THE CULT OF RU - Where Christianity and the West ends...

A LOT of people ask me about RUXUE –Confucianism:


“Is it an organized religion?”

“Does it exist in Europe/the US?”

“Are there Western Confucianists?”

“How do I become a disciple?” [and so on…]

I have written about Chinese Terminologies, because the original terms matter A LOT; and now it is time, perhaps, to see the wise words of America’s most renowned Confucian scholar, Roger T. Ames, in print here on that very subject. The following is a transcript from my own notes from his talk at Peking University, the mother lode of Chinese higher education:

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a)    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.”

They say 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 in Christianity. You will see on his shelf all kinds of books -the classics, but also other intellectual works: “The ‘ru’ is a literatus.”

b)   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 –guanxi!”

RELATED Was Confucius a “Genius”?

c)    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).

d)   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 was 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.

e)    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.”

f)     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.

g)   The 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.”

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h)   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.”

i)     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.

j)     What we need is a new cultural order. 

“I am not 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.”

k)    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.”

RELATED Vocabulary Wars – How Nations Compete For Their Terminologies

l)     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.

m)  Individuality in Confucianism

The process of ‘li’ (ritual) is saying that ruxue 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.

Note: This is a version from a chapter in the forthcoming ‘Knowledge is a Polyglot – The Rise of Chinese Terminologies in the 21st Century’ by Thorsten Pattberg (Hanban/Foreign Language Press, 12/2014)

Image credit: Zhu Difeng/Shutterstock.com

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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