Published on 2023.01.04

On Praxis of Chinese Philosophy

Confucianism is the core of Chinese culture. In the twenty-first century, out of the four ancient civilizations, only China is still surviving, and Chinese culture has never been interrupted and discontinued.

Nonetheless, it is not totally correct to say that Chinese culture has never been under the threat of discontinuity. In the recent hundred years, Chinese culture was on the brink of discontinuity. In late Qing Dynasty, the Western civilizations broke our country’s gates with guns and canons. Since then, China had experienced a century of humiliations and traumas. Massive amounts of wars and chaos led to never-ending self-criticisms. Gu Yanwu (顧炎武, 1613-1682) described such situation as “the downfall of the world” (亡天下), LiHong Zhang (1823-1901) described it as “a turn that has never happened in three thousand years”. During this turmoil, it was even believed that Chinese could only rejuvenate on the basis of abandoning everything in our own culture. Such ideology emerged from the May-Fourth New Culture Movement and was epitomized in the Cultural Revolution. In the state of turmoil and the tendency of negating our roots, Chinese culture was once on the brink of discontinuity.

It is fortunate that the quality of Chinese culture provides the enormous momentum for its survival. As Wen Tienxiang (文天祥, 1236-1283) said, “In the worst of time, the most remarkable integrity would appear (時窮節乃現).” Educated scholars that were cultivated in Chinese culture always took the lead in the moment of crisis. Masters such as Xiong Shili (熊十力, 1885-1968), Liang Shuming (梁漱溟,1893-1988) and Ma Yifu (馬一浮, 1883-1967) spent their whole life since the late-Qing dynasty and Republican years to guard Chinese culture in terms of research, knowledge, cultivation, and behaviours. Their successors include masters Tang Junyi (唐君毅,1909-1978 ), Mou Tsung-San (牟宗三, 1909-1995), Ch’ien Mu (錢穆, 1895-1990) and Xu Fuguan (徐復觀, 1904-1982), who were the founders of Hong Kong New Asia College, subsequently incorporated into Chinese University of Hong Kong. They bore the survival of Chinese culture in their mind so much that was up to the level of heart-wrenching. Taking Master XiongShili, who is hailed as the founder of Modern Chinese Philosophy, as an example, he used to walk alone in the street for the whole day in his later years. Despite feeling exhausted, he kept crawling on the street and murmured “Chinese culture is going to fall! Chinese culture is going to fall!” until he was so fatigue that he had to be carried back home by his family following him. How passionate he was on the survival of Chinese culture!

There are also other scholars who bore the same passion for Chinese culture, for example, Tang Jun-I, the student of Master XiongShili. According to Professor Tang Duanzheng (唐端正), the first-cohort graduate of the New Asia College, who sometimes slept on the lower deck of Master XiongShili’s bunk bed in New Asia College (which was located in Kweilin Street of Hong Kong at that time) till late night when he was an undergraduate student, Master Tang Junyi had cried “Oh heaven, Oh heaven!” for more than once in his dreams, referring to Chinese culture. 

Professor Fok Tou-hui (霍韜晦) (1940-2018), who was also one of the students of Master Tang Junyi, was asked by one of the attendants during the the 8th International Conference on Contemporary Neo-Confucianism (2009) what he was waiting for in the lyrics of Professor Fok’s song “Waiting”. Professor Fok replied that he was waiting for the return of culture. Then, he choked up and continued, “if no one is protecting Chinese culture, it is going to fall!"

The three generations of teacher and students shared the same emotion, responsibility and devotion, i.e., to rejuvenise Chinese culture. 

Thanks to the endeavour of Master Xiong and Tang, the scholars of two generations who digested Western Culture and counteracted with Western Culture, the status of Chinese culture was safeguarded in the academia of the world. Apart from spending time on scholarship, these masters were active in promoting education of the future generations. The spirit illustrated in the college anthem “We have nothing in hand, have no possessions” represents the hardship of the time and the audacity of these masters. The heaviness endured by these masters is unspeakable.

In the cohort of Professor Fok Tou-hui, he determined to go beyond scholarship and bring culture back to life. Leaving the university in mid-ages, Professor Fok established a public institute The Dharmasthiti College of Cultural Studies (法住文化書院) in response to the need of the society. The Dharmasthiti College of Cultural Studies promotes living Confucianism, delivers life development courses for general public, and develops post-graduate courses for self-cultivation, not only providing training for entrepreneurship leaders and adolescents, but also offering life development education for children. When Professor Fok established schools in Mainland China, he designed the curriculum fostering temperament and characters (性情教育) as well as the system of new six core competences (新六藝), adopting them as the foundational principles of these schools. In terms of academic trainings, Professor Fok launched the Framework of Temperament and Characters to illustrate Analects of Confucius, launched the Knowledge of Actions to illustrate Mencius, launched the cosmology to illustrate Lao Tzu, launched To be free and unfretted to illustrate Chuang Tzu, and launched the Leadership to illustrate I-Ching. Prof. Fok devoted himself to bringing the essence of Confucianism to modern society, so as to promote Confucianism to enrich modern people’s life. Therefore, Professor Fok once summarized the teaching of his teacher Master Mou Tsung-San to point out that Chinese knowledge is not only “the understanding of life”, but also “the study of life development and growth”. Life should consist of growth and crisis that we should encounter. Our culture provides the enormous backup to our personal growth.

