Introduction

The Mysterious East is a cliche you often hear when Asia is  mentioned. When Jackie Chan and Jet Lee are big movie stars, youth throughout the world read manga and watch anime, and fashionable adults know something of Fen Shui, Tao, and Zen, why is Asia still a mystery?

 

The short answer is that Asians allow it to be a mystery. Asians identify themselves as Asians only when they are away from home. Though they know that they share their cultural bonds, most Asians do not bother to name what that common bond is. For people who have been influenced by Chinese civilization (China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, to a lesser degree, Singapore. and and their expats communities), the common bond is popular Confucianism. Confucianism has been the guiding principle of Chinese civilization for over twenty-five centuries. Yet Confucians have not realized that they need to explain their morality to outsiders. Confucians believe their ethics are universal human moral values. Every human, by virtue of being human, is expected to understand and share Confucian ethics so there is no need to explain to outsiders, because they do not—nay, cannot— exist.

 

In other words, Confucianism has never addressed the issue of the insider-outsider chasm that characterizes other major religions of the world. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam developed as the faiths of minority groups struggling against powerful majorities of the society. These traditions, therefore, have sharp focus on insider-outsider chasm.

 

One of Judaism’s most important religious holidays is Passover. Passover commemorates and celebrates the Exodus, the tale of how Moses led the Jews out of rich, powerful, and idolatrous Egypt where they had been slaves, how Moses received the Commandments, and how the Jews settled down in their promised land to form their own new nation under the protection of their one true God. Exodus depicts the righteousness of Jewish people as the opposite of the sinful Egyptian masters who had enslaved them. By defining the Jewishness as the opposite of Egypt, the Mosaic Law establishes the theme of the righteous minority (religious insiders) versus the mighty but evil majority (religious outsiders).

 

Christianity’s most important holidays are Christmas and Easter. Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ and the Easter commemorates his crucifiction and resurrection. Christ died on the cross as the leader of an anti-establishment religious group. Jesus’ Passion—the story of his persecution, crucifiction, and triumphant resurrection— is the defining story of Christianity. It depicts Christians as those who suffer persecution because of their faith; they suffer at the hand of corrupt and ignorant authorities who cannot grasp the truth of their faith. The chasm of insider-outsider (believer versus non-believer) is prominent.

 

Islam also emphasizes the insider-outsider chasm. Hearing the voice of God in the desert, Muhammed (also spelled Muhammad or Mohammed)  surrendered to Him. Islam means surrender (to Allah’s will). Muhammed embraced the monotheistic faith of Islam amidst polytheistic Arab society. Muhammed became a religious and social rebel who defied the prevailing social convention. Muhammed and his followers were not welcomed by the polytheistic majority so they moved from Medina to Mecca to escape persecution. They subsequently triumphed over their former persecutors. In the Islamic pilgrimage of Hajj, one of Five Pillars of Islam, Muslims pilgrims symbolically retrace the footsteps of  Muhammed and his earliest followers. The Islamic insider-outsider chasm is most clearly expressed in the traditional Islamic of notion of dividing the world into Dar al-Islam (the House of Islam) and Dar al-harb (the House of War).

 

 Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, thus, all started out as minority challengers to predominant society. Even the South Asian religion of Buddhism shares the characteristics of challenge to and detachment from the prevailing society. Siddhartha Gautama (c. 563 BCE to 483 BCE), the founder of Buddhism, was born a prince and lived in luxury. At the age of 29, shocked by the discovery that many of his subjects lived in poverty and sickness, Siddhartha left the palace and his family, and pursued a life of extreme asceticism. After many days of self-punishing fasting, he achieved Enlightenment where he found the Middle Way, or disciplined moderation which is neither self-indulgent nor self-punishing. Through his Enlightenment, he moved into a different stage of being and became the Buddha who exists outside of the bound of regular human society. The Buddha started off as an insider, but ended up as an outsider. Buddhists, who become monks and nuns in imitation of Buddha, similarly leave their familial and social bonds behind to become outsiders and are very much considered as such.

 

The insider-outsider distinction in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam make their followers aware that there are those who do not share their faiths. They have a tradition of telling dramatic stories of conflict between the believers and non-believers. Though they do not tell such tales of conflicts, Buddhists have been trying to enlighten non-Buddhists to their truths (and consequently better known and understood than Confucianism in the West). In contrast, Confucians do not know how to explain their beliefs to those who do not share Confucian ethics, because, according to their thinking, such humans do not exist.

 

Mencius (c.372 BCE-289BCE), the Second Sage of Confucianism, who explained Confucius to the world in the way that Paul explained Jesus, said that if you saw a baby about to fall into a well, you would feel something. That feeling is the beginning of ethics, the essence of civilized life, and the foundation of Confucianism. You cultivate that feeling, extend it to your family, then to your neighbors, and eventually to all of society. If you don’t feel moved by a baby about to fall into a well, then you are not human. End of argument, at least from the Confucian point of view.

