Thursday 22 March 2018

Confucius say: I can change your life

How has a book of of ancient Chinese wisdom become a self-help guide, selling in millions? Rob Sharp reports

Rob Sharp

You sit cross-legged on a bamboo mat, soften your breathing and attempt to extract solace from the wisdom of one of the world's great philosophers. You read aloud from a recent translation of his work: "Learning from books as we grow from childhood to old age, from this you will learn the ability to hold on to happiness." Hang on a minute. Surely there's more to understanding life than that

Yet since it was launched in China in 2007, the self-help book Confucius from the Heart has sold more than 10 million copies there. A simplification of the Analects of Confucius, a collection of the great mind's most famous writings, the sagacious tracts have been rendered digestible by Yu Dan, a 42-year-old professor at China's Beijing Normal University. The book began in 2006 as a series of lectures by Yu Dan, broadcast on Chinese Central Television, and rapturously received. Now the it's been translated and is available across the globe, and is about to be published here in paperback. So how has a book of 2,500-year-old philosophy, subtitled "Ancient Wisdom for Today's World", hooked in such a great number of modern readers (and in the process trounced its critics, who argue it is a perversion of an ancient wisdom)?

The book promises a more peaceful, cognitively healthy and happy existence, and it's certainly very accessible. It's divided into six parts, chapters with titles such as "The Way of Heaven and Earth" and "The Way of Ambition". Its critics might say the teachings outlined are shamelessly reductive of Confucius's work – which promoted ideas such as the value of family, inner calm, and an emphasis on materialism. Instead, the book focuses on clear, simple advice for our day-to-day lives. We are encouraged to be kind to our friends but stand up for ourselves. We are advised to set achievable goals, manageable waypoints on quests towards great goods. Our ultimate aim, we are told, is becoming a "junzi", someone who doesn't crave favours when financially out of pocket or spout arrogance when raking in yen. Intermittently, Dan injects modern anecdotes. Describing the Hollywood actress Vivien Leigh's first trip to Europe, Dan writes, "everywhere she went, thousands of journalists clustered around Leigh's private plane". One hack hadn't done his research and pushed to the scrum's front to ask what part Leigh played in her latest film (Leigh was so annoyed she stopped talking to the press). "Is asking a question like this in a situation you know nothing about so different from being blind?" Also featured is an almost truistic joke about a self-doubting professional at the doctor's, where the GP suggests the patient goes to see a locally famous comedian; "I am that comedian," replies the patient, in sombre overtones.

When the book was released in hardback in Britain last April, critics greeted it with bemusement. A panel of experts on the BBC's arts programme Newsnight Review questioned the book's seeming encouragement of acquiescence in those oppressed by a notoriously restrictive regime – as well as its banality of tone. But while some find its vignettes facile (in the case of the Leigh story, there are no dates, times or locations) it's little different from self-help bestsellers such as the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, the US collection of books pitched at everyone from mothers to chocolate lovers. American psychotherapist Richard Carlson's 1997 bestseller Don't Sweat the Small Stuff...and It's All Small Stuff told us that in moments of great crisis we tend to have a built-in coping mechanism; it's just things like queues and work colleagues that get us down (we accept things like bereavement as an inevitability, whereas sneezes on a bus can drive us insane). Similarly, Confucius from the Heart generates a much needed reminder of life's important truths; a perspective shift that has allowed China's farmers and rickshaw drivers – in a country in which just one per cent of the population attend university – to reconsider their lives. It also must be noted that nowhere does Dan write: "accept censorship and human rights abuses, as they, too, are the chosen path".

"The book deals in what is called perennial wisdom, chunks of ancient knowledge that are as relevant today as they ever were in the past," says David Purves, a consultant psychologist and head of the Berkshire Psychology Service. "It delivers statements like, 'A man who enjoys work never works a day in his life,' which is the ultimate goal for many people. What is so good about these kinds of statements is that in our busy lives we forget to pay attention to life. We are working, we are paying bills, taking the kids to school. A well-constructed statement, if it is put together well, can strike a chord with something you feel is more fundamental."

He says the reason the book is successful in China is Confucius's massive role in that society's popular consciousness – Chairman Mao denounced Confucianism, for example, though its global influence, particularly through edicts such as the Golden Rule (treat people as you want to be treated) is undoubtedly a source of national pride, influencing as it did Muslim and Christian thinkers. "I am sure that the Greeks are proud of the Ancient Greeks," the psychologist continues, "in the same way we are proud of our country's great minds."

Dan's argument would no doubt be that Confucius was doing little more than delivering an early form of self-help – something the masses can enjoy. Carlson, for example, says we are more likely to find solace through embracing the boredom in our lives; so is a dose of banality all that bad? "There really is a huge market for these all-encompassing pithy statements," concludes Purves. "They have a ring to them, like a strong line of poetry. It's like the words to 'Rule Britannia'. They give you that tingle of realisation."

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