Nowadays, after passing the test of survival in the twenty-first century, China is able to not only digest Western culture but also probe into and develop Chinese thoughts and ideas, reaching the new heights in theoretical construction in terms of academic scholarship. Fortunately, at the same time, the integrated national power of China has achieved soaring growth in recent years after several generations of Chinese’s devotion and efforts. Therefore, confidence towards our own ethnic identity gradually strengthen. In particular, our youths are becoming more independent, possessing thoughts of democracy.

Therefore, at this point, the responsibility of scholars in our generation is to help Chinese in this era to consolidate their confidence towards our culture. Chinese culture has to be rejuvenated and live in every Chinese’s lives. Therefore, we need to promote Chinese culture, and work out a way to practise Chinese culture. In other words, this is a call for letting Chinese culture return to our daily life and letting us live a living of Chinese culture.

Letting Chinese culture return to our daily life means that on material level, we should revive our existing cultural elements and be brave to express Chinese ways of living. We should have our own lifestyle, possessing our own fashion, daily utensils, food culture, aesthetics, entrepreneurship and management system. We should have our own rituals, music, festivals, manner, and taste of living. We should let culture to infiltrate into our basic necessities of life (clothing, food, shelter and means of travel) so that culture could be incorporated into the patterns and styles of living in our daily life. Recently, the trend of returning to traditional Chinese way of living (國潮) is the indication that Chinese culture is returning to our daily life. In this aspect, we still have a long way to go and much room for future development, which requires more effort for us to advance.

Letting us live a living of Chinese culture means that we need to establish our lifelong attitude and values based on our own culture. We need to utilize our own culture to enrich our life so that we can live a life of no remorse, without self-doubt nor self-inflation, being self-confident and open-minded, knowing what to persist and what to forbid, as well as knowing how to live a life of peace. To achieve such aim, we need to work on education in the first priority. The fundamental question of education is: What is the most important value of life as a human being? Nowadays, it is very often that education of students emphasizes success that is evaluated in terms of fame and fortune. However, from the beginning, Chinese culture has put the value of becoming a person with Character as the ultimate goal. To become a person with Character, which is called Junzi (君子), means a person with high personal moral value, making enormous contributions to the society, and fostering people’s cultivation. This is fundamentally different from the purpose of education nowadays. We need to come back to this fundamental principle of education and return to our own roots. Only by doing so we can foster our next generation with cultural subjectivity. In this way, their life could be straightened without sense of inferiority. Eventually, their self-confidence and creativity can explode.

To live a living of culture, education is of the first priority. Apart from educating students, it is also very important to put effort in educating parents and leaders. Establishment of various educational institutions and training more teachers are of course necessary, nonetheless, the most important is to promote correct social values. If the society hails those who succeed (in terms of fame and fortune), people will devote themselves to these goals. On the other hand, if the society hails those who have high moral standards and social contributions, people will value these goals and devote themselves to them. To cultivate correct social value, one needs to be careful about how to realize such moral values in every fine detail in daily life. Even small details in the packaging of products, advertisements, cartoons, textbooks, pictorial illustrations and songs will contribute to the cultivation of social values while combining them altogether.

The two main goals of rejuvenation of Chinese culture, daily living and life, require various concrete work for their realization. These preparations are all practical but not on esoteric or purely theoretical level. This is actually a representation of the roots of Chinese culture (Confucianism in particular), particularly the most important precondition of returning to Chinese culture: to learn (學). The first line of Analects of Confucius is “Is it not pleasant to learn with a constant perseverance and application? (學而時習之,不亦悅乎)”. The Chinese character Xi (習) means “to practise with perseverance”, which emphasizes repetitive working-out. Since the time of Confucius, the way Chinese learn (Xue, 學) has already been implying the study of praxis. Examples in Analects of Confucius including "He acts before he speaks, and afterwards speaks according to his actions (先行其言,而後從之)”, “I will not be afflicted at men's not knowing me; I will be afflicted that I do not know men (不患人之不己知,患不知人)” and “The superior man may indeed have to endure want (君子固窮)”. In Analects of Confucius, there is lots of profound knowledge that can guide us to behaviors that represents the quality of human beings with Character. These qualities could not be fostered simply by accumulation of informational knowledge or through theoretical debates, but could only be developed through practices and cultivations in daily life.

Therefore, bringing Chinese knowledge back to the study of praxis, is not only a back-to-the-roots for Chinese culture but also paves the way for new development in Chinese culture.

Dr. Rex Chan

Adjunct academics of the Dharmasthiti College of Cultural Studies, Chief supervisor of teenagers.
Bachelor in Arts (Chinese Studies and Philosophy), The University of Hong Kong.
MPhil in Chinese Philosophy, Wuhan University and PhD in Chinese Philosophy, New Asia Institute of Advanced Chinese Studies, Hong Kong.
Over 15 years of teaching experience, including life education, youth training, philosophy lectures, cultural and history courses, teachers development training and organizer of various reading Clubs in Hong Kong.

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