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The number “8” and What Chinese People Have Lost “八”和华人所失去的东西

Sunday, May 24th, 2009

Why are Chinese people nowadays, even highly educated ones, so superstitious about getting lucky to get rich?  8, 8, 8, everywhere, on phone numbers, car license numbers, etc., you see people sporting at least one number 8. And that’s all because in Chinese 8 sounds a bit like the first sound in “getting rich”. Also, nowadays the Chinese New Year’s greeting is “gong hay faht tsoy” (Cantonese pronunciation), which translates into “Happy Wishes for Getting Rich”. Why is getting rich apparently the only thing on Chinese minds?


It hasn’t always been so.


The number 8 hasn’t always been so popular. When I was a kid in Hong Kong during the early sixties, 8 was not always a good word. In Cantonese colloquialism back then, 8 was often used to mean “being gossipy” or invading other people’s privacy, as in “why are you so baht (8), that you want to know even such and such?” In fact, it came from a negative attitude towards the baht guah (八卦), the hexagram from the I Jing (or I-Ching), which was used for divination. During days past Cantonese, or at least educated Cantonese, had looked down upon fortune-telling using the hexagram and upon the occult in general.  It had only been a recent phenomenon in Chinese superstition of the last twenty or thirty years, a phenomenon which started in Hong Kong, to make 8 equal to getting rich and for 8 to be so fervently sought after.


As for the Chinese New Year’s greeting, when I was a kid in Hong Kong during the early sixties, the standard greeting was “gong hay teem ding faht tsoy”, which meant “Happy Wishes for Getting Another Boy and Getting Rich”, and “gong hoh sun hay”, which meant “Best Wishes for the New Year”. I don’t remember hearing just “gong hay faht tsoy” or “Happy Wishes for Getting Rich” – so bourgeois! Please note that, true to Confucian tradition, “Getting Another Boy” came before “Getting Rich” – the traditional family came before getting rich, and getting rich was for the family, not a selfish hedonistic pursuit for the individual himself or herself. Having moved away during the sixties from a society dominated by Chinese culture, after all these years it was at first and still is jarring for me to hear “gong hay faht tsoy” without the “teem ding (getting another boy)” in front of “faht tsoy (getting rich)”.


I believe it is wrong to think that Chinese have always been as superstitious and as anxious about good luck and getting rich as Chinese people seem to be nowadays.  Back during the old days we had the intellectual and moral compass and framework of Confucianism.  Thanks to that framework, we knew how to act and what to do in life; we knew what things to pursue, what things to reject, and how to pursue and reject them. So we were secure, smart and brave; we weren’t so obsessed with good luck and getting rich. Even as recently as during the early 1960’s we didn’t use to be obsessed with all this stuff; we used to be brave and secure back then thanks to Confucianism.


But now we Chinese have turned our backs on Confucianism and so we don’t have anything.  Intellectually and morally we have no compass or framework and so we are insecure. A lot of the time we don’t know what we do that will bring us good things and what we do that will bring us bad things. Often we are so ignorant that we don’t even know what is good and what is bad; we can’t tell good from bad.  That’s why we grasp at straws; we grasp at superstitions for somehow avoiding the bad and getting the good.  That’s why 8 is now a “lucky number” seen everywhere and why 4, which sounds like “death”, is now an “unlucky number” and not seen anywhere.


I think that what we Chinese need to do is to rediscover and regain the good stuff we used to all possess, integrate it with the modern stuff that is good, i.e. science and the free market, and create a new intellectual and moral framework, where we can be secure, smart and brave again.


Feng Xin-ming 冯欣明

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The Land of Courtesy and Integrity

Sunday, October 5th, 2008

Who says Chinese people are not capable of returning to being The Land of Courtesy and Integrity? Hong Kong is proof that Chinese people can.


Twenty-four years ago, in 1984, when I went back to Hong Kong for the first time in twenty years, it was truly shocking. The place was completely unlike what I remember as a child.


