Wednesday December 06, 2023

A History of Chinese Philosophy

A banker by profession, Salim Ansar has a passion for history and historic books. His personal library already boasts a treasure trove of over 7,000 rare and unique books.Every week, we shall take a leaf from one such book and treat you to a little taste of history.BOOK NAME:

By our correspondents
February 08, 2015
A banker by profession, Salim Ansar has a passion for history and historic books. His personal library already boasts a treasure trove of over 7,000 rare and unique books.
Every week, we shall take a leaf from one such book and treat you to a little taste of history.
BOOK NAME: A History of Chinese Philosophy
AUTHOR: Fung Yu-Lan (Translated by: Derk Bodde)
PUBLISHER: George Allen & Unwin Ltd — London
The following excerpt has been taken from Pages: 57 — 61
CONFUCIUS (551 B.C. - 478 B.C.)
“The sage was the son of a soldier -- an obscure little soldier who regarded himself as the least worthy of a long line of noble ancestors. Shu-liang Heh was a sad man when he had passed the age of seventy. His wife had given him nothing but daughters, and his concubine, a crippled and illegitimate son. It was a cardinal tenet of the Chinese faith that a father must leave behind him a legitimate son to pray for him after his death. Shu-liang Heh's spirit could not rest easy in the afterworld. And so, just before his preparation for the final journey he took to wife a girl of seventeen. Soon a new soul stirred within her. And a boy was born.
“The ancient soldier marveled at the huge ears of the baby. It was a Chinese tradition that ears of this size denoted the characteristics of wisdom in the head. ‘He will grow up to be a sage,’ prophesied the joyful father. And he named him Kung-fu-tse, which means ‘the wise Mr. Kung.’
“And, indeed, Kung-fu-tse -- or Confucius -- turned out to be no ordinary child. And his burden in life was no ordinary burden. When he was three he lost his father; and when he reached adolescence he was obliged to support his young mother. At seventeen he applied for a civil service post and was appointed ‘custodian of the national grain supply.’ Apparently he gathered a respectable financial harvest. For when he reached nineteen he was able to afford the luxury of a wife. Moreover, he won the esteem of the highest officials in the state. On his wedding day he received from the duke a ‘most generous and practical present’ -- a pair of carp. And the young groom graciously returned the honor of the gift one year later when he named his son Po-Yu, ‘Fine Fish.’
“The ‘wise Mr. Kung’ was successful in his official post. But he was not contented. For he was by nature a man of thought rather than of action. He wanted above all to be a teacher.
“And the opportunity came through the channel of sorrow. For his mother had died and he had thus been freed from the burden of her dependency. For three years, in accordance with the Chinese custom, he withdrew to a hut near his mother's grave; and then, taking his wife and his little son by the hand, he started on his journey in quest of pupils. ‘I live now,’ he said laconically ‘in the north, the south, the east and the west.’ But his fixed residence, he might have added, was in his thought.
“In the sixth century before Christ, China was a land of many feudal princes who bowed blandly before their emperor and who stabbed one another during the pauses in the ceremony. It was a period in which the gangster minds of the nation had seized temporary control of affairs. But China had behind her a long period of history -- thousands of years -- in which the sages and not the savages had risen to the top of the state. And now that ‘the mad dogs of misrule’ had been unleashed from their kennels, the wise men of China sought comfort in the record ‘manners and virtues’ of the past. Among these explorers into the past history of China was Confucius, whose own ancestors had gathered wisdom over a period of a thousand years. And one day in his quest for wisdom he arrived at the court of Chou and sought out Lao-Tze, the renowned philosopher and curator of the royal library.
“For several hours he discoursed with Lao-Tze and showed off his own scholarship. And the old philosopher listened to the younger man with a smile of amusement. Finally he spoke to Confucius. ‘The subjects and the people you talk about are dead ... I have heard that a good merchant, though he has rich treasures hoarded in the ground, is no better situated than a pauper.’
“The young man returned from his visit sorely puzzled. ‘I can tell how birds fly, how fishes swim, how animals run through the forest. But in the presence of the dragon I am all adrift. I cannot tell how he mounts on the wind through the clouds and rises to the heavens. Today I have seen Lao-Tze, and I can only compare him to the dragon.’
“But gradually, as the abashed young teacher gathered his pupils and matured his thoughts, the meaning of Lao-Tze's words became somewhat clearer to him. His own native province of Lu had been plunged into a series of civil wars. His lifelong friend, the Duke of Kao, was compelled to flee across the border into the neighboring kingdom of Ch'i. And Confucius, realizing the fate of any of the duke's adherents who might fall into the hands of the enemy, selected a few of his aptest pupils and followed the duke into exile. As he passed through a mountain wilderness, he saw a woman kneeling in tears by a newly-made grave. Confucius asked her for the cause of her grief. ‘My husband's father,’ she replied, ‘was killed on this spot by a tiger, and my husband also. And now my son has met the same fate.’
“‘Then why have you not moved to a civilized community?’ asked the teacher.
“‘Here,’ said the woman, ‘there is no oppressive government.’ When Confucius arrived at Ch'i, he presented himself before the prince, and offered his services with a view to abolishing ‘oppressive government.’ For now at last he fully understood the words of Lao-Tze. The currency of learning was meant to be taken from its hoarding place and to be circulated until it reached the coffers of humanity. In times of great social unrest, the scholar must turn statesman.
“At first the ruler of Ch'i was glad to welcome a philosopher to his court. He was fond of discussing the problems of statecraft with Confucius, whose counsel both amazed and amused him. One day he asked Confucius for his definition of good government. ‘There is good government,’ replied Confucius, ‘when the ruler is ruler, and the minister is minister; when the father is father, and the son is son.’ The Prince of Ch'i nodded his assent. ‘I don't understand what you're saying, but it sounds good.’
“The philosopher impressed him. He would give Confucius a province to rule over. ‘I will make him minister of Lin-ch'iu,’ he told his politicians. But the politicians were thunderstruck. What? Entrust this philosopher with a town? They would sooner see China headed toward perdition! With much bowing and wringing of the hands the chief minister implored the prince to abandon his ‘fatal’ idea. ‘These scholars, Sire, are unpractical, and cannot be understood by the people. They are haughty and conceited in their views. They are too dangerous.’ Whereupon the prince shrugged his shoulders and agreed that ‘to introduce philosophy into the counsels of the state might after all be far worse than revolution.’ And he let it be known to Confucius that perhaps his life at court was not very congenial to a man of philosophic temperament.
“The sage was wise enough to take the hint. He left the kingdom of Ch'i and returned to his native city where the political situation had once more become favorable to his friends. These friends had heard of his treatment at the court of Ch'i; and in a spirit of sheer rivalry, if not of generosity, they offered him the administration of the city of Chungtu. A cleansing tide of justice -- one of those rare historic purgations -- had just swept over the human heart. In the west, the philosopher -- statesman Solon had bestowed a ‘blessed code of liberty’ upon the enslaved people of Greece. In India, Prince Buddha the Enlightened had awakened his countrymen to the beauty of a new religion. In Babylon the prophet Ezekiel had arisen to denounce the idolatry of the ruling classes. And now in China ‘the wise Mr. Kung’ was presented with a city in order that he might undertake an experiment in honest government. For a while it began to look as if the human family, withdrawn at last from its savage prowling in the wilderness, might be ‘getting on.’
“Sayings of Confucius are equally relevant today as they were then:
“I hate people who plagiarize in the name of wisdom.
“I hate people who abandon humility in the name of courage.
“I hate people who slander in the name of honesty.”