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/

Advertisements

The Sound of the Er Hu (Chinese Musical Instrument)

English: Erhu being played by a blind man in H...

English: Erhu being played by a blind man in Hubei Province, China. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Along with the zither and pipa, the er hu [èr hú] is a Chinese instrument that classically represents Chinese music (outside of opera).  

The er hu can produce a melancholy sound like no other that I know besides certain flutes. It is ideally suited for pieces that produce a sense of longing and can literally pull at your heartstrings and make you cry (which is not to say songs on the er hu can’t be very happy).  It’s an extremely versatile instrument and also used in modern, contemporary music.

What makes the er hu’s haunting sound is the snake skin (or python skin) which covers the drum.  The rest of the instrument is basically composed of:  2 strings (made of silk or now often steel), a bow made of horsehair, pegs to tune the strings, and a body made of wood.  Unlike Western music which generally uses a 12 tone scale, the er hu is used to produce many sounds in between half-tones (which is true also of traditional Indian, Arabic, Hebrew and music of other cultures) and can therefore bring out sounds that elicit varying emotions very deep within us.  

I do not know why I have seen many more men play the er hu than women (although many women do play the er hu and excellently), as opposed to the zither and, perhaps even more so, the pipa. (Perhaps men don’t like long nails?)  At any rate, I have posted here two videos.  The first one illustrates the classical sound of the er hu, and the second one is an exciting interpretation of a classic piece with modern elements (especially, and very delightfully, at the end of the video).

“I Love You” in Chinese

One of the questions I have been asked quite often is, “How do you say, ‘I love you,’ in Chinese?”  This question always makes me laugh.  I answer, “Wo ai ni,” and sometimes repeat it several times as the person is trying to learn the phrase (usually men who want to say this to their girlfriends).  

What I don’t say is, traditionally, Chinese people don’t say this to each other.  And this applies to parents, grandparents, children, friendships, etc., as well as romantic relationships. 

My mother told me, “In America, the words, I love you, is tossed around like this season’s wardrobe.”  (Well, she didn’t say it this way, exactly, but something like it.)  

What my mother meant was, when it comes to love, words have little meaning.  She also meant that romantic passion can be fleeting.  Here today, gone tomorrow…

In traditional Chinese culture, these three words aren’t necessary and even tends to minimize the true value of a relationship.  You don’t need to sayI love you, because, whatever love may be in a relationship, it is appreciated in the moments you share and in what you do.

Of course, being raised in America, I don’t mind if someone tells me they love me and I say it, too.  But I keep my mother’s words in mind, especially when it comes to romance.

Why Respecting the Elderly is So Important

From the youngest age, I was taught to respect those who were “older” than I was, and this “rule” or tenet was very curious to me.  Why should I show respect to someone simply because they are older, even if I didn’t know anything about them and especially if didn’t particularly like them?  This is a cultural tenet that is deeply ingrained in Chinese culture and in many other cultures.  

When I visited China in my early 20’s, I saw something that has stuck vividly in my mind ever since –  the parks were filled with old people who seemed happy and content. They were exercising, playing chess, playing instruments, singing opera… Some were just sitting there, watching or chatting.  They didn’t particularly pay much attention to me as a foreigner because they were ok with whatever they were doing and enjoying the moment.  It led me to think hard about why old people in America seemed so much more isolated and lonely (at least, that was my impression at the time and still is in many ways).

To be happy, most of us need to be active and need social interaction.  As human beings, we recognize that other people are ourselves in some way – whether they are of a different race, a different color, a different culture, young or old.  But when it comes to old people, many of us shy away because we don’t want to see ourselves getting old, losing our physical strength and beauty and losing certain abilities to do what we did before.  It may feel more inviting to want to take care of a child because you can influence their growth and because they are naturally less inhibited and new to many experiences.  But I feel lucky every time I meet an old person.  It doesn’t matter if they are set in their ways or old or crabby.  And whatever their stories may be, they have something to share and to give, pieces of wisdom and of life.  

We all have difficulties.  But when we are young, we feel invulnerable. We know that we are physically fit and beautiful and have our whole lives ahead of us.  And then, as we grow older, we realize that our parents are visibly growing older.  We also realize that our parents have made mistakes.  They’re not invulnerable.  We may feel angry and disappointed when we realize that our parents are not the perfect people who we wish them to be and that they have a lot of say in our lives.  We also recognize, on some level that someday we will also be old, and, for many, find ourselves confronting our own emotions about our parents and about ourselves when we have children.  And some of us may had to confront our mortality, disabilities or limitations for other reasons.

I have met many old people who have very rich lives, whether they are rich or poor.  It is true that many of them struggle with loss of hearing or sight or have difficulty carrying their groceries, simple things that a lot of us take for granted.  Some of them reminisce a great deal about the past.  But their past and present is important.   I will tell you why – old people have lived and survived.  They have witnessed a great deal of change, whether in the larger world or on personal levels.  They have experienced many joys and disappointments, and they remain, in spirit, young and timeless. Despite their physical limitations, they are, in many ways, more accepting and wiser and have something to teach us.  

