Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Happy 2,561st Birthday, Confucius

This message was sent to the CAIS Community on September 28, 2010

Good Morning CAIS,

On this day (supposedly) in 551 BCE, Confucius was born in the town of Qufu曲阜 in what is now the province of Shandong--which is also, by the way, the home town of CAIS tech teacher Karen Wang (Wang Dan 王丹) and first grade teacher Sue Geng (Geng Xiu 耿秀). 

Ever wonder where the name Confucius came from (it's not Chinese, you know)? It is the Latinization of the name Kong Fu Zi 孔夫子, meaning "Master Kong." The Italian missionary Matteo Ricci dubbed Master Kong with this Latinized name in the 16th century.  Confucius's given name was actually Qiu , so his friends would have called him Kong Qiu 孔丘.  Qiu means small hill, and one legend has it that Confucius had a bump on his forehead that looked like a small hill. Another version has him being born near a hill, but the forehead story has been more historically appealing, so most paintings and sculptures of Confucius depict him with a huge lump on his forehead.

Confucius, like most great Chinese thinkers throughout history, aspired to public service--in fact he is the prototype of the scholar official in ancient China, learning so that he could be of use as a public servant. Confucius lived in violent, cynical times, and his ideas about how to bring about world peace (this was actually his life’s ambition) fell mostly upon deaf ears, at least among rulers of the many states that made up a not yet unified China. He did, however, find listeners among his 72 disciples who followed him around as he wandered about from ruler to ruler, trying in vain to spread his ideas about how to achieve peace and harmony--personally, in the family, in the state and ultimately in the world, or what Confucian referred to as "all under heaven" (a bad translation of tianxia 天下 that was probably taken originally from Matteo Ricci's Latin).  Failing in his political ambitions, Confucius is known mostly as a teacher, and his disciples passed down his wisdom or sayings which were eventually written down in a book called the Analects (Lun yu 论语). 

Of Confucius's many sayings concerning education, one that is remarkably progressive is, "Use teaching methods that are suited to the individual student's abilities" (yin cai shi jiao 因材施教).  While I am not a student of ancient philosophy by any stretch, this is the earliest reference I have ever seen to a concept that is nowadays referred to as "differentiated instruction." Could it be that differentiated instruction has its locus classicus in ancient Chinese thought?

Confucius emphasized responsibilities over rights, and the importance of context over absolute principles. An individual's responsible behavior, he thought, was more critical to harmony and balance in the world than any system of checks and balances. Thus, study and self cultivation aimed at individual perfection was more important for a leader than establishing systems of governance. So really, Confucius placed much greater importance on the individual than many Westerners generally associate with Chinese culture; it's just that his emphasis was on the individual's responsibility to society as opposed to the rights that society owes the individual, as in the West.

Interestingly, Confucius also had a lot to say about music (perhaps another curricular guidepost?), which he thought had the power to inspire harmony and peace in the world (most of us have probably felt this way after listening to "Mercy, Mercy Me [The Ecology]" by Marvin Gaye or "All Day Music" by the band War, I’m sure you have your favorites).  Anyone interested in checking out Confucius first hand ought to look at DC Lau's translation of the “Analects.” For a highly readable and very practical modern take on Confucius and Confucianism, you might want to check out Daniel Bell's “China's New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society.”  Both books are available in Kindle versions, so you can both get them quickly and be green (like Marvin Gaye’s "Mercy, Mercy Me [The Ecology]" urges us to be).

Confucius's influence in China and other societies such as Japan, Korea and Vietnam is every bit as powerful as the sages and prophets in the world’s other great cultural regions. So please think of Master Kong on his birthday, a significant event for anyone who has chosen to work in at or send a child to the Chinese American International School.