 

When the Mughal dynasty came to rule India in the sixteenth century, the Muslim conquerors called the Indians who did not convert to Islam the Hindus. Grouped together under a new name, the very diverse Indians were forced to forge a new self-identity as the Hindus vis-à-vis the Muslim rulers. Confucians knew no such encounters until the mid-nineteenth century where they started to feel the pressure of the Western colonialism. After decades of struggling with the question how to reconcile the tradition and modernization, China under the Communist government denounced the traditional values of Confucianism, Daoism (Taoism), and Buddhism (as well as the “corrupt bourgeois Western capitalists”) in an attempt at a wholesale change of Chinese culture into his brand of agrarian communism. Not only the Communist Party, but also many Western sociologists, following the German sociologist Max Weber's argument, claimed that Asian countries could not develop capitalism because of Confucianism. Japan, Taiwan, South Korea have since more than sufficiently proven that Confucianism is  no hindrance to the development of capitalism. Singapore, whose first prim minister Yuan Yew Lee prominently embraced Confucianism, has become a high-tech and financial power hub.

 

After the passing of Chairman Mao Zedong in 1976, the Chinese have been rediscovering and reclaiming their cultural traditions. Even the Communist Chinese government that once denounced Confucianism now calls their official language teaching program the Confucius Institute. It has also declared in 2008 that it will build the Chinese Culture Symbolic City centering on Confucius’s birthplace in eastern Shandong province; it is projected to be a city sized monument celebrating traditional Chinese culture, with its focus on Confucius. New Confucian schools are popping up in China and books on Confucianism hit the bestseller list. Yu Dan, whom some call China’s Oprah, sold multi-million copies of Confucius From the Heart: Ancient Wisdom for Today’s World (Chinese original in 2007) and runs very popular self-help shows loosely based on Confucius’ words. The Chinese even instituted their Confucius Peace Prize in 2010. The process of forging the Confucian identity vis-a-vis the Western world has only started in China.

 

             I think it is high time that we Confucians start trying to explain Confucianism to non-Confucians.


Many fine books have been written in English on Confucius and Confucianism. These fine academic books tend to have the intellectuals’ bias toward high culture and great philosophers. Yes, they are the pinnacles of the culture, but they are not the sole content of Confucian culture. In order to understand Confucianism as culture, one needs know common people's understanding of Confucianism. In the traditional popular Chinese culture, Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism are closely intertwined. While intellectuals may distinguish differences between Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, common people accept mixture as the norm. The vast majority of people learned about the workings of the world not through Confucius’ Analects, but through popular stories. If we only focus on Confucian intellectuals, we fails to understand Confucianism as culture.

 

Popular stories, borrowing freely from accumulated traditional oral lore of common people, are as much the creation of individual authors as of many generations of storytellers. The Chinese have told and retold rich and colorful tales of heroes and villains, gods and demons, battles and intrigue, love and treachery, flying daggers and dragons, magic and miracles, and of magnitudes saved and slain. These stories have been the backbone of popular Confucian culture. They also form the shared cultural heritage the inhabitants of the Confucian cultural sphere; Koreans, Japanese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, and all their expatriates around the world have shared these stories as their heritage, not only in book forms, but also in human and marionette plays, storytelling on street corners and in theaters, radio and TV shows, movies, and more recently, anime, manga, and video games. Korean TV dramas are popular in mainland China because of their Confucian story lines. Hong Kong and Chinese movies are very popular in Japan. And Hong Kong and Taiwan sometimes make movies based upon Japanese novels and manga. Popular stories were, and still are, the conveyors of  a living and evolving tradition.

 

These popular novels also are great material to rebuff the prevailing preconception in the West that Confucian culture is uniformly repressive toward women. Yes, as the philosophy of a patriarchal society, male Confucian moralists tried hard to keep women in their “proper” place, just as the Christian church tried to make women swear not only to “love and cherish” but also “serve and obey” their husbands. How successful such efforts were, however, is another question. China is a vast country of 5,000 years long history with many local custom differences, which cannot be painted by one monolithic Confucian model. As the Chinese sociologist Lin Yueh-hwa  remarks (not about the popular novels but about the real state of Chinese marriage), “As against the common view of the Chinese women as a suppressed being, subordinate to her menfolk and her mother-in-law in ways which render her almost a chattel, we are given here examples of a woman who has money of her own, investing in business; of sister-in-law fighting beyond the control of their husbands’ uncle; of a man being nagged by his own wife for defending his daughter-in-law; of a daughter-in-law …chasing her husband round the room with a knife…”  There are many stories of wife-phobic husbands in Chinese literature. Some even argue what looks like repression is the reflection of men's female phobia.

