The man and the myths

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 December, 2011, 12:00am


A thinker and philosopher of the Spring and Autumn Period (he is thought to have lived from 551BC to 479BC), Confucius is associated with values such family loyalty, children's respect for their elders, social justice and the moral uprightness of the individual and of government. His disciples compiled many of his sayings into The Analects, which argues that a prosperous and harmonious life is possible if everyone plays their proper role in family and society.

But some disciples later developed different interpretations. Hierarchical frameworks and sets of rules contributed to the insular mindset of the late Qing rulers, which led to China's fall to foreign powers. After the Communist takeover in 1949, Confucian thinking was reviled as one cause of the country's backwardness. But scholars insist that many criticisms of Confucianism are unfair.

Lo Ming-tung, an associate professor at Baptist University specialising in pre-Qin dynasty philosophy, says that many of Confucianism's so-called faults lay in the feudal culture of the time.

'People who criticise the sage for championing unthinking obedience to elders and making light of women are taking him out of context,' he says. 'They tend to lump contemporary social thinking and his sayings together. During the Ming dynasty, women were expected to remain chaste widows or even kill themselves after their husbands died. But this is about the social ethos of the times. It has nothing to do with Confucianism.

'Parables about filial piety, which highlight children harming themselves for the sake of their parents, are folk tales. The 25-month filial mourning period advocated by Confucius is a reference for the bereaved. He didn't expect you to mourn for your parents for two years and do nothing else. Confucius urged people not to engage in excessive grief. But he also said that you shouldn't be so cold that you don't observe a brief period of mourning.'

According to Wun Kam-hoi, chairman of International Classics Culture Association, many discriminatory and pejorative remarks attributed to Confucius are nothing more than folk culture.

'Instead of absolute obedience to the lord, he just advocated loyalty to leaders. His saying equating women with small-minded people is used by people to complain that he discriminated against women. In fact, the idea of woman was used as a metaphor for uneducated people, because women then were not allowed to go to school.'