As a child, stories from the Three Kingdoms greatly appealed to me. I was very fond of reading about heroes in battle, military tacticians outwitting one another and not least, the ethics, loyalty and righteousness that distinguished between the good guys and the villains. But apart from the literary Three Kingdoms, there are several other versions of stories which took place during that time. These versions were more scholarly and academic than the plot-driven version of the Three Kingdoms which is far more popular and engaging to read. But my discovery of these historical accounts made me realise that a lot of what Luo Guan Zhong wrote in his version of the Three Kingdoms is actually fictional. In an age of fake news, there is a rising trend of curious fans of historical romances seeking out the facts behind the legends. I realised that Cao Cao was not as evil as portrayed. Zhuge Liang was not as ingenious and Guan Yu not such a saint. Like Lei Feng (the highly celebrated, exemplary PLA soldier whom no one had actually met), saints and legends are often more the creation of their admirers than paragons of virtues.
What about Confucius? For a man who has been worshipped for thousands of years, he must have been quite a character. By putting Confucius on a pedestal, Chinese culture and character are given a reference point regarded as feudal and backward by revolutionary writers like Lu Xun. Though Confucian ideas probably encompassed all the Four Olds under 旧思想，旧习惯, 旧文化，旧风俗 marked for destruction during the Cultural Revolution, the current leadership sees him as a great source of inspiration and pride for the Chinese people. But was Confucius really the sage that those who want him to worshipped make him out to be? Professor Li Ling did a study and wrote about Confucius the mortal from a historical perspective and not from what devotees wrote about him. Prof Li audaciously referred to the real Confucius as Stray Dog 丧家狗, quite aptly depicted by the image of Chow Yun Fat below.
According to Prof Li Ling, Confucius was not a saint, but a somewhat unremarkable human being. A man of humble origin, he ranked himself based on virtues which he shared with other gentlemen 君子. He was extremely diligent, spending the bulk of his lifetime tirelessly studying ancient texts and teaching them. He held the ancients and texts as sacred. Distilled from his studies, his ideas were by no means original. He was very well-versed in the values of the ancients, but for the greater part of his life, he was unemployed and powerless.
In a time when regional warlords were dividing the land and devouring one another, he extolled the virtues of the defunct Zhou Dynasty. With great courage, he criticised the people in power and tried in vain to get enemies to work together. It's a fact that the warlords didn't welcome him. It's a fact that he was very hungry and even destitute most of his life. Reading from the original version of the Analects and writings from observers of that time, Prof Li revealed that Confucius was a haggard soul wandering and drifting like a homeless stray dog. Still, he would not give up his struggle. Prof Li described Confucius as a dreamy, deluded Don Quixote, just like many of today's idealistic intellectuals or Hindu ascetic.
Nevertheless, Confucius refused to given up. Prof Li opines that he was neither foolish nor enviable. The ancients said that only when a person is fed and clothed can he talk about honour and shame “衣食足而知荣辱”. The fact is, most people, even after being well-fed and clothed, would continue to sell their souls for more. Confucius added to that, saying that "the three guards can still function if you take away their commander, but common men can't function if you take away their will 三军可夺帅，匹夫不可夺志. He also said that "I accept frugal meals and a shoulder for a pillow. There is joy in this. Wealth without virtue is like passing clouds" 饭疏食饮水，曲肱而枕之，乐亦在其中矣。不义而富且贵，于我如浮云. Are these really values which the Chinese authorities are trying to propagate in China and through the numerous Confucian institutes throughout the world?
Not surprisingly Prof Li Ling's book was trashed by the "conservatives" and "loyalists". Many who have not read the book pronounced it as unworthy of their attention. They just knew that it's bad by looking at the title which deeply hurt the pride of the Chinese people. But do these folks even realise that 丧家狗 was a term that Confucius used to describe himself?