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BOOK: A Chinaman's Chance
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The Master said, “There is nothing I can do with a man who is not constantly saying, ‘What am I to do? What am I to do?'” (Book XV.16)

In the Chinese original, this sentence is inverted:

The Master said, “The man who doesn't ever say, ‘What am I to do? What am I to do?'—there's nothing I can do with him.”

I much prefer this original structure. The translation flips it for simplicity, but in the flip is lost the spirit, the intention, the making into an object lesson of that unquestioning, unreflective guy. Of course, in any language, with any inflection, there are still many ways to read “What am I to do? What am I to do?” Is it an expression of indecision, of ambivalence among too many options? Is it helplessness in the face of calamity? Is it inquisitiveness about motives and morals? Pure existentialism? A yowl of futility? In Mom's interpretation, this passage is simply a brief for deliberateness, for thinking clearly about a situation and not being
—“any which way,” “careless”—about it. My interpretation pushes further. To me, this passage is essentially the Chinese equivalent of the Socratic claim that the unexamined life is not worth living. It has exactly the same rhetorical assertiveness and moral severity: the unexamined life is not just less good; it's
. To me, Socrates's statement would have been the ideal “translation” of the Confucian original. For translation is not primarily about lining up each word of one language into a decoded word of another; it is primarily about conveying the essence of meaning.

Meaning, though, changes with time; text with context.
What am I to do?
There was a time, as in the minutes after we learned of my father's death, when those words or words roughly like them, uttered in panic, escaped my mother's lips. Today, after so many years of lonely meditation, and so many conversations with me that describe but a fraction of those meditations, and so many outings and travels with her Bon Sisters and other friends to explore beyond those meditations, my mother says the words with new meaning. Today she asks the question with what Zen Buddhists call “beginner's mind.” A lack of preconception, a reflexive resistance to rutted thinking. A life-sustaining curiosity that takes each moment as a fresh start.
What am I to do?
has become, for my seventy-seven-year-old mother,
What might I do?


I have now lived more of my life without my father than with him. “Unexpectedly” was the adverb we attached to his death in the days immediately after the fact. I wrote it into his obituary. And it's true: the actual moment of his passing, sometime in the deep dark before dawn on July 8, 1991, was indeed not expected. But the
of it had loomed over us for many years. In that sense the arrival of the ultimate moment had been long expected, long dreaded, long kept at bay in the fringes of my imagination.

In the years that have since passed, the classic quest for substitute fathers hasn't really been my thing. Instead I have quested for insight, for some grand unified theory of cause and effect and the nature of suffering that could make sense of this riddle: how my father's last moments could be so unexpected when I'd spent all that time anticipating them. I've hoped such a revelation might make life seem less random, or at least more comprehensibly random. That's why I bring a certain interpretation to Confucian precepts like this:

The Master said, “In instruction there is no separation into categories.” (Book XV.39)

In English that sentence seems graceful and compact. But consider the Chinese original:
You jiao wu lei.
“Have teaching no category.”
compact. That explosive concision, that charged latent space between ideas that requires a reader or listener to ignite each word's full meaning, is the hallmark of the Chinese language. It is also the hallmark of poetry, in which, the dictionary tells us, “special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm.” It's the reason why Chinese is inherently more poetic than English.

When I first encountered this line, I read it as a cosmic statement about the ethics of interdependence, about how we are webbed into a vast matrix of circumstance and choice and accident. I read it as the Eastern rebuke to the Western obsession with classification and breaking things down into artificial chunks. Our lives are entwined. Karma circulates without end and without regard for our feeble attempts to locate or direct it. There's no splitting your misfortune off from my good fortune. There is no converting the harmful effects of my actions into what economists call “externalities.” There is no such thing as externalities. All costs and errors and harms are always, eventually, internalized. There is no separation into categories.

Moreover, I filled in the blanks of
You jiao wu lei
by interpreting
to mean “categories of learning.” I took it to say that to study at any level of seriousness the student must ignore the disciplinary borderlines between sociology and psychology and history and physics and biology—because they are all the same thing. They are all variations on the theme of how complex adaptive living systems—gardens, rivers, the body—operate. It was thrilling to come upon an axiom that captured my way of thinking about thinking.

Only it turns out my reading was wrong. The
version, like Talmudic commentary, explains that the categories in question are not categories of learning but categories of
: whether a learner is rich or poor, from a royal or a common family. These categories of status should not matter, Confucius is saying; learning is learning, and teaching is teaching. It is an admirable, even democratic, conception of the universal leveling power of education. To my mother, this meaning was obvious. But I insisted on the plausibility of my alternate reading. She refused to acknowledge it. She got a little exercised about it, in fact, as if I were insisting that blue was red.

The difference was simply this: she had background knowledge about how this axiom was taught in China, about how people talked about it in China, about the larger idea of education that it implied; I did not. She read context into the text. I did not. But was my lack of context really a disadvantage? I saw simply an English translation that was ambiguous as to categories and a Chinese original that was as opaque as a koan. I read the calligraphic characters—which are, after all, just a specific type of inkblot—a certain way. My way. Isn't every translation, in the end, a Rorschach test? A translator's job is inherently impossible: no matter how carefully he chooses his words, he can never know what meaning will alight in the reader's mind. To be Chinese American is to sense this quantum overlay of possible connotations, interpretations, and identities. No separation into categories.


