Confucianism the Moral Life

Confucianism the Moral Life


a Thresholds article


Confucianism the Moral Life with Tzy C.Peng
by Dr. Laurel Fuller Clark

Tzy C. Peng was born in China and grew up near Shanghai. During his early childhood, the Japanese imperialist army invaded China and his family lost all their material possessions. This experience shaped Mr. Peng’s life, instilling in him a great respect for freedom and the importance of family values. After attending National Taiwan University, Mr. Peng came to the United States and earned an M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Illinois Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from Northwestern University. Since then, he has worked for the NASA Research Center in California, Boeing, General Motors, and MacDonnell Douglas. In 1962 he became a United States citizen. When Mr. Peng arrived in the United States, he knew no English and had little money; it was his own desire, determination, and willingness to learn that produced his success. He credits the freedom and importance of personal responsibility in America for this. Today, retired from engineering, he lives in St. Louis, Missouri and speaks to high school students in the United States to stimulate them to respect family values, responsibility, and morality.
Tzy C. Peng says that he is not a Confucianist scholar, but his concept of this ancient philosophy comes from his experience and life education in China.

Growing up in a country that was occupied by an enemy, in wartime conditions, you learn several things very quickly. One is that you have to survive, not only survive as an individual, but survive as a family. In those hard days it proved the reason for the family, because everyone had to chip in for everybody else. Secondly, it gives you an appreciation for the temporary nature of life. In a chaotic situation there is no future; future is what comes the next day. It could be a meal, it could be an escape to another city, it could be anything. And the third thing is that it makes you think about our history, the past. You try to relate any relevance from the past to the present, to learn from the past. These three items, in my mind, are the central thoughts of Confucianism.

If you look at the period when Confucius was born, about 500 B.C., there was no central government. It was more like a feudal society. A king or lord had a castle and everybody else in that castle worked for the lord and were his slaves. The king was responsible for their livelihood. If one castle decided to fight with another castle, the slaves were the soldiers. Confucius himself supposedly was born into a noble family, but the nobility lost their wealth and prestige so he grew up poor. He learned on his own, because in those days there were no learning centers or universities. Confucius traveled to different kingdoms and had followers much like Jesus Christ had disciples. He was trying to convince the leaders of those little kingdoms that they should not with narrow vision just concentrate all their own wealth in a little city. He taught that one king ought to talk with his neighbor, not to fight him, but to reason with him. Confucius promoted the idea that people ought to get together to have an orderly society, to be devoted to the people so that everyone can have a better life.

Now in those days, just like today, if you don’t have any money and you try to talk to someone who has money and teach him how to run his life, he’s going to say forget it! He is not going to listen to you. That’s what happened to Confucius. All the little kings and lords and generals refused to listen. But history has shown that those so-called leaders had no vision; they ignored people and thought only of immediate wealth and luxury. Over time, Confucius’ ideas left a very deep mark on society because it worked for progressive evolvement. Later on, it became the only system that was adopted by the Han Dynasty.

In modern society, Confucianism has become the life philosophy for the Chinese and East Asian people. It is a practical philosophy, not a religion, that centers on people-to-people relationships. These can be within the family or outside the family. Within the family you talk about a hierarchy of parents, children, husband, wife, brothers, and sisters. We even have a distinction between the older brothers and younger brothers. To give you some idea, it is our tradition that if the father should die, then the number one son is the nominal head of the family. That’s not to say the mother has nothing to say. But according to the hierarchy of the family, he is the one that’s in charge. In the absence of the father, the older brother is the father to the younger brother, which means the younger brother has to listen to the older brother. That is not to say the older brother knows everything, but he has more years than the younger brother so he is supposed to know better.

This reflects the idea that there is experience, learning experience, that the future (younger) generation can adopt. This whole idea is also called ancestor worship. A lot of people may have misinterpreted ancestor worship as a worship of statues or images, which is true in part. But the other part is the so-called worship of ancestors is really trying to understand your own tradition. The tradition is based on certain unique experiences of your fathers or great grandfathers. It does not come up from nowhere. It comes up because of some past event, so it has a reason; therefore there is a lesson in there. That’s the reason why you try to remember the tradition.

The essence of the teachings of Confucius is that there are things you must have in order for a stable, developing, flourishing civilized society to survive. These are called golden rules and it turns out that every major religion in the world has the same set of golden rules. One need not be a superbeing or supernatural being to know this. These are the unspoken rules or universal rules that each civilization at certain times will realize because they are fundamental. For example, you can’t have a society where everybody kills everybody else and you can’t have a society where everybody only does things for their own individual greed. There has to be some common bond, some way for the common good to come out. This common good is embodied in Confucius’ sayings, the ten commandments of Moses, the rules of all religions.

