A dangerous preference for praise
At some point during the Warring States Period in China, Confucius was traveling with his students and found himself barred from entering either Chen or Cai. Stuck between the two states, his group had to go without food for seven days. The students were upset with the low treatment of their leader and, when he realized the seriousness of the situation, Confucius called his best students together and asked how they ended up in such a terrible bind.
His disciples Zilu, Zigong and Yanhui gave three different responses. Zilu did not consider the context and said, “Maybe we weren’t wise enough.” Zigong, who was more realistic, said, “It’s because your standards are too high. Maybe you should lower them.” But Yanhui flattered Confucius by saying, “Your teaching is so grand that the world is not yet ready for it. But you are acting on your principles, so there is no problem.” The answer that Confucius listened to was Yanhui’s, of course. “You are so wise. If I were rich, I would make you my steward,” Confucius said. After all, Confucius had no intention of changing his beliefs.
More than 2,000 years later, Confucius has again suffered disgrace. Last year, the Chinese government created the Confucius Peace Prize to counter the Nobel Peace Prize, which had been awarded to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.
This year, the Chinese authorities named as nominees the Panchen Lama, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But Chinese Internet users protested. Putin is considered a dictator, and the Panchen Lama a puppet of the Chinese government. Also, it looks like a calculated move to include Merkel, who has been critical of China. Now, China will likely eliminate the award because of criticism from home and abroad.
But the government does not seem to realize what it has done wrong - just like Confucius 2,000 years ago. As many of us might, Confucius had a preference for praise over criticism. But listening only to the good and not the bad can be dangerous.
Renowned Chinese history professor Li Zhongtien said, “Since the time of Confucius, the Chinese have been stingy when it comes to reflection and repentance.” Let’s hope they change their ways.
*The writer is the J Editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Lee Hoon-beom