I’ve been teaching East Asian Philosophy this semester, and have noticed something that I’ve seen in many semesters past. For the most part, students dislike Confucianism, but love Daoism (especially Zhuangzi). I’ve always found this curious. I first noticed this as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland in my first exposure to early Chinese philosophy (a story to which I’ll return in a moment).
The first early Chinese work I ever read was the Analects (I don’t remember which translation it was, probably D.C. Lau). Early in my undergrad years, I worked at a bookstore in my hometown, and was assigned to the Religion section, which I restocked and maintained. One of the things I loved about working at the store was that I discovered so many new books there, and during my breaks (or slow times in the store), I had the opportunity to read the books I was stocking. I picked up a copy of the Analects on a lunch break once, thinking it looked interesting and worth a try. I ended up being fascinated with it, and read the entirety of it after my shift ended that day. I was drawn to the Analects not as a scholar (which I really wasn’t at that point–I was just a kid who liked eclectic reading), but as a human being. Something really resonated with me in the message of the Analects. With Confucius and his students, it felt to me like I had discovered people who truly “got it”. It was an epiphany–I had discovered something true, vital, and profound. The only other text I read that had a similar effect was a few years later when I discovered the Bhagavad Gita. In time, I came to appreciate Zhuangzi as well.
Lots of college students have such “epiphanies”. I’d even venture to say it’s part of the natural experience of being a person of college age. And it’s part of the value of learning and being in school (or at least around books) at that age. All of us (or most of us at least) have the experience of discovering the books that we think sum up the highest ideals, inspire us, and inform our lives moving forward. For me, the Analects was one of these books. What I find so interesting and strange, though, is that it seems not to be so for the vast majority of the students I have taught over the years, no matter how passionately I advocate its ideals. Early Confucianism in general, whether the Analects, Mencius, or Xunzi, tends to leave my students cold.
As I mentioned above, I first encountered this tendency to resist Confucianism when I myself was an undergraduate. I began taking classes in Mandarin Chinese (with my now wife Shubhalaxmi, who provided the illustrations for my recent book “Understanding Asian Philosophy” by the way–check them out!), and in Chinese culture and literature. It was in part my interest in the Analects that led me to start taking these classes. In one of my classes on early Chinese literature, we covered the classic philosophical texts, from the Analects through Han Feizi, and also the Shiji. It was a great class. I was dismayed, however, when we read the Analects and I turned out to be the only person in class who actually liked it! Others thought it was “dry”, “boring”, “tedious”, or otherwise just bad. When we came to the Zhuangzi, however, it was completely the reverse! Everyone in the class loved it, and I know that a number of those students had a similar “epiphany” with the Zhuangzi that I had with the Analects a couple of years before.
I spoke to one of my Chinese language teachers about this, explaining to her that I loved the Analects, but that my classmates hated it, and most of them liked Zhuangzi. I remember clearly her response–she had the same experience I now have in my years of teaching these texts. She said something like: 美國人都喜歡莊子，不知道為什麼 (“Americans really like Zhuangzi–I don’t know why”). I find myself today wondering the same thing–why are American young people so enamored with the Zhuangzi, and why do they dislike Confucianism so much?
This is especially interesting/baffling because if we look at scholarship in Chinese philosophy, the situation seems the other way around. There is much more scholarship on Confucianism within philosophy than on anything Daoist, including Zhuangzi. But, as always, approaching a text as a scholar and approaching it for inspiration for living are two different things. One generally does not see Confucianism reading groups and people who cite the Analects or Xunzi as their “philosophy of life” out in the general American public. I’ve seen lots of people who hold the Daodejing in this light, however. Even the well known “new age guru” Wayne Dyer has a “translation” of Daodejing, and books on Daoism (and Buddhism) sell way better in the general market than books on Confucianism. Anyone working at a bookstore (as I did) can tell you that.
So while study of Confucianism seems to be thriving as a scholarly pursuit in the USA, it falls completely flat as inspiration for living, which after all was its original intention. It is hard to find others out there in the general American public who were as inspired as I was by the Confucian vision. Why, I wonder, is this? What is it about Confucianism as lived practice that Americans find so distasteful? And what is it about Daodejing and Zhuangzi that they find so inviting? And why then was it that I, who am as culturally American as any other of my fellow citizens, was drawn so strongly to Confucianism rather than Daoism? And finally, perhaps a related question: what would make Americans interested in Confucianism, if anything?
Many questions, and still no answers.