Roger T. Ames – The Class of Ru

Roger T Ames Peking University The Class of Ru
Roger T Ames at Peking University: The Class of Ru

Roger T. Ames – The Class of Ru

I recently had the pleasure to meet one of America’s most distinguished Confucian scholars: Roger T. Ames of Hawaii University. He believes that many Western words and categories are inappropriate for Chinese ideas, and that Western translations of Chinese key concepts should stop. Here are some of his quotes (in transcript) during his lecture series at Peking University, China’s most distinguished institution of Higher Education:

On Ruxue and Ru literati

We are getting rid of the term “Confucianism”. The correct term is “ru” which is a class of scholars, hence: ruxue/rujia. It did not start with Confucius and it didn’t end with him.

60 generations before Confucius you have ‘ru’; 80 generations after Confucius you have ‘ru’. Scholars like Tang Yijie and Tu Weiming, they are in charge of ‘ru’ today, and they are taking this culture and passing it down to the next generation – you!

If you go to the study of a ‘ru’, it is not like that of a priest as in Christianity. You will see on his shelf all kinds of books, the classics, but also other intellectual works. The ‘ru’ is a literatus.

On Culture and Being Human

Culture is what makes us human beings. In the Chinese tradition of ‘ru’ what most distinguishes human beings from animals is ‘li’ (ritual). Culture is thus the ornamentation of one’s social existence. In order to understand the ru literati, we have to think in terms of relationality: The world is a network of relationships.

Losing a friend or family member is like a surgery

One [Western] way to think about individuals is that if you lose somebody you are still a sovereign intact individual; however in the Confucian tradition it is as if someone cuts out a piece of you, it’s surgical. Maybe the most important concept in the Chinese tradition is ‘ren’ (humanity), which derives from the character for ‘ren’ (person) and ‘er’ (two).

Confucian onions and Western peaches

In the Chinese tradition, people don’t play their roles; they are those roles. If you take their roles away, just like peeling an onion, you are left with nothing. In the Platonic [Western] tradition we have a tendency to see the whole person that takes on its roles, hence the metaphor of Western peaches.

A New Anthropology

When Fei Xiatong, a pioneer in the field of anthropology, first studied at Tsinghua University in China and then at the London School of Economics, upon his return to China he had concluded that China is such a different society from the European one that European theories did not seem to apply, so that a new set of theories in anthropology was needed for China and East-Asia.

Use of Western categories for everything Chinese

We always use Western terminologies to organize the Chinese; we ask was Mozi a utilitarian; not if John Stuart Mill was a Mozi.

Xiao isn’t translatable as filial piety

Filial piety is not Xiao; the Chinese concept has little to do with piety in a Christian sense of the word; yet we still use biblical vocabulary for the Confucian tradition.

Language of Knowing

There is not just one language of knowledge; there are many. In the Western tradition the language of knowing is often ‘to grab, to get, to grasp’ as in grasping an idea. The Chinese language of knowing is that of ‘lijie, liaojie, zhidao’ which has to do with unraveling. For Aristotle, to know something means to be able to name it. If you can name it, it means you know it. But for Confucius, he has to know you by different names, to map you, to see all your relationships.

In Confucianism, the language of knowing is to know all different kind of relationships.

The Wenren

The wenren is a literati, he is gentle, refined, and civil. ‘Wen’ is different from Western ‘culture’ which has a feeling of ‘growing’ or ‘husbandry’ to it; while ‘wen’ has to do with ornamentation, art, calligraphy, and so on.

Just as having an educated ear can help you to differentiate and distinguish all kinds of music, and just as having an educated palate can make you enjoy different tastes; so is being educated making us elegant in our experience of the world.

On Moral Life

Confucius is a visionary of a moral life. He wants to transform you.

Castration a form of ‘xiao’ (filial piety)?

Si Maqian’s punishment is to show ‘xiao’ [toward the life work of his father, Si Matan] in a very dramatic way.

What we need is a new cultural order.

I am not saying that ruxue has the answers to the world’s problems; but it has very important contribution to make. It can change our values, interests, practices. We have to talk about relationships instead about individuals. And we have to stop [silly] finite games in which individuals either win or lose.

Different people need different language

I can’t use language the same way with two very different people. Confucius would give each person a different answer, because they are different people.

Confucian education and writing you own life

Education in Confucius’ ideal is not about getting a degree. It is about becoming a human being. It is not about writing a book, it is about writing your own life.

Individuality in Confucianism

The process of ‘li’ (ritual) is always the becoming of a person. Only you can be that person, that son of that man, that daughter of that mother, etc. It’s about making the tradition your own, living it. The goal of such a life is all about contribution [to that tradition], it is not just about growing old.

Roger T. Ames – CV, Hawaii University

Roger T. Ames – East West Center

Roger T. Ames – Routledge


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