Tue, Oct 23, 2007 - Page 8 News List

On the wisdom that China lacks

By Engelbert Altenburger (古堡)

Westerners speak of China too easily, starting with the name of the country, which itself is poorly understood. Writing a few books about China or going on a few visits will not compensate for this lack.

A more sensitive approach to understanding China would not start with "China" as such -- a proudly misinterpreted European term from seafaring times -- but with its core meaning of "center."

It is this hexing "center" that matters and grips the "Chinese" nation beyond whatever borders might exist.

Two letters in the Taipei Times by foreign teachers in Taiwan on Sept. 28 and Oct. 10 prompted the following considerations. Though valuable contributions, both seem to miss their essential target of critique, namely the debate on Confucius (孔子).

China's power reconfiguration is in full swing amid economic frenzy, preparations for the Beijing Olympics, attacks on the Dalai Lama and unresolved social miseries. Will the new central power really return taxes to the people as has been claimed? Or set a historic precedent by introducing more freedom and justice and adopting a new world outlook?

After more than 2,000 years the "center" still has its grip on a country that has been shaped and shackled by Confucian thinking. Just take corruption, one of the most serious viruses, which is strangling a nation just as surely as an unprecedented series of environmental disasters in the wake of economic growth.

No wonder that some people in China have stood up, once again regarding their "land of the middle" or "Middle Kingdom" from an outside point of view, such as the 95-year-old bishop of Jinan, the capital of Shandong Province. This wise man is reported to have said that only the Catholic Church might resist China's raging scourges.

There is a lot of substance in this statement, although critics might immediately recall the role of foreign powers and missionaries that opened up the Qing empire, and not always using exemplary methods.

The Church's voice is heard today not because it comes from outside China, but because it has since toed the line of the Doctrine of the Mean and other Confucian doctrines. As the Classic of Rituals says: "Because Heaven has laid down what is the way to perfect virtue, it is not so difficult to follow the steps of the holy rulers of old if one only knows what the right way is."

Have there ever been "holy" rulers in China? The Catholic Church might dodge this question, instead turning its attention to responsibility for a globalized world and the safeguarding of a fragile peace, while silently remaining non-conformist with a culture that is worldly and materialist and that has failed to achieve sustainable progress.

There still appears to be no limit to human misery -- beneath a shallow cover of brocade. China has never had a chance to break out from its "center" or to engulf the Earth with its contents. Mao Zedong (毛澤東) tried once, but he, too, got stuck at the limits of this self-centered world -- a world which traditionally was square and flat. This locked-up domain and its philosophy of life never allowed mankind's largest civilization to really integrate with the outside.

Anything related to this world view can be definitively traced back to Confucius. We know little more about him than his errant teacher's career. Later he managed a temporary political career, as described by historian Sima Qian (司馬遷). Much later he became a "sage," even a "god," or at least someone who could hold the post of a saint.

This story has been viewed 3301 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top