Beijing, 9 Sep (ZXS) -- "Reasonableness" is perhaps the greatest contribution of Confucius Thought to the world today

——Interview with Greek sinologist Yi Donglan

Written by Tian Jing

September 9 this year marks the 28th anniversary of the birth of Confucius, China's "Most Holy Master". Unlike most people's belief that "Confucius is a saint with a perfect personality and a sense of seriousness", the Greek sinologist Yi Donglan believes that Confucius is not an "unattainable" person, he is humorous and flexible, and this side of Confucius may be more instructive for most people. Recently, the China News Agency "East-West Question" conducted an exclusive interview with Dimitra Amarantidou, deeply interpreting the Greek scholar's eyes as "a Confucius who knows irony".

Greek sinologist Yi Donglan: "Reasonableness" is perhaps the biggest source of Confucius' contribution to today's world: China News Network

The following is a summary of the interview:

China News Agency: Your research work mainly revolves around Confucius's Confucianism, what made you particularly interested in studying Confucius?

Yi Donglan: Confucius, as a great figure, is a very interesting object of study. Different understandings of Confucius will affect the understanding of the content of the Analects. If Confucius had been a serious, perfect, and ideal man, the Analects would have become a dogma. Confucius also made mistakes, sometimes imperfect, and the interpretation of the Analects changed depending on the context.

What interests me is his complex personality, which includes many seemingly contradictory aspects: humor, wit, pettiness, etc. Different classical commentaries and dictates describe Confucius differently. As Gu Jiegang, a well-known modern Chinese historian, said, "There are Confucius in each era, that is, there are different Confucius in an era." Perhaps we can add that every student of Confucius also has his own Confucius, and my Confucius is a Confucius who understands "irony".

Dacheng Hall of Confucius Temple in Nanjing, Jiangsu. Photo by Xu Fugeng

China News Agency: So how do you define "irony"? And how do you understand Confucius irony?

Yi Donglan: In Western culture, irony, or "irony", is very rich. From Socrates to the Romantics to the modern philosopher R. Rorty, many Western philosophers have a different understanding of irony. There is no word "irony" in classical Chinese texts, but the phenomenon of irony certainly exists. Just as there is no word "humor" in Chinese texts, "humor" is a concept coined by modern Chinese linguist Lin Yutang in the 20s, but before that, Chinese must also have a sense of humor. The basic definition of irony is the opposite of what you actually want to say. There is also this linguistic irony in the Analects. For example, the Analects mentioned that Ji Wenzi thinks twice before acting. When Confucius heard this, he said that thinking twice was enough. (Original text: Ji Wenzi thought twice before acting.) Zi Wenzhi said: "Again, Si Keyi." The real meaning of Confucius certainly has nothing to do with the number of times, twice, or once per se, he is trying to criticize Ji Wenzi for taking Confucius's words as a dogmatic attitude. It's not that you become a "gentleman" by implementing or imitating a superficial behavior.

What I just mentioned is linguistic irony, which is also a narrow irony, but I think there is another manifestation of irony embodied in the Analects, which can be said to be irony in a broad sense. The irony in the broad sense of the Analects refers to a situation or state that subverts our expectations, which can be explained by the Confucian "way of economic power." "Jing" is a template or a code of behavior, and "right" indicates the ability to flexibly adapt models and paradigms to specific problems or specific situations. This relationship between "scripture" and "power" is essentially an irony. Because "Jing" represents immutability, while "power" is always changing. The two concepts seem completely opposite and cannot coexist, but irony embodies the conflict and unity of two opposite states.

The Analects of Confucius. Photo by Yang Kejia

China News Agency: What do you think is the difference between Confucius-style irony and the irony mentioned by Western philosophers? Can you give some examples?

Yi Donglan: On the surface, they seem similar, but the difference lies in completely different metaphysical assumptions, especially the difference in the understanding of truth. For Socrates, there is only one truth. Socrates' irony is a way to approach the truth, if not a way to discover the truth, but at least by exposing contradictions or flaws in the other's point of view. Truth, as a sacred, eternal and unchanging reality, is a very important premise of Socrates' irony.

However, Confucius was not looking for truth or for answers to general questions such as "what is piety?" The issues dealt with in the Analects are all specific and are posed by specific individuals in very specific and unique situations. This is why Confucius gave different answers to the same question. This is also what Lu Xun said "varies from person to person".

