Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Reading Confucius

OK, there's no question that the email surprised me.  Actually I assumed that the writer had somehow gotten the wrong address because a) she wanted to send me a review copy of a book and b) she was doing so because she liked my website. I did my best mental Scooby Doo huh? and promptly emailed back that while I never objected to getting a free book she obviously had the wrong person.
But then she used the secret words: Barefoot on the Ground.
And that's how I got to read Confucius from the Heart by Professor Yu Dan, translated by Esther Tyldesley.  (Translators should be recognized and applauded.) Published by Atria in October, 2009.
I'm very glad I did. And not just because of a certain implicit flattery in the whole exchange.  (Just the thought that somebody else might be reading this besides those of you who love me and maybe do pity
The back story on Confucius from the Heart is fascinating in itself--I had thought Confucianism in China had been pretty thoroughly relegated to the past and the bad old days before the Revolution.  However, the Analects were/are still being studied in the universities, at least as literature and history, and in 2006 Professor Yu Dan of Beijing Normal University gave a week long series of televised lectures on Confucius for the modern world.
To nearly everyone's surprise, apparently including Professor Yu Dan's, it was a hit.  (I'm not sure what would be comparable here--Socrates as an Oprah's Book Club selection?) Over ten million copies were sold in a short time.
Now it's been translated and brought to the English speaking/reading world.

I described to someone as the kind of book you keep reading long after youve closed the covers.  And it is.

At first it seems not so much simple as it does simplistic. Follow your internal moral compass.  Choose your friends wisely.  Govern yourself before governimg others.  Show respect to all.  Don't compromise your principles for public honors and material rewards. Nothing new.

However, as you continue to read, the point of the simplicity becomes clear: becoming  a junzi, the person who has found balance, equanamity, right thinking, and right action,  should be attainable by all.  The translator chose to use the Chinese word "junzi" throughout because, she writes, the concept has no satisfactory English equivalent. The simplicity of the writing does not suggest that becoming a junzi is easy, something that can be put on a poster and then absorbed.  Rather it is that becoming a junzi is a process that does not require an advanced degree or esoteric learning.

But that isn't what I mean by continuing to read the book long after it's been read.  When I started this review/essay I was sure I would be done over the weekend.  which was two weekends ago.  Looking back I should have listened to Confucius's statement that it is best to talk about one's achievements after they have been achieved.

Um, yes.

Recetntly I had the bad experience of finding out that someone I had referred a friend to, a person I thought was honorable, to be trusted, turned out to be not honorable, not trustworthy--in fact someone who tried to take advantage of my friend.

I woke in the night reading the lines that warn against those who are charming and say what you like to hear.  Choose a friend who tells you the truth, Confucius says. And you can tell this person because the words won't drip with honey and will not always be exactly what you want to hear.

May not make a funny fortune cookie, but I wish I'd listened sooner.

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