I once overheard an “opinion piece” coming from a group of Chinese people. They were discussing Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi. I have to say that I’m not a fan of Daw Suu Kyi, but I the utmost respect for her for the sacrifice she had made for her country. Not this group. They saw her as an irresponsible person who had made an unnecessary sacrifice at the expense of her family.
Confucius one said, mind your own business. Wait a minute. Did he really say that? Well, in a way, he did. The great sage has a very famous adage: “修身，齐家，治国，平天下”. Highly simplified and taken out of context, this adage might suggest that Confucius was a champion for meritocracy; that one who cultivates himself, builds a family could eventually be promoted to king and emperor. However, this is how the full text reads:
See how the order has been reversed from bottom up to top down? I have translated the above passage not literally but in the way it was actually meant and practised in feudal China.
In ancient times, those who wish to rule the world with virtue and integrity must first ensure that the fiefdoms are governed well. Those who wish to rule over their fiefdoms must first ensure that the families in their fiefdoms are managed well. Those who wish to have families, must first ensure that they themselves are well-cultivated. To cultivate oneself, one must first ensure that he is morally upright. To be morally upright, one must first ensure that one’s intentions are noble. Cultivation begins with knowledge.
Knowledge is acquired from deep and wide learning. After knowledge is acquired, one’s intentions must be pure. When one’s intentions are pure, one’s thoughts can be clear. When one’s thoughts are clear, one’s character can be cultivated. When one’s character is cultivated, one is able to manage a family well. Only if families are in order can a fiefdom be governed well. Only if the fiefdoms are well governed can the world can be at peace.
Confucius had meant to say that if you wish to rule the “world” (from a self-centred, Chinese perspective), you must first ensure that your princes and dukes are doing well in their fiefdoms. If you wish to rule a fiefdom, you must first ensure that the families in your fiefdom are well-managed. If you wish to have a family, you must first ensure that you are well-cultivated and able to provide for them. Before you can be considered well-cultivated, you must be morally upright. To guide you on that, your intentions must be noble and the process of cultivation begins with learning.
The family is a microcosm of a nation. The duty for the average individual is to cultivate himself and build a family. The princes and dukes must not just look upwards but downwards to make sure that the families are are individually doing well. The emperor must likewise look downwards and fiefdoms are well managed. In other words, everybody should mind his own business within his own sphere. As long as each small sphere is well-managed, the larger sphere that contains them (managed by a superior) will be all right and only then can the world be at peace.
Guess what? The folks who believed that Aung San Suu Kyi was being irresponsible had in fact interpreted Confucius correctly.