China is particularly prone to viruses. Bird flu and H1N1, yes. But also the social variety: memes that “go viral” into mass behavioral phenomena. That was how the Cultural Revolution, with its contagious frenzies of purification and purge, came to pass. Today, amid the relentless centrifugal force of market capitalism—the true cultural revolution—1.3 billion Chinese yearn primally for something to hold them together, a useable past that points an ethical way to the future. Which is why in recent years China has fallen in love with Confucius. That might sound odd, but in fact the twentieth century—from the republican overthrow of dynastic rule to the arrival of history-obliterating Communism—had all but shoved Confucius into oblivion in China. He stood for backwardness, for a past that had to be shed.

Then in 2006, CCTV, China's state-owned television network, broadcast a weeklong series on the teachings of Confucius. It became an immediate and unexpected sensation. Yu Dan, an unassuming lecturer from Beijing Normal University, published a book based on the series called
Confucius from the Heart
, and she became a celebrity. The book has sold well over ten million copies (although, the English preface notes, matter-of-factly, that over six million were pirated). Today, a Confucius revival is in full swing across China. Old temples have been refurbished, old teachings re-esteemed. A statue of Confucius was installed outside Tiananmen Square. Political leaders now cite the old Master more often than they quote Mao. China's soft-power diplomacy has also been shaped by the revival: the Chinese government has partnered with universities across the United States and other countries to establish “Confucius Institutes” that introduce the basics of Chinese culture to foreigners.

There was a time, of course, when people blamed Confucianism for China's backwardness. The sociologist Max Weber wrote in 1915 that Confucian ethics were so bound to social class and the status quo, and so focused on ritualism and ancestor worship, that China was inherently unable to adapt to the challenges and threats of a changing world. This was his explanation for why capitalism had never taken root in China and, implicitly, how a great civilization had devolved into an ungovernable mess. His explanation became conventional wisdom in the West—and among Chinese reformers like my mother's father. Today, though, Confucianism is cited as a driving force for China's meteoric resurgence. Now it is used to explain why capitalism
taken root in China and flowered beyond imagining, and how China
been able to harness its entropy into single-minded action. The dedication, the rigor, the self-sacrifice needed to make family and nation great, the profound reverence for learning—all these elements of China's economic miracle are now described as elements of the Confucian legacy.

How to resolve this discrepancy? One approach is to say that if one of these readings of history is true, the other cannot be: Confucianism is either harmful or helpful. Another is to assume that Confucianism is of only secondary relevance: it was not the driver of either China's long stagnation or its renaissance, and any assertion to the contrary is just ex post facto justification by each era's winners. But most plausible is the notion that both readings are true: Confucianism has caused, at different times, both the stagnation and the revitalization of China.

In fact, it may have caused them at the
time. In America, freedom liberates and oppresses: it removes limitations, but it creates the enormous burden of living with others who have no limits. In China, obligation—for that is, in the end, what Confucianism boils down to—similarly frees and confines. In a Chinese American heart, all this is combined. It is from this cross-grained weave of liberty and duty that a Chinese American life gets its integrity—and its tension.


Confucianism is sometimes called a religion, but it's not, exactly. It has a moral code and a foundational emphasis on the Golden Rule. But it is not institutionalized. It has spiritualism but no god. It's concerned, rather, with the spirit of belonging and interdependence that social animals like us feel—what in most translations of
The Analects
is called “benevolence.”

Like “gentleman,” this word in English has a whiff of noblesse oblige. In the language of Western philosophy, benevolence is
: not an obligation but an act of charity beyond the call of duty. But to be properly Confucian is to see acts like piety toward elders and ancestors not as beyond the call but
the call. It is our duty to contribute to the maintenance of a healthy society; our duty calls us to a way of being that's unsatisfyingly translated as “benevolence.”

The scholar Tu Wei-ming spent a lifetime teaching at Harvard and now in elderhood has returned to Beijing. A native of China, he writes in English masterfully. Tu acknowledges the many ways that Confucian ideals, as they ossified into practice across the millennia, helped shape a toxic feudal Chinese culture of “authoritarianism, paternalism, ritualism, collectivism, nepotism, particularism, and male-domination.” But he believes there is a baby to rescue from this fouled bathwater, a “new Confucian humanism” that melds the best of Confucianism with the best of Enlightenment values—and also excises the worst of each. If Confucianism is guilty of ratifying stasis, Enlightenment values are oblivious to their own hubris and self-centeredness. The “living Confucian,” Tu writes, “cannot take for granted that the Confucian message is self-evidently true.” He must humbly search out the meaning anew, to cultivate his own knowledge. Nor does the idea of such learning for the sake of self ever mean “a quest for one's individuality.” Self, in Tu's interpretation of the Confucian canon, is inherently relational and communal.

Reading the supple, nuanced, and painstaking distinctions and syntheses of Tu Wei-ming, one quickly appreciates the brittle and tinny quality of China's contemporary Confucian revival.
Confucius from the Heart
reads as if it were a Chinese knockoff of a second-rate American self-help book, translated back into very basic English. It reduces
The Analects
Egg Drop Soup for the Soul
, a pop guide for dealing with anxiety, stress, disappointment, isolation—the pathologies of a culture dealing for the first time with individualism on a mass scale and unfettered individual ambition and materialism. It implies that the Chinese mind today, bewildered by change and unsure of any cosmology but greed, is in need of a crutch and, indeed, has come to mistake the crutch for a limb.

Yet I've watched this Confucian revival in China with great interest. I don't judge too harshly the crude remedies being offered and grasped at—not only because I have an intellectual interest but also because I understand, and indeed share, the yearnings. I too have sought a purpose to guide me through a tradition-smashing maelstrom. In my case, that maelstrom is American life.

BOOK: A Chinaman's Chance
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