The getting of wisdom

Janice Poon

For me, the wisdom of Confucius is ... a spring of warm, living water,' writes Yu Dan in her best-selling Confucius from the Heart: Ancient Wisdom for Today's World. Having been translated, the book now brings the latest application of this ancient strand of enlightenment to English as well as Chinese readers.

Yu Dan, a veteran media scholar at Beijing Normal University, is a household name on the mainland. As assistant to the dean, faculty of arts and media, and head of the department of film and television media, Yu is better known among TV professionals as a behind-the-scenes media strategist and consultant for more than 40 regional TV stations and mass media groups, including China Central Television (CCTV) and Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation (China).

Her fame blossomed in 2006 when she first appeared on CCTV's prime-time show Lecture Room during the National Day holidays, interpreting Confucian thoughts and offering her insights into the Analects, expressing them in modern language and in terms of anecdotes from modern life.

Her book, based on the transcripts of the show and with a first print run of 600,000 copies, disappeared from mainland bookshop shelves in three weeks, going on to become a multimillion seller. The rights to publish it in English were acquired by Pan Macmillan for GBP100,000 (HK$1.3 million), almost double the sum paid for Jiang Rong's novel Wolf Totem.

In addition to her work on Confucius, Yu has lectured on and published a book about philosopher Zhuangzi, which has also proved extremely successful on the mainland. 'The reason why these simple truths have survived down the millennia is that they have helped generation after generation of Chinese to stay grounded, to understand the nation and the culture that formed them and not to lose their heads, even when confronted by immense social change and almost overwhelming choice,' says Yu. 'All I hope for every person is that they lead a happy life.'

While advances in science and technology and, usually, burgeoning economies seemingly give people better choices than before, we may also be faced with value conflicts and disorientation, Yu says. Increasing numbers of Chinese scholars are seeking wisdom in traditional Chinese culture, she adds, which complements Yu's contemporary interpretation of Confucius' simple truths.

'When I was in Europe and the United States many people told me the book had a close connection with their lives, which gave me a strong sense that we are now living in a 'global village' era. Take the economic tsunami or the earthquake in China: we see responses from all over the world, regardless of what or where something happens.

'We have never stopped seeking solutions in our daily lives. The Western world might read Hegel, Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung, while we Chinese read Confucius and Zhuangzi. But problems and solutions for modern people go beyond territory.'

Yu believes her book loses nothing in translation. 'For me, language is part of human nature; languages are the same even though they may originate in different countries. The grammar might be different, but the wisdom remains unchanged. Faith, fortune, love and making a contribution to society are what mankind longs for. I am just presenting Chinese culture in another language, to complete a reconciliation with the western world. I never stand for using language to conquer another country or culture.

'I prefer a more ordinary, simple way of thinking and judging. Confucius' teachings are not meant to be worshipped, but to be revitalised and applied to ordinary life to help us to love our world and keep creating. It's that simple.'

Long before her popularity with the general public took root, Yu was a star attraction at the university, where students flocked to her lectures. 'School days might be the most precious period for those students,' she says. 'Many of them are from one-child families; we have a responsibility to lead them to a happy life.

'The truths that Confucius gives us are always the easiest of truths. They tell us all how we can live the kind of happy life our spirits need.'

Confucius from the Heart: Ancient Wisdom for Today's World by Yu Dan (Pan Macmillan, HK$197)