On 仁

From Easter to Bastille Day, I will practice and write about the five Confucian virtues: 仁,义,礼,智, . I am conducting this project alongside Patrick Laudon, Frenchman based in Tokyo. We will spend three weeks with each virtue, following the same protocol: first explore its meaning and relevance, then articulate and adopt a daily practice to cultivate that virtue, finally reflect on the practice and share this in two parallel blog posts. This is not a solid introduction to the Confucian framework of virtues – but rather, a prototype attempt at connecting classical philology to practice.

仁 – pronounced rén with a rising tone – is  variously translated as benevolence, kindness, or humaneness. Popular etymology describes the character as composed of the key for ‘man’ (亻) and the number two (二) – therefore identifying 仁  as the virtue that manifests when two people come together. This first arrested my attention. 仁is not about guidance from a higher being or a set of rules that the self should follow: it is anchored in concrete human relations. From the very start of the Analects, this relationship is presented as defined on the basis of seniority: “孝弟也者、其为仁之本与” (are not filial piety and obedience to elders fundamental to the actualization of fundamental human goodness? Analects 1:2). In a later commentary, 仁 is said to manifest itself in the person who rescues a child playing on the margin of a well. 仁 informs each relationship not on the pure basis of our joint humanity, but also based on each parties’ lifespan – and therefore, the same virtue will manifest as a different behaviour in each situation. This, I thought, addresses a point which I often hit upon when thinking about morals and ethics: when exactly should a child be considered ethically mature? 仁 offers a lateral way to think of the answer: when the child finds themselves in a situation where the relational duty demands that they be the adult, on the basis of their seniority to the person they interact with.

The word仁has another unrelated meaning: it refers the kernel of an apricot pit or the flesh of a shrimp. Is it therefore, I wondered, the warm rich human core that lies inside the social shell, and acts as the principle of movement? 仁 cannot be deducted from external behaviour, as this long passage indicates:  “孟武伯问子路仁乎。子曰。不知也。又问。子曰。由也、千乘之国、可使治其赋也、不知其仁也。求也何如 子曰。求也、千室之邑、百乘之家、可使为之宰也、不知其仁也。赤也何如 子曰。赤也、束带立于朝、可使与宾客言也、不知其仁也。(Meng Wu Bo asked Confucius whether Zi Lu was a ren man. Confucius said, “I don’t know.” He asked again. Confucius said, “You could direct the public works forces in a state of 1, 000 chariots, but I don’t know if I would call him a ren man.” Meng again asked: “What about Qiu?” Confucius said, “Qiu could be the governor of a city of 1, 000 families, or of a clan of 100 chariots, but I don’t know if he is a ren man.” Meng asked: “What about Chi?” The Master said, “Dressed up with his sash, placed in the middle of the court, he could make conversation with the guests, but I don’t know if he is a ren man. Analects 5:8). Instead, it can be captured through patterns of subtle harmony that are experienced aesthetically: “里仁为美。” (As for a neighborhood, it is its ren that makes it beautiful. Analects 4:1) “人而不仁、如乐何” (If a man has no ren what can his music be like? Analects 3:3). In turn, the collective enjoyment of a world infused by 仁 can trigger a positive spiral where aesthetic refinement nurtured by 仁brings together people who, through their relationship, strengthen each other’s 仁: “君子以文会友。以友辅仁。” (The noble man uses his refinement to meet his friends, and through his friends develops his ren. Analects 12:24)

What mainly struck me when I read through the words Confucius was a seeming paradox inherent to the virtue. On the one hand, 仁 is presented as an always available option “仁远乎哉。我欲仁、斯仁至矣。”(Is ren far away? If I aspire for ren it is right here! Analects 7:30). And yet, we consistently fall short of it, and few can maintain it for any period of time: “囘也、其心三月不违仁、其余则日月至焉而已矣。” (Hui could keep his mind on ren for three months without lapse. Others are lucky if they can do it for one day out of a month. Analects 6:7).

In line with this observation, when I developed a practice that would help me cultivate 仁, I decided to focus on deliberate attention: at least once a day, when I found myself in a public setting, I would pause and think about my relationship with every person present. I would do this in two stages: first establish common humanity, then consider our respective status based on age, and how this should inform my behavior to each person around, should I interact with them.

The practice revealed a few things about myself. As a gay man, I noticed how skewed my attention is to people of different gender – and how little attention I spontaneously pay to women in public places: another confirmation of unconscious bias, and its rippling effects. As a 40 year-old, I noticed how time has passed, how most people are now slightly younger than me, and how I should therefore start adapting my default behaviour. I also noticed how solitary my professional life can be – how much of my time is spent ‘alone in company’ or even entirely on my own.

