In 1995, at a Nobel Prize ceremony in Paris, a Swedish physicist observed: “If man wants to survive the 21st century, he must return to 25 centuries ago and draw on the wisdom of Confucius.” In today’s turbulent world, what kind of wisdom can we human beings draw from the life and legacy of Confucius?
The first thing that Confucian wisdom preaches is harmony among people. Confucius said, “The Superior Man is in harmony but does not follow the crowd. The inferior man follows the crowd, but is not in harmony,” which means superior men can coexist in harmony regardless of differing opinions; while inferior men cannot even though they may have common ideas or interests.
If we take a global perspective, in today’s world, various countries, nations and ethnic groups have different cultures, different religions, different values, but all the peoples of the world should aspire towards living together harmoniously rather than resorting to war and violence at every turn.
At a Conference of the World’s Religions held in Chicago in 1993, a global ethical proclamation was drafted basing on the consensus reached by120 religious groups and over 6,000 representatives. It quoted Confucius’s great maxim: “Do not impose upon others what you do not desire yourself” as its guiding principle. That is to say, you cannot impose what you do not want upon others; we do not like war and thus we may not wage war on others.
Confucian culture, the preeminent culture in the lands of China for 2,000 years, has been a prime force in shaping a nation’s character. As the originator of such a culture, Confucius looms like a vast figure over history and yet he simultaneously remains a common and recognizably human person.
He was a man, and a man’s most endearing and defining quality resides in his possession of human nature: the ability to experience and feel pleasure, anger, sorrow and joy. Confucius could be a masterful presence at one moment and yet a vulnerable presence in the next; he would sing when he was happy and would cry bitterly when sorrowful; he would curse someone when angry; at times he was successful but more often he failed. He was most definitely a man and not a god. He was often heard to say, “Never get weary of learning and never get tired of teaching.”
At times, Confucius could be really humorous and frank. So many disciples have observed how the days spent together with him were so full of joy and happiness. Once he and his disciples became separated in the course of a journey, and one of his disciples when trying to find him was told by a crowd of people that, yes, they had indeed seen a tall man with a prominent forehead, much like an ancient king in some ways but in other ways, they observed, more like a homeless dog when one judged his unkempt appearance. When Confucius heard later how he had been described, he laughed heartily and said, “I really don’t know whether I am like an ancient king, but I think it’s quite right to say that I am like a homeless dog.”
Some 2,500 years have past since Confucius was alive, but the light shone on the world by this man seems remarkably undimmed. At times it seems that he still can still be seen standing on his wooden-wheeled oxcart, watching human beings with concerned, mildly reproachful but ultimately, loving eyes. He was undoubtedly one of the world’s great philosophers, yet we never lose sight of the fact that he was a man like any other—like us, in fact, filled with human emotions and passions.
A thousand years in terms of the broad sweep of history is nothing more than a heartbeat; a transient moment. Today, the voice of Confucius echoes down through history, like a gentle breeze on a summer’s day: “The Master sat beside the river and observed: the past is just like a swift-flowing river, day and night, never stopping, never ending….”