فصل 11

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فصل 11

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11

THE GREAT TEACHER OF A GREAT PEOPLE When I was a schoolboy, China was to us, as it were, ‘at the other end of the world’. At most we had seen the odd picture on a teacup or a vase, so that we imagined a country of stiff little men with long plaits down their backs, and artful gardens full of hump-backed bridges and little turrets hung with tinkling bells. Of course there never was such a fairyland, although it is true that for more than two hundred years, until 1912, Chinese men were made to wear their hair plaited in a pigtail, and that we first learnt about them through delicate objects of porcelain and ivory made by skilled craftsmen. From their palace in the capital emperors had ruled over China for more than a thousand years. The fabled emperors of China who called themselves the ‘Son of Heaven’, just as the Egyptian pharaoh called himself ‘Son of the Sun’. But at the time I am going to talk about, around 2,500 years ago, all this was yet to come, though China was already a vast and ancient kingdom. In its fields many millions of hard-working peasants grew rice and other crops, while in the towns people strolled through the streets in sumptuous, silken gowns.

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Over all these people a king ruled, and beneath him many princes who governed the many provinces of this immense country which was larger than Egypt, and larger than Assyria and Babylonia put together. But soon these princes had become so mighty that the king could no longer command their obedience. They were constantly at war with each other, the big provinces gobbling up the smaller ones. And because the empire was so vast that in all its corners the Chinese spoke quite different languages, it would probably have fallen apart altogether had they not had one thing in common. This was their script. ‘But wait a minute!’ you say. ‘If they all spoke different languages, how could using the same script make any difference?’ Well, Chinese writing is special. You can read and understand it even if you don’t know a single word of the spoken language. That must be magic! No, absolutely not, it is really quite simple. Instead of writing words you write things. If you want to write ‘sun’, you make a picture like this: . Then you can read it in any language: sun in English, soleil in French or jih in Mandarin Chinese. Everyone who knows the sign will know what it means. Now I’ll show you how to make the sign for ‘tree’. Again it is quite easy, just a couple of strokes like this: . In Mandarin it is pronounced ‘mu’, but you hardly need know the sign to guess it is a tree. ‘All right,’ you say, ‘I can see that works quite well for things you can draw, but what if you want to write “white”? Do you just paint a blob of white paint? And what if you want to write “East”? You can hardly draw a picture of “East”!’ On the contrary, you’ll see that it’s all quite straightforward. We can write ‘white’ by drawing something that is white ­ in this case, a sunbeam. A stroke coming out of a sun stands for ‘white’ ­ blanc ­ pai, and so on. ‘And “East”?’ East is where the sun rises, behind the trees. So I draw a picture of a sun behind a tree: ! That is clever, isn’t it? Well, it is and it isn’t. There are two sides to everything! For when you think how many words and things there are in the world, in Chinese each one has its own sign which must be learnt. There are already more than forty thousand of them, and some are really complicated and hard to learn. So I think

T H E G R E AT T E AC H E R O F A G R E AT P E O P L E 59 we should congratulate our Phoenicians on their twenty-six letters, don’t you? However, the Chinese have been writing like this for many thousands of years, and their signs are read in many parts of Asia, even where no Chinese is spoken. And this meant that the thoughts and principles of the great men of China were able to spread quickly and influence many people. Now at the same time as the Buddha was seeking to relieve man’s suffering in India (as you remember, that was around 500 BC), there was in China another great man who was also trying to make people happy through his teachings. And yet he was as different from the Buddha as he could possibly be. He wasn’t a wealthy nobleman’s son but came from a family that had fallen on hard times. He didn’t become a hermit, but an adviser and teacher. Rather than helping individuals not to want things, and therefore not to suffer, what mattered most to Confucius was that everybody should live peacefully together ­ parents with their children and rulers with their subjects. That was his goal: to teach the right way of living together. And he succeeded. Thanks to his teachings all the peoples of China lived together for thousands of years, more contentedly and more peacefully than many other peoples of the world. So I am sure you will be interested in the teachings of Confucius ­ or K’ung Fu-tzu, as he was called in Chinese. They aren’t hard to understand. Nor to remember. Perhaps that’s why he was so successful. What Confucius proposed is quite simple. You may not like it, but there is more wisdom in it than first meets the eye. What he taught was this: outward appearances are more important than we think ­ bowing to our elders, letting others go through a door first, standing up to speak to a superior, and many other similar things for which they had more rules in China than we have. All such practices, so he believed, were not just a matter of chance. They meant something, or had done once. Usually something beautiful. Which is why Confucius said: ‘I believe in Antiquity, and I love it.’ By this he meant that he believed in the sound good sense of all the many-thousand-year-old customs and habits, and he repeatedly urged his fellow countrymen to observe them. He thought that

