The Role of Language in Understanding Confucian Thought

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How does the use of Chinese language impact the way in which Confucian thought is understood? For this week’s post we would like to pose three different questions and show how the role of language affects the way in which each is interpreted. It is not the only determinant, but it is important to consider language when considering each concept.

THE CREATION OF GENDER ROLES

Is Confucianism to blame for a lack of gender equality in the Eastern World?

Gender equality is an issue worldwide and societies must place a high priority on creating gender neutral language in order to see improvements. The Analects may have lacked gender-neutral terminology; however current texts and documents experience the same struggle. The role of women determined by Chinese language is discussed in a video by Global History and Geography 9.  The video discusses how two different Chinese pictographs translate into a word with combined meaning. For example, the character for “women” is combined with the character for “child.” The pictograph image is made up of two parts. When these two characters combine, the definition of the word is “good.” What is good in Chinese is characterized by a pictograph of a woman and a child.

These characters can help us give meaning to ancient Chinese beliefs and an idea of the reasons for different customs. The video points out that these interpretations are not only relevant in China, but also in the Western world (the U.S. in particular). (Click on the images to view the video)

 The traditional role of women in china
the traditional role of women in america

Are you ever guilty of using gender bias language?

 policeman

Decoding the Language of Profit

What role does language play in the idea that Confucianism prohibits profit making?

Mencius replied, “Your Majesty, why must you speak of profit? Indeed, there is nothing but humanity (ren) and right (yi). May Your Majesty simply speak of humanity and right. Why must you speak of profit?” (1) These words became the bedrock of what is meant by profit in the Chinese language. Profit had become a tainted term.  Yet these words could well have provided a misleading context for understanding the meaning of profit. In the Analects, profit is often confined to two main ideas: the benefit of oneself and economic gain. Should profit be qualified in this way? Is it really defined as economic gain to one person? Confucian thought often applies a negative connotation to profit but fails to describe profit in terms of society’s gain. Yet profit can be used to describe economic and social benefit. With the principle of Yi (righteousness) in place, a business can expand long-term profits while eliminating the destructive consequences of illegal profit seeking and unfair competition (2). At first glance, based on the language that is used, the Analects may give the impression that all profit is unscrupulous. However, upon closer inspection, one may realise that profit is not regarded as immoral if ethics are considered and relationships are mutually benefited.


The Loss of Li

Notice that Li is often translated as ritual. Does that imply that “Li” is no longer applicable to the present day? Li, too, is often misunderstood. It is often translated simply as ritual, however Li is an abstract concept that can be translated and applied in various ways. It is not empty or old fashioned, but represents a reaffirmation of values to that community. As explained by Johnson Chang, Li goes beyond the English word “ritual” to include everything from etiquette, education and morality to a cosmic vision of a balanced world order (3). The concept of Li determines how one is expected to act in a given relationship, common ‘rules of proper behaviour’. In other words, Li can be viewed as a person’s morality. Confucius advocates the necessity of Li as a stepping stone to social harmony (4). The meanings of words play a significant contribution to how we generate ideas and opinions. People may mistakenly translate words into a prescribed meaning and not take into account the various meanings the word embodies. Can you think of other concepts where language plays a large role in your perception of something? Let us know by leaving a comment!

 References

1.  http://www.indiana.edu/~p374/Mengzi.pdf
2. http://dare.uva.nl/cgi/arno/show.cgi?fid=452986 3. http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304765304577482580429791656 4. http://www.megaessays.com/viewpaper/9657.html

Celebrating the Confucian Work Ethic

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Image Credit: www.news.cn

Who would have imagined Confucius the scholar to have once worked in a granary? Yet it is said that was his first job before becoming a teacher (1).  He was not afraid of hard work or lowly occupations, but celebrated the importance of working to contribute to society. Today marks a national holiday in China and many countries worldwide: Labour Day, also known as “May Day” or “5/1.” This holiday celebrates workers, but more specifically, it celebrates the economic and social achievements of workers. In fact, Confucius celebrated workers through his ranking of “occupations.” He ranked the four principle “occupations” in descending order: The scholar had the highest ranking, followed by the farmer, then the worker and lastly the merchant. The worker was later advanced after the adoption of Marxist thinking (2). Confucius believed that part of contributing back to society when one grows up is their ability to work (3).  A prescribed trait of an ideal Confucian worker is that of hard work, which is considered to be a key value of Confucianism (45). In addition to the value of hard work, the Confucian Work Ethic also consists of other values including loyalty to the organization, thrift, dedication, social harmony, a love of education and wisdom, and a concern for social propriety. These elements all have positive aspects for economic and societal development (4). Parallel to Protestantism in the West, Confucianism has provided a foundation that promotes economic development in Asia (6).

