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Learning From Confucius
Remembering the philosopher's struggle to be heard
By Mara Lee Durrell | NO. 5-6 FEBRUARY 4, 2016


Director and choreographer Kong Dexin (in black), a 77th-generation descendant of Confucius, is joined by the cast of her dance drama Confucius   at the conclusion of its Beijing performance on January 10 (MARA LEE DURRELL)

As a history buff, political hack and someone whose beloved uncle was a professor of Chinese philosophy, I know enough to admit that I actually know very little about Kong Qiu, known in the West as Confucius, the famed philosopher whose ideas continue to play a central role in leadership and political theory. On my bookshelf in Beijing sit several books that espouse his teachings, as well as ancient Chinese thoughts and fables, many of them half-read. Learning more would be a good project for my time in China, I thought.

That is in part why, on our very first day after moving to China, my husband and I spent it visiting the Confucius Temple in Beijing, a place that I have already gone back to in the six months since and sincerely appreciate. There I saw firsthand how China is reemphasizing the teachings of Confucius, as dozens of school groups wandered the grounds with us, reciting short sayings at their teachers' commands.

For all that I was learning about Confucius, however, I would have never equated Confucius with dance, or with artistic matters at all. I only associated him as a teacher and writer, with a focus on the virtues of personal integrity, moral leadership, and the value of learning itself in order to make wiser, more just decisions.

But on a frigid January evening in Beijing's famed Poly Theater, I watched an impressive modern dance performance simply titled Confucius .  Created and performed by the China National Opera and Dance Drama Theater, the show presents the life and experiences of the thinker, writer and teacher. The drama was choreographed and directed by Kong Dexin, who is a direct descendant--77th generation--of the philosopher himself.

Some 2,500 years after Confucius' life, Kong wrote and directed the dance drama to narrate her distant relative's journey to the various states of ancient China in order to spread his ideas. Through a mix of traditional Peking operatic and acrobatic scenes--complete with stunning stage design, talented young dancers, and brightly colored, flowing costumes--the director and choreographer focused our attention on the travels and experiences of its central protagonist, rather than on the philosophy he espoused.

After seeing the performance dedicated to the story of Confucius and how he struggled to be heard, I was keenly reminded there is still much I needed to learn about his experiences, and how those would--almost amazingly as it was highly unlikely--lead to the "pearls of wisdom" oft-quoted by leaders today.

Reportedly Confucius' ambition was to become appointed to a political position in one of the Chinese courts himself, but instead spent most of his life as a teacher, blaming the war-loving leaders of his time for not paying attention to his philosophy. After his travels, Confucius returned to the state of Lu, and spent the rest of his life training a group of devoted students. Like so many artists and important political thinkers, the story goes that his teachings were taken to heart only much after his own life ended.

Still, at least according to Kong's interpretation, the philosopher did experience moments of joy and redemption in own life, perhaps partly as the result of the selfless dedication of his students to learning, recording and spreading his collections of thoughts and advice.

One act of the performance was dedicated to a dream that Confucius had, depicting an ideal implementation of the political wisdom he had worked tirelessly to try and sell to the short-sighted leaders of the time. "In the dream the state was powerful and prosperous, where individuals took responsibility for their individual roles," the introduction to the act read.

One does not have to be a student of political science to understand why such an idea would be an ideal goal for state leaders--former and current--to realize. Nor is it difficult to understand why individuals themselves are drawn to his ideas of a benevolent government that rules by virtue and not by force.

His constant pursuit of peace, treating people with dignity and respect, and spreading knowledge are attributes that make it easy to understand why people around the world are eager to learn from Confucius two and half millennia later.

"Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance," said Confucius. Looks like my project of learning more about this sage will keep me busy well past my time in China.

The author is an American living in Beijing 

Copyedited by Bryan Michael Galvan

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