Because of this similarity, people think of Confucianism as a religion, but it is more a practical philosophy that deals with people and practical things. It does not rely on an image of the supernatural. For many common people, an image of the Buddha, or God, is to help them restrain themselves. The Buddha watches over you to see what you do. In so doing, this idea creates a society which is more peaceful, less violent, doing more good things for the common good and less things for the individual greed. But if you already know all that, there is no Buddha or God, there is nobody looking over your head. Confucius says that if you can understand the real meaning of society, the people-to-people relationship, you don’t need all that, you already know how you’re supposed to behave. In other words, you are already behaving according to the commandments, you are already practicing what you preach, you are helping other people whenever you can, you don’t let your greed go rampant.

Confucius knew that self-restraint is not easy; the human nature is not designed for self-restraint. So what Confucius was trying to do was to give people a sociological reason why they should have self-restraint. In other words, he says that you should not kill people because you are a member of society, and the person that you kill is also a member of society, and society belongs to all the people. It is not just your society; you are not the society, you are part of society, and the other person is also part of society. Therefore, you two should get together and stop killing each other. The end result is to achieve a stable, peaceful, harmonious society, while society is growing.

Because Confucius believed that the tendency for doing the wrong thing is instinctive, and doing the right thing needs to be taught, he emphasized education. The purpose of education is to cultivate moral values in people’s minds and to encourage people to do the right thing. Only through education can people in society learn to live with each other in peace and harmony and support and help each other for the benefit of all, creating social prosperity and happiness. The teachings of Confucius are embodied in the Four Books and Five Classics. The Four Books are the Great Learning, the Doctrine of Mean, the Analects, and Mencius. The Five Classics are Shu Ching, a political vision; Shih Ching, a poetic vision; I-Ching, the Book of Change; Li Chi, a social vision; and Chun Chiu, a historical vision. An easier way to understand Confucianism is to study the Sayings of Confucius, one liners or short stories which depict his beliefs. When a sufficient number of these are taken together, there emerges the essence of Confucianism.

One of his sayings is respect the old. As I said before, respect the old doesn’t mean that you bow down to people older than you are, but you respect the old because they have embodied life experience. To give you a very simple example: if an older brother, or the old father, tells you not to stick your finger in a candle, he probably had his finger burned at one time. He does not want a younger brother or the younger children to suffer the same consequences. Now, if the younger brother insists, “I have to learn the experience myself,” I say, “O.K., go ahead, burn your finger.” But if you have some sense, you realize that there is some lesson to be learned from the past without repeating it, because there is so much to learn you can’t repeat everything. There is that body of true knowledge that you can learn purely for the asking, and all you have to do is respect the knowledge. When you get the knowledge, you respect it not because somebody older than you had ordered you to do so; it has nothing to do with hierarchy, but simply because the elder is trying to transfer the benefit of knowledge from the older generation to the younger generation.

The second part of this saying is educate the young. I really believe that these two parts have relevance to our own society right now, because youngsters think they know everything. There are things that our (older) generation does not know; let’s face it, the previous generation does not know too much about modern computers, so the younger kids know more about that. However, life is full, and that has nothing to do with computers. It has everything to do with behavior, with human experience. If you deny that, you actually self deny; you deny your self the benefit of the older generation. The young are not born educated. The young, the human species, need to be educated. You can debate about the methods; you can debate about how severe discipline is. You can debate all the details, but the principle is the young does not know everything; he needs to learn everything. In the learning process there have to be certain rules. There is no such thing as learning without rules, because the very essence of learning is learning about the rules.

Selected Sayings of Confucius
(With commentary by T.C. Peng)




1. Respect the old, educate the young, and trust your friends. (Proper conduct for the survival of civilization.)

2. Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you. (Uniform standards for equal justice.)

3. Great man sets the good example, then he invites others to follow it. (Do as I do, not double standard.)

4. Shall I tell you what knowledge is? It is to know both what one knows and what one does not know. (Intellectual honesty.)

5. Humanity-at-its-best: At home be humble, at work be respectful, and with others be loyal.

6. Society is not an adversarial system based on contractual relationship, but is a community of trust with emphasis on communication.

7. A political culture based on responsibility and trust is politics with moral persuasion. The purpose of government is not only to provide food and maintain order but also to educate. (People do not live by bread alone.)

8. Great man demands it of himself; petty man of others. (Buck stops at oneself; don’t pass the blame to others.)

9. You can always learn from three people in the street, take up the good and improve the bad. (Learn from the successes and mistakes of others.)

