Confucius Said: “Consider the Source”

I admit it: the ancient Chinese sage Confucius didn’t really say “consider the source.”

At least it’s not in The Analects of Confucius, a collection of his teachings that were compiled and edited after his death. (The linked edition provides a lot of commentary and context that you don’t get in most other editions.)

If you like old movies and aren’t prone to fits of righteous rage, you might have heard of Confucius from the fictional Chinese detective Charlie Chan. When he was about to drop a pearl of fortune-cookie wisdom, he often began his statements with “Confucius say …”

Though usually portrayed by Western actors — the most famous being Peter Ustinov — Chan was far from a racist stereotype. Wikipedia, which leans left on anything remotely political, says:

“Readers and movie-goers of white America greeted Chan warmly, seeing him as an attractive character who is portrayed as intelligent, heroic, benevolent and honorable in contrast to the racist depictions of evil or conniving Asians which dominated Hollywood and national media.”

But as for “evil or conniving Asians,” that’s exactly what some people see in Chinese government-sponsored Confucius Institutes at American universities.

The institutes provide money, instructors, programs, and course materials for teaching Chinese history, language, and culture. They amount to a huge subsidy for universities’ Asian studies departments.

And many politicians see that as a national security threat. A recent article in The Los Angeles Times asked, “Do they improve U.S.-China ties or harbor spies?”

The answers are “yes” and “possibly.” As with many choices in real life, we need to balance the good against the bad.

Full disclosure:

  • I respect the Chinese. They’re imperfect, and China is America’s geopolitical adversary. But those things don’t preclude recognizing what they get right.
  • I wish that more Americans respected themselves and our own country as much as the Chinese respect theirs.
  • I speak Chinese (Mandarin dialect, badly) and watch a lot of Chinese television shows.
  • I’ve taken a couple of language classes at Confucius Institutes.

That being said, it’s ridiculous to be surprised if institutes sponsored by the Chinese government usually present the Chinese government’s viewpoint.

A personal experience is relevant.

I’ve done a lot of different jobs. For a while, I worked as a paralegal in a law firm. It’s easy enough if you can read, think logically, and write clearly. A real lawyer needs much more knowledge, of course — just as a paramedic can splint a broken leg but can’t do brain surgery. However, most of the work is routine. I prepared a lot of cases for the lawyers to present in court.

One case bothered me. Our client was obviously at fault, and the person we were suing was blameless. I shared my qualms with the lawyer on the case. His answer made sense:

“It’s not our job to decide the merits of the case. That’s up to the court. Our job is to represent our client’s interests within the law.”

The same thing applies to Confucius Institutes — or indeed, to any similar situation: “He who pays the piper calls the tune.”

As long as we remember that fact, it’s a problem but not an insurmountable one.

When it’s relevant, consider the source.

P.S. An interesting development: I attended a lunch presentation (about acupuncture) yesterday at the local Confucius Institute, and today it seems to be gone. The Institute’s page on the university website has disappeared. No explanation.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews called it “intriguing and vital to living.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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