Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage (Proverbs 29) transports me to a Katrina Relief project several years ago, when I was working with a group of college students dry-walling a home that had been ravaged by the flood. My work crew included Brandon, whose immediate dream was to go to China for a year, and Dane, who took Brandon’s dream as an occasion to tell lots of “Confucius Say” jokes. Some of the jokes wound up being written on the drywall for the next crew to enjoy. Here’s one I remember: “Man live in glass house, better change clothes in basement.” And my favorite, “Man stand on toilet, high on pot.”
I was teaching a liberal arts course on Human Nature at the time, and our diverse set of readings included some texts from Confucianism. It struck me then, and strikes me again now, how similar the Great Learning of Confucius is to the biblical book of Proverbs. You could take verses of the Proverbs chapter and easily drop them in the midst of the Analects or Mencius or the Great Learning, without changing the tenor or message of the Chinese thought. It might help to have someone with a Chinese accent read the proverbial wisdom: Man who remains stiff-necked after many rebukes will suddenly be destroyed—without remedy. . . .When the righteous thrive, the people rejoice; when the wicked rule, the people groan. . . .Man who loves wisdom brings joy to his father, but a companion of prostitutes squanders his wealth. Likewise, you could take any number of Confucius sayings and transpose them into Solomon’s book without missing a beat. Maybe it would help to imagine Billy Graham’s voice for these sayings: Here is good government, when the prince is prince, and the minister is minister; when the father is father, and the son is son. . . . To govern by virtue, let us compare it to the North Star: it stays in its place, while the myriad stars wait upon it. . . .Never has there been a case of the sovereign loving benevolence, and the people not loving righteousness. Never has there been a case where the people have loved righteousness, and the affairs of the sovereign have not been carried to completion. And never has there been a case where the wealth in such a state, collected in the treasuries and arsenals, did not continue in the sovereign’s possession.
Both texts consist of pithy sayings, meant to give instruction on how to become a “superior man” and successful ruler. Good governance depended on the ruler governing himself well (and it was always a “him”). If he did this and modeled the superior way, everyone would follow suit. He would be the “parent of the people.” Living as we do in a society steeped in democratic principles, many of us have an immediate distaste for the elitism and notions of superiority that undergird these sayings. The cultural assumptions of Solomon and Confucius are as similar to each other as they are dissimilar to the cultural assumptions of our society today. It’s not just the elitism. The ideas of strict filial piety (knowing your place in the pecking order and always deferring to those above you) and a benevolent dictator operating under the Mandate of Heaven are as foreign to our way of being as the street food in Beijing (ever tried pickled scorpion?).
I found out just how different the cultures were when I visited my former student Brandon in China, where he was living out his dream. He set it up for me to give a presentation to a group of 500 middle school students. I was petrified; I have been around middle school students. Imagine my shock when these 500 students came quietly and orderly into the auditorium, took their seats, listened attentively to my presentation (while taking copious notes), applauded me at the end, and politely raised their hands so they ask one good question after another. I came back and told a group of college students who were struggling to pass the course, that if they could just act like Chinese middle school students for the rest of the semester, I’d give them all A’s. They jumped at the chance, and it lasted for about three days. I appreciated the effort; the applause was especially nice, but none of them got an A. It reminded me of one of the questions asked by a young Chinese student. He said something like, “given what you have observed about our education system and our work ethic, how many years do you think it will be before we overtake the U.S. as the world’s greatest superpower and your young people will be working for us?” It makes me think about the ways our different societies operate, and the peculiar challenges we face in a democratic society steeped in freedom as our singular virtue. Maybe it’s time to start teaching Chinese in our elementary schools, just to prepare for the day. Or we could go find a toilet to stand on.