10. Remain sincere in purpose while studying widely, continue to think while posing frank and open questions. Therein lies Manho



I think the best example of that is the recent Los Angeles riots. They may have had good grievances, but certainly to throw rocks at somebody’s head and knock him unconscious and to say, “that’s not my responsibility,” is not acceptable. To me it is a simple case of lack of education. And this is where truly we see the division between civilized people and barbarians. That’s where it is. It does not matter where you were born, when you were born, what color you are. It has nothing to do with all that, but has everything to do with your behavior. If you behave like a barbarian, you are a barbarian. I don’t care if you are born in the twenty-third century; you cannot say that I don’t have self responsibility. Yes you do! Everybody has responsibility. Now maybe somebody gives you a bum deal, maybe your family has suffered a lot. If that’s true, you have a legitimate beef to change the old ways of doing something. But you don’t do it by being irresponsible. The true knowledge is self knowledge and self responsibility. That’s what the great civilizations are made of. If you are going to have to rely on tens, thousands, millions of policemen to guard you every minute or tell you what to do, that society is not going to work. In the real great society, everything is motivated from the individual and every individual knows the limits of his behavior.


That is going to be the next major challenge, how to create a society where each individual is taught self responsibility, not only in terms of behavior but in terms of sustaining the society. The population must be sustained in terms of production and know-how of ability to create the next stage of society. When a child is born, somebody has to be responsible for him, not only for providing food and shelter in the growing up period, but also responsible for his education so that he can become a producer when he grows up instead of a consumer. Right now the number of people producing the food and consumer items is getting less and less. The people who do not produce anything are saying, “Well, I need this because I am here.” That’s fine if there are 90% of people producing and 10% wanting handouts. But if you become a people with 70% wanting handouts and 30% producing, pretty soon the people who produce say, “Why should I produce so everybody else can just take from me?” So then the know-how of production declines, and we create a bunch of people who do not know what to do to produce but only know how to consume.

Changing this takes a lot of education. This takes things that you have to learn as young people, not to rebel. You can question this intelligence of teaching, but you don’t understand its value from playing basketball. I am not a native American, I recognize that, but I bet you I know more about the American essence than most high school kids do, because I came from the outside and I had to learn all that. I learned on my own, not because somebody put a gun to my head to learn this. We have to remember one thing; the American nation is great today not because everybody else back in the 1930’s and ’40’s and ’50’s knew how to play basketball! Everybody in the ’30’s and ’40’s and ’50’s was trying to learn how to be productive, how to be civilized to each other, how to generate a society for the common good. In today’s society, a lot of people think of making a fast buck. Well, what is our role model? We have entertainers who can make a fast buck from singing, Wall Street tycoons who know how to trade, basketball players who make a big buck, and people who tell jokes to make big bucks. I am not downgrading those people, I am sure society needs those people just as much as you and me. But society needs engineers, who actually do the production of the commodities. Somebody has to produce these things before the jokes, the entertainers, the politicians and the lawyers can push papers. Even the papers we use, somebody had to produce that. God did not make paper, we make paper.

So we really have to change the role models in the United States. It is okay for the basketball players to make their money, but they are not the only heroes. If I had my way, the high school teachers and the elementary teachers would be real heroes. They are the true contributors, the ones who are molding the next generation. They are to be respected. They are the ones that should be put first on the priority list. This is why Confucius said that the teacher comes first, because they are the basic building blocks of society. And then next comes the producers.

Another saying of Confucius is well known: Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you. My interpretation of this is uniform terms for equal justice. This next one is very great: Great man sets good examples then he invites others to follow. In today’s language we say do as I do. Unfortunately we can see how in the United States today we have instead, do as I say but not do as I do. If I do it, it’s okay, but if you do it, it is wrong. This is the difference between uniform standards and double standards. The double standards unfortunately exist in every society in every form.

The reason why Confucianism has lasted for generations is that it understands human nature on one hand and promotes necessary discipline and education on the other. Confucianism has much to contribute to the global village because it constructs a universal moral code of conduct which is independent of culture, race, and creed, simply because human nature is universal. Human nature consists of both good and bad. The good human nature includes kindness, charity, mutual respect, dignity, devotion, self responsibility, and so on. The bad human nature includes greed, domination, selfishness, destruction, waste, non-productivity, and so on. Unfortunately, the good nature is hard to keep. It is not impossible, but it is hard, and has to be cultivated, which has to be through the education process. Whereas the bad nature is easy to follow and is always tempting because of quick solutions like stealing or taking drugs. Our objective, then, as we approach the concept of the global village should be to enhance the good aspect of the human nature and contain the bad. The enhancement and the containment can only be accomplished by reasoning based on real human relationship, and by appropriate release of human energy and animal instinct in harmless and non-personal cooperative activity like sports. To this end Confucius offered useful and practical guidelines to od-at-its-best. (Sincerity and openness.)accomplish this objective.

If you look at the Chinese people as a whole over 2000 years, I would say 99% of Chinese people do not necessarily worship, but adhere to the essence of Confucianism basically to create order, stability for society and for the family. It is a philosophy that teaches people how to be good to one another. If you really talk about the meaning of life, whether you go to the next life in heaven or hell, the basic bottom line is what have you done in this life? Have you done something that you can be proud of? That is the basis for everything.•

©1994 Vol. 12. No. 4

copyright 2002 School of Metaphysics



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