Wisdom Offers a Q-and-A

Wisdom Offers a Q-and-A

Statues of Confucius at the Temple of Confucius in Beijing, China.

In the January 13, 2014, edition of The New Yorker, there's an extremely fascinating article on the Confucian revival, or, perhaps, the resuscitation of Confucius in the post-Mao era. Apparently, several converging political, cultural, and spiritual interests account for this—from the need for China's Communist Party to have "an indigenous ideology that might restore the Party's moral credibility" to the emerging Chinese middle-class regard for philosophy and history "as a mark of cultivation and cultural nationalism" to jingshen kongxu, which gets translated "the spiritual void."

Either way, in every way, it seems Confucius is being used. Evan Osnos writes:

The Confucian revival has been especially visible in the city of Qufu, the sage's home town, in present-day Shandong Province. In 2007, the city's International Confucius Festival was co-sponsored by the Confucius Wine Company. Thousands of people filled a local stadium, giant balloons bearing the names of ancient scholars bobbed overhead, and a Korean pop star performed in an abbreviated outfit. Near the cave where Confucius was said to have been born, a five-hundred-million-dollar museum-and-park complex is under construction; it includes a statue of Confucius that is nearly as tall as the Statue of Liberty. In its marketing, Qufu has adopted comparisons to Jerusalem and Mecca and calls itself 'The Holy City of the Orient.' Last year, it received 4.4 million visitors, surpassing the number of people who visited Israel.

Knowing little to nothing about Confucius or Confucianism, for me the most arresting quotation in the article (which, unfortunately, is available only to subscribers) comes via Yu Dan, a professor of media studies at Beijing Normal University. Having sold ten million copies of Confucius from the Heart: Ancient Wisdom for Today's World (2006), Yu "occupies a position in Chinese pop culture somewhere between Bernard-Henri Levy and Dr. Phil," Osnos says. Yu writes, "The truths that Confucius gives us are always the easiest of truths."

Anyone authentically seeking wisdom should find this quote mildly alarming, if not mostly disingenuous. Not with regard to Confucius; again, I wouldn't entirely know. But with regard to wisdom itself.

Which reminded me of a wonderful little ditty by the American musician M. Ward. In it, the artist seeks the ancient wisdom of a sage, who, short on time, tells the artist to give him his seeking in the form of three questions. Each question has a certain poignancy, but I very much appreciate the second one: "How can a man like me remain in the light?"

The point is, I assume that Confucius knew what any sage worth his or her truth should know: Wisdom is the longest road from easy. And don't let anyone fool you.

In fact, in the Hebrew Bible, wisdom is pictured as offering humanity a thoroughly demanding Q-and-A session. From Proverbs 1:20-33

Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: 'How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?'

In China, America, or anywhere, I imagine wisdom's offer stands. For the taking. To be sure, it is not easy to take.


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