Economic Success produced through Collective Welfare

When one compares the Protestant work ethic with the principles espoused by Confucius, Rarick points out in his article titled, “Confucius on Management: Understanding Chinese Cultural Values and Managerial Practices” that there are more similarities than differences. For example, both work ethics place an emphasis on hard work, employees are expected to achieve a form of self-fulfillment and rather than concentrating on spiritual salvation, people are required to focus on achievement in [this] life. The key difference between the Confucian and Protestant work ethics is that the Protestant work ethic focuses on individual achievement, whereas the Confucian work ethic places a higher value on group achievement and social harmony (4). Confucianism considers economic failure as having widespread societal consequences. This social interconnectedness is a trait of the Confucian work ethic that is not as common in the West. Unlike Protestant ethics which focus predominantly on individualism, Confucian ethics promote the idea that each individual belongs to a greater society and therefore economic prosperity must benefit society as a whole rather than a sole individual. Confucius placed high importance on social and public order, which he believed could be better fostered when the community had a healthy economic base (2). The Confucian work ethic has been a driving force for the economic success stories of Japan, South Korea, People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.  This Labour Day, thousands of working people will gather together with family to celebrate this collective achievement. To view photos from Labour Day celebrations, click here.

Resources

1. http://www.notablebiographies.com/Co-Da/Confucius.html#ixzz3YqyEUUXH
2. http://3dethics.e-contentmanagement.com/inside/chapter8.html
3
http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10308-003-0038-8?LI=true

4. http://www.jimsjournal.org/3%20Charles.pdf  
5.  http://www.wbiconpro.com/436-Brenda.pdf
6. 
http://jasonhuangatwork.com/papers/Leong_Huang_Mak_2013_JCA.pdf 

Liberating the Confucian Woman

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woman reading book
Image Credit: womanofchina.cn

Gender inequality continues to be a global problem despite improvements in women’s rights. In many cases, opportunities for women are still subject to the commonly described ‘glass-ceiling effect’. (1)

Confucianism has a poor reputation when it comes to gender equality, as it is associated with the subordinate role placed on women. Confucian thought, however, should not solely be blamed for gender inequality in early Chinese societies.  Even prior to Confucius, women in Chinese society assumed a relatively subordinate position to men. Archaeological evidence shows that inequality between men and women was already present during the Neolithic period (2). Roles for women generally did not extend beyond the home and familial affairs.

Img credit: confucianism
Image Credit: ACelebrationOfWomen.org

Despite accusations of gender bias, Confucian thought may be productive in its often unnoticed applications to gender equality.   Confucianism states that all people have the capacities necessary to flourish as full human beings. Clark and Wang point out in their research article titled, “A Confucian Defence of Gender Equity,” that the Chinese term for “person” (ren) is gender neutral. It resembles a person of highest virtue or humaneness. The morally noble human being (junzi) is not necessarily a man. It can be a woman. Early Confucians specified that women and men are equally equipped to become virtuous human beings.

Another aspect of criticism received by Confucian thought is the use of gender specific pronouns. A gender-neutral pronoun (ex: they, a person, etc.), could be used to create a more gender balanced message across all texts, not just Confucius related. Creating gender neutrality through word choice is an ongoing issue in current texts and documents. Help books even exist in order to assist people in avoiding gender-bias writing (3).

What can be done to create gender neutrality?

Similarly to Confucian texts, other imperial documents need a ‘rectification of names’, as Confucius himself would have advised.  To rectify names in this case would be to use the proper words to fit the standards of a growing, and highly adapting, modern world. The context of male-female relations has changed throughout time and it would be helpful for present-day Confucian scholars to adapt the Analects to represent these changes. Many contemporary Confucian scholars, for example, already translate junzi not as gentleman by as morally noble person or other such gender neural term. This means that becoming a fully realised human need not be associated with a particular gender.

In what other ways do you think gender neutrality can be reached? Let us know your thoughts by leaving a comment!

Resources

1. http://www.fairobserver.com/region/central_south_asia/role-women-china/
2. http://www.academia.edu/450118/Analects_in_Feminine_a_Feminist_Critique_of_Confucius_Text
3. http://jerz.setonhill.edu/writing/grammar-and-syntax/gender-neutral-language/

Education, Family Harmony and Individual Recognition celebrated through Confucian Architecture

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Img Cred: Rosita Dellios
Img Cred: Rosita Dellios

Multi-tiered roofs, beautifully designed archways and magnificent temples and residences; these are prominent characteristics of traditional Confucian architecture. These elements were carefully depicted through the application of Confucian values. Confucian values and their architectural representations can help strengthen the correlation between Confucianism and architecture.

