Thursday, February 13, 2014

Confucian Civility

The columnist in the Peace Weekly writes about an unnerving event that occurred recently in an elegant hotel. She had invited someone to join her for an evening meal at the hotel dinning room. Everything was proper, the waiters looked and acted appropriately, when suddenly, within this atmosphere of elegance, a woman entered the room leading a child by the hand and dressed in pajamas. The columnist confesses that at some level of consciousness she was concerned about the impression this would make on her dinner guest. The woman who came into the dinning room with her nightclothes was giving, she felt, a distorted image of the Korean culture, though the  possible affect on the persons in the dinning room, apparently was of little concern to the woman. 

Considering the cultural standards of our country, can we be unconcerned, the columnist asks, about the  clothes we are wearing? Should we be unconcerned, for instance, if we see someone riding in an elevator, with a bucket of garbage, dressed in pajamas, or walking in their pajamas in the  corridors, or climbing the stairs, smoking? We have a tendency, she says, to overlook the connection of civility with the clothes we wear.

In Confucianism, the Chinese character 'Ye' 禮 (On the left is the icon for heaven and on the right a container on a table filled with food from the harvest which is being offered to heaven) has many English expressions: social custom, manners, courtesy, rites, propriety, politeness. (I would also add 'civility'.) In Confucian philosophy,  'Ye' refers to an important means of keeping order in society. It is the strength that supports society and guarantees support for our  place in society. Confucius, the columnist says, stressed the importance of 'Ye'  to his son. A person, he said, that does not know 'Ye' will find it difficult to put down roots into his society.  'Ye' is the stepping stone that keeps us rooted firmly in the relationships in which we find ourselves.  It is the way we practice 仁: the character for benevolence. ( A man on the left, two  on the right, the relationship between human beings, in other words, humaneness.) 

She tells us that Confucianism teaches children from an  early age that what is not 'Ye' should not be seen, heard, said or done. She does say that this seems difficult to do but the intent is to bring all our behaviors under the guidance of 'Ye' wherever we may be.

In society a person who only considers himself is not going to be liked. Basic to 'Ye' is to have a concern for others, which also includes, she says, being concerned about how the clothes we wear in public will affect others. The columnist feels that this concern should be a  duty of all adults in society. The clothes we wear are going to determine, she believes, how we will be received by others. She hopes adults    will explain this to the younger generation. 

This kind of talk is not easily understood outside of an Asian culture, for informality is for many a virtue, and in the West we like to show our creativity by not following the customs we have inherited. Civility is another area of life that an Asian would be more sensitive than those in the West, but this is changing; the influence of the West has already done much to change the thinking of many in Korea.

The influence that 'Ye' has had on Catholicism is  easily seen by attending a Mass in a Korean Church. Understanding  'Ye' as etiquette and civility and as an example of the Golden Rule are all part our Christian heritage.  Pope Leo XIII is quoted as saying: "Civility and urbanity in customs strongly predispose minds to attain wisdom and to follow the light of truth."

No comments:

Post a Comment