Conversation with Confucius
Since the 31-foot-tall statue of Confucius (Kong Fuzi, in Chinese) was installed in Beijing’s Tianenman Square in January, I’ve been eager to share what I learned about the ancient philosopher in 2006 as a tourist in Qufu, his hometown in Shangdong province.
In 1994, Qufu became one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites and every year tourists flock to the area of 4,000 acres packed with temples, ponds, pagodas, stone sculptures and cemeteries. With 450 rooms, the temple complex is the second-largest in China, after the Forbidden City. But during Confucius’ time, it was a humble three-room home.
Confucianism and Christianity met one another in the 16th century. Father Mateo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit, entered Beijing in 1582 when the country’s fence against westerners was high and sturdy. Until his death in 1610, Father Ricci lived as a Chinese scholar.
Ricci was the first person to Latinize Kong Fuzi to Confucius, but his most important contribution to the world was his book “The True Doctrine of God.” Through this book, Catholicism trickled to my homeland of Korea and other Asian countries.
Personally, I didn’t like Confucius’ principles while I was in Korea and I still don’t. In his mind, the world was made only for men; women played an insignificant role, like dirt beneath a structure. His philosophy on harmonious society was conceived while he was enjoying nature, particularly the trees surrounding his home.
He saw that each tree had four parts — roots, a trunk, branches and leaves. The thicker the roots, the sturdier the trunk, and the health of the roots determined the health of the branches and leaves. He developed this logic: Women were the roots of society and must be unseen, with duties to support their husbands and produce heirs; the lowly and middle-class people were to support the ruling class — intellectuals, the wealthy and politicians.
In Qufu, while following the tour guide and reading about the sage, I had an urge to talk to Confucius face to face. The world has changed over and over thousands of times since his death in 478 B.C, and I wanted to know why his teachings were still controlling Asian women’s lives today. I imagined I boldly invited him to a bench where I sat under a gingko tree.
Up close, the eyes of the 2,563-year-old sage glowed like onyx. I began cautiously, “Master Kong, please forgive me for saying this, but you never said anything positive about women. I am particularly disturbed about: ‘Smart women talk about Superior Man.’ Are you saying that, to be smart, we should always admire Superior Man?”
He sat quietly, so I went on: “Men and women are created equally by the hands of God, Master Kong. That means you and I are equal, except that you were born 2,491 years before I was.”
“A good point,” he said, turning toward me. “In my time on earth, China was divided into thousands of tribes, always fighting among themselves, killing and drawing blood. Women played no parts in serving the tribal government.
“Men’s physical strength was most valued, like in the wild. Men had tremendous responsibilities as providers and protectors, while women’s jobs were taking care of children and putting food before their men. Can you get the picture?”
“Sort of… Let me ask you this: If you were alive today, would you teach differently than you did in 500 BC?”
“Hmmm…I don’t know how to answer that. To tell you the truth, I’m not interested in coming back to life today. The world is too noisy and people are doing too much. Look at all these people coming here by the thousands and dropping candy wrappers, stepping on my flowers and writing graffiti on my walls. Why are they here, leaving their children with someone else?”
He shook his head gravely. “I don’t know what I can teach these men and women…”
Our conversation was interrupted by the loud honk of tour buses, and he rose. “Never mind what I said about ‘Smart women.’ Time changes, and so do people. Who can teach forever? I lived in my time as best as I knew how and you do the same, all right?”
“I often think about that conversation five years ago, under that ginkgo tree in Qufu, wishing that we had more time to talk.
The Kansas City Star Commentary
The Best Times