What Makes One Chinese?

What makes one Chinese? Does one have to obsessed with money or support everything that is done by the Chinese government? Certainly not. So what defines you as Chinese? Confucian, Tao and Buddhist values. As simple and as complex as that.

Of this three schools, the Confucian school takes centre stage. It came before the other two schools and played the biggest and most impactful role in Chinese society. But one has to be aware that while Taoism and Buddhism saw only minor changes and adaptations after they were introduced in China, Confucian philosophy underwent significant changes from the time Confucius first created the Analects.

Many generations of rulers and leaders have adapted and interpreted Confucian philosophy in ways which benefited them. The Confucian philosophy that we see today could be a distorted form of what the sage advocated more than 2,000 years ago.

Mencius said that the people come first, followed by society and finally the ruler. This is in no way the precursor of democracy, but Mencius emphasied that leaders must put the people and society before self. Rulers must never see themselves as gods. This is Confucian philosophy.

Confucius encouraged his students to have the courage to voice out their objection to injustice. Mencius told his students that righteousness must be pursued even at the expense of the self. This is authentic Confucianism.

Sadly, Qin and Han emperors picked on Confucius’ family values and respect for ones’ parents and translated that into a pecking order within the imperial court and hierarchical society. After 2,000 years of evolution, a distorted form of Confucianism gave rise to slavery, social stratification, the worship of leadership. The imperial examinations based on a politicised version of Confucianism enabled scholars to take up positions in the government that will lead to wealth and glory.

As for Taoism and Buddhism, the values are in harmony with concepts of thrift, conservation and respecting the natural environment. These are not Western values. In fact, Western societies have been relentlessly constructing, industrialising, pursuing wealth and capitalism, causing serious environmental destruction. America’s military strategies and foreign policies have also caused worldwide disharmony. Statements like “you’re either with us or against us”n are clearly unreasonable. But in the free world, voices of reason and conscience are not beaten down.

Leaders and businesses in Western countries are not unbridled. They are checked and balanced by NGOs like the Red Cross and Greenpeace. These checks and balances laid dormant in Chinese society for thousands of years. The philosophy of Laozi, Zhuangzi and Buddhism; respecting nature and all living beings, thrift, frugality and charity.

All roads lead to Rome. Whether it’s Chinese values or Western values, the good values will lead to good outcomes. As Singaporean Chinese, we do not need to be united or immersed in a Chinese society to be authentically Chinese. As long as we can adopt the values from these three schools of thought, we can call ourselves Chinese.

But one must be careful with adulterated Confucianism. We need to go back to the original Analects and study them. If you set up a Confucian institute, the first word you ought to recognise is compassion. Are you compassionate towards your intellectuals? As a public security officer, are you compassionate towards disgruntled citizens who had their land taken away from them without reasonable compensation? If not, then your Confucian institute is fake.

One does not need to be a scholar or researcher. The basic principles from the three schools are enough not only to give us a Chinese identity but also a healthy spiritual life.