I often worry that the tone of this blog is too critical. I find myself playing the scold, using Confucianism or Taoism to complain about this or that happening in China or the US. I do not have enough positive stuff here. Well, happily, here is something good: Yu Dan, a media scholar from Beijing Normal University has made a big splash across China with her televised lectures on the Analects that were broadcast last month during the National Day holiday. I had not heard of it at the time (nor did it come up at the conference), but this China Daily story a couple of days ago makes me think that she is doing the right thing:
"Those philosophical, inspiring ideas and arguments about human existence and societal life, as I see it, should not be regarded merely as interesting quotes, glistening with wisdom but of little use for day-to-day living. Instead, they are simple truths that can penetrate the barrier of time and space and shed new light for the future direction of every living human," she said.
Every one of us will have sorrows, setbacks and frustration in our daily life, but we cannot always take control of these situations, she said.
"More often, we can readjust our way of thinking and tactics so that we can survive the annoying situations while maintaining a peaceful mind. For that matter, those simple truths can help us a lot," said Yu, who began learning Confucian classics at age 4.
What I like about this is that she seems to be operating at a personal level, where I think Confucianism and Taoism work best. The texts offer ideas for how to deal with the ups and downs we experience in life. They are not guidebooks for comprehensively constructing societies or polities; they do not lend themselves to transcendent, top-down impositions. Rather, they operated best, they have the most to offer - and are most applicable to our modern and postmodern conditions - when we allow them to appeal to us from the bottom-up, to let them work immanently through the specific and concrete situations we find ourselves in.
That is not to say there is not a politics here, there is. But it is a politics that is mediated by individual agency - after all, the "exemplary person" must make the right personal choices in his or her life - not a politics that justifies an authoritarian sovereign:
The Master said: "Vast armies can be robbed of their commanders, but even the simplest people cannot be robbed of their free will." Analects 9.26
Mencius also understood the personal responsibility behind ethical action:
There's only one way to know if people are good or evil: look at the choices they make. (208)
We all face myriad choices, sometime hard and painful choices, and we cannot expect them to be made by the government or the Party or other people. We need resources to help us shift through the contradictions and tensions of our immediate circumstances. The old texts are such resources, and Yu is right: they can be applied across time and space, here in the modern US as well as there in modern China.