 

              So, that's what I am trying to do here; demystifying Confucianism and Confucian culture mainly using popular stories.  I need to qualify my intent. I am not trying to argue that my understanding is the “true” or “correct” understanding of Confucianism. I am simply trying to present how I, as a modern Japanese, understand Confucius and Confucianism. For that purpose, I use a Japanese novella titled "The Disciple" as the starting point in understanding Confucius and Confucianism. (Chapter 1).  Chapter 2 discusses Confucius and Confucianism, expanding and supplementing what is told in “The Disciple”.  


Daoism (Taoism) and Buddhism are intertwined with Confucianism in Chinese culture.  Chapter 3 looks at the relationship of these three religions.  Japan is not a country of Daoism, and "The Disciple" has the Japanese slant of leaning toward martial.  The historical reason behind this martial tendency is explored in Chapter 4.


The Journey to the West, which is a Mahayana Buddhism propaganda edutainment, expressly tells that three holy teachings of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism can peacefully coexist in China.  The novel also shows how the Chinese viewed the history and time, which is very different from the Western views. (Chapter 5)


Daoist magic novel Creation of Lesser Gods tells the rise of the Zhou dynasty that laid the foundation of imperial China.(Chapter 6)  This novel teaches the concept of the Mandate of Heaven, the idea that the emperor gains or loses his right to rule through his virtue or lack thereof. This idea was the traditional social contract of China.(Chapter 7)

 

Romance of Three Kingdoms is said to capture the essence of being Chinese; being political, operating on the basis of personal bond of trust. This novel is well known for the "Live together, die together" brand of male bonding of three central hero, Liu Bei, Guanyu, and Zhang Fei. Romance of Three Kingdoms recounts the events of the war-torn Three Kingdoms period with tales of battles and political intrigues, intricate war strategies and tactics, and winners and losers. (Chapter 8)  Even though male bonding looms large in Romance of Three Kingdoms, women also play various interesting rolls. Chapter 9 introduces these remarkable women, including Diaochan who is counted as one of the Four Beauties of Ancient China and a wise mother who dies as a martyr, smiling.


Water Margin is a Robin Hood type bandit novel. While Romance of Three Kingdoms mostly describes the lives of political leader class, Water Margin describes mostly the lives of middle class and lower, showing how common people viewed the world. (Chapter 10)  This novel offers a look into the repression of romantic love in Chinese literary tradition.  Water Margin also shows how the imperial bureaucracy based on the civil service examination system were perceived by common people.(Chapter 11) 


Epilogue offers a brief introduction to dreamy, romantic family saga Red Chamber Dream.  By introducing and explaining these classic stories and showing how these stories are still relevant to the contemporary society, Demystifying Confucianism aims to offer an easier way to understand East Asian Confucian culture. 

  


A Note on the Chinese Romanization

 

The way the people of Confucian cultural sphere shared the heritage is learning to read written classical Chinese. Written classical Chinese was a lingua franca of Asia, by which different ethnic groups could communicate. Many non-Han Chinese emperors were not only literate in Chinese but also could compose elegant poetry in Chinese. Even now, if they do not speak each others'  language, Japanese and Chinese try to communicate in writing Chinese characters.


There are different methods of Romanizing Chinese language. The two most commonly used forms are Wade-Giles and Pinyin. The Chinese government uses Pinyin as the official Romanization method. The concurrent existences of different Romanization systems, which sometimes transcribe the same Chinese character in very different forms, make things very difficult for the English writers and readers. The highest Confucian moral virtue of love for the fellow humans is spelled as ren in Pinyin, and as jen in Wade-Giles. This is almost maddening. Since when j and r are the same sound?

 

In Chinese, same sound with different tones (flat, going up, going up only at the end, and going down) can mean different characters and meanings. Even with pronunciation marks, there are often plural characters the sound could mean; the only way to make clear which character it is to supplement the pronunciation with Chinese character. Supplementing Chinese characters to every ambiguous word makes it very cumbersome to read.

 

There is no perfect solution. Some academics use Wide-Giles, while others use Pinyin without pronunciation marks. They sometimes supply Chinese characters for the words of importance in their context. Though this is not a very satisfactory solution, this is the best compromise method we have for transcribing Chinese into English. Here I choose to use Pinyin, but without pronunciation marks, and supply Chinese characters as I see necessary.

 

           When I was checking out books on Confucianism from a library, the circulation guy joked, “Some may call it Confusionism!”  While I do not believe Confucianism is in any sense confused or confusing, there is no denying that the Romanized forms of Chinese language in deed remain very confusing.



References

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 Ernest Renan, “Muhammad and the Origins of Islam,” in The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, ed.  Ibin Warraq (New York: Prometheus, 2000).

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