The Confucian Temple as an Educational Institution 

In order to commemorate Confucius, Chinese people built Confucian temples to honour his contribution to Chinese culture. (4) Confucian temples were built in county schools throughout the empire, either to the front of or on one side of the school. Still to this day, Confucian temples represent knowledge and education, rather than worship alone. Confucian temples are often referred to without “Confucius” in the title. For example, the Confucian temple located in Beijing is named the Ancient University and the Confucian temple in Hanoi, Vietnam, is known as the Temple of Literature. These alternative names of Confucian temples represent the educational values that Confucius stood for. Furthermore, these temples would contain stone inscriptions on carved turtles displaying the names of successful students from the days of imperial China.

Img Credit: Rosita Dellios
Img Credit: Rosita Dellios

Unlike Daoist or Buddhist temples, Confucian temples do not normally contain images. (5) This absence emphasised the teaching of Confucius and not the worshiping of the teacher himself. Statues have appeared because it satisfies people’s needs to identify with Confucius. Often times, people will pay respect to Confucius by leaving items such as a basket of flowers, as seen in the photo below.

Img Cred: Rosita Dellios
Img Cred: Rosita Dellios

Harmonious Social System Maintained through Architectural Design

Confucian thought was the core of China’s hierarchical social system. (1)  The hierarchical Confucian code of conduct influenced the residential design of courtyards.  The sections and walls within courtyards were distinctly separated in order to represent the hierarchical social system as well as the Confucian influenced value of superior/subordinate relationships, for example the relationship of parent/child.

In courtyard residences, the centre of the courtyard was thought to be superior and most significant while the sides were less so. The north end of the courtyard was highly desirable as it faced south and received the most sunlight. This choice location was therefore used by the head of the household, or by family elders. (2)  Additionally, the emperor of China sat on his throne and faced south. This was a traditional form of conduct and these values were reflected in the placing of important figures within residential courtyards and palaces.

According to Confucian family order, the east and west ends were occupied by the younger generation. The courtyard was a self-enclosed world that represented safety and harmony. Within it, relationships were defined by Confucian values and space was allocated accordingly (1)

Today, a sense of the courtyard has been preserved through the use of hutongs, not only for family, but community usage as well.

Img Credit:
Img Credit: discoverbeijingtours.com

Individuals Commemorated through Memorial Arches 

memorial arch
Img Credit: Chinaculture.org

Highly honourable individuals exhibiting a certain Confucian virtue were often commemorated through memorial arches. These arches served as a way to honour the deeds of people and offered insight into the social values of the time. The names of those who were honourable were scripted on the arch and a formal application process was in place if the public deemed the person no longer worthy of commendation. (3)

Resources

1. http://www.chinaculture.org/gb/en_madeinchina/2005-10/21/content_74813_2.htm
2. http://www.china.org.cn/english/travel/53533.htm
3. http://www.chinahistoryforum.com/topic/18882-introduction-to-confucian-architecture/ 
4. http://www.travelchinaguide.com/intro/architecture/styles/chinese-confucius-temples.htm
5. Sommer, Deborah (2002). “Destroying Confucius: Iconoclasm in the Confucian Temple”. On Sacred Grounds: Culture, Society, Politics and the Formation of the Cult of Confucius: 95–133.

Fulfilling Filial Piety: Is there “Room” for Improvement?

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Img Credit: WSJ.com
Img Credit: WSJ.com

Filial piety is the Confucian virtue of xiao which teaches respect for our parents, elders, and past generations of ancestors. This virtue stands at the forefront of Confucianism and is regarded as the highest norm and the ultimate foundation of ethics.  All morality and civilization come from it. (1)

In Confucianism, a child’s obedience is expected to continue beyond the death of a parent. Filial piety not only paves the way to self-cultivation so that one can aspire to become a virtuous person (junzi), but also helps to secure the nation and society as a whole as being virtuous for decades and generations to come. As Confucius advised: “He who has grown to be a filial son and respectful younger brother will be unlikely to defy his superiors and there has never been the case of someone inclined to defy his superiors and stir up a rebellion.” (Analects 1:2)

Confucius put a strong emphasis on respect and reverence as the core concepts of filial piety. In practice, one should perform it in accordance with propriety (li). The Analects states that Confucius once said, “When your parents are alive, serve them in accordance with the rites; when they pass away, bury them in accordance with the rites and sacrifice to them in accordance with the rites.” (Analects 2.5)

Img Credit: gokunming.com
Img Credit: gokunming.com

On April 6, the concept of filial piety was applied through the celebration of one of the most important festivals in the Chinese calendar, the Quingming Festival, also known as Tomb Sweeping Day. Families gathered together on the day to pay respect to their deceased ancestors. Several traditions are performed to honour the deceased, including presenting ancestors with raw food, decorations and gifts; however cleaning an ancestor’s gravesite, or tomb sweeping, has been emphasised as the concrete expression of practicing filial piety. (2)

