Category Archives: books

Forbes article

An Uncomfortable Confucian Mirror

After 60 months of head-down drilling into Chinese philosophy, culture, and history (and 13 years now of living in Confucian East Asia–China, Korea, now Singapore), it’s time to surface. My aims in posting here are simply to collect my own thoughts on the relevance — which to me is huge — of Chinese philosophy to the world today, and of the challenge of teaching it to Western students so that they can do more than spout cliché factoids about it. Things are getting interesting on that front — but more on that later.

Exhibit 1: Xunzi as Cultural Physician

Reading this thinker from 250 bce feels like reading a thinker viewing the world — and yes, particularly the American one — today:

The Evidence of a Chaotic Age

Men wear brightly colored clothing; their demeanor is softly feminine; their manners are lascivious; their minds are bent on profit; their conduct lacks consistency; their music is wicked; and their patterns and decorations are gravely in error and gaudy. They nurture the needs of the living without measure, but they send off their dead in a niggardly manner and with blackly impure principles. They despise proper etiquette* and moral principles, and prize instead valor and feats of strength. When they are poor, they become robbers; when they are rich, they become predators. An orderly age is the opposite of this.

–Xunzi, “Discourse on Music” (Knoblock, transl.)

Clearly the Confucian Xunzi diagnoses cultural disease, then and now, with uncanny accuracy. Things get more interesting when we ask whether Confucianism offers any cures.

In future posts, I’ll be arguing yes — and not only Confucianism, but also Daoism and other Chinese schools of thought.

*changing “ritual” to “proper etiquette”–in Confucianism, ritual and etiquette were arguably near-synonyms. We think “religion” when we see the word, and misunderstand Confucianism as a result.

Image: Forbes

Lady Gaga Vomit

On Sewer-Diving: Commerce as Culture

I screened Kubrick’s “Lolita” with three students after school Friday. Afterward, it got me thinking: In recent class discussions on Confucian self-cultivation, I’ve been predicting  to my students that soon, due to the trajectory from Kardashians and Sopranos to meth dealers on Breaking Bad, Miley Cyrus twerking, and Lady Gaga wallowing in vomit,  we can look forward to a drama in which the protagonist — protagonist, mind you — is a Serial Child Molester.

One has to keep looking for new ways to shock, after all, and to market all attempts to create the viral buzz and hype needed to herd the sheeple onto the latest “if you’re not watching you’re not hip” bandwagon. And since we’ve already done porn-moms, mobsters and meth dealers, our culture marketers can only seek deeper in the human sewer.

So something along the lines of the sympathetic child rapist seems inevitable.

But watching Lolita with my students made me think, “Damn. We’ve already done that. Nabokov and Kubrick did it with Lolita in the 1950s.” I’d probably not read or watch it now, even while knowing it was surely an excellent piece of literature, because other excellencies don’t require sewer-diving. (I passed on watching Breaking Bad, knowing full well my friends who said “It’s great” were probably right.)

The only TV dramas I do watch now are Chinese (though I plan to get into Korean as well). They avoid the sewers without damaging the drama, and I leave them feeling cleaner. One addictive taste (that happens, by the way, to open with my favorite Chinese emperor, Kangxi):

It makes me want to offer a course simply called, ironically, Counter-Culture. What would it teach? Culture before the money-grubbers selling to the lowest common denominator took humane culture down.

Ma Yuan: Walking on a Path in Spring

Love at First Read–A Daoist Thanksgiving

The Great Clod burdens me with form, labors me with life, eases me in old age, and rests me in death. So if I think well of my life, for the same reason I must think well of my death.
— the Zhuangzi, Ch. 6, transl. Burton Watson*

On Beauty, Tragedy, and Inspired Irresponsibility


Zhuangzi, Daoism’s second sage, dreams he’s a butterfly. Or is the butterfly dreaming it’s Zhuangzi? Zhuangzi isn’t sure.

