Entranced by the Sage’s Subtle Wisdom

Confucian philosophies contain insights and depths of wisdom that can be applied in every sphere of life.

There is probably no figure in Chinese history or culture who is more of a lightening-rod for anti-China Western bias than Confucius. He is often stereotyped as a self-righteous, backward-looking, rule-bound supporter of rigid hierarchical social structures, while his Analects is often portrayed as a collection of moralistic pieties, reminiscent of the “few precepts” that the comically sanctimonious Polonius delivers to his son Laertes in Hamlet.

Early on in my life in China, a few of my half-hearted attempts to read the Analects probably only confirmed those kinds of stereotypes. Compared to the seductive first lines of the Dao De Jing (also known as Tao Te Ching) 道可道,非常道,名可名,非常名 (“The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way; that which can be named is not the constant entity”) coaxing the reader to explore the ineffability of ultimate reality, the Analects first line: 学而时习之不亦说乎 (“Isn’t it a pleasure to study and practice from time to time?”) seemed far less inviting!

In the years since then, though, my attitude toward the Analects has changed from one of ignorant indifference to deep respect. I found that the more time I gave to Confucius, the more he became like a patient teacher gently confronting some of my most deep-seated prejudices. His ideas can jar against so many of the unthinkingly sentimental, but ultimately destructive, iconoclastic and myopically progressive lenses through which myself, along with many other Westerners, have been taught to view the world. I have come, though, to appreciate precisely those sentences in the Analects that jar in that way. As you put aside indignation and open your mind up to the Confucian perspective, you find that he is leading you to a calmer, gentler outlook on the world.

There is probably no sentence in the Analects that jars in this way more than 述而不作, (loosely translated as “transmit, but don’t create”). When I first read it, my Western mind was immediately affronted. Slogans I’d picked up from school such as that hackneyed quotation from Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge” along with images such as that caricature of Galileo neatly disposing of centuries of Aristotelian tradition by tossing a couple of pebbles off the Tower of Pisa, rushed into my mind. Most of my generation were indoctrinated — either explicitly or implicitly — from primary school on with the ill-conceived notion that progress and breakthroughs come by trashing everything that has gone before, returning to “first principles” and forging your own path. The paradigm-shifting scientist, the bold innovator, and the social reformer are the people we were brought up to adulate. Their stories are painted with crude brushstrokes, the world they were born into depicted as grey and benighted, and their new insights leading to sunlit uplands.

A ceremony marking the 2,572nd birth anniversary of Confucius is held at the Confucius Temple in Qufu, east China’s Shandong Province, Sept. 28, 2021. (Photo/Xinhua)

Of course, that is a facile way to look at human progress. Even in science, where there is at least some basis to the notion that anyone’s observations can dethrone an old, well-established theory, it is still a risibly puerile picture: Newton’s image of “standing on the shoulder of giants” points to a far more modest and more accurate idea of the true basis for innovative thinking. However, when it comes to those more subtle areas involving understanding of human motivation and interactions, such as politics and ethics, ignoring tradition is positively dangerous. In this often misinterpreted sentence, I would see Confucius as gently prodding us towards modesty and being open to absorbing the insights resulting from millennia-long accumulated experience of countless wise heads that have gone before us, rather than blindly following random thought-bubbles from moment to moment.

Some might counter that I am giving the best possible gloss to this sentence. However, if you don’t read sentences from the Analects in isolation, you slowly get a feel for Confucius’ voice. In this case when you take this sentence in context with so many other lines such as 温故而知新 (“revise the old while absorbing the new”), or 学而不思则罔 (“studying without thought is perplexing and meaningless”), you start to realize that Confucius is actually putting forward a vision of a life of intellectual exploration.

Even that initially unenticing first line of the Analects about the joy of studying and praticing takes on quite a different tone when you understand that the characters 习, nowadays often translated as “study,” originally means “young birds repeatedly practicing flying.” Therefore, in its original written form 習, “feathers” 羽 is a component. Indeed, the great Confucian thinker Zhu Xi (1130-1200) of the Song Dynasty, when commenting on the line explains 习 as “like a bird flying.” In other words, far from being a dull old pedagogue urging students to knuckle down, study, revise, and enjoy it or else, it is, read properly, an invitation to partake in the soaring and liberating pleasures of a life of the mind.

Often, of course, there are lines in the Analects that do very much conform to our Western ideas and therefore become readily accepted and praised. That line, 己所不欲,勿施于人 (“Do not do to others what you would not want yourself”) is often compared to the biblical “golden rule” and hence quoted abroad with approval. Even here though, there is the subtle but significant difference that in the Confucian version it is given in the form of a negation, rather than the positive formation found in the golden rule: “Do unto others what you would have them do to you.” A pedant would say that, logically speaking, it amounts to the same thing, given that a double negative is a positive. However, the emphasis is clearly different and again reveals a Confucian spirit of calmness and an eschewing of fanaticism: rather than going out filled with self-righteous passion trying to enforce on others what you think is good for them, just be content to refrain from doing harm. It is presumptuous to suppose that everyone else wants the same thing that you do, but all of us have a pretty good idea of how to avoid hurting others.

Perhaps amidst the geopolitical turbulence of our age, we could all pay a bit more heed to Confucius’ gentle voice of restraint.


David Symington (斯明诚) was born in Britain and is deputy director of New Channel’s Chinese Story Research Institute.