Joseph Tsang Man Kin

Last Saturday, besides spending a good time in company of my friends around a wonderful typical Hakka meal in a restaurant in Port Louis Chinatown, I had the immense pleasure to listen to a talk given by Joseph Tsang Man Kin on Chinese culture. This talk is one of a series of talks organised by the Chinese Cultural Centre on the theme of Chineseness. I am avidly waiting for the next talk.

First of all, I was agreeably surprised by the high quality of the Pooyang hall and the perfect sound systems. I have to congratulate the Nam Soon community for their excellent facility. I almost wanted to claim my 37.5% of Nam Soon descent from my mother’s family side and felt very proud of it.

Joseph TMK made ‘a survol’ of his understanding of the basic differences between the Western and Chinese approaches and culture. We all know very well, for having been educated in the western world, the philosophy which has influenced the western thinking, thus formulated the western behaviour. The great philosophers from Greek era and later the thinkers of the Roman Empire, the Judeo-Christian Church up to the more recent influencers of the last century of the like of Nietze and others, have all moulded the western culture. Whilst not being conversant with the influences of the Chinese culture, I was glad to listen to the experience and learning of Joseph TMK. Reading and learning from the Chinese thinkers of the past will definitely enlighten us on our culture. Unfortunately, not being able to read the texts in Chinese will in some way biase my understanding. Better than nothing! I shall learn of the culture through the translation of a foreign language. Luckily, the culture and tradition which I have received through my upbringing in my family surroundings will compensate some of the dilution losses.

Confucius was at the nexus of Joseph’s discourse. Without doubt, Confucius brought in the greatest influence on modern Chinese. Confucian values are now back after a lull and the attempt by Mao to suppress their influence during the red revolution. The People’s Republic of China is even today promoting the values of Confucius by encouraging the setting up of Confucius Institutes world wide.

At the Q&A session, Joseph TMK mentioned that whilst Confucius focused more on the practical, physical, relational and social aspects of the Chinese behaviour, we have to refer to Xun zi and Lao Tze for the spiritual side of the Chinese.

This talk got me to shoot back to my notes on Chinese and roots.


Confucius is the Latinized form of Kong Fu-zi, which means Kong the master. Confucius was born in the small state of Lu in 551 BC and died in 479 BC. This was a time of turmoil, political intrigue, and numerous small wars in the last part of the Spring and Autumn era. Assassinations, bribery, adultery, and other crimes were common even though punishments were severe. In Lu three families contended for the hereditary rulership, while numerous educated aristocrats sought positions in the government, and many suffered poverty.

Confucius was brought up as a gentleman, who took up music, archery, and fishing, although he said he fished without a net and would not shoot at a bird at rest. He was so absorbed in music that once he did not know the taste of meat for three months. He also learned to do practical jobs of humble people such as keeper of the stores and head of the pastures. However, most of the time Confucius was not able to find an official position though he was willing to do anything that did not involve wrong-doing. Perhaps it was his ethical concerns that prevented him from being useful to the rulers of his time. Instead he occupied his time in what he loved the most – the pursuit of learning.

By the age of fifteen Confucius had set his heart on learning; by thirty he felt that he was firmly established; at forty he was no longer confused; by fifty he had a sense of mission in following the will of heaven; at sixty he was at ease with whatever he heard; and when he was seventy, he felt he could do whatever he liked without violating moral principles. No single teacher had a great influence on Confucius, as he tried to learn from everyone. His model, however, was the ancient Duke of Zhou, who had helped to establish the Zhou dynasty. The spiritual connection he felt with the ancient duke is indicated by his regret once that it had been a long time since he had dreamed of the Duke of Zhou. Confucius studied thoroughly the classics of history, poetry, propriety, and especially the Book of Changes (Yi Jing). He believed that if he could spend fifty years studying Changes, he might yet be free of great mistakes.

In addition to teaching, Confucius is credited with editing the Book of Odes and the Spring and Autumn Annals, revising the music and ceremonies, and writing commentaries on the Book of Changes. The main source of his teachings describing his conversations with his students in the Analects (Lun Yu) was apparently written by his students. From these accounts we can see not only what Confucius taught but how he taught and what his attitudes and manners were like. He was said to be free of having forgone conclusions, dogmatism, obstinacy, and egotism. His manner was affable but firm, commanding but not harsh, while he was polite and completely at ease. Zigong said Confucius could get information in a foreign state by being cordial, frank, courteous, temperate, and deferential. Zigong added that this was not the way inquiries were usually made. Confucius had a gentle sense of humor and did not mind being corrected by his own students.

Confucius was particularly respectful of those in mourning and made filial piety or respect for one’s parents a cardinal virtue. He said,

In serving his father and mother
a man may gently remonstrate with them.
But if he sees that he has failed to change their opinion,
he should resume an attitude of deference and not thwart them;
may feel discouraged, but not resentful.3

Confucius cared most about people and was perhaps the first great humanist in history. When the stables burned down, he asked if any person had been hurt but did not inquire about the horses. He recognized the free will of every individual, believing that the commander of three armies could be removed, but the will of even a common person could not be taken away. He spoke of the way (dao), as when he said, “In the morning hear the way; in the evening die content;”4 yet he believed that it was humans who made the way great, not the way that made humans great. Confucius believed that he could even live among the barbarians, because virtue never dwells alone and will always bring good neighbors. He believed that a gentleman should help the needy, not make the rich richer still. Confucius criticized Yuan Si for rejecting his salary of nine hundred measures of grain as governor, because he could have given it to his neighbors.

Confucius never gave up and believed that he was serving by being filial even if he was not in the government. He never expected to meet a faultless person but hoped that he might meet someone of fixed principles even though he saw many examples of nothing pretending to be something. He greatly disliked sham and deceit. He felt he could not stoop to clever talk, a pretentious manner, and a reverence that was only of the feet. He could not bear to see high offices filled with men of narrow views, ceremonies performed without reverence, and mourning forms observed without grief. He hated seeing sharp mouths overturning states and clans.

Confucius believed that his mission was to spread the culture that had been passed on to him by King Wen, and trusting that this was the will of heaven he did not even fear an assassin. He must have believed in prayer, because he said that whoever turns away from heaven has no one to pray to. He hoped that even if he was not recognized in the world, he would be known in heaven. When Confucius became ill, some of his students dressed up as retainers; but the master reprimanded them for this pretense, because he knew he could not deceive heaven. He preferred to die in the arms of his disciples anyway. Although he believed there were others as honest as himself, Confucius felt that no one loved learning as much as he did. Any situation could be a lesson. When walking with others he could emulate the good qualities he saw in others and correct the bad qualities in himself. Confucius did not believe himself to be a sage or even perfectly virtuous, but he did claim unwearying effort to learn and unflagging patience in teaching others.

Confucius believed that people were similar by nature but became different by practice, and thus there are some one can join in study, others one can join in progress along the way, others again beside whom one can take one’s stand, and finally some whom one can join in counsel.

Text extracted from the writings of Sanderson Beck