The Importance of Historians

I recently watched a BBC special about Confucius. As I don’t have a bean named Confucius, it would be wrong to focus on that, but I do have a bean named Szu-ma Chien. Last night, as I watched this program, I wondered if the world would even know about Confucius, if there would have been anything known as Confucian culture, if Szu-ma Chien had not been such a good historian and found so many important ideas in Confucius’ writing some 500 years after Confucius had lived. That’s a friend.

I haven’t really kept up with developments in Chinese culture in the interval since I got over my broken heart from having come back to the US in 1983, so, from time to time, I like to peer through a video window into today’s China. Last night I saw that Confucianism has been rehabilitated and has gone mainstream. I never really thought it had gone away. First it seemed to me that Communism and Confucianism meshed pretty well in the daily life area and then because the customs of Confucianism were, are, always have been — since the Han Dynasty — deeply engrained in the culture. Still, when I was living in China, Confucianism was barely awakening from the Maoist designation of it being one of the “Four Olds,” and a crime to practice.

The program opened with an actor sitting and writing with a brush on bamboo slats. He was portraying Szu-ma Chien. ❤

Yesterday, in The Dihedral, Carrot wrote about ethics. It was a compelling post and inspired me to write rambling incoherence in response, but you know, I go with my strengths. 😛

With this in my mind as I watched the program on Confucius I realized the Szu-ma Chien, in memorializing him so passionately and beautifully, and accepting castration rather than death as a punishment from “his” emperor, was making a desperate plea for ethical government. Confucius system is an ethical system, and whatever its nuances, it’s pretty simple. “Don’t do to another what you wouldn’t want them to do to you.” Seems a dark spin on the Golden Rule but I think, given human nature, less obscure.

I believe every society needs a shared ethical system that does NOT come from the top (as totalitarian Communism attempted) but which (as Confucius understood) is part of daily life and the rituals of ancestors, etc. Tradition. This weekend many Americans are doing just that “celebrating” Memorial Day. A society needs an identity that includes ritual observances and a shared ethical system. That — and his version of the golden rule — are pretty much the point of Confucius’ system.

The program made the point that Confucius believed he was a failure because, in spite of traveling all over the warring kingdoms he’d been unable to persuade any sovereign to follow his precepts. After some 14 years, he and his disciples gave up their wandering lives. Confucius was resigned, telling his students, “…A gentleman can cultivate his way, draw up principles, recapitulate and reason, but may not be able to make his way accepted. [If] your aim is not to cultivate your way but to please others, your ambition is not high enough.” In my opinion, that’s the essence of integrity, but also something I need to remind myself all the time as a painter and writer.

Of the prose and poet beans, Szu-ma Chien is doing the best. Of those who endured the cold, only two survived which means I have three viable bean plants, there is Tu Fu and Pearl Buck. I planted more seeds that have not yet germinated in place of the others. I guess this will give me more opportunities to look into Records of the Historian.

Of this Confucius said (via Szu-ma Chien) “A good farmer may sow by may not always reach a harvest…”

The featured photo is a Columbine that is blooming for the first time this year…

9 thoughts on “The Importance of Historians

  1. This just underscores for me that we are not good judges of our own success/failure. Id say that Confucius was very successful in that his philosophy has endured and his name is recognized the world over (and a much bigger world than he imagined). Seems that historians are very valued by those who want to control the present by manipulating the past. I know that sounds a bit cynical but the last 4 years of the former president has soured me on many things…
    I love the photo of the columbine! I have some that bloomed this year – I bought them last year and they didn’t look so hot. But they rebounded (same color as yours) the pale yellow and white ones that were planted next to them didn’t make it through the winter… *sigh*

    • I believe there is a difference between history and propaganda (though history will always be written with a bias). Ssu-ma Chien represents the best kind of historian to me, but the further I delve into his writings and understand what he was trying to do, though I personally think his values are well placed, I recognize his bias and, on top of that, is the bias of the translators and the fact that my translation was done during Mao. The best history we can ever find is what someone from the past has actually said themselves, but, even then…

  2. Love it, Martha. I can totally relate. No one listens to me either on questions of peace, etc, etc. Not that I am in Confucius’ league. Food for thought here. I have definitely lost my way re ritual observances, but on the other hand, I do like a good wedding and funeral. I find funerals particularly cathartic. How about you?

    • I don’t go to funerals at all ever. Fuck that shit. It’s bad enough I’ll have to attend my own. I’m trying to figure out a way to avoid that, too, but so far no easy solution to that conundrum. Otherwise? My rituals no longer tend to be social. I am unable to avoid Christmas, the worst of all. I’ve thought a lot about that program since I wrote about it and it’s doubtful I will ever think as highly of Confucian thought as Szu-ma Chien did, though I can see it’s a good way to keep people in line which is the job of society, to keep the worker bees content to do their job. It would be good to have some of that thinking here in the US.

      • My friend’s elderly parents both died in the last year. She didn’t have a funeral, just a wake at home both times. People said a few words, etc etc.
        A funeral/memorial service was helpful when my son’s lecturer died. He was gutted but he had the support of a few fellow students there.

        • I think the beauty of funerals is the support of others. The last (and I mean second to last) funeral I attended was my Aunt Martha’s and it was good we were there for each other.

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