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#136: SO--WHAT DID CONFUCIUS SAY?

#136. SO—WHAT DID CONFUCIUS SAY? As H. G. Creel has written, “Among a large fraction of mankind, Confucius has for many centuries been considered the most important man that ever lived.” After the long years of hostility towards Confucianism manifested during the Cultural Revolution in China, the last decade has seen a growing reformation of respect for his teachings; and when one considers the size of the Chinese community in the States, his influence on American thought may be difficult to calculate. Confucianism has never had for Westerners the mystical, I’m-off-to-the-ashram glamor of Hinduism or Buddhism; what was the last time you heard of someone running off to China to become a Confucian? But for the personality of Confucius we must rely on sources written centuries after his death. The gaps in our knowledge of him far outweigh the available facts.

The common form of his name is a sixteenth-century Latinization of what more properly is written Kung Fu-tzu (or, in pinyin, Kong Fuzi), this last syllable a title of respect, “Master,” as in Lao-tzu or Chuang-tzu. His life straddled the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E., a period of virulent violence; in the 250 years preceding his death, his native state of Lu in northeastern China was invaded twenty-one times, which in those days was considered as getting off lightly. This period of disorder gave shape to the mission that ruled his life: regaining and reinstating the traditional and ethical shape of the older Chinese culture. His counsels to the rulers of the time were rejected, and he spent long years in wandering exile, after which he edited the Five Classics, including the first collected anthology of Chinese poetry, the Book of Songs, and a work of divination, the I Ching. Through his exile and afterward, he was followed by a group of disciples, who recorded his sayings in a collection now usually called the Analects. In the proverbs and anecdotes of the Analects we have the main source for any portrait of Master Kung.

The problem with reading the Analects in their original order is that they lack context, and they’re an awful hodge-podge, collected, it seems, pretty much at random. So it was an ingenious idea of the translator Thomas Cleary to excerpt them and reorder them according to the thematic breakdown of the I Ching: “When they do things, good people plan first,” for instance, or “Good people consider problems and prevent them.” Grouped in this way, the individual aphorisms gain coherence and force; gaining that force, they can clear away the distortive notions we may have inherited of Confucius as some sort of Dutch uncle, droning on in fortune-cookie apothegms. The central virtue of Confucian thought, humaneness (or, as Arthur Waley rendered it, human-heartedness), becomes here vivid and moving; for the first time, I was able to hear a voice behind the Analects, and Confucius has become for me a very real presence. There is in him, among other good things, that down-to-earth quality, that terseness that is specifically Chinese. As Karen Armstrong says in the lovely pages on Confucius in her book The Great Transformation, after the daunting accomplishments of the Indian yogis, there is something marvelously accessible, something hopeful and within reach, in the social and sociable virtues that Confucius preached and loved. Armstrong calls him “affable, calm and friendly,” not always the qualities of the preacher. Thomas Cleary, who, as one critic said, has been translating Chinese literature these past years “with the energy of a person carrying antique furniture out of a burning house,” has conveyed those qualities throughout. His edition is called The Essential Confucius (Harper, 1992) and you should read it.

We can fall into thinking of Confucianism as a purely social and ethical system of philosophy; reading the I Ching, the earliest of the so-called Confucian classics, we are reminded that Confucian thought has an extensive and complex metaphysic behind it. The text of the I Ching, or Book of Changes (“Ching” is the Chinese term for a classic text, as in the Tao Te Ching) consists of 64 hexagrams (six-lined figures with a range of solid and broken lines), accompanied by a number of gnomic couplets and verses. It is thought of, and was likely created, as a work of divination; but it is also, as its interpreter Richard Wilhelm has insisted, a work of wisdom. People who approach it as they might a newspaper astrology column will find it worse than unhelpful; but if you live with it for a while you will begin to find its depths and beauties. This genuinely is one of the greatest texts of ancient Chinese thought and, like most such things, it is a mirror: look into it long enough and you will find yourself staring back out.

Because of the nature of the text, there are many approaches possible to the I Ching, and many different translations. John Blofeld did a good and usable edition, still available from Penguin; R.G.H. Siu did an ingenious version, called The Portable Dragon: The Western Man’s Guide to the I Ching (MIT Press, 1968), which appends to the original text some terrific passages, mostly from Western writers, to expand and explain. But undoubtedly the most widely-used, thorough and wisely thought-out edition is by the German scholar Richard Wilhelm, translated into English by Cary F. Baynes, one of the most important successes of the Bollingen Series published by Princeton. Here are the texts and the early commentaries arranged and set out with precision and care, and here is where you best might get some sense of the beauties and profundities of the work. It is this edition that was so common in the years of the counter-culture, when shops were doing a steady business in old Chinese coins and, for the hardcore, yarrow stalks, and something of those years clings to it when I see this edition. Whether the interest among young people in an ancient text of divination was really a challenge to the dried-up rationalism of Western thought or simply an upswing in credulity is a question you and I can answer for ourselves but for no one else; but I did know some people at least for whom it was a true attempt to escape the terrible, rote sterility of weekly sermons and corn-pone opinions. Wilhelm and Bayne brought this text forward from its ancient and inaccessible Chinese sources and gave it to the European and American young who were anxious for what it offered, and it was a marvelous entryway into an ancient and distant civilization. The door is still open.

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