely lives.