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Thock Kiah Wah: Confucianism relevant to individuals, civilizations today

chinadaily.com.cn| Updated: September 25, 2023

Editor's Note: The nighth Nishan Forum on World Civilizations will be held in Qufu, a county-level city in Jining, East China's Shandong province, from Sept 26 to 28, to promote excellent traditional Chinese culture and enhance communications and mutual learning between different civilizations. Participants' expectations for this year's forum and their insights into Confucianism and traditional Chinese culture are being featured in a series of reports by China Daily.


Professor Thock Kiah Wah, former president of Southern University College, Malaysia. [Photo provided to chinadaily.com.cn] 

Q: Confucius is the founding figure of ancient Chinese Confucianism. What inspiration and values do you think Confucius' thoughts still hold for contemporary society?

A: The inspiration and values of Confucian thoughts for today's society can be elaborated from two points.

First, it's about understanding and cultivating oneself. There are famous lines of Confucius' famous quote on the journey of self-cultivation: "At fifteen, I had my mind bent on learning. At thirty, I stood firm. At forty, I had no doubts. At fifty, I knew the decrees of Heaven. At sixty, my ear was an obedient organ for the reception of truth. At seventy, I could follow what my heart desired, without transgressing what was right." This is a crucial life guideline, providing a bright direction for an individual's life journey and aspirations. When an individual establishes himself, he can extend it to cultivate himself and others. This, in turn, leads to the establishment of society as a whole.

Second, Confucius' thought initiated a profound self-awareness, as exemplified by his statement, "Heaven produced the virtue that is in me." This concept reflects the awareness and insights of individuals as moral subjects over 2,500 years ago. Even in today's 21st century, an age of technology and information, its impact is still staggering. It emphasizes that individuals hold the key to being moral subjects for themselves, as expressed in the Confucian saying, "You must practice benevolence yourself", therefore, "I wish to be virtuous, and lo! Virtue is at hand.”

Q: What do you think is the significance of civilization exchanges and mutual learning in promoting the progress of human society?

A: Civilization exchanges and mutual learning play a crucial role in driving the progress of human society. This is because the development stages and trajectories of civilizations vary greatly among different regions and countries, each possessing its own valuable insights and experiences. Therefore, there is a strong necessity for mutual exchange, learning, appreciation, and recognition among civilizations. Fei Xiaotong, a renowned anthropologist, envisioned a world in which countries treasure their own distinct heritages, appreciate other cultures and promote shared prosperity. In this sense, civilization exchange and mutual learning begin with acknowledging that no civilization can be judged to be superior to another. Each civilization holds its own valuable qualities and experiences, and different civilizations can appreciate each other. We should encourage civilizations and cultures worldwide to bring out their best and flourish together, thus creating an environment of coexistence in harmony but not uniformity, ultimately leading towards a world of shared prosperity.

Q: In contemporary society, how can Confucian culture engage in dialogues and exchanges with other cultures and values to promote cross-cultural understanding and harmonious coexistence?

A: Confucian culture basically advocates harmony and benevolence within the family and the state. The often-cited saying of Confucius, "Not to do to others as you would not wish done to yourself", embodies the essence of Confucian culture. By following the spirit of this saying, dialogues and exchanges with other cultures and values would become more accessible as the world has embraced these words as a golden ethical principle for the exchange and mutual learning of civilizations. Every culture and set of values can accept and embrace the profound meaning of this saying. 

Through mutual respect and understanding both with the mindset of a man of virtue, different cultures can seek common ground while reserving differences and thereby achieve harmonious coexistence in diversity. Certainly, highlighting the principle of harmonious coexistence alone is not sufficient. 

The benevolence and love in Confucian culture can also contribute to the coexistence and mutual prosperity among different cultures and values, serving as a bridge and shared content. The Confucian belief that a benevolent person loves others is compatible with the fraternity in Christianity, compassion in Buddhism, and peace and mercy in Islam, reflecting the fundamental spirit of human civilization as one big family.

Q: What are your expectations for this year's Nishan Forum on World Civilizations?

A: The Nishan Forum on World Civilizations has been held eight times and is now having its ninth session. This signifies that the forum has established a significant reputation and influence in the exchange and mutual learning of world civilizations. 

We look forward to the Nishan forum continuing to advance this highly significant work. If the conditions are right, the "mutual appreciation, shared prosperity" award will be created to honour individuals around the world who have demonstrated exceptional achievements and contributions to civilization exchanges and mutual learning. Besides the physical venue of the Nishan forum, we should also foster the concept of "mutual appreciation" within the cultural fabric of diverse global communities. This endeavor symbolizes the extensive achievements and practical influence of Confucianism in its third phase of reaching out to the world.