One of the beauties of teaching Chinese history, for me, is that I make my living doing something I passionately love to do. Not only would I do this job for free — I would even pay to do it.**

But this beauty has a tragic side too: the demands of the teaching profession allows precious little extra time to write regularly about the daily riches of the mind flowing through the hours in the classroom. My beloved John Keats, that sublime, gorgeous, tragic English Romantic poet who died so young — only 24! — expresses this tragedy well in his sonnet, “When I Have Fears” [emphasis added]:

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain;

When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love;–then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

That “teeming brain” is the real pay of teaching Chinese history and thought. That “fear” of “ceas[ing] to be” before being able to write out the thoughts flowing from the daily work is the tragedy.

So, stack of papers to mark and lesson-planning template currently demanding my time? For the moment, be damned. Because I have just fallen in love with the mind of a man named Chad Hansen, after reading the first five pages of his ground-breaking 1992 study, A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought. Continue reading

Mailbox: On Reading at Fifty

image: embraced by wordsFrom the mailbox, from an old student now in college. The short version seems to be, “What’s the point of studying literature in the 21st century? What’s the point, ever?” I remember having the same questions at times when college made literature seem pointless. So it’s interesting to answer now, as a reader long out of college who is nearing 50. I’m sure the student would like to hear your answers too.

She writes:

I have a burning question that I think many of your lit students are also pondering, and something you could ask your colleagues and see what they say. Every lit class I’ve taken so far has left me with this: What is literature supposed to do? Chronicle social history  through personal accounts? Entertainment? Enlightenment? Sure, we can analyze bits of a novel, poem, play, etc. but what of it? I was researching the reasons why God favored Jacob over Esau when it dawned on me that scholars have made it a life’s work trying to find an answer that doesn’t seem to exist. And when they do propose an explanation, it seems only worthwhile at that moment. A life’s work rooted in a single moment’s satisfaction.

You emphasized learning in class, but learning what? About the human condition that doesn’t seem to or ever will change? All those authors and books that will never make it to the “must-read” pile – what happens to them?  Why do they not transcend time? Is it because they reiterate themes that someone has done before? Are their efforts wasted? Should their time been better spent elsewhere?

If you were to go back in time, would you have spent your time studying technology instead of literature? As I’m sure you’re well aware, computers seem to be synonymous with progress. How does literature improve us as a society? Why do we need it? What is it supposed to do? For a generation that doesn’t bother reading newly published books (or anything besides what’s on the front page of yahoo or msn), what is literature’s part in today’s society? You’re a teacher, why do you teach lit? What do you want your students to take out of and do with it? It’s a lot of questions I know, but I couldn’t find a way to articulate all of them in a single sentence.


The answer that wants to come out of my mouth is this: it’s about a love that’s deeper and richer than most other loves. That’s what reading means to me.

I read once that John Adams was fond of saying, “With a poet in your pocket, you’re never lonely.”

I’d up it by saying you’re with the best company humanity has to offer.

The brilliant (as in shiny) dead are more alive to me than the mediocre (as in dull) living. I’m so glad I spent that year or two reading every word, public and private, that Nietzsche wrote (chronologically, too, while reading a biography of him as I went through his works), and Keats, and Wilde, and others, and now, Confucius. It is simply capital-L Love.

But it takes climbing for a few years in order to be able to enjoy those vistas. The climb is worth it, if you’ve ever experienced a reader’s high. If you (or anyone) hasn’t, then maybe they’re not cut out for that sort of life. Literature is certainly not for everybody, any more than physics is. It takes a certain temperament and intelligence.

I’m one of the most alone people in the world, but never lonely. I love my solitude — mostly because I use it to get high on language, ideas, beauty. Theirs, mine. In Paradise Lost, Milton has Adam ask the angel Raphael if there is sex in heaven. Raphael answers yes, but without bodies. It’s souls uniting instead. That, to me, is what the union of reader and writer — when well-matched — brings.

So I don’t regret those seemingly pointless literature classes at all, now. In retrospect, they weren’t teaching me literature as much as equipping me with the ability to fall in love, over and over, for the rest of my life.

[P.S. I stopped teaching literature to high school students. I teach history here in Singapore. Teens are too young to drink the finest literature. It requires too much adulthood — heartbreaks, triumphs and failures, betrayals and devotions, losses of innocence and experiences of the sublime. That stuff happens only when we escape our parents, finish growing our frontal lobe, and, if lucky, leave the beaten path for some roads less traveled.]

Image: “ Embraced by Words” by Robbert van der Steeg