Perhaps you have observed that older people often become more childlike.   Sometimes they have less control of their emotions.  In some ways, they become like children again. I have observed grandparents with their grandchildren, and, often, it seems to me that grandparents are much more free in spirit and less uptight than the child’s parents. They care less about other people’s opinions.   They have learned to accept on many levels what simply happens in life – past, future and present – and recognize that the world changes, people change, in whatever way, that their parents and friends grow old and sometimes die.  And if you listen – they all have incredible stories to tell.  

But why is this important to us?  We can learn from older people’s stories and spirits so that we can recognize and become more accepting of change and that change in our lives is inevitable.  Most old people have worked very hard.  Many have sacrificed for their children. They have suffered, for better or for worse.  But if we don’t respect the elderly, in many instances, many feel their lives are empty and unimportant which also has an impact on their physical and emotional health and on our society. Isn’t it better if we help take care of the elderly so that they can continue to feel valued, stay healthier, share their wisdom, stories and spirit?  To do this, it is important to help people as they grow older.  We all need help during our lives but especially as we find our capacities diminished.  

In China and other cultures which place an emphasis on respecting older people (as opposed with American culture which tends to glorify youth), this respect for the elderly gives them a sense of well-being and makes for a more beautiful, rich and happier society.  When a person has a sense of respect and well-being in society, it makes everyone else around them feel good, whether you are young or old.   When I saw the old people in the parks, I was amazed and felt hopeful and good.  

I have to come to the conclusion that older people in China receive a great deal more respect from society (along with other factors, such as continuing to be an integral part of their children’s lives), and this respect helps make them feel less marginalized and healthy in all ways.  Unfortunately, for many elderly, this sense of well-being, which is good for all of society, is threatened in the face of the fast-paced demands of modernized society.  (Here is a link on the increased rates of suicides amongst the elderly in South Korea due to modernization.   I want to emphasize, by the way, that I don’t mean to post this out of any disrespect for Korean culture.  Much of the same is happening in China and elsewhere in the world where people are facing similar challenges.)  

Old people are often stubborn and often don’t want to accept help.  But it’s our responsibility to be proactive and take care of them because they have taken care of us. And for ourselves, in our old age (which someday, hopefully, you will be lucky to experience), as stubborn and independent as you may be, wouldn’t you feel healthier and better if you knew people respected you as an important part of society, for what you have given and can continue to give?  This helps elderly people to remain healthy and productive.  And this helps all of us.

In practice, this only means that we spend more time with elderly people.  That’s all it takes.  And society, not to mention our own persons, is better off because of it.

Cold and Spicy Chinese Cucumber

P1040561

Ok, I’m tired of this wintry weather (it’s snowing again here in New York), so I’m going to chase away cold with cold and a little 辣 (spicy)!  I am making 小黄瓜 or “small yellow cucumbers.”   If you like pickles or kim chi, you’ll love this dish/appetizer, but it’s not quite as sour or as spicy, with just a tickle of sweet.  It’s insanely easy to make, served cold and very refreshing, especially on warm, hot days or before a main dish.  (I personally like it on any day, at any time, but today, I’m using my witchy-witchy and wishful thinking in the fantasy that it’ll help bring about warmer, spring weather).  You can use Chinese yellow cucumber which is better, very crisp, but because I’m not trekking out in the blustery winds today to get yellow cucumber, I’m just using regular good old cucumber.  

This makes 2 servings:

  • 1 cucumber
  • Garlic (2 cloves) – very finely minced or 1 tbsn garlic paste
  • Soy sauce (2 tbsns)
  • Rice wine vinegar (also called rice vinegar) (3 tbsns)
  • Sugar (1 tbsn)
  • Salt (1/4 tspn)
  • Red pepper flakes or crushed red pepper  (1/2 tspn)
  • Sesame oil (only a few drops)

Cut off the cucumber ends.  Then keep cutting the cucumbers in half length-wise so you have long, thin pieces, about 1/4″ thick.   Put all the pieces together and slice vertically into smaller pieces, about 1″ in length. 

Put all the ingredients into a medium lidded container and shake vigorously to mix.   Be careful not to add too much sesame oil – you only need a few drops.  Taste and adjust for spiciness, saltiness or sweetness.  If you adjust, mix and shake, shake, shake again.  (I love this part.  It’s very invigorating.)

You can serve this right away.  Better yet, refrigerate for several hours to allow the flavor to sink in.  This also makes the cucumber a bit more tender.  To serve, strain out the additional liquid.  Serve in a small bowl or dish.  I personally just ate half of what I made without waiting.

P.S.  (I plan to post my next recipe on how to make Chinese “barbeque” chicken.)

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.