Socrates wanted to eliminate particularity in order to discover generality and universality, while Confucius wanted to include particularity as much as possible in order to arrive at an answer or understanding that was appropriate for one particular situation and not for another.

The sculpture "Divine Encounter: A Dialogue between Confucius and Socrates" taken by the National Art Museum of China. Photo by Sheng Jiapeng

China News Agency: What kind of value does Confucius's irony have in today's society?

Yi Donglan: Western thought developed around the principle of reason. But Confucius's thought has both rationality and warmth, and is a gentle rationality.

To answer this question, I have to mention Lin Yutang again. Lin Yutang associates Confucius' irony with flexibility or "reason." In Confessions of a Vegetarian, Lin describes how a Chinese eats a vegetarian diet while occasionally eating a little meat. In the West, "vegetarian" is absolute, understood according to logical rules, a person is either a vegetarian (does not eat meat) or is not a vegetarian (eats as much meat as he wants). However, according to the Chinese's "reasonable" way of thinking, things are not necessarily "either/or", but can be "both".

This understanding creates logical contradictions, paradoxes or paradoxes. How can a person eat meat and be vegetarian at the same time? However, Chinese way of thinking is generally tolerant of paradoxes, because people recognize that things in life tend to be "trade-offs." In other words, opposite aspects, situations, and feelings can coexist and are not mutually exclusive.

As Confucius said, "there is no necessity," which means that human behavior does not have to conform to any pre-existing abstract principle. What's right for every situation is right. He praises Yan Hui, but never encourages others to be like Yan Hui. There is only one Yan Hui, only one Zilu, and only one Zai Me. As long as they are good at learning, everyone can become the best version of themselves. In fact, Confucius emphasized the love of learning, not the result of learning. Confucius did not criticize students for being imperfect, but for not striving to do better. This is another embodiment of Confucius's "reasonableness". This is perhaps the greatest contribution of Confucius Thought and even Chinese thought to the world today.

Confucius was tolerant of tension and contradiction. If we say that all countries in the world share the same values, this is clearly wrong. Society is different based on different values. Chinese are not afraid of differences, not afraid of incompatibilities. On the contrary, Chinese's "reason" is based on the understanding that opposites always cooperate and define each other. Different values, different perspectives, and different goals are actually the basis for negotiation and adjustment. Reasonableness, tolerance, constant adaptation to specific situations and needs, not relying on fixed truths and abstract universal principles, patiently knowing oneself and learning from others, not learning alone, but always learning with others, these are some of the important experiences of Chinese philosophy. I believe that these experiences can inform the discussions on pressing global issues in today's world.

Autumn view of Nishan Holy Realm, Qufu City, Jining City, Shandong Province. Photo by Zhang Junnan

China News Agency: Including you, many Western scholars are devoted to the study of Confucius Thought.

Yi Donglan: First of all, each country has its own different religious beliefs, which is why some conflicts have arisen. In the West, where religion is getting lower and lower, Confucianism and the religion that individuals practice do not conflict and do not affect your beliefs, and I think this is one of the reasons.

In addition, I think Western scholars are interested in Confucius because they are interested in China, and they are very interested in understanding how China's development happened and what the "secrets" of China's development are. Some people may think that Confucianism is one of those "secrets." However, I think it will be many years before the West wants to really understand Confucianism. Many people want to learn more about Chinese culture and traditions because they are curious about what has happened in China all along, but to further understand, more translations are needed, not only of the classical texts themselves, but also of the classical commentaries. (End)

Respondent Profile:

Dimitra Amarantidou, a Greek sinologist who is currently a senior lecturer at the Department of Philosophy at the University of Macau and a researcher and teacher at the Center for Intercultural Learning at East China Normal University. She has taught Chinese philosophy and comparative philosophy at East China Normal University and Shanghai Normal University. His research works include The Irony of Confucius and Enigma as the Key: Irony and Paradox in Four Contemporary Western Taoist Interpretations. She has also single-handedly or co-translated contemporary Chinese philosophical works, Lao Tzu Jinjian Jinjian Translation, Studies in Contemporary Chinese Philosophy, and Twenty Lectures on Chinese Philosophy.