revising the classics, or confucius encounters neoliberalism

Shenzhen parents worry about education — it’s quality, content, methods, and test results. Indeed, I have yet to meet a parent unwilling to spend several hours discussing their child’s education, while activists raise social problems in terms of education.

I have recently received a revisinist version of the childhood classic, “Kong Rong Shares a Pear“. The rewrite is fun and illustrates one of the ways in which the United States (as a symbol) has been put to work in contemporary Chinese debates about the contradiction between a society that values an integrated whole at the expense of individual desire and a society that values individual desire at the expense of social integration.

Kong Rong Shares a Pear

For thousands of years, the moral tale of “Kong Rong Shares His Pear” has been told, becoming the standard for parents who want to teach their children manners. But how do American kids think about this story? Below is a transcript from a class of American students who are studying Chinese. The students range from 8-12 years old.

Teacher: When he was young, Kong Rong was an exceptionally bright student. When he was four, he could already recite many poems. He was polite and courteous. One day, his father’s friend brought a box of pears to the family. His father asked Kong Rong to share the pears with his brothers. Kong Rong took the smallest pear for himself, and the shared the pears based on age rank, giving the largest pear to the oldest, the second largest pear to the second oldest and so on. As he distributed the pears he said, ” I’m the youngest, so I should eat the smallest pear.” His proud father heard him and asked, “But you’re older than your baby brother. Why didn’t you give him the smallest pear?” Kong Rong said, “I am older than him, so I should give it to him.”

What do you think of this story?

Student: Why did the father’s friend give the Kong family pears?

Teacher: they were a gift.

Student: If it was a gift, then all the pears would be good. Why were there obviously big pears and small pears? Why weren’t they all the same size?

Teacher: Ahhh…

Student: Now, if there were big pears and little pears, why did the father put all that responsibility on a four year old’s shoulders? What would have happened if Kong Rong had made a mistake? Would the father have taken back the pears and distributed them correctly?

Teacher: Ahhh…

Student: Why did everyone have to eat a pear? Couldn’t alone leave the pears and let those who wanted a pear choose for themselves?

Teacher: That might have been unfair.

Student: But Kong Rong didn’t necessarily distribute the pears in a just manner. All the brothers had to accept whatever pear Kong Rong decided to give them. Their right to choose was violated. The brother who received the largest pear might have been the brother who hated pears.

Teacher: That’s correct. This story is based on the premise that everyone likes pears.

Student: Why did Kong Rong give pears to the oldest first? If he was going to use age rank, why not start with the youngest?

Teacher: He was being polite.

Student: But after he took the smallest for himself, he didn’t give anyone else a chance to be polite. Why didn’t he give anyone else a opportunity to share pears?

Teacher: So what do you think about Kong Rong?

Student: I don’t like him. What he did wasn’t fair to others, taking away their right to choose and their chance to be polite. Kong Rong isn’t sincere.

Teacher: Why?

Student: This matter is internally contradictory. What if Kong Rong didn’t like pears, so he chose the smallest for himself? Nevertheless, his behavior earned praise? This is hypocritical. On the other hand, if he really liked pears, he should have said so. Otherwise, giving the biggest pears away wouldn’t have made him happy. When we like something we should bravely say so.

I also didn’t like his father.

Teacher: Why not?

Student: He didn’t take responsibility and asked a four year old to do something he couldn’t do. Also, he had no standards, he praised Kong Rong for being polite, but we’ve already seen that Kong Rong was disinterested in sharing the pears.

Teacher: Ahh…

Student: This was a bad story. It encourages subjective standards and praises one for violating democratic rights. This kind of twisted logic story praises a child for developing unhealthy psychology.

Teacher: So what do you think Kong Rong should have done?

Student: Put the pears on the table and let people who wanted to eat pears take what they wanted.

Postscript: From the perspective of an American student, a Confucian classic becomes a tale of twisted psychological motivations. Where do you think the problem lies?

One thought on “revising the classics, or confucius encounters neoliberalism

  1. The question seem pretty smart for the age students you discribed. They seemed Talmudic…very interesting. I found the last exchange between the father and son very hard to fathom yet no one mentioned it.

    I understand the urge to re evaluate classic stories.good instinct!

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