Chinese Wisdom


AnalectsAs I promised in an earlier post, here are some of the epithets and sayings found in some of the Four Books of the Chinese canon. I think these are particularly relevant to politics, especially local politics. Hence my commentary after several of them.*

Wikipedia gives us an overview of Confucius’ political philosophy in the Analects:

Confucius’ political beliefs were rooted in his belief that a good ruler would be self-disciplined, would govern his subjects through education and by his own example, and would seek to correct his subjects with love and concern rather than punishment and coercion.
“If the people be led by laws, and uniformity among them be sought by punishments, they will try to escape punishment and have no sense of shame. If they are led by virtue, and uniformity sought among them through the practice of ritual propriety, they will possess a sense of shame and come to you of their own accord.” (Analects 2.3; see also 13.6)**.

So how good is the example set for us by council so far? Are the people led by virtue and propriety? Let’s look at the record, so far:

Raising your taxes. Raising your water rates. Giving themselves a raise. Giving $40,000 of your taxes so one of their own could pursue personal political ambitions out of town, with no benefit to this community. Conflicts of interest both material and perceived. Approving sole-sourced contracts to family members. Vengefully bringing back old political grudges (a formerly-rejected IC report) then protesting when the decision applies to one of their own. A standing committee system that operates too often out of the public eye and appears secretive. Backroom negotiations and lobbying emails. Ideological block voting. Letting staff control the budget and other meetings. Accepting damaging and flawed consultants’ reports. Claiming per-diem expenses for regular committee and board meetings. Breaching their oath of office and their code of conduct.

Hardly setting a good example for anyone to follow. And that’s just in the beginning of this term.

Perhaps they have other attributes that would fit the Confucian model of a good ruler, something not yet manifest in the public eye. Something hidden deep inside that needs must be coaxed out slowly. So let’s look at what Confucius and other Chinese philosophers said about government and politics.

Some of the most important concepts in Confucius’ books – in all Chinese works – are hard to translate into simple English. These terms can often encompass entire cultural traditions or social concepts that have no single equivalent in the West. Translator usually provided a commentary to help guide readers, so a little explanation is required first.***

The challenging terms that sometimes confuse us include ren, li and junzi. Translator Charles Muller**** describes ren as:

…perhaps the most fundamental concept in Confucian thought. It has been translated into English as “benevolence,” “altruism,” “goodness”, “humaneness” etc… it doesn’t really refer to any specific type of virtue or positive endowment, but refers to an inner capacity possessed by all human beings to do good, as human beings should. It is the quality that makes humans human, and not animals.

In a similar way, Machiavelli wrote of a ruler’s ‘virtu’ – a term which encompasses more than the simple English word virtue. Muller then expands on li, which relates to ritual decorum and civil/social interaction, about which he writes,

…can also refer to the many smaller “ritualized” behavior patterns involved in day-to-day human interactions. This would include proper speech and body language according to status, age, sex— thus, “manners.” In this sense, li means any action proper, or appropriate to the situation. For instance, in the modern context, I might go up and slap my friend on the back. But I certainly wouldn’t to that to my professor, or to a student in my class whom I don’t know very well.

And finally he describes junzi, which…

…refers to a person who has made significant progress in the Way (dao) of self-cultivation, by developing a sense of justice… loving treatment of parents, respect for elders, honesty with friends, etc… The character of the noble man, in contrast to the sage, is being taught as a tangible model for all in the here and now… One might want to compare the term “noble man” to the Buddhist bodhisattva, in that both are the models for the tradition, both indicate a very high stage of human development as technical terms, yet both may be used colloquially to refer to a “really good person.”

Junzi also refers to a noble, but in this case, it’s not social nobility – as in an inherited rank – but rather the nobility of conscience, commitment and integrity. It also stems from ‘de’ which can be described as ‘moral power,’ charisma, or virtue, also not unlike Machiavelli’s ‘virtu.’

Mencius (Mengzi), who was the great interpreter of Confucius, notes in his own writing, Book VII, Ch. 16:

‘Benevolence is the distinguishing characteristic of man. As embodied in man’s conduct, it is called the path of duty.’

The superior person, in Confucian terms, displays humane qualities like integrity, benevolence, compassion, decorum (manners and civility), and filial responsibility – which in government extends beyond the biological association of family to encompass all the people one is elected or appointed to govern.

