Friday, January 25, 2008

Dilemma in teaching ancient Chinese thoughts

I read with interest how three Western Professors who teach Confucian studies to their respective students in universities handle a situation where two scholars who translated the ‘Original Analects’ recently indicated that most of Confucius’s thoughts or sayings contained in the book were by accretion long after him. One Professor appeared particularly shaken and is now filled with doubts with the authenticity of the Analects, wondering if he had wrongly relied on the text to teach his students authentic Confucian thoughts. Another professor thought whether Confucius really existed or not since he mentioned that the ancient was ‘semi-mythical’.

What Laozi described about the three different types of scholars in the Tao Te Ching may be applicable and I quote:

Scholars of the highest class, when they hear about the Tao, earnestly carry it into practice.

Scholars of the middle class, when they have heard about it, seem now to keep it and now to lose it.

Scholars of the lowest class, when they have heard about it, laugh greatly at it. If it were not (thus) laughed at, it would not be fit to be the Tao.

[TTC 41 Legge]

Before I venture into what class these three Professors and the two translators belong to, let me give my observations from my own point of view about how a number of Western scholars (include translators, Sinologists, experts) tend to think about the Chinese ancients.

Firstly most of these scholars doubt the existence of some if not all of the ancients. Yet they continue to propound the theories or practice of the ancients for example Tao, Yijing and Confucian studies. Then they demand documentary evidence of what the ancients actually did or say. When some historical documents are dug up from burial grounds, they spend an enormous amount of time to study them trying to discount or authenticate the received texts – most copies, as we were told, were extracted from the palaces of the Ching dynasty. Of course it would be great that the scholars can find some documentary evidence to substantiate the existence or non existence of the ancients and the validity of the received texts or otherwise. However have they ever considered their arrogance?

Is it not arrogant of these particular Western scholars to think that the Chinese ancients for example Yao, Shun, Da Yu, King Wen, Laozi, and Confucius were myths? Is it not preposterous of these scholars to think that some of the ancients’ life histories were concocted and that most of their well known teachings were by accretions? Do they really think that the Han literati (mostly Confucians and Daoists) in the courts and their emperors could not separate between fact and fiction? That they did not know what had transpired a few hundred years earlier. And that the wise, the learned Chinese down the two thousand over years had no clue over the authenticity of what they were reading? You must be really joking.

In the West time and time again, students and/or teachers will find that scholars who want to win some fame or to sell their books would make fresh claims, substantiated or otherwise, that they found something new about the Chinese ancients. If your way of life or belief is shattered easily because of such claims, either you are a novice, an ‘old fool’, or you have muddled through your studies as a second class scholar, sometimes grasping it, sometimes not.

The first class scholar would not face this dilemma in teaching ancient Chinese thoughts. Because he or she would earnestly carry (on) what is right into practice. And it is not for nothing, that I called Professor Sam Crane, a top class Confucian scholar. (He is one of the three professors discussing about the claims of accretion in the Analects. Refer to ‘The Useless Tree’ blog for further links, if interested, to what each of the professors had to say.)

If we have read what James Legge had mentioned in his translation of the Analects, the teachings and thoughts of Confucius were mainly recorded by his students. That is the reason for the often quoted – ‘The Master says’. If readers still insist that these are accretions long after him, then what more can I say?

If we refer to the comments of Confucius recorded in the Zhouyi we can discern and distinct the deep thoughts and clarity of his thinking which shows his sagacity. For Western professors who teach ancient Chinese philosophy, it could be a waste of talent if they have not read the four Confucian books and the five Chinese classics.

Finally the third class scholars, the Xiao Ren, are those who for the want of fame and pecuniary gain, try to mislead others by making unsubstantiated claims, or by not doing proper homework. They can laugh all the way to the bank!

But banks can sometimes make huge losses, downsize, retrench staff, or lose all the depositors’ money. Perhaps, Laozi is trying to tell these third class scholars that, that is Tao. (Obviously readers can discern that the bank part is accretion long after him!)

No comments: