Confucian Wisdom Guides Scholar Through Turbulent Times

Confucian Wisdom Guides Scholar Through Turbulent Times

Photo by Seth Odell

The campus community got a rare glimpse Jan. 12 into the life of a Chinese literary scholar who embarked on a voyage of self-discovery and rose to take on a powerful role at the highest levels of government.

UCLA Today

The campus community got a rare glimpse Jan. 12 into the life of a Chinese literary scholar who embarked on a voyage of self-discovery and rose to take on a powerful role at the highest levels of government.

The Honorable Xu Jialu, a respected scholar of Chinese language and literature and former vice chairman of the standing committee of the National People’s Congress, came to UCLA's Humanities Building accompanied by a delegation of around 15 formally dressed Chinese officials and half-a-dozen staffers from the UCLA Confucius Institute. The position of vice chairman is extremely important in China. Committee members have the ability to influence legislation and interpret the Constitution.

A guest of the Confucius Institute, Professor Xu of Beijing Normal University spoke at length about the milestones of his life and career as they relate to the teachings of the great Chinese philosopher, who lived from 551 BC to 479 BC. Although Xu said he never planned explicitly to follow Confucius, he maintains that his life experience illustrates perfectly certain Confucian principles. His remarks were translated simultaneously by Zhang Hui, a UCLA graduate student, for the audience.

To illustrate the Confucian saying that a person experiences ordeals in order to acquire the skills necessary to their reach full potential, Xu discussed his difficult life during China’s Cultural Revolution. Although he received a college degree in Chinese language and literature, the Chinese government sent him to the countryside to live as a peasant. There, he labored hard; his uneven shoulders still show the effect of the burden they once bore as he carried heavy buckets of water around the farm.

“In this formal setting," Xu quipped, "it is not appropriate for me to take off my clothes and prove this to you.”

Despite the hardships he experienced, Xu enjoyed the love and charity of his host family and came to a better understanding of peasant life and their need for culture and education. Consequently he made educational reform a centerpiece of his career as a government official.

Xu also put into practice the Confucian dictum that evil deeds should be repaid with righteous ones. His career did not always go smooth. In the 1970s, he ran afoul of certain authorities and was ultimately jailed. During his time in prison, Xu remained confident and said that “right and wrong would eventually find their place.”

After his release from prison, he applied the Confucian principle that is the opposite of vengeance when he was confronted by those responsible: He did favors for the very people who had maligned and undermined him previously. He granted his former enemies resources and gave them opportunities.

Xu’s entire career has been a voyage of self-discovery, he said. Or, as Confucius put it: Mundane things cloud our path to self-understanding. Eschewing the mundane, he has pursued his own interests and ideals ardently. He reads constantly and works many hours, never going to bed before 1:30 a.m.

This single-minded devotion to duty has led him to his current goal: exploring the role of religion in China and the United States.

While here in California, he invited the Rev. Robert H. Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral to attend his yearly conference on religion and society in Shandong, birthplace of Confucius. During the conference, guests and academics will explore the impact of Confucius, Buddha, Jesus and other important religious figures on today’s society.

Despite an impressive career that continues well past the age when many retire and despite publications that total more than two million characters, the 71-year-old Xu admitted having one regret. He wishes he had spent more time with his wife walking in the park, and he aims to rectify this in the years ahead.

Published: Wednesday, January 14, 2009