Muller translates from the book, Maintaining Perfect Balance (also called the Doctrine of the Mean), that the ‘Superior Person,’

When in a high position, he does not step on those below him. When in a low position, he does not drag down those above him. Correcting yourself and not expecting things from others, you will not create resentments. You will not resent Heaven above, nor blame men below. The Superior Man abides in change and awaits his destiny. The inferior man practices manipulation and prays for luck.

The superior politician practices equanimity, not bias, and treats all people he or she represents as equals. Can this be said of all of council? Not in my view.

Practice manipulation? Many residents have wondered who lurks in the wings and pulls the strings, who tells the bloggers what to write, even writing the very words for them. Manipulation would certainly be the appropriate term for the recent election campaign.

Taking from Muller’s translation of the Analects (the numbers refer to books and sections):

[1:5] The Master said: “If you would govern a state of a thousand chariots (a small-to-middle-size state), you must pay strict attention to business, be true to your word, be economical in expenditure and love the people. You should employ them [appropriately] according to the seasons.” Analects, trans. by A. Charles Muller

That pretty much sums up how municipal politicians should govern: it covers procedure, ethics, taxes and operations in one sentence.

Having served on council for 11 years, I appreciate how easy it is to be distracted from the business of government by the minutiae and peripheral issues that constantly vie for attention. For example, councils in the past sometimes got into lengthy debates over a single line of expenditure in a budget, which is futile and inefficient. Last term we corrected and improved it by implementing a superior process. That was ignored this term.

Not even looking over the complete budget and ignoring the details, as this council did, is the opposite of ‘taking care of business.’ This refusal to look deeper left council blind to the consequences of their own actions; council voted on expenses and costs they didn’t understand. Willful ignorance is hardly good governance.

Moreover, as it says in Mencius, Book VII, Ch. 12:

‘Without the great principles of government and their various business, there will not be wealth sufficient for the expenditure.’

In Analects 1.2, Confucius said , “The noble man concerns himself with the fundamentals. Once the fundamentals are established, the proper way appears.” That also applies here.. Another way to translate this is,

Men of superior mind busy themselves first in getting at the root of things; and when they have succeeded in this the right course is open to them.

As an example, you don’t start crafting a ‘strategic plan’ until you have your governance fundamentals in place and understood. That includes the budget, a full appreciation of operations, a firm knowledge of laws, policies and procedures, and experience in the process of governance. To bring a ‘plan’ out – especially one driven by outsiders – before these are in place is foolish: it will not be a plan at all because the fundamentals are absent. It will be built only on air. Hot air, of course. But that’s what this council is doing.

And in the Great Learning (trans. Muller), it notes similarly:

It is impossible to have a situation wherein the essentials are in disorder, and the externals are well-managed. You simply cannot take the essential things as superficial, and the superficial things as essential. This is called, “Knowing the root.” This is called “The extension of knowledge.”

Once again, the focus is on getting your own house in order before you look to the outside. The basics have to be well-managed before such high-sounding but empty “strategic plans” are tackled. But clearly they have not been, as council’s attention darts hither and thither.

Raising taxes to justify increasing your own salary – as this council recently did – would be considered shameful, according to Confucius:

[14.1] When the Way prevails in your state, to be concerned about your salary is shameful. When the Way is absent in your state, to be concerned about your salary is shameful.”

Or as this translation presents it:

Yuen Sz asked what might be considered to bring shame on one. “Pay,” said the Master; “pay—ever looking to that, whether the country be well or badly governed.”

So much for that promised accountability. By these standards, the municipality cannot be said to be well-governed.

From Maintaining Perfect Balance comes this lengthy piece of advice:

20. The Duke of Ai asked about government. Confucius said: “The records of the governments of Wen and Wu are on the ancient tablets. When they had the right people, the government functioned, and when they didn’t have the right people, government failed. When people are right, the government flourishes; when the ground is right, plants flourish; the governments of Wen and Wu flourished like fast-growing weeds.”
Therefore, the skillful handling of government is contingent upon having the right people. You attract the right people by your own character. You cultivate your character through the Way and you manifest the Way by means of ren.
Thus, if your rank is low, and you do not have the support of those in power, you cannot hope to have an influence on government. Therefore the Superior man cannot but cultivate his character.
Wanting to cultivate his character, he cannot do it without serving his parents. Wanting to serve his parents, he cannot do it without understanding others. Wanting to understand others, he cannot do it without understanding Heaven.