Back then, in the late fifties and early sixties, the Hong Kong of my childhood was a place of at least courtesy, if not integrity. My mother would take me to market with her and would teach me that one must address the vendors on the street politely as Lao Ban (“boss”) and the workers in the shops as Shi Fu (“master”). In turn they would always address her politely as Shi Nai (“respected madam”) or Xiao Jie (“miss”). In the shops people were always polite and friendly. In school we were taught li rang: to be courteous, considerate, and to let others go first. When the teacher entered the classroom we stood up as a class, bowed and said in unison, “Good afternoon, teacher.” When we met a teacher on the street we bowed and said the same thing. It was considered shameful beyond imagination for siblings to argue, let alone fight, in front of anyone other than the immediate family. We were taught by our elders and by the popular culture surrounding us to be polite and respectful, to be kind to others, and to never speak ill of others. The movies we saw extolled courtesy, integrity, loyalty to country, and of course, being good to parents (xiao).


In 1984, however, when I walked into a store the staff just stared at me and didn’t say a word when I said good morning. When I couldn’t find what I wanted the staff yelled at me as I walked out the door, “If you are not going to buy why did you come in?” When I tried to flag down a taxicab I had to flag down five cabs before I could get in: all the four others I flagged down someone appeared out of nowhere and jumped into the very cab in front of me! The only way I could get a cab was to jump in as soon as the cab stopped, before the previous passenger had gotten out, and to sit right next to him as he paid his fare. By the way, I had been warned about this before my trip, that Hong Kong people were so bad they barged into cabs flagged down by returning overseas Chinese, but I had dismissed it as anti-Hong Kong fabrication – no people in the world, I had reasoned, could be that barbaric, let alone Chinese people! And the children, why, the children! The ones I had contact with were very cute and energetic, but when they opened their mouths filth came out! Little five year olds were spouting words of contempt, cynicism and outright insult to strangers, and then looking to their parents for applause! And the parents proudly smiled and said, “So smart, this cunning little kid!” The children fought with their siblings loudly in public, with the parents approvingly looking on! When I turned on the TV, I could see where it all came from. The people on TV lightly and constantly yelled at, insulted, and lashed out at each other; what was in fashion was cynicism and contempt. Quite the opposite of the Land of Courtesy and Integrity. I left Hong Kong saddened and angry.


In 2007, however, when I returned to Hong Kong after twenty-three years, the place had again changed completely. When I walked into a store, the staff were friendly and actually smiled and nodded. When I asked for directions the store people actually spent time to tell me two different ways to get there. When a taxicab stopped and my wife mistakenly thought that it had stopped for her, the person for whom it had actually stopped said that it was all right and waved us to go ahead and get into the cab when we started to apologize and defer the cab to him. The children I saw were actually polite and friendly! And on TV, the people spoke politely and were decent to each other. People told me that the famous Korean series “Da Chang Jin”, which I saw in America and which portrayed a very kind, polite, and idealistic Korean woman doctor, had been all the rage in Hong Kong. Good gracious! The wheel has turned; Hong Kong is back in the folds of civilization! Who says there’s no hope for Chinese people? I left Hong Kong elated.


Was it because I was better dressed last year, compared to 1984? No, not at all, I was still in my usual North American overseas Chinese plain garb. Was it because I was older now and so more respectable? No, because my children report the same thing: people, they say, are nice in Hong Kong.


Of course, these are all things on the surface that I see; deeper down there must be a lot of things not to one’s liking. It is undeniable, however, that customs in Hong Kong have improved.


Yes, Chinese people can improve; it’s entirely possible for Chinese people to return to being The Land of Courtesy and Integrity…

是的,华人可以进步,华人完全能够再构成礼义之邦 …

Feng Xin-ming 冯欣明

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To Succeed in America One Must Be Honest

Monday, August 18th, 2008

Here’s some advice I gave to a young man who’s just moving to the USA from another country: “You can succeed in America if you are hard working, capable, and honest.” He said, “I can understand the hard working and capable, but why honest?” I said, “People here in the USA really hate dishonesty, at least people who are of a higher class. Some lower class people in America, like some lower class people everywhere, may not place much importance on honesty, but most higher-class people in America for sure place great importance on it. If they find out you’ve been dishonest to them, they just won’t deal with you any more. You know, people wonder why they get passed over for promotions, when they’ve been hard-working and capable, but that may be why – they may not have been 100% honest when dealing with other people…”


So, to succeed in America, be honest. Don’t exaggerate, don’t misrepresent, don’t bend things. If someone asks you something you don’t want to tell him, just say so, “Sorry, I can’t tell you that” or “Ah, that’s confidential.” People in America will respect you for being a “straight-shooting”, reliable person. Whatever you do, don’t make up something for an answer; don’t lie.