The practice was strangely transformative. When I was looking at people sitting or standing in a group – friends, families, co-workers – through this deliberate relational attention, I entirely stopped thinking of them as ‘another group’, a ‘them vs me’, but rather, each of them became part of a consistent human web that I also belonged in. Through the practice of仁, I feel that I was able to expand my circle of empathy: most likely by offering a simple framework that allowed me to think of my relationship with every other human as concretely defined by age – the length of time we spent alive, and how this determines a certain type of duty. This also made it more possible for me to see the world from the perspective of others, and in their company, feel a sense of calm and beauty.

All translations of the Chinese in this text are from Charles Muller

 

Teaching concentration

I am reading a French book on Zhu Xi, compiler of Confucian knowledge and Chinese philosopher from the 12th century – a remarkable introduction to Chinese metaphysics. The fourth chapter, labelled ‘perfectionnement de soi’, focuses on education.

Speaking about meditation techniques borrowed from Buddhism and adapted to Confucianism, Zhu Xi writes: ‘To sit in calm is not about interrupting one’s reflection, unlike what happens in Zen sitting meditation. It is just about calmly collecting one’s heart and not letting it fly off to otiose ideas. The heart is then spontaneously in a state of serenity without any [disturbing] event, concentrated on its sole object.’ [This is my own second hand translation from the original Chinese via French]

I put down the book for a moment and pondered. I have been through years of schooling in France – and here in Australia. Not only did I receive solid knowledge, but I was also trained – rather well, I believe – in structuring and communicating ideas through language. Yet I cannot recall any specific training in the art of concentration. Looking back – how surprising! For I had to spend considerable amounts of time reading, memorising, analysing, and writing during those years of study. Yet the core competence to support this effort – the capacity to concentrate – was never part of the curriculum.

Here, I believe, lies the radical optimism of Confucianism: not only can people memorise facts and dates and not only can they derive knowledge from this information; more fundamental competences – attention, listening, concentration – can also be taught, irrespective of bloodlines or family background. If only western educators and institutions today could show the same level of optimism, and instead saw the systematic training of cognitive and emotional core strength as a full part of their mission!

Happy places

Twelve middle aged women in fuchsia tops are dancing in the middle of the street. Their chirpy music mingles with the lounge soundtrack of the Starbucks terrace.

I’m on Shamian Island, where colonial powers established their residence in old Guangzhou. Heavy European architecture, stucco, balustrades, pillars. If it wasn’t for the dancing ladies, the tropical heat and the dangling roots of the giant trees, I could imagine I was in Prag, Berlin or Budapest. But I can’t think away the heat, the trees, or the people. I’m in southern China, late summer, with a mild film of sweat over my face. I rolled up my jeans to let my legs breathe.

I was in that exact same seat two years and a half ago. Back then, I was living in Nanjing – it was freezing winter up on the Yangtze, and for Christmas, I fled south. I stopped over in Changsha for a day, and arrived in Guangzhou on the night of Boxing Day. I still remember that feeling, getting out onto the street at FangCun subway station. The air was welcoming. I bought peanuts from a street seller, then bananas on LuJun Jie, where I walked among plastic tables where locals enjoyed late night barbecue. I walked along the Pearl River, sipping milk tea. Teenagers were out with skateboards. And I felt happy.

The next day, as I did this morning, I crossed the river on a ferry, looking out the window at the grey waters of the Pearl River. I walked along the stalls of the Fish Market, past piles of polystyrene boxes, mounds of seashells on the floor, among the strong smell of mud and water. I walked along the canal, under the dangling branches of evergreen tropical trees. I crossed a bridge, and arrived on Shamian Island. Then, I settled on the terrace of the Starbucks with a cup of espresso. I felt safe, home, happy.

Over the course of my travels, I have gathered the memories of a few such happy places.

There is a food court in the Singapore Chinatwon, where retirees gather after dark for cheap food and beer. In November 2014, after a difficult year running my first festival and applying for a PhD, I spent long hours there, finally resting, reading Watchmen and drinking addictive sweet coffee. This is the background image on my iPad.

There is another food court, in Penang, on the seafront. I sat there with Philip in early December 2008, eating curry, fried chicken, ice Kacang. We were getting to the end of our three month overland migration journey, and after exhausting times in China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, we felt that in Penang, things became easy, we were getting close to our new home, and we could breathe.

There is a cafe in Chippendale, in Sydney, where I sat down after my first major talk on the Chinese Internet in 2014, and again, after finishing a major stretch of work recruiting candidates for the first round of CAMP. It’s a little hipster place with fancy muffins, light blue pat, second hand wooden chairs, across a park and a new residential development.

There is a Bench in Queenscliffe, overlooking Port Phillip Bay. In 2011, I took an emergency two-day off there, after incorporating Marco Polo Project. I walked along the ocean to Point Lonsdale and, halfway through the walk, felt dizzy. It was evening, I was alone, and thought I might simply collapse there, from sheer exhaustion. I pause, I breathed, I looked at the waves. I slowly wake de all the way to point Lonsdale, trying to leave the burden behind. I made it there. A bus took me back to Queenscliffe, where I sat on the bench, looking out onto the water.

