My love of Chinese philosophy in high school

In high school, I spent a lot of time thinking about life and shaping my character. As a science stream student, I got interested in subjects in the art stream because I could study them without taking the exams. The books of Chinese literature had a lot of influence on me because these poems and essays had lasted for thousands of years with a lot of wisdom. One of the stories I remember was about Su Qin, an influential political strategist during the Warring State period of ancient China. After he failed to persuade the emperor of Qin, he got back home in poverty and frustration. More importantly, his family members had no respect for him. His wife did not treat him well anymore, his sister in law did not cook for him anymore, even his parents did not talk to him anymore. Therefore, he decided to shut himself in this room to study the books from his teacher. When he fell asleep, he would stab himself in the thigh to keep awake to study. Years later, after studying very hard, he travelled and persuaded six kingdoms to unite against Qin, which was the country that gave him misfortune at the beginning. Finally, he became wealthy and successful when he returned home; his wife was too afraid to look him in the eyes, his sister-in-law crawled on the ground out of fear. He felt grief and sighs and said, “When I was poor, even my parents did not want to recognize me as their son. Now I have become rich and successful, and family members are afraid of me. In life, how would we ignore money and status!?” I found this story very realistic and motivating me to be successful.

The Chinese literature was rich with many different views and wisdom. My favourite Chinese poet was Du Fu in the Tang dynasty. He wrote a song about the damage of his straw roof by the autumn wind. Despite being old and living in poverty, he cared so much about other people. The autumn wind blew off the reeds on the roof, the children in the village bullied him and robbed his reed in front of him. Then the storm came, and the rain fell, the roof leaked water above his bed. Thus no place left to dry. He suffered from the raindrops and coldness, but his wish was to have a massive mansion with ten million rooms, such that all the scholars could get shelter with smiles on their faces. The building would withstand wind and rain like a rock. If suddenly he could see such a building in front of his eyes, then he would be so happy that even if his own house were to collapse and he freezes to death, he would be glad to trade for it. It shows that he cares about others’ well being even more than himself. I admire his mind that he is willing to sacrifice for the good of others. I always remember his spirit to help others.

Speaking of Chinese history, then I have to mention Confucius thinking, which influenced me a lot. One of the essays I studied, written by Tang Junyi, a leading Chinese philosopher, led the New Confucianism and the university’s founder I studied. He said the core of Chinese culture is humanity, putting humans as the most important spirit and avoiding talking about the existence of God. Therefore, morality in human life became the most critical concern, and it is all about how we live as humans with dignity. There are few differences between humans and animals, while the worst thing you could do as a human is to demonstrate animal-like behaviour. There are four critical differences: firstly, human beings have kindness. Secondly, human beings care about justice with dignity. Thirdly, human beings show politeness and respect to others. And fourthly, human beings are clever to differentiate what was right and what was wrong. When we fully expand and fully utilize these four characters, we show kindness to our family members, our country and everything, even to other animals. We seek justice and the ideal political system to make chaos into order and sacrifice ourselves for the benefit of society. We have the politeness to respect our parents, teachers, outstanding people, and everyone else who contributed to the community in history. We are wise to tell what is right and wrong, seek the truth, and self-reflect to correct our mistakes. All these are based on the four differences between humans and animals.

My love of Chinese philosophy was not limited to Confucians. Taoism has also had a lot of influence on my thinking. They complement each other, and it works for me at different times, especially when I feel sad. Taoism reminds me not to be stubborn. It told me to view from a different perspective to see the bigger picture in a holistic view, and then I would realize I am not that important in the crowd; thus, I could forget about myself. Besides, I need to learn my uniqueness in the universe that even though I may not rank number one in class, my number two ranking is so unique that no one could replace it. The number one champion should even be jealous of my number two because I got something that no one else could get. The wisdom in Taoism frees my mind from self constraints. When Taoism was applied in the real world, it had many impacts, even in the wars. I love the book “The Art of War” by Sun Zi. I love it so much that I tried to memorize it during my free time. Some of the quotes like “appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.”. “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles ‘, I still try to practice these strategies when I get a chance. These strategies were influenced by Taoism, which further influenced me on how to live in this complex world.

The irony of Chinese philosophy was that most of them sound good in theory, but not many of them were practical. There was a time with freedom of speech where people could debate about their ideology. Eventually, survival is the one that best serves the emperor at that time, which was legalism. It was not in the same concept as the rule of law built by the British social contract. Instead, it means the king used very harsh laws to rule the citizens as slaves. The country would get very strong as a country with high taxation, and every citizen is compulsory to join the army. Forget about the kindness and justice emphasis by the Confucianist party; ignore those scholars hiding in the cave who practice Taoism. The only truth is the survival of fitness with power. Therefore legalism helps to unite seven countries to become one china during the war. We need to remember this lesson, especially during this modern time with chaos such as US-china tension. Under legalism, the emperor achieved his dream to conquer everyone, but it was also the shortest lifetime for the political regime. Because the environment was so harsh for the people, and everyone was suffering from the fight. Even the political figure who made the law died because his rules were too extreme and ridiculous. No one could survive under high pressure and high surveillance environments. I believe history would repeat itself if we did not take it seriously to learn from the lesson. The strong nation would fall and collapse.

In my high school time, I was a science stream student. Chinese literature, philosophy and history were only self-study as a hobby. It is because science subjects are more valuable and practical in this modern world. At the end of the Qing dynasty, when the emperor was collapsing and so weak that other countries invaded it, the intellectuals advocated that only two things could save China from corruption. The first is science. The second is democracy. I genuinely believe in the vision of the intellect during the Qing dynasty, and still, I think these two things apply and are essential for China today. The science methodology, starting from observations, hypotheses, then experiments to verify by trial and error. Even if we may not find the ultimate truth, at least we have a method to tell what is false. The democratic system may not be perfect, but at least it provides a voting system for people to voice their feedback peacefully without violent revolution, hoping that there is a possibility of self-correction from the government and change of leadership. I still believe this from high school to these days now.

By Victor Leung

Experience in software development, consulting services and technical product management. Understanding of business and technology with an MBA in Finance and a Master degree in Computer Science. AWS Certified Solution Architect with experience in building products from scratch and serving as a charismatic leader.

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