Saving Confucianism: Planting thoughts & sowing seeds

By Dr. Henry Wong Meng Yeong | Tuesday July 29, 2014

Having defined what Confucianism is and iterated the need to save it, how then do we go about saving Confucianism?

Lao Tzu, a contemporary of Confucius 53 years his senior, said:

"Watch your thoughts; for they become words. Watch your words; for they become actions. Watch your actions; for they become habits. Watch your habits; for they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny."

This famous dictum was later uttered by many others such as Mahatma Gandhi, Charles Reade, Ralph Emerson, Samuel Smiles and the father of Margaret Thatcher.

Character is defined by habits, which is an aggregation of actions originating from words, formed by one's thoughts. In order that Confucianism can be saved, his teachings will first have to be taught for the thoughts to be turned into action. Confucius taught everyone and anyone who was willing to learn; to the surprise of his disciples, even a boy from an uncivilized place called HuXiang. However, Confucius asseverated he will not instruct his students if they are unable to infer from his instructions. The process of character building involves turning thoughts into words and words into deeds, which when practiced over time form habits which define character. If the thoughts do not result in shaping character, the words are futile. Insofar as his teachings go, it is the application thereof which is paramount to Confucius.

For centuries, Confucian thoughts were taught in the home and at school. This was further reinforced by the imperial examinations where candidates were examined on their knowledge of Confucian philosophy.

Confucian teachings were encapsulated in 三字经, a Chinese classic written in the Song Dynasty to enable children to recite and remember Confucian creed. In it, the importance of teaching is stressed. The opening verse reads: 人之初

性本善 性相近 習相遠 苟不教 性乃遷 教之道 貴以專. At birth, people are naturally good. Their characters are similar and it is their nurture (habits) which sets them apart. If they are not taught, their character will deteriorate. The way to teach is with assiduity. It continues 養不教 父之過 that raising a child without teaching is the fault of the parents.

Singaporeans living in 1950-60s will remember the domestic servants from China respectfully called "amahs" who worked as maids and nannies. They were identified by their plait, white tops and black trousers, from which they got their sobriquet, the black- and-white servants. They were often spinsters or young widows from China who came to South East Asia to eke out a living in homes as domestic helpers. Although they had little in the way of formal schooling, they possessed an exemplary standard of ethics and morals, and were noted for their loyalty and trustworthiness. It was apparent that their common ethos was their integrity and their profound sense of responsibility. As they were not schooled, their values were imbibed from home and the communities in which they lived. They were a rare breed, which have never hitherto been seen.

Teaching Confucianism is likened to sowing different types of seeds; seeds of filial duty, respect for elders, honesty, trustworthiness, propriety (knowing right from wrong), manners, righteousness (doing the right thing), incorruptibility, shame and integrity.

Confucius believes that it all begins with oneself. Only through learning can one sow seeds of virtue which one can pass on to future generations. In order to save Confucianism, learning will only be possible with the teaching of Confucian classics.