Why is America like that? That’s because American society has the most free market type of ideology, and free market ideology despises dishonesty. For a free market to be successful, the exchange of goods and services has to be reliable. Fraud, along with stealing and robbery, destroys the reliability of exchange and therefore destroys free exchange and the free market itself. Thus Americans hate dishonesty.


Feng Xin-ming 冯欣明

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Professor Yu Dan’s Talk on Ideals 于丹教授谈理想

Sunday, July 20th, 2008

Sigh! I also admire Professor Yu Dan, whose books are wildly popular in China, for promoting Confucius, but in her talk on ideals she really is teaching people the wrong thing; according to her it’s bad to have high ideals, but good to be a hedonist! If you want to reform the country, to bring happiness to the country or peace to the world, then you lack humility. You are not good enough to talk about such things. You are only good enough to have as your ideals “down to earth” things, like going to the countryside in spring, having a party there, singing some songs and relaxing a bit. If this is not keeping the people foolish and enslaved then what is it? This is also putting down those who worry about their country and their people, and praising those hedonists who only think about enjoying themselves! And she talks about it with such conviction and self-righteousness - tsk, tsk!

唉!我也赞赏著书风行中国的于丹教授宣扬孔子,但她关于理想的谈话真是教坏人;依她说,怀抱着高尚的理想是坏的,做享乐主义者是好的!如果你想要改良国家,要治国平天下,那么你就是没有谦虚。你没资格谈这些东西,你的理想就只配是什么脚低下的东西,春天里跟朋友去郊外旅行,开一下party,唱一下歌,轻松一下… 这不是愚民和奴民是什么?同时,这也贬低那些虑国忧民的人,赞扬那些只顾寻求开心的享乐主义者!她还说得这么振振有词,哎呀!

Is everything in the classic Lun Yu always reliable, always correct? To me, this passage in Lun Yu is probably not accurate. Here Confucius is portrayed as a teacher who sneers at but wouldn’t come out and enlighten his student; when a student has high ideals he’s arrogant, yet when a student is more modest then he has denigrated the importance of The Rites. Only when a student obviously of noble birth, haughtily waiting until he has finished playing a lute that only nobles can play so well, give an answer from a hedonistic viewpoint that only a noble can fully appreciate from personal experience, promoting the kind of romantic activity that only a noble accorded a life of leisure can regularly enjoy, only then does Confucius endorse the answer. How could the “Teacher For All Generations” look down upon students of commoner origin and pander to students of noble origin?


He couldn’t. Therefore, Mr. Ma Qian Li, a modern Confucian scholar who has written a whole book to criticize Yu Dan, interprets this passage as the student wanting, not for himself to go play in the countryside during spring, but for everyone in the world to be able to go play in the countryside during spring, to be able to enjoy such leisurely lives, and that Confucius thinks that this is the highest ideal. I think that this interpretation is a bit contrived and does not match the original text, but at least Mr. Ma hasn’t participated in glorifying hedonism, the way that Yu Dan has. I personally think that Lun Yu does have some things that are wrong, some things that cannot be what Confucius would advocate, and this passage is an example. I think that toward things in the Confucian classics, it doesn’t hurt to take an objective attitude - of course we shouldn’t say that everything is wrong, but neither do we need to blindly take everything to be right.


By the way, I think that the kind of thinking that Professor Yu Dan promotes belongs to the school of Confucian philosophical idealism, and follows the same lines as people such as Zhu Xi, which I don’t completely agree with. Moreover, I think their method of thinking is dangerous, and can lead to absolutes, excesses, arbitrariness, cultism and other bad things, of which this extolling of hedonism is just an example. At the same time, however, she is still promoting Confucius, courtesy and integrity and she is making people interested in Confucius and the Chinese intellectual heritage, so all that should be affirmed. I don’t agree with “The Ten PhD’s” who rudely attack Yu Dan,saying that she has no right to interpret Confucius in her own way, and saying that in carrying Yu Dan’s talks the media lacks a conscience and is endangering Chinese culture. If Chinese culture is so weak that it collapses when a professor popularizes it a bit, when ordinary people get to know it a bit, and that it has to be kept hidden in the hot houses of some elite school PhD’s, why do we need this kind of culture? Perhaps The Ten PhD’s are a bit lacking in respect for the Chinese intellectual heritage?


The Chinese Cultural Renaissance has begun; no doubt a hundred flowers will bloom and a hundred schools will contend.


Feng Xin-ming 冯欣明

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