As many families are provided the opportunity to demonstrate this “concrete expression” of filial piety to their beloved ancestors, some 100,000 people are not. Due to the lack of space for proper burial sites, Chinese families are deprived of the dignity to lend proper respect to their dead. The waiting time for a permanent resting place in Hong Kong is becoming longer, as the once two-year wait has now lengthened to nearly five years. Burial sites are soaring in price as supply fails to catch up with demand.  For fear that their property price will go down; most people are refusing to allow permanent resting places to be built in their backyard, a phenomenon known as NIMBY. In response to this issue, the Chinese government is offering financial incentives to families who choose an alternative option – the scattering of ashes into the ocean. Despite the cash incentive, few families are willing to take up the sea burial option, as they would prefer to stick to traditional burial cemeteries. (3)


The people of China are in a dilemma as they struggle to find the best way to honour and respect their ancestors.  Is there “room” for improvement when fulfilling filial piety in the modern world? Our answer would be yes – The application of Confucianism in modern society can play an important role in reviving filial piety.

What do you think can be done to restore filial piety in the 21st Century? Let us know by leaving a comment.

Read our next post titled, A Modern Museum Teaches the Traditional Lessons of Filial Piety to learn what unique effort the Chinese government is making to re-introduce filial piety as a core value in society.

A Modern Museum Teaches the Traditional Lessons of Filial Piety

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Img Credit: dailymail.co.uk
Img Credit: dailymail.co.uk

A museum in China’s Sichuan province has been created to reinforce one of Confucius’s core values and to teach current and future generations the true meaning and virtue of filial piety.  The Modern Filial Piety Culture museum dedicates itself to the topic of filial piety and provides visitors with examples of devotion and sacrifice involved in the act of filial piety.

Several exhibits portray the practice of filial roles.

One exhibit includes a carriage which two sons pulling their mother in a carriage. They walked through over 600 towns and cities across China to fulfil her dying wish to travel. They wore out 12 pairs of shoes in the process and some of these shoes are on display beside the carriage.

With the one-child policy in place, the responsibility of filial piety usually falls on a single offspring. The museum hopes that the examples they provide will inspire the younger generation to perform filial acts even better.

“They may feel guilty that they don’t care enough for their parents and return home to wash their parents’ feet. That’s the kind of result we are hoping for, said Museum founder Liao Lin. ”

To read the full article click here.

The world farewells “A True Giant of History” who leaves behind a blend of East-West values

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Image Credit: The Washington Post
Image Credit: The Washington Post

Nations have united with Singapore to bid farewell to the first Prime Minister of Singapore and also a leader who has come to be known as the founding father of modern Singapore.  Lee Kuan Yew passed away last Monday at age 91.

More than 1.2 million Singaporeans formally paid their respects to Lee and nearly half a million queued to visit his body at parliament house. World leaders, both former and current, came together for the event. Singapore government has declared seven days of national mourning and flags will fly at half-staff on state buildings .(1)

US President Obama honoured Lee Kuan Yew for transforming Singapore from,  “a backward colonial entrepot into a shining high-tech economy.” He praised Lee as, “A true giant of history.” (2)

funeral

Over 100 thousand people braved the heavy rain and lined a 15km route through the city to farewell Singapore’s founding leader.

Lee Kuan Yew
(Img Cred: Reuters: Edgar Su)

Lee Kuan Yew’s Blend of East and West

Lee Kuan Yew brought a blend of Eastern and Western values when leading the nation of Singapore. The British educated Lee Kuan Yew had brought Confucian values to his fledgling nation. A law graduate from Cambridge University, the young Lee used his legal background to enter politics and direct him for a future in leadership and nation-building. He encouraged the strengths of  Singapore’s society with its cultural emphasis on hard work, family, education and responsibility.

The Eastern value of responsibility can be understood by Confucian thought as fulfilling one’s obligations to family and society as well as supporting righteous government.

In an article titled, Lee Kuan Yew, the Man who Remade Asia, Orville Schell stated“Family, diligence, filial piety, education and obedience to authority are values that Mr Lee viewed as binding agents for developing countries in need of methods for maintaining order during times of rapid change.” (3) In other words, these values can be applied to other countries with different cultural backgrounds.

Of the values that Schell identified, perhaps the strongest shared by Confucius and Lee Kuan Yew is that of family.

As Lee wrote in his book titled From Third Word to First: the Singapore Story – 1965-2000,

“Singapore depends on the strength and influence of the family to keep society orderly and maintain a culture of thrift, hard work, filial piety, and respect for elders and for scholarship and for learning.”

In what other ways did Lee Kuan Yew blend Eastern and Western values? Let us know your thoughts by leaving a comment!