Sunday, November 19, 2006

Beauty versus virtue

In the State of Uei, Confucius had an occasion to lament: “It is all over! I have not seen one who loves virtue as he loves beauty.”
(Analects 15.12 Legge)

Beauty is pleasing to the eyes and it is human nature to admire beauty. Many a kingdom had fallen since rulers beguiled by beauty and lust neglect their kingly duties performed with virtue (de). Sages like Laozi, Confucius and Mencius had also learned from the ancients who had lived centuries before them. By their discernment and different methods of pointing out the mistakes of past rulers, and how sage kings actually rule, students can learn what is considered virtuous and what is considered proper.

A word to those who try to translate ancient Chinese thoughts and teachings; ensure that you know the reasons why the ancients had made the remarks before you attempt a translation. By belittling renowned Western translators such as James Legge and Richard Wilhelm and say that their translations were wrong, it may reflect that you really know nothing much about ancient studies and the established translations, unless you can come up with something better than what they have translated. This does not mean that we cannot attempt to translate the classical Chinese to clarify and improve upon our own understanding of ancient thoughts. Just be a bit more circumspect.

Accompanying his translation of the quote, Legge had written a brief footnote to inform about the event where it was uttered. While the note did not describe the event in its entirety, the Shiji (Records of the Historian) did:

Nan – tzu (a beauty) was the wife of Duke Ling of Uei. Confucius had been over a month in Uei when Duke Ling drove out in a carriage with his lady (Nan – tzu) escorted by the eunuch Yung Chu and with Confucius an assistant escort. In this fashion they drove openly through the streets. After Confucius made the lament, he left Uei in disgust for Tsao. Duke Ling died later that year.

Confucius’s remarks underlined similar mistakes of Zhou Xin, the last emperor of Shang and that of Emperor You, the last ruler of Western Zhou. But even those who came later (than Duke Ling) never learned – the last Chinese emperor who made a similar mistake lost the rule of the Ming dynasty over China to the Manchu. These rulers beguiled by beauty and lust had forgotten about their kingly duties to rule the people with sincerity and benevolence (virtues - de) and thus lost their right to rule as sons of Heaven.

It may be incorrect to lay the entire blame on the ravishing beauties that caused the downfall of emperors and kings. If these rulers had love virtue more than beauty than they would not had encountered the downfall depicted in the Zhouyi.

Without the necessary cultivation, man could not be a Junzi (superior man) let alone a Da Ren (great man). Being a Xiao Ren (inferior or mean man) which does not require any cultivation of virtues was perhaps the preferred way by many, since it is much easier. Who really wants to lead a disciplined life when temptations abound especially for a king? (Think of the thousands of concubines.)

If one does not love virtue more than beauty, then one cannot remain entirely blameless.

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