There are other places, but these mostly come to mind. These are places I reache after a feat – a difficult and transformative experience. There, I felt I could pause, relax, and take the time to regain strength before I start again. Is is what I am doing today. I just completed my first report for the Global Challenges Foundation – this has been one of my most difficult, if rewarding, professional experiences. And before I start again, or move on to something else, I need to take some time in my happy place, to renew.

On cosmopolitan settings

Today, a friend shared an article about international students in Australia. The piece lamented the lack of integration between Chinese and Australian students, and called for change.

This is common rhetoric: international students have limited interactions with locals, what a missed opportunity for both sides! Yet if we dig a little, where exactly does the problem lie? In a city like Melbourne, where one person in four was born overseas, who are these mysterious ‘Australian students’? I’ve been here for seven years, and hold two passports. When I go to Monash University for my PhD, am I a local?

More surprising is the way we seem to consider interactions between Chinese students. They spend most of their time among themselves, I read – well, maybe. But with over a Billion people in China, I doubt they’re spending their time with cousins or village neighbours. More likely, they’re developing entirely new networks across their country, and discovering its culture and diversity from the safe neutral ground of Australia. Not to mention their encounters with Korean, Japanese, Indian, or Latin American students.

When Gertrude Stein invited Hemingway for dinner in Paris, did they yearn after the presence of ‘a real French person’ to make their experience worthwhile? To what extent does it matter that international students in Melbourne integrate with elusive locals? Not if they have a deep experience of learning about the world and themselves, and leave with rich networks and countless insights. But focusing on that may put too much pressure on universities to think hard about their current methods and mission. Beside, who said foreigners could have a good time in our country without us?

On rituals

There is a particular pleasure to rituals, whether inherited, or made up. Such is – for me – the January 1 action movie that I watch with Philip on DVD, as we finish a slow day, started late, purging the excesses of New Year’s Eve. This year, it was Ant-man.

To talk of celebrating a ritual, the Chinese say ‘过节’. The character 过 refers to the physical act of crossing a river or a road,  but is also used as a grammatical particle to mark a form of the past tense, equivalent to the English past perfect – I have been, I have gone.节 refers both to a festival, and a joint. Celebrating festivals is therefore represented as crossing an articulation in the skeleton of time, and transforming a past period into an experience. Rituals accompany this transformation.

2015 has become our past. By celebrating New Year, and accomplishing the rituals that accompany the celebration, we make it history, converting the loose threads of remembered moments, images and sounds into patterns of meaning and causality. We cross the border, and move onto the next segment of our articulated lives, 2016, January, the new cycle.

And so the wheel turns, rituals marking each of its spoke: Australia Day, Easter, Bastille Day, August 15, Halloween, Christmas – celebrations we share – and our own personal ones: birthdays, anniversaries. Cyclically repeating, every year.

In Australia, as in France, it is common to make resolutions with each new start of the cycle – committing to doing one thing at least differently. Not so that our lives will spin into a different groove; but so that our spiral may go both higher,  and deeper.

Chi Ku

When I was in China, I often noted that people seemed to put particular value on ‘working hard’ – working hard is the ethical equivalent of ‘being busy’ in the West. Working hard, long hours, with pain, is seen as positive – the result is not interrogated so much.

I also noted the long hours that people worked. When I was teaching at Alliance Francaise in Tianjin, my Chinese colleagues all had a full-time job, and taught on week-ends and evenings, adding twelve hours to their week. The same was true of students: almost all of them were professionals, and spent seventeen extra hours a week at Alliance Francaise to prepare their migration to Quebec.

Later, during my stay in Nanjing, I started questioning this ethics with Chinese friends. They said working a lot is seen as a form of virtue, no matter what the result is. Is there not a risk that this will develop a form of stupidity – the stupidity of oxen and donkeys carrying their load ahead without thinking about the goal, or how to lighten the burden.

As China rises, let’s not be carried over into the worship of long hours. Let’s be careful about our ‘busy’ culture.

Festival time

Three days to the Marco Polo Festival! It’s been eighteen months at least since I first sat down in Little Lonsdale Street to discuss an idea for a program that would bring together writers and readers from Australia and China who embraced the internet as a key part of their practice – combining online and offline events.

Marco Polo Festival events

Preparing a Festival takes a lot of energy, and as a result, I’ve been a bit silent on this blog – but I haven’t exactly stopped writing. One pleasant aspect of working as a Festival Director is the level of attention you get – even when you’re just running a junior, first time gig – and I was able to publish a few things over the last month or so: a piece on Translation in Writer’s bloc, another on ‘Translating Asian Voices in Australia‘ in Peril Magazine, a Q&A with Writers Victoria, and an interview with the new Tongues magazine.

And now Festival time is a-coming – we’ll be talking all things digital and cross-cultural, sometimes all in English, sometimes in two languages. And I look forward to sharing ensuring thoughts and meditations here, or on the Marco Polo Project blog. Meanwhile, if you’re in town, come along and take part in the conversation!