If you hadn’t noticed, we’re just starting the Chinese Year of the Pig. I have a few words about pig perspicacity. Mainly because it’s a nice alliteration.
Though according to Chinese lore, pigs aren’t very clever (or perspicacious). But they’re not bent on world domination or harming others. They’re pretty laid back and generally make good friends. And their chubby faces and big ears make them a symbol of wealth.
If you like to be specific, it’s the year of the female, brown earth pig.
Like many other cultures, it’s lucky to start the Chinese New Year with:
- A clean and tidy house (clearing away old bad luck and inviting a fresh new start),
- Setting off fireworks to scare away monsters and evil spirits.
It’s also a time for reconnecting with family and friends (dead and alive), giving gifts (lucky red packets of money or produce) and eating symbolic foods (e.g. dumplings). Not to mention reconnecting with the gods.
WARNING: Gross generalisations ahead!
Competing Views of the Universe
In my White Anglo Saxon Protestant universe, life descends from God. It passes through the Church to civil society, through the family to me. And from this point of view, I am a cog machined to keep the cosmic mechanism operational.
Fairly simple. Most major Western belief systems follow this logic, but Eastern systems are less cohesive, and more mixed up.
An important difference is that Eastern philosophies believe a person is born “good” and chooses to go bad. Our mainstream Christian religions believe you’re born “bad” (inheriting Adam and Eve’s original sin) and choose to be good.
Taoism (aka Daoism)
Taoism is a philosophical belief system that originates in China. Its roots are much older, but it’s generally attributed to the ancient Philosopher Lau Tzu (c. 500 BCE).
In this philosophy, the universe looks like lots of pieces but is just one balanced by the cosmic force (Tao/Dao). The best life is achieved by going with the cosmic flow and being flexible in the face of change; accepting that what happens is part of the balance.
Balance, or maybe peace, requires considering the needs and wants of others. But it also means giving way when circumstances warrant. Not clinging to the past, and being open to change.
The Confucian philosophy is also native to China. It’s based on Confucius’s (c. 551-479 BCE) codification of an earlier belief system.
In Confucianism, you’re basically learning what it means to be human. As a human, you use that knowledge to change the universe from the inside out. Individuals might be more along the lines of a viral infection!
Having said that, Confucianism depend on the adoption of social roles, and fulfilment of the obligations associated with those roles. When you perform them correctly, you keep the cosmic mechanism operational.
Buddhism arrived from Nepal via India c. 150 CE, and is similar in many ways to Taoism with a focus on non-attachment.
Non-attachment is the result of a choice. Choosing to step away from your desire to reach a particular outcome, and to value the journey more. Letting your desires go, relieves your general load of suffering.
The Difference in Outlook
Perhaps the best way to show the difference is through television, particularly the Korean Drama 49 days.
Yes, it’s Korean. But as well as being a Chinese vassal kingdom for a time, the nations share foundational Confucian and Buddhist beliefs.
WARNING: Spoiler Alert!
Ji Hyun is involved in a car crash. Technically she died, but she died before her scheduled departure date. She is given 49 days to collect the tears of three people who truly love her. If she can collect them she’ll survive her coma, but if not, she’ll die and proceed to her next life.
In a Western version, she’d pursue her goal with single-minded determination. She’d get away with bending the rules, come back to life and take up where she left off. Living happily ever after.
The story would be all about her. How her friends and family help and hinder her desperate bid to regain the life cruelly snatched from her.
In the original Korean version, she follows the rules. She chooses to pay penalties to achieve advantageous outcomes for others. Having done what she set out to do, she dies from complications resulting from her time in the coma.
The drama focuses on her, but the story is about her legacy. How she grows, and how her choices change the lives of her friends and family for the better.
Perspicacity, according to the Oxford English Dictionaries, is the “quality of having a ready insight into things; shrewdness.”
As I mentioned, that’s not something Chinese lore would agree with. Though Tom Holt wrote one of the cleverest pigs I’ve ever come across.
It seems to me, that shrewdness comes from knowing something about yourself, and the people you deal with. Could you, like Ji Hyun, trade worthwhile things to benefit people you don’t know, as well as those you do?
Or, like any given soldier, from any given conflict, could you offer your life in return for the greater good?