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everything in life ran more smoothly if people did. Almost by itself, as it were, without the need to think too hard about it. Of course such behaviour does not make people good, but it helps them stay good. For Confucius had a very good opinion of humanity. He said that all people were born honest and good, and that, deep down, they remained so. Anyone seeing a small child playing near the water’s edge will worry lest it fall in, he said. Concern for our fellow human beings and sympathy for the misfortunes of others are inborn sentiments. All we need do is to make sure we do not lose them. And that, said Confucius, is why we have families. Someone who is always good to his parents, who obeys them and cares for them ­ and this comes naturally to us ­ will treat others in the same way, and will obey the laws of the state in the same way that he obeys his father. Thus, for Confucius, the family, with its brotherly and sisterly love and respect for parents, was the most important thing of all. He called it ‘the root of humanity’. However, he didn’t mean that respect and obedience should be shown only by a subject to his ruler, and not the other way round as well. On the contrary, Confucius and his disciples often came up against obstinate princes, and would usually tell them exactly what they thought of them. For a prince must take the lead in observing the forms. He must demonstrate a father’s love in providing for his people and deal with them justly. If he neglects to do so, and brings suffering on his subjects, then it serves him right if they rise up and overthrow him. So taught Confucius and his followers. For a prince’s first duty was to be an example to all who lived in his kingdom. It may seem to you that what Confucius taught was obvious. But that was exactly his intention. He wanted to teach something that everyone would find easy to grasp, because it was so just and fair. Then living together would become much easier. I have already told you that he succeeded. And, thanks to his teaching, that enormous empire, with all its provinces, was saved from falling apart.

T H E G R E AT T E AC H E R O F A G R E AT P E O P L E 61 But you mustn’t think that in China there weren’t other people more like the Buddha, for whom what mattered was not living together and bowing to one another, but the great mysteries of the world. A wise man of this sort lived in China at about the same time as Confucius. His name was Lao-tzu. He is said to have been an official who became tired of the way people lived at court. So he gave up his job and wandered off into the lonely mountains at the frontier of China to be a hermit. A simple border guard at a frontier pass asked him to set down his thoughts in writing, before leaving the world of men. And this Lao-tzu did. But whether the border guard could make head or tail of them I do not know, for they are very mysterious and hard to grasp. Their meaning is roughly this: in all the world ­ in wind and rain, in plants and animals, in the passage from day to night, in the movements of the stars ­ everything acts in accordance with one great law. This he calls the ‘Tao’, which means the Way, or the Path. Only man in his restless striving, in his many plans and projects, even in his prayers and sacrifices, resists, as it were, this law, obstructs its path and prevents its fulfilment. Therefore the one thing we must do, said Lao-tzu, is: do nothing. Be still within ourselves. Neither look nor listen to anything around us, have no wishes or opinions. Only when a person has become like a tree or a flower, empty of all will or purpose, will he begin to feel the Tao ­ that great universal law which makes the heavens turn and brings the spring ­ begin to work within him. This teaching, as you see, is hard to grasp and harder still to follow. Perhaps, in the solitude of the distant mountains, Lao-tzu was able to take ‘doing nothing’ so far that the law began to work within him in the way he described. But maybe it is just as well that it was Confucius, and not Lao-tzu, who became the great teacher of his people. What do you think?

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