This has several components. First, for a government to function well, it needs the right people, both in office and as staff. This council shrugged off the opportunity to hire a permanent CAO to run the town – the ‘right’ person – and allowed a temporary CAO, without the sort of vested interest a permanent one would have (and shrugged off the chance to hire one that might be respected, not feared, by staff). Thus council set itself up for failure early in its term.

Attracting the right people, Confucius says, depends on the character of the council, but it also depends on the character of the town itself. Who, you may ask, would be attracted to work for a town that has had its reputation continually sullied by innuendo, allegation, secretive attacks, unfounded accusations and defamation? Or by a council ostensibly serving its own personal interests (raising its own salary and the $40,000 handout) rather than the interests of its residents? Will this behaviour attract the highest calibre of candidate?

Government is service, not privilege, and it requires strong character and respect to fulfill its obligations. Ideologues who don’t embrace openness, who don’t practice inclusiveness, and who cannot stomach dissent or disagreement cannot govern effectively.

Mencius told us in Book VII, Ch. 14, that what matters most are the people, not the government: “The people are the most important element in a nation; the spirits of the land and grain are the next; the sovereign is the lightest.”

We saw how dysfunctional a similar council was two terms ago. This one is building quickly towards that disability. This is hardly surprising, if you know who influences many at the table. The servant follows in the footsteps of the master (and not to become fishers of men, but rather deceivers).*****

[14:22] Zi Lu asked how to deal with a ruler. Confucius said, “If you have to oppose him, don’t do it by deceit.” also translated as: Tsz-lu was questioning him as to how he should serve his prince. “Deceive him not, but reprove him,” he answered.

No secret, anonymous denunciations – like complaints to the police over invented wrongdoing – but be brave, open and honest in your opposition. Well, that certainly doesn’t characterize Collingwood politics, given the events of last term. Members of that shadowy cabal were too cowardly to make their accusations in public.

[14.27] “Superior men,” said the Master, “are modest in their words, profuse in their deeds.”

Not, as some at the table have proven, the other way around: all words and little in deed. In Maintaining Perfect Balance (29), Confucius notes:

If you are in a position of rank, even if you are good, if your goodness is not evident, you will not be trusted. Not being trusted, the people will not follow you. If you lack rank, then you will not be respected. Lacking respect, you will not be trusted. Without trust the people will not follow you.

Is there evident goodness in raising your taxes unnecessarily while rewarding themselves with a salary increase? Are politicians who engage in backroom deals and secretive email discussions to be trusted? Can we respect politicians who leak confidential, personal information to their blogger friends in order to defame and belittle other residents?

To all of which, I must answer no.

* Wise politicians will, of course, read Confucius, Machiavelli, Paine, Aristotle, and other classical/political writers, as well as modern municipal writers like Gordon Hume in order to learn to better serve the people and fully grasp the responsibilities of governing. Even the town’s own Code of Conduct says it is the responsibility of elected representatives to further their education in all manners possible. Only the ignorant or the ideologues believe they already know enough. As Confucius said, in the book Maintaining Perfect Balance (28): 

“To be ignorant and like to act as you will; to be of low rank and ignore all the rules; to be living in the present and be following the norms of the past: all these will bring you trouble.”

** Analects 13.6:

The Master said, “When a prince’s personal conduct is correct, his government is effective without the issuing of orders. If his personal conduct is not correct, he may issue orders, but they will not be followed.”

In other words, elected leaders have to behave in an honest, ethical and open manner to gain widespread support. Has this council so behaved?
*** Many are similar to terms I’ve found in other works of politics and philosophy, especially Buddhist philosophy, but none have exact Western equivalents encapsulated in such a single term.
**** Muller’s text is very accessible for novices like myself, thanks to his modern style and notes. However, there are alternate readings. Here is a Chinese site with the James Legge translation (others are online). While Legge was an important translator who helped introduce many Eastern texts to the West, I’ve always found his 19th century translations stiff and stodgy. Waley, too, is still rather formal for my tastes.
***** Not voodshtaps as Inspector Kemp cried to the angry crowd in Young Frankenstein. He did, however, comment that,

“A riot is an ungly thing… undt, I tink, that it is chust about time ve had vun.”

Those words may yet be spoken here if this abuse continues.

Printed sources include: The Analects of Confucius, trans. Arthur Waley, Harper-Collins, 1992; The Four Books, trans. Daniel Gardner, Hackett Publishing, 2007; Confucius & Confucianism: The Essentials, by Lee Dian Rainey, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010; Sources of Chinese Tradition, vol. 1, 2nd edn, compiled by Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, Columbia University, 1999.

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