Saturday, June 4, 2011

June 4 Evening (almost June 5) - Blog Entry #2

June 4 blog 2

In Beijing, we visited the Summer Palace, went to a performance of the Beijing Opera at Tian Qiao, climbed the Great Wall at Juyongguan, entered and escaped Hong Qiao Market and, on our final day, visited the Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square  and the Forbidden City. I don't intend to write a travelogue, though each place left me with significant and, I believe, lasting impressions. What I really want to write about is the people we've met. For the travelogue, there are other sources; for the people, you've got to be there.

We met with several groups in Beijing for a variety of purposes. On Tuesday evening we met with a group of men who study Confucius in an attempt to discover what he has to teach modern China. They meet regularly on their own time to study and discuss Confucian thought. We came together in the upstairs conference room of a simple yet elegant building overlooking a lake, a singularly beautiful location in which it was quite easy to ignore the fact that we were still in the midst of millions of others. Our hosts were very welcoming and treated us with respect.

The talk was of Confucius as a guide for a constitutional society. If there has been any theme that weaves together all of our interactions with the groups we have met, it is the idea that in this spectacularly transitional period, many people in China are grasping for some kind of guidance for their new society. So much of what held    China together in earlier periods--or, at least, a system of values held in common by most people--was destroyed in the twentieth century. There are generations of adult Chinese who were deprived of their country's intellectual history, who know little of it because they weren't allowed to learn about it. Now, they are trying to fill empty spaces in their cultural memory, learn their own history, and hope that in their past they can find a trustworthy guide for their future.

Can Confucius be a good guide for modern China? I don't know enough about the subject to offer an opinion. I can say that I was a bit troubled by some of what I heard. For instance, the idea that "filial piety" should be one of the fundamental underpinnings of society or that "the countryside has much to teach intellectuals" have, for me, a kind of dissonance.  Even the appeal to Natural Law seems to me to have some very unhappy associations. Given the experience of the Chinese people, I can understand the desire to look to one of the major figures in their history for guidance now. And I do know that I have much left to learn about China, past and present.

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