Ancient Oriental wisdom meets modern occidental thought

Practicing meditation through yoga or tai chi in parks or watching TV shows on how to “feng shui” your house is not an unusual thing in Vancouver life. Ancient Chinese wisdom originating from Confucianism are indeed making a noticeable comeback in modern society, usually in association with a healthy lifestyle.

In China, the statues of Confucius have replaced those of revolutionary heroes. After being rejected by the revolutionaries of the 20th century, it seems that the philosopher’s theories are undergoing a renaissance, from Beijing to Vancouver.

Overwhelmed by the stress of their daily routine, more and more people are trying to find new points of reference and are going back to traditional ways of living and thinking. A trend that Edward Slingerland, professor of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia, has noticed over the last few years.

Statue of Confucius located in Hunan, China | Photo by Rob Web

Statue of Confucius located in Hunan, China | Photo by Rob Web

“I think people are interested in recovering earlier modes of thought because they often have insights that are quite different than the received wisdom of our own [modern] cultures.”

Then, our modern western society seems to go back to ancient values, particularly to Chinese philosophy.

“Chinese thought offers perspectives on the role of the individual versus society or emotion versus reason and even spontaneity as opposed to effort,” says Slingerland.

The professor made this topic the theme of his last book Trying Not to Try.

“I really want to oppose this notion that, when we want to achieve a goal, constant striving and effort are what is required. There are many goals like happiness, charisma and creativity that can only be achieved indirectly, by people who are able to let go of effort at some point, and where direct, constant effort is in fact counterproductive.”

Enriching the debate

This renewed popularity of Confucian thought isn’t a surprise in Vancouver as the influence of Asian culture is noticeable in almost every quarter of the city. The economy, for example, plays a leading role explains Lee*, owner of a transportation company in Richmond.

“Many companies in Vancouver have been created by or are managed by Asian people. They instill their way of thinking and transmit their traditional Asian values to their employees.”

So even people who did not grow up with these values are influenced by them. This is a theory discussed by Slingerland.

“I don’t think anyone has a link with early Chinese culture directly; these ideas were formulated a long time ago (sixth to third century BCE) and a lot has happened in China since then. It’s not at all clear to me that people in China still have any connection to these ideas. So the challenges involved in grasping early Chinese thought are, I think, more or less the same no matter where you come from.”

During the last few years, Confucian private schools have opened their doors, entering into partnerships with local institutions. However, UBC as well as other universities have rejected hosting these institutes.

“They insist on keeping complete control over the curriculum, whereas most universities have their own ideas about how to teach Chinese culture,” Slingerland says.

The concern of universities is the censorship at schools that have accepted Confucian institutes, where people begin avoiding issues that would be seen as controversial by the Chinese government.

“This kind of interference in open intellectual debate is anathema to what universities stand for,” Slingerland explains.

To increase awareness of the role that Asian philosophy plays in Vancouver life, the professor will be launching a free online course, Foundations of Chinese Thought, open to everone on the platform Edx. A few thousand people have already registered.

“We will also explore the relevance of early Chinese thought for contemporary debates in ethics, moral education and political philosophy,” says Slingerland.

As Anna Ghiglione, sinologist, explains to Le Journal de l’Université de Montreal, this Confucian thought could help enrich the current debate in Western societies, especially those struggling in the relationship between religion and state.

“Confucianism is neither a religion nor a doctrine that advocates secularism,” Ghiglione says. “It’s a wisdom that is outside of secularism, outside religion. Confucius was respectful of rites and popular beliefs and he managed to strike a balance between